Archive for May, 2008

Pretty enough to fly

Friday, May 30th, 2008

What’d you do over the Memorial Day weekend? I’ll bet you didn’t paint a one-of-a-kind airplane. But a group of Cirrus Design employees did. During my visit to the Cirrus factory a few weeks ago I had the chance to tour the mammoth facility where Cirrus is building what it calls the “V1 flight test vehicle.” V1 is the first flying example of “the jet,” the company’s single-engine jet. By the way, Cirrus promises it will have a “real” name sometime soon.

The development center is a former Northwest Airlines maintenance facility on the north side of Duluth International Airport. The 200,000 square foot building is eight stories tall. When I visited a dozen or more SR20s sat on the floor awaiting delivery–not even crowded. In one corner was Cirrus’ new L-39 jet trainer that it will use as a chase plane for the jet flight test program.

While the real jet will be mostly carbon fiber, V1 is mostly fiberglass because it’s cheaper and faster to build. V1’s V-tail is carbon fiber for the extra strength needed back there. When I saw it, V1 was assembled with the WIlliams FJ33-19 engine in place. A hole in the roof was being prepped to make way for the temporary parachute that will be used during flight test. That chute will be housed inside the fuselage. The production model’s Cirrus Airplane Parachute System will likely be housed in the nose. The L-3 SmartDeck panel was installed. A spin chute will be installed in the tail for test flights.

First flight is expected to occur within the next few weeks, but to look nice for those historic photos, a team of employees volunteered to spend their Memorial Day weekend painting it. Cirrus isn’t saying, but based on what I saw, I’m betting it will have a red tail, red over the nose and fuselage top, with a white empennage and wings–similar to the design currently in use on the piston fleet.

The unusually shaped and beefy trailing-link gear has been swung, much of the load testing is complete, and the ship is equipped with a plethora of strain gauges. A teletmetry system will datalink the test results to the ground so flight tests can be done as effeciently as possible.

Cirrus isn’t saying when it will fly, but given the timing, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it make a visit–at least a fly-by–to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in late July at a time when a few hundred thousand people might happen to be there.

What fate Avidyne?

Friday, May 30th, 2008

What would happen if there was no competition in the avionics market?

Dominant player Garmin got not just a toe, but a foot in the door this week at Cirrus Design–one more airframe manufacturer in the Garmin camp. With last week’s announcement by Cirrus that it is offering the Perspective panel by Garmin for the SR22 GTS, Avidyne, general aviation’s other major display provider, once again loses market share. Avidyne pioneered the glass cockpit revolution in GA and once dominated the market. But Cirrus was the last major airframer to offer only an Avidyne panel. Piper offers a choice of Avidyne or Garmin on the Saratoga, but only Avidyne on other models. Many other airframers offer only Garmin panels. Columbia and Diamond a few years ago offered only Avidyne panels. As soon as the Garmin option became available almost 100 percent of new sales went out the door with Garmin panels.

So what fate Avidyne, you ask? Others asked the same question this week and Avidyne responded. Here are some quotes from the statement: “As have several other airframe manufacturers, Cirrus, too, has broadened its avionics options for its customers. Avidyne will continue to aggressively promote and market to Cirrus prospects to buy Entegra-equipped Cirrus planes.” Regarding the financial impact of the Cirrus decision: “Avidyne enjoys a broad and diverse portfolio of revenue streams, including ongoing relationships with several additional OEM partners. We also have an incredibly strong and growing after-market business.” And the future for Avidyne: “Avidyne commends Garmin for its ability to gain a portion of the Cirrus market. At the same time, Avidyne is very confident that pilots will continue to select their avionics packages based on core value propositions such as price, ease of use, interoperability, performance and future upgradeability. Avidyne remains very confident that our current technology and any future releases will maintain and expand our position as the ‘avionics provider of choice.'”

Given Garmin’s aggressive and innovative product development process, it’s no wonder airframers find the change compelling. And you know the switch wouldn’t occur without a lot of requests from customers.

But what might the future be like if it’s only Garmin supplying gear to airframers in the future? Post your comments through the link below. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

The $200 hamburger?

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Economic forces and tribal knowledge have conspired to set the current price of an airport hamburger at $100. But, as I discovered from cruising through our magazine archives, it’s not a fixed price. We used to call it the $50 hamburger.

The price of the hamburger is supposed to account for the cost of the flight plus red meat. But with today’s high avgas prices, at what point does the tribe decide to amend the menu? Should we go for $150… $200?

Somewhat related to this, well, price fixing, is the FAA’s standard weight for an adult. It’s been stuck at a sprightly 170 pounds for as long as anyone can remember. Fast-food burgers, meanwhile, are packing more calories than ever.

What we’re really talking about here is energy. Sure, the FAA could give the entire GA fleet a gross weight increase to make us feel better about ourselves, but all we’d do is burn more fuel.

Could there be an inverse relationship between hamburgers and pilots? If the price of a hamburger continues to rise, maybe the actual pilot weight will go down due to less consumption.

The price of the airport hamburger is ultimately up to the tribe. It’s all about perception.

Checking in on an old friend

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Pilots are often asked to name their favorite airplane and for me, the answer’s always been easy: N400BS, a 1981 Cessna 421C I flew for three years in the early 1990s. We met under unusual circumstances; I was flying freight and looking for a better gig, when I noticed the pristine twin sitting in a maintenance hangar at the San Luis Obispo, California airport. I ran the tail number through the FAA database and quickly located the owner, a local businessman with the initials BS.

“How did you know I was looking for a pilot?” he asked. “I haven’t even run the ad yet.”

Then he told me the airplane was in the final stages of a double engine change, the result of rough handling by his former pilot. We talked a bit and went out to lunch; I had a lot of twin Cessna time and the job was mine if I wanted it.

Over the next 36 months, 400BS and I developed a mutual trust—I’d keep it safe and well maintained, and it would run like a Swiss watch, in VMC, IMC, whatever. We were a common sight all up and down the west coast; the boss did a lot of business in the Los Angeles basin and in the Bay Area, and used the airplane the way most people use a car.

While I’ve long since moved on to other pursuits, and other airplanes, I like to check in on 400BS from time to time to see what it’s up to. It’s still flying for a living; now for some entity called Corporate Flight International, Inc., in Aspen, Colorado. And, it’s been getting some fresh air. Recent destinations include Flying Cloud, Laramie, and Pine River Regional. Check out FlightAware, to see where your favorite (former) airplane’s been recently.

Death of THE director

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Sydney Pollack died on Sunday at the age of 73. He succumbed to a short fierce battle with cancer.

If you’re a movie buff like I am, you know he directed some of the finest–“Out of Africa,” “The Way We Were,” and “The Firm.” He also acted in many of his movies such as “Tootsie” and “Michael Clayton.” He was also an accomplished jet-rated pilot and aircraft owner. We profiled him in AOPA Pilot in 1998.

A new secret bomber in the works?

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Aviation Week has done it again, or rather, a publication that is part of the Aviation Week group has done it.

Bill Sweetman, the first journalist to break news about stealth fighters and bombers 30 years ago who actually knew what he was talking about, says there is another secret bomber in development. His report appears in Defense Technology International. The two-engine bomber may look a lot like the Northrop Grumman B-2, but can easily be converted to the country’s first true unmanned bomber in future modifications. Read about it here.

Sky Trekking

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

When you start your computer, do you get a “McAfee” window as the security software boots up? That’s John McAfee, and his devotion to weight-shift aircraft is chronicled in the current National Geographic Adventure. You’ll find videos and photos here.

Eggs on your cylinders?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Spring is well underway. Our feathered friends are now nesting and laying eggs. And they often decide that the nooks and crannies of a tied down, or hangared airplane–small spaces under the cowling, in the tail section, or up in a wheel well–are ideal spots to build a nest and lay eggs.

During my 30 + years around the air yard, I’ve seen plenty of nests in other pilots’ airplanes. In the intervening days between my last flight 10 days ago and yesterday a local mama bird built a nest and laid four eggs on top of my engine’s #1 and #3 cylinders. I’m grateful that both sides of the cowling of my Comanche open wide, permitting me unlimited access to my engine. I set the nest aside and used compressed air to blow the remaining twigs and sticks off the engine.

If your cowling doesn’t permit a good engine inspection prior to flight, get some cowl plugs. These plugs are a lot less expensive than changing a cylinder due to a nest that’s blocked the cooling air.


When Harry met AOPA Pilot

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Harrison Ford is not a stranger to the pages of AOPA Pilot. Editing Barry Schiff’s June 2008 article took me back 10 years, when our June 1998 issue featured the making of Six Days, Seven Nights. Ford did all of his own flying in that film, which introduced him to the de Havilland Beaver–his favorite airplane.

In that issue, Ford also talked about how he became a pilot. I was asked to photograph Ford for that article, and the chosen day was miserable, with rain showers and low ceilings. Tom Haines, Tom Horne, and I flew up to Teterboro, New Jersey, for the shoot and Ford met us at the FBO door.

We waited in a large hangar for Ford’s mechanic to arrive with the keys to his helicopter. Just outside, an APU screamed, making conversation difficult. Some movie-related questions were met with polite nods. Noticing pop-out floats on the skids of Ford’s helicopter, I asked him if he ever flew the Hudson River corridor, a VFR route that follows the river right past Manhattan. Ford’s eyes sparkled as he responded, “Oh, yeah, all the time.”

We talked about flying the corridor, also a favorite of mine, until we gave up on the mechanic and went with Plan B, photographing Ford with a Beech B36TC Bonanza. He no longer owns that airplane, but our art folks found the photo (shown) in our files.

Fun, fun, fun part 2

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

A few weeks ago I talked about flying and the pursuit of fun. That was after flying an Air Cam on wheels. Yesterday I think I trumped the Air Cam experience, ten-fold. It’s hard to imagine there’s anything more fun than flying at 500 feet with a completely unobstructed view, but there is. It’s flying at 200 feet over the water in an Air Cam on floats.

In preparation for the upcoming pilot report on the Air Cam, I knew I had to fly one on floats. It’s becoming an increasingly popular modification for builders, so no story on the airplane would be complete without it. So I drove to Sebring, Florida, to visit with Phil Lockwood, the original designer of the airplane and the owner of the company. It was a rare treat to be able to fly this unique airplane with the designer. Here are a few highlights:

  • Yes, you can take off single engine from the water. Incredible, but true.
  • The hardest part of the water take off is controlling the stick and throwing power forward at the same time. It sounds easy, but the airplane is off the water as soon as the throttle is wide open, so things are happening fast.
  • You can’t turn on a dime, but a silver dollar is doable.
  • Vmc is a formality. There’s no rolling on your back in this airplane.

Here’s a photo of the back of Lockwood’s head as we were turning base for the first water landing. This was the last picture I remembered to take because I was having too much fun.