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An airplane in every garage.

Well, not quite. But a consortium of corporate competitors, working with NASA, is fueling a technological revolution that may turn today's private plane into tomorrow's mass transit.

"Lightplane technology" is an oxymoron. We private pilots fly behind largely handmade engines subject to all the woes of inattentive assembly and widely varying quality control. Our air-cooled Lycomings and Continentals have the sophistication of 1950s Harley-Davidsons and are sparked by magnetos, the design of which can be traced directly back to 1920s farm tractors. The 1999 Cessna Skyhawk - still the world's most popular lightplane - was initially introduced in 1957, and the Mercedes-Benz of singles, the Raytheon Bonanza, first flew (albeit in a far simpler form) in 1945. The fast Italian two-seater that I own was designed in 1955, is often described as "the Ferrari of airplanes," and yet is made of wood. Even the highest of tech in the typical cockpit - enormously expensive GPS receivers with moving-map displays - have five times the cost and one-fifth the capability of satellite-navigation receivers in luxury cars.

That might be about to change, driven by NASA, a $250 million government and industry investment commitment, and new entrepreneurism among a handful of tiny companies with big dreams. No longer are the radical advances coming only from Beech, Cessna, and Piper - the Big Three lightplane airframe manufacturers - but from Cirrus Design, Stoddard-Hamilton, and Lancair, one-time makers of do-it-yourself experimental airplane kits for hobbyists. Electronics aren't only the purview of the big radio-maker Bendix/King (a division of AlliedSignal Aerospace) but of comparative newcomers Amav, Avidyne, NavRadio, and II Morrow. And sprinkled throughout the AGATE-partners list are small companies with such names as Advanced Creations, Airborne Research Associates, Aurora Flight Sciences, Innovative Dynamics, and Optimal Solutions.

For decades, general aviation (as all noncommercial, nonmilitary flying is officially categorized) has been hampered by the expense and time required to get a pilot's license and the instrument rating required for flight in less-than-ideal weather. Then there's the complexity of operating and navigating any high-performance lightplane, and the dangers posed by bad weather, mechanical problems, and inevitable pilot carelessness. Because of their lack of true utility, few new airplanes have ever been sold - only 17,800 including everything from cropdusters to bizjets in 1978, the industry's record year, down to an annual pace of a piddling 1,300 piston-engine lightplanes today.

No wonder no major manufacturer has bothered to invest in and modernize the personal lightplane in any significant way. To make matters worse, the popularity of product-liability lawsuits against general-aviation manufacturers in the 1970s and '80s cost the industry $3 billion in defense - and judgments - that might otherwise have been spent on R&D.

NASA, however, intends to turn private planes into a mass-transit system, making them as easy to operate as automobiles but four times as fast, and achieving economies of scale that will make airplanes if not cheap, at least affordable. Their goal is to quadruple travel speeds for 25 percent of the country's suburban and rural regions by 2007 and provide that capability to more than 90 percent of those communities by 2023.

"What will make an airplane of the future more usable by average people is the revolution in digital bandwidth, satellite navigation, and datalink wireless communications," insists NASA's Bruce J. Holmes, manager of its Advanced General Aviation Transportation Experiment, or AGATE - an industry/government consortium that is creating the concepts, systems, and hard ware to make this possible. The list of companies who have signed on runs from such industrial giants as Teledyne and Textron, B.F. Goodrich and Raytheon, to tiny Arnav Systems (75 employees) and even smaller Stoddard-Hamilton Aircraft (35).

"Pilots today do those chores that humans do worst," Holmes points out. "They sort information, compile it, and integrate it into differential decision-making. All those data-processing steps are what makes flying challenging, rewarding, and romantic - but for a very limited market."

A key component of AGATE's program is the development of workable "highways in the sky" - not the invisible electronic, zig-zag, beacon-to-beacon airways that constitute today's routes but a constantly changing, visible flightpath determined by information continually data-linked to the airplane.

Today, before a flight, a good cross-country pilot collects weather information, much of which is already hours old, plans a route on paper and declares it to air traffic control, communicates verbally with ATC while en route, and continually checks his or her charts and navigation radios to ensure that obstacles, terrain, or restricted airspace won't be a problem. "You have to be an amateur meteorologist today to be a safe pilot," Holmes avers.

NASA, however, proposes that by the early 21st century, hazards presented by conflicting traffic, deteriorating weather ahead, improper weather interpretation, military practice areas, mountains, and other factors will be datalinked and fed to the aircraft's computer to generate a video-gamelike directional display directly in front of the pilot - a tunnel-like chain of fly-through rectangles or perhaps a moving roadway projected on the windshield, in reaction to which the pilot will intuitively steer the airplane. "We're already flying a highways-in-the-sky airplane," Holmes claims. "It's a [Beech/Raytheon] Bonanza in which we've replaced the old 'steam gauges' with computer screens that give an intuitively graphical depiction of your flight path. And that flight path moves around, resolving traffic, weather, terrain, obstacles, FAA regulatory issues."

Thunderstorms and airborne ice are a lightplane pilot's most serious weather threats. A raging rainstorm can cause a pilot to lose control - an "upset" - amid the rapidly varying vertical air currents inside a mature cumulus cloud, and often the result is a high-speed dive that ends in a desperate pullout, which fatally overstresses the airplane's wings or tail. Pilots fly into thunderstorms because they can't see them when they're already amid benign clouds. Radar and electronic lightning sensors can pick the dangerous cells out of the gloom, but not many lightplanes have these expensive units. AGATE's solution to the storm problem will be real-time weather information datalinked to the cockpit: If there's a storm on your flightpath, you'll automatically be guided around or away from it, perhaps without even knowing it.

Ice is a problem because it accretes on the leading edges of an airplane's wings and tail, turning an efficient airfoil into a liftless board. Airplanes crash in icing conditions not "because the ice weighs them down," as most nonpilots think, but because they can no longer generate lift. The hoary old solution, invented in the early 1930s, has been "boots" - rubber bladders on the wings and tail that are inflated by an air pump, like a trumpeter puffing out his cheeks, to crack off the ice as it forms. AGATE is searching for a high-tech solution and may have found a compact, economical answer in what it calls electro-expulsive technology - a system that uses high-frequency electronic pulses generated through thin-film conductors embedded in the structure to create hammer-like knocks from inside the wings, shattering the icy crust.

Holmes feels that today's low-tech general aviation is a moribund industry. "There's no way it can have the near-all-weather utility that's required in order for airplanes to develop into true transportation machines," he explains. "So what emerged was an industry that sold its products on the basis of enthusiasm, romance, and elitism. That industry reached its saturation point in the late 1970s, and what we're seeing today is the end of its death phase. Look at any major industrial lifecycle, and the last gasp is typical of what we're seeing in the general-aviation industry today - repainting the same old product, remanufacturing it, putting a new marketing face on it."

Holmes may have in mind companies such as Cessna, still the world's largest lightplane producer. Cessna abandoned the market in 1986, after product-liability claims had spiraled out of control, and reentered it in 1997, albeit simply with moderately upgraded versions of the same single-engine airplanes it had discontinued 11 years earlier. But Cessna, too, is an AGATE member. "They've provided a wake-up call to the industry," admits the director of marketing for Cessna's Single-Engine Division, Alan Goodnight. "AGATE has said, 'Listen, if you want to grow and take advantage of what many surveys say is more than a million people who would like to become pilots, you've got to make flying easier, more fun, more acceptable, not an elitist thing. You don't have to wear Ray-Bans and a leather jacket and have an engineering degree to become a pilot.'"

Goodnight also points out that "AGATE continues to push Cessna to get better. Because we know if we don't do it, somebody else will, since the technology is not proprietary. Piper can take advantage of it just as easily as we can."

What is remarkable about AGATE is that it is a cooperative of competitors, and that all advances are shared equally. "Because it's a shared research-and-development activity funded by NASA, the alliance allows a small company like ours, which doesn't have the resources of a Lockheed or a Boeing, to take part in a large R&D effort," says Stoddard-Hamilton Aircraft engineer Michael Henderson, who is involved in developing increasingly sophisticated and economical kit-built airplanes for the homebuilt market. (See sidebar, page 47.)

Stoddard-Hamilton's AGATE assignment is to help develop low-cost manufacturing technology, particularly using composite materials. "We can look at one aspect of aircraft design or improvement and Lancair and Cessna can do other parts of it," Henderson explains. "The best thing AGATE has accomplished is getting these individual companies together and sharing their collective resources in manpower and facilities. And that is phenomenal - that competitors like Stoddard-Hamilton and Lancair, for example, at least on the engineering level, are getting along just fine under the alliance."

What NASA and its 70 industry, organizational, and academic partners hope will replace low-tech lightplanes are smooth-skinned, low-drag aircraft designed to use rapidly developing composite-materials technology rather than lumpy, hand-riveted aluminum panels. Microprocessor power will be spread throughout the airplane, just as it already is in today's automobiles. Our whirling 1920s gyroscopes will be replaced by electronic attitude sensors, for example, and embedded micro-devices will control aerodynamics for increased lift and reduced drag.

Tomorrow's lightplanes will all employ a single, simple power control - as easy to use as a car's accelerator pedal - rather than the current complex system of separate levers to adjust manifold pressure, fuel mixture, propeller speed, and, in some cases, turbocharger boost. Cockpit instrumentation will be displayed on a laptop-size screen or two in an organized, symbolic manner instead of being apportioned among a dozen or more different dials that look like they belong in a boiler room. Holmes admits, "We're discovering that potential new pilots are going out to the airport and taking a look at the airplanes, but they're saying, 'Where's the glass? Where's the fiat-panel display?' Many of them are walking away, much to the consternation of the people trying to increase student starts. But these people are used to dealing with a screen and a mouse and CD-ROM drives."

Today's engine instruments simply display information, leaving it up to the pilot to collect, process, and interpret it. Some of the new instrumentation already under development by AGATE, called "Engine Management and Predictive Analysis System," will not only monitor every facet of an engine's operation - speed, pressure, vibration, cylinder and exhaust-gas temperatures, and the like - but will clue in the pilot to an impending failure anywhere in the engine and advise him or her how to correct or deal with it. The heart of such a system will be predictive artificial-intelligence software, advanced sensors sprinkled through the engine, digital signal processing and, of course, advanced microprocessors to instantly compile and analyze all the data, resulting in automated decision making.

The most ambitious of NASA's high-tech programs is GAP - General Aviation Propulsion. Engines are the key to advances in all phases of aviation: There's no point in designing a 747, a Mach 3 fighter, or an economical 250-mph lightplane unless the engines exist to power them. Holmes admits that GAP's engines-of-the-future programs are pushing the envelope of feasibility. "We're trying to reduce the cost of turbines by 75 percent or more, and the cost of piston engines by 50 percent or more," he points out. (A conventional six-cylinder, 260-hp lightplane piston engine costs about $35,000, and the smallest of the ubiquitous PT6 general-aviation turbines are $125,000 and up.) "At the same time, we are trying to produce levels of maintainability and reliability that are the kinds of leaps forward we haven't seen since the transition from radial aircraft engines to compact, horizontally opposed engines 50 years ago."

"Without a new powerplant, it's hard to design a revolutionary new airplane," Cessna's Goodnight points out. "Powerplant availability determines airframe design. But will Cessna come out with brand-new airplanes? No question about it. Not next year or even five years from now, but as these AGATE initiatives become more practical from the manufacturing point of view, you bet. We and everybody else are going to be saying, 'Hey, here's a brand-new powerplant, certified by the FAA, burns jet-A, so here's a brand-new airplane built around it. Got a turbine engine, got six seats, three flat-panel instrument displays, no more round dials...' Yeah, that's what we're all working toward."

A looming problem for lightplanes is that they are the country's sole users of leaded gasoline, and the quantity of 100-octane fuel consumed by our tiny fleet of 300,000 piston-engine airplanes - many of which fly fewer than 50 hours a year - is barely worth refining. Particularly since it is subject to stringent, expensive FAA rules regarding its storage and handling. So GAP partner Teledyne Continental is working hard to create an aircraft diesel piston engine able to run on widely available jet fuel. And Williams International, a Michigan company that builds tiny, disposable jet engines for cruise missiles (which, after all, only fly once) is simultaneously developing a small, cheap, but durable lightplane turbojet.

"In terms of brand-new technology, something that would not have happened if AGATE hadn't come along, there's not a lot of that happening," admits Stoddard-Hamilton's Henderson. "But people are adapting to general aviation technology that has filtered down from above. None of these products, whether it's the highway-in-the-sky stuff or real-time weather in the cockpit, are brand-new, they're just new to the lightplane cockpit. And I see companies that have never been involved in GA coming into the market. Because most of the AGATE money is an in-kind contribution, they can match each of their dollars with one of NASA's and generate new products."

Henderson also explains that such technological leaps require the development of a completely new infrastructure for their seamless operation, "and that infrastructure is impossible for any single company to develop, whereas under AGATE, you can get all the radio-makers, all the computer-makers, all the displaymakers together, and they can come up with a standardized protocol to support those black boxes."

Will all these efforts put an airplane in every garage - a claim we've heard before from a business that has always been filled with romantics and dreamers? Almost certainly not. AGATE's vision of lightplanes as consumer transportation is a stretch. But if nothing else, the effort will put new life into an industry that's languished far too long.


Robert A. Lutz

Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Exide Corp., Reading, PA, and Auburn Hills, MI

Born: Zurich, Switzerland

Age: 67

First airplane: Soloed as a U.S. Marine fighter pilot in an SNJ (Navy version of the T6 advanced trainer). During 11- year military career flew F9 Panther, F9 Cougar, F2 Banshee, and A4 Skyhawk.

Current inventory: L39 Albatros, an ex-Soviet, Czech-built attack/fighter jet; MD500 helicopter; Bell Jet Ranger helicopter (a Christmas present to his wife).

Next acquisition: Would love a MiG 29, but allows as how the purchase of this Mach 2, 200-gallon-per-minute fuel consumer would be "not prudent."

One that got away: An A4 Skyhawk, purchased at IRS auction and crash-landed by another pilot in transit after purchase.

Hero: Saburo Sakai, the top Japanese Zero ace who survived WWII and started a gardening business.

Best moment in an airplane: Precision formation flying in the Marines, closely followed by the first solo flight in his L39 after 30 years away from fighter jets.

Quote: "I'm not looking to purchase any more aircraft at the moment; you could say I'm over-airplaned."

The Make or Buy Decision

Some of the fastest, highest-flying, most sophisticated personal aircraft ever built are the product of a small Redmond, OR-based company called Lancair, creator of a variety of composite-structure airplanes, including the Lancair IV-P, a 334-mph, turbocharged single-engine four-seater capable of cruising at 29,000 feet because it's pressurized, just like a 727.

Well, that's not quite true: The actual airplanes are the product of skilled hobbyists who build them in their garages, basements, and hangars. Lancair supplies complete kits of ports - life-size model airplanes, if you will - for do-it-themselfers to assemble. Now, however, Lancair has also formed a division called Pacific Aviation Composites to build a simplified version of the Lancair IV, called the Columbia 300, that has been certificated for production by the FAA.

Whatever possessed a successful kit-builder like Lancair to enter the complex world of production airplanes? "Stupidity," asserts Pacific Aviation Sales Manager Mike Schrader. "I say that tongue in cheek, but anybody who steps into this realm has no idea what they're in for." Schrader's kitplane division counterpart, Sales Manager Orin Riddell, points out that, "You still can't buy a production airplane as capable as a good kitplane. You simply can't get anything like the IV-P anywhere else, and the FAA is not going to let you certify something like that."

CEO and company owner Lance Neibauer had a background in graphic design and marketing before designing his first kitplane, and he had the good sense to package it not as a futuristic, unfamiliar shape but as a handsome, flowing, tadpole fuselage, relatively conventional design that reeked of speed. His companies are producing as many as 120 kits a year and hope in two years to be cranking out certificated Columbia 300s at about the same rate.

Will production Lancairs then make the kitplanes obsolete? "I doubt it," says Riddell. "At least not in the next 10 or 20 years." Explains Schrader, "You can prototype and build a new kit-airplane design in a year and a half, and we've spent four years bringing the Columbia to production, so that affects cost. A Lancair IV-ES kit - an airplane directly comparable to the Columbia - is $120,000. Our airplane is $300,000."

The AGATE Mission

In the early 1990s, a number of general aviation spokespeople approached new NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin and asked if the government could help revive their dying industry. Goldin said, "Come back with a vision for your future that builds on something the country needs for the public good." Their response: lightplanes that can be operated as high-utility transportation devices. In 1994, NASA formed the industry/university/government consortium "to develop affordable new technology as well as the industry standards and certification procedures for airframe, cockpit, flight-training systems, and airspace infrastructure for next-generation 4/6-place, near-all-weather light airplanes."

Pocket Rocket

The one super-system that would literally lift light aircraft to a new plane is a cheap-as-a-car jet engine the size of, say, a watermelon. Jets can fly above bad weather, punch through icing layers with impunity, are inarguably far faster than prop planes, and their engines are mechanically so simple that fears of sudden stoppage become almost moot. Unfortunately, the cheapest turbine engine on the market does cost as much as a car - a Ferrari.

But Williams International, a small Walled Lake, MI, company that builds tiny turbofans for mini-bizjets, cruise missiles, and unmanned drones, is already test-running the FJX-2 turbofan, which weighs about as much as a casual sportsplex clean-and-jerk (less than 100 pounds), puts out 700 pounds of thrust (very roughly equivalent to horsepower), and could lead to jet engines that someday sell for as little as the cost of a contemporary 300-hp six-cylinder aircraft piston engine (around $35,000).

If that ever happens, the sky will no longer be the limit. "1 see it as an engine that can revive the light aircraft industry," said company founder Sam Williams in a recent interview with Professional Pilot magazine. "Every light-aircraft pilot dreams of being a jet pilot. Our technology can make this a reality."

Pop-Up Parachute

Cirrus Design, a brand-new Duluth, MN-based aircraft manufacturer, has infuriated traditionalists by adding an unusual feature to its single-engine four-seater, the SR20 - the first all-new American lightplane to be FAA-certificated in 15 years.

Buried inside the SR-20's smooth, composite-plastics fuselage is a hefty rocket-fired parachute, called a Ballistic Recovery System, that deploys at the pull of a cockpit handle to lower a stricken SR-20 and its occupants to the ground safely in the event of anything from fuel exhaustion to structural failure.

Conservative pilots, most of whom operate with a "can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" ethos, see this as an affront to their assumed skills at handling emergencies, but Cirrus President Alan Klapmeier, himself a long-time pilot, says, "We have to lose all that macho stuff. Making it hard to fly is not good value. Our Ballistic Recovery System can be justified if you make one basic assumption: that while something is unlikely to go wrong, it just might. Which is why you buy insurance, after all."

Quiet Time

If a committee designed a torture chamber, it might well be a thin-walled aluminum prison suspended high about the earth, with a 250-hp noisemaker attached to it, batting pulses of air against it with a huge pinwheel. Which pretty much describes the fuselage of a piston-engine lightplane in flight. Yet it was only in the late 1970s that smart pilots started wearing noise-attenuating cushioned earphones while flying amid such fearsome noise. The biggest boon, however, came in 1989, with the introduction of the Bose active noise reduction headset, invented by the Framingham, MA-based company best-known for a variety of smartly marketed high-tech home and automotive audio advances.

ANR works by sampling the residual noise that inevitably penetrates any headset's cushioning and then microprocessor-generating a signal, inside each earcup, exactly opposed in frequency to that noise, thus canceling it out. The silence is not absolute, since mainly low-frequency noises are canceled, but the effect is powerful nonetheless. The under-$1,000 Bose Aviation Headset X has numerous imitators now but remains the cream of the crop.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on airplane designs and technology
Author:Wilkinson, Stephan
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Date:Aug 15, 1999
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