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I am referring to the mechanism used in aircraft carriers, which help in catapulting fighter aircraft. What I had in mind is a milder version of the same concept. It would massively save cost, due to it being operated by electric power, save energy and time of the pilots, less exertion.

Would such a system be feasible?

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Airports already have several ways to move aircraft along taxiways

  • Aircraft engines (least economical but always available)
  • Tugs (often used for pushback from terminals)
  • Aircraft wheel-motors (some makers are at least planning for electric taxi)

A system of fixed chains along a complex network of intersecting taxiways would be expensive to install and maintain and might be unreliable (e.g. icing up in cold weather).


See also

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  • $\begingroup$ With proper planning, the problem of intersections can be overcome, as in railway lines. Plus handling cold weather problems has already been tackled by aircraft carriers. It might be a big cost in installation, but the speed, accuracy and convenience would provide better returns over the years. $\endgroup$ – Firee Jan 20 '16 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ I think that a steam powered catapult would have a lot fewer icing problems than a steel cable/chain sitting in a steel track on the ground where all precipitation will naturally collect. Also, a catapult isn't a mile long. $\endgroup$ – JPhi1618 Jan 20 '16 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Firee "With proper planning, the problem of intersections can be overcome, as in railway lines." How so? Railway lines can just join; moving chains can't. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jan 20 '16 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ On a cable car when necessary, a car releases the cable before an intersection, coasts across, then reattaches. Given that most airport areas are relatively flat and under positive movement control, I think the other issues with such a system are more problematic than intersections are. $\endgroup$ – BowlOfRed Jan 20 '16 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ Much as I admire Victorian steampunk technology, the reason 1871 patented cablecars were soon mostly replaced by electric trolley cars and diesel buses still apply (except rarely for climbing steep hills, fleecing tourists, etc). I recall SF cablecars get shut down for 7 months at a time for major overhauls. Doubtless more modern cablecars do better but chains and sprockets (or cables and pulleys) need periodic replacement and someone to regularly go around and apply grease, remove detritus from the chainways/cableways etc. $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick Jan 21 '16 at 11:28
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An airport has taxiways that cross other taxiways and runways, so any chain system would require breaks in the chains at these points. Airplanes would need some sort of motive power to cross these breaks, it's impractical and slow for an airplane to spin up its engines for 20 seconds to cross a break in the chain.

A chain system would also be very expensive to install and run, probably more expensive than the fuel it takes to taxi the airplanes.

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They don't do it for roughly the same reasons that they don't install such systems in roads.

  • Expensive modifications would be required to every aircraft of a vast array of aircraft types. This alone would probably mean that you'd never recover the costs over the entire expected life of the system. And getting modifications approved by the relevant regulatory agencies for airworthy aircraft designs is even more of a pain than getting them approved for road-worthy car designs.

  • The systems themselves would be quite expensive for initial install, especially if they were designed to operate in all weather conditions in which airports can currently operate.

  • Being able to drive where you want is much more flexible (which is somewhat less of a concern at an airport than on roads, but still a concern.)

  • Stopping or turning suddenly to avoid a collision (like when you're cleared to taxi across a runway and suddenly realize that there's a Learjet taking off on it) might not be possible or would at least be slower.

In short, there are already cheaper alternatives that don't suffer these drawbacks, such as tugs (manual or automated,) electric motors on the gear, and, of course, aircraft engines, as mentioned in RedGrittyBrick's answer.

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In addition to all the 'minor' drawbacks already discussed, there is one huge, basic problem with this idea. What has to be moved is an airplane, weighing less than about 600 tonnes, designed to move, with a manageable rolling resistance. A chain or cable system extensive enough to take its payload everywhere it should go adds many tonnes of metal to move with a lot of friction, that will only grow as water and dirt enter the trench. The whole thing will need enormous horsepower just to get moving even without an aircraft attached.

Compared to a tug, or even compared to an aircraft taxiing under its own power, this will simply need too much energy to be feasible. The only place where this system can make money is in some streets in San Francisco.

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One point has been missed in the other fine answers.

On an aircraft carrier, the nose gear of each aircraft has a pull bar installed that links with the catapult sled. This pull bar is manually engaged by a deck crew member for each aircraft that is to launch.

In order to do this at an airport, there would need to be a ground handler stationed at each runway turn-off point to engage the pull bar to get the aircraft moving. I pity the poor souls who would have to stand next to a runway at KBOS or KJFK in the wonderful weather they are expecting this weekend.

It's possible that this system could be automated, but that's another very expensive design element that has to be brought into play, tested, and receive CAA certification.

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Also, note that the modifications to fighter planes (Air Force vs Navy) are fairly significant, as the forces on the plane (and humans inside) are significant when using the arrestor (sp?) cables on aircraft carriers.

And yes, reducing the force is possible, but reducing it so that all existing planes flying could use it may (mostly) eliminate its benefit.

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    $\begingroup$ A system to taxi aircraft would still have benefit with no need for excessive accelerations needed on carriers. Aircraft are already moved around with tugs, so that shouldn't be a huge challenge. $\endgroup$ – fooot Jan 20 '16 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ While the forces would be far less than a fighter landing on an aircraft carrier, an airplane grabbing a chain strip (like the grip of a cable car grabbing the cable to start moving) would be subject to a sudden acceleration rather than the much more gradual one of a normal taxi. $\endgroup$ – Zach Lipton Feb 7 '16 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ @ZachLipton Indeed. Even at the low speeds of taxi, accelerating a several-hundred-thousand-pound aircraft from 0 to 15 mph in the space of an inch or two is going to take a lot of force. You'd probably have to have some kind of shock-absorbing system that could increase the acceleration distance in order for this to be remotely feasible. $\endgroup$ – reirab Apr 11 '18 at 4:09

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