Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Flying fossils

The plane I came here on was designed before I was born. It's an elderly, lumbering beast, and it takes a lot of fossil fuel to fuel a fossil: about a gallon of kerosene every second. 3600 gallons every hour for a 12 hour flight. Nearly 40000 gallons. It does admittedly carry a fair number of passengers, so my share of the carbon shame amounts to around 80 gallons.

That was just the 747 that carried us from Heathrow to Cape Town. To carry on South to the Antarctic continent itself we sat quaking in the bowels of a monstrous Ilyushin IL-76. The Ilyushin 76 is a design just as old as the jumbo, but must be way less efficient still. It's a bit smaller, so perhaps it only burns half as much fuel as the 747 did. Lets say 2000 gallons an hour for 6 hours. 12000 gallons between the 50 passengers; 240 gallons for my share.

I completed my journey to Halley in a DC-3. Remember the Douglas DC-3? The Dakota? Probably only from old black and white films. It's an aircraft that first flew in 1935, and huge numbers saw service in the second world war. This one has been enitrely rebuilt and re-engined (and stretched by 3 feet for good measure), but essentially it's still the same plane as when it left the Douglas factory sometime in the 1940's. It's an antique.

We filled the DC-3's tanks before we left the Russian base at Novo, we topped them up on the way at the Norwegian base, Troll, and we filled them again at Halley so the plane could return home. In all, about another 30 drums of fuel were burnt to carry the 10 of us along our final part of the journey. My portion: another 120 gallons of fuel. All disappearing in a puff of CO2 in the name of climate science.

Now, I do have some strong opinions about whether BAS should take its carbon emmisions into account when planning its operations, which no doubt I will air at some point. But for now, what I'm wondering is this: Do planes really have to burn so much fuel? The DC-3 belongs to the era of the steam train, and the 747 and Ilysushin-76 aren't much more modern. Why haven't planes evolved like trains and cars have? Sure, a few people drive around in cars built in the 1940's - but only for fun. No one would dream of using a 70-year-old car design commercially - so why planes?

It's not that technically it's terribly hard to build a plane that uses less fuel. The new Airbus drinks 1/3 less kerosene per passenger mile than a 747, largely by improved aerodynamics and by using modern materials to save weight without compromising stiffness or strength. But manufacturers don't put that much effort into producing efficient planes, and operators don't bother to buy them if they do, because aviation fuel is so cheap that there is little incentive to do so.

Surely it's time to grow up and slap an enormous tax on aviation fuel. Flying in pterodactyls may be fun, but it's not worth trading it for the earth.


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