Air travel has almost become a matter of routine in the modern world. Hundreds of passengers on an aircraft will expect their long-haul departure to lift off within minutes of the specified time. They sit in comfortable seats, eat nice food and maybe relax with a drink. During the flight they may work, sleep or watch the latest movies and TV programmes, all the time sitting in a comfortable environment.
But inches away, outside the aircraft, the atmosphere is not capable of sustaining human life - the air pressure is 20% that of sea level and the air temperature is minus 50 degrees. After thousands of miles several hundred tonnes of aircraft lands safely within minutes of its schedule.
Today, most people don't see flight as difficult to achieve – but there at the heart of the process of flight is engineering excellence that still creates both magic and amazement. Let's start at the very centre of the engine.
High pressure turbine blades are crucial to the success of the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine that powers the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft that went into service with All Nippon Airways in October 2011.
Although quite small, each blade is worth over $1,000 per ounce. Five would buy you a very nice car. That may seem a lot - but its cost is down to the job it does and the complex processes and technologies that allow it to happen. This blade is grown as a single crystal of a Rolls-Royce alloy in a vacuum furnace. As it grows, it incorporates a complex series of air passages to cool the blade. Then it needs external cooling holes created by incredibly accurate laser drilling. And on top of all that is a thermal barrier coating more advanced than the tiles on the Space Shuttle.
The blade works in the high-pressure turbine, where the gas temperature is at least 200 degrees above the melting point of the alloy it's made of. The blade sits in a disc that rotates at more than 10,000 rpm. This means the force on the blade root is the same as hanging a London double-decker bus from its tip. Every time the plane takes off this single blade develops the same horsepower as a Formula 1 racing car, yet it can travel 10 million miles before it needs replacing.
That performance, achieved under such extremes of heat and pressure, requires precise design and manufacture that is measured in microns – far less than the thickness of a human hair and it has to be exactly right. Every time.
A single part is complex enough, but integrating all the parts into a complete engine is hugely more challenging. Each component inevitably influences many others.
When assembled, they work together in the most extraordinary way. All the precisely dimensioned components in the engine expand and contract to different degrees. At its heart, the temperature can reach half that of the surface of the sun, and its pressure is the same as half a km down in the ocean.
Having done all this, the engine has to create at least 70,000 pounds of forward thrust PLUS precisely the right amount of additional power to ensure a plane load of passengers can breathe, eat, drink, work and watch movies and TV – not to mention to power the cockpit and all the flight controls.
At least six years before it enters service, Rolls-Royce will guarantee, among other things, how much the engine will weigh, how much noise it will make and how much fuel it will consume – to the nearest percent. The company then project manages hundreds of millions of dollars of research and development expenditure, 2,000 scientists and engineers, 300 test rigs, a development programme where we run, test, examine and, in some cases, destroy nine full engines over 18 months of constant activity.
The latest engine going through this process is the Trent XWB, which will power the Airbus A350, which started its first test run in 2010 – meeting a schedule Rolls-Royce committed to four years previously. It is now performing flight tests on an A380 flying test bed, and has produced results that have confirmed it is the most efficient large civil aerospace gas turbine flying today.
To successfully bring new products into service year after year requires a consistent strategy of investment, through good times and bad, a rigorously systematic process approach and, very importantly, excellent teams.
They are made up of incredible people, world leading in their fields, but the extraordinary technological improvement achieved consistently over the years is not the result of any one individual. It is the result of thousands of man-years of effort working on each of the 18,000 engine parts, year after year after year, component by component, system by system - "game-changer" moments are very few and very far between.
This results in a process of continual improvement. In the past 20 years engines have improved their efficiency by around 20% - that may seem unspectacular, but it is actually worth more than $25 billion across the world fleet in fuel savings.
Of course the job doesn't stop there. The average passenger is probably unaware that while they sit watching their movie, Rolls-Royce engineers are watching the engines on the aircraft, 24/7, every day.
Aircraft in flight anywhere in the world automatically report back via satellite to the Rolls-Royce Service Operations Room where our team looks at, compares and reports on half a billion engine data reports every year. The data is analysed, trends extrapolated, anomalies detected and, often unknown to the pilot, preparations are made at the arrival airport to take remedial action and send the aircraft on its next leg with no delays.
It is this use of extraordinary technology that enables Rolls-Royce powered flights to be ever more fuel efficient, environmentally friendly and reliable both now and in the future.