Danger on the cutting or trailing edge.
This summer at Oshkosh I had one of those time-warp moments that ought to have a little Rod Serling music playing in the background. Having just left a talk Randall Fishman had given on electric flight, I passed a metal frame sporting what looked just like an Anzani, three-cylinder, radial engine sitting on a stand. That's the engine that barely powered Louis Bleriot on the first aerial crossing of the English Channel.
It was an original Anzani engine, and behind it, under a tent, was an exact replica of the Bleriot XI waiting for its finishing touches. The symmetry of the moment struck me: Fishman was at Oshkosh talking about his two-seat ElectraFlyer X, but he proved electric flight was practical with his electric-powered Moni kitplane. The electric Moni and the Bleriot XI were both single-seat, low-wing taildraggers that could stay aloft for about an hour on around 20 horsepower. The date even had symmetry: I was standing there on July 27, 2009--100 years and two days after Bleriot's flight.
I'm a huge fan of really early (through WWI) aircraft, so I was thrilled to see this happening. "When are you going to fly it?"
"Oh, we're probably just going to lift it off into ground effect. It's too dangerous to fly."
Too dangerous? OK, it's no Cirrus, but there were around 800 of these planes made in various configurations. They're considered by some to be the first successful production airplane. It wasn't too dangerous for Edmond Salis. He took an exact replica of the XI and flew it across the English Channel just two days prior; on the 100-year anniversary of Louis' flight.
I'm all for the improvement to safety and capability our modern birds offer, but there's something to be said for flying aircraft that are difficult and quirky. It takes people like Fishman who are willing to putt around behind a gang of lithium batteries to move things forward and show it can be done. In fact, Fishman says half his motivation for the two-seater is to offer it as a kit and LSA. The other half is to "be able to take up a bunch of FAA guys and show them what this electric airplane thing is all about."
Another press release that caught my interest during the show was the first autoland conducted in a Beechcraft Bonanza. That's right, a Bonanza. It was fitted out with the Athena system that's used to land UAVs. Given how many light aircraft already have two-axis autopilots, it's not a big stretch to see them with a yaw dampener, autothrottle and an Athena. Forget the debates on flying approaches with the autopilot or not. How 'bout whether you get to count the landing for currency when the airplane did it? A safety boon? I have no doubt. But still I feel something is getting lost ...
Somewhere in the future I'll be a grey geezer showing my grandchildren the ILS needles and mechanical AI on a restored Mooney. I'll ask the owner if he still flies ILS approaches by hand. He'll answer, "Oh, sometimes in VFR conditions. But it's just too dangerous otherwise."
Cue the Twilight Zone music ...
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|Author:||Van West, Jeff|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2009|
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