Archive for November, 2008

Making sense of the Eclipse drama

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

You need a score card to keep up with the Eclipse Aviation developments over the last couple of weeks. Two weeks ago the struggling company missed payroll and some workers walked out. But then it got some funding and was able to meet payroll early the next week. Then, great news last week when the company announced that it had received EASA certification and certification of the much needed Avio NG 1.5 avionics system.

As I reported in my pilot report on the Eclipse 500 VLJ in the August issue of AOPA Pilot, Avio NG 1.5 turns the EA500 from a “near jet” to a “real jet.” The 1.5 upgrade places dual Garmin 400 navigators into the panel and upgrades the autopilot to give it the capabilities you would expect from a jet.

This week’s news that the company has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection so that it can keep operating is not exactly a surprise, except maybe in the timing. As I noted in my column in the December issue of Pilot, more than one forecaster was projecting the company would cease operations in the first quarter of 2009. However, the bankruptcy filing may actually buy Eclipse some time to secure enough funding to allow it to emerge free of debt and with a trimmed down business model that allows it to be profitable on a couple of hundred units a year instead of the need to manufacture 1,000 or more a year.

What’s not clear yet is the impact of the filing on current position holders with deposits paid, those who have been seeking refunds since Eclipse raised the price substantially last summer, and those owning the 200 or so Eclipses already produced who need warranty coverage and long-promised Avio NG and other upgrades. My guess is that they will end up at the bottom of the creditors’ list. [Update: Eclipse late Nov. 25 notified Eclipse 500 owners, deposit-holders and those seeking refunds from deposits that they were mostly out in the cold. Warranties won’t be honored nor will contracts related to JetComplete maintenance programs. The individuals will be considered unsecured creditors. For more details, see a copy of the customer letter obtained by AOPA Pilot.]

At this point the only certainty is that there’s more to come in the Eclipse Aviation drama. Stay tuned.

Flying motorcycle the next roadable airplane?

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Speaking of Holy Grail (see my earlier post–hey, you gotta keep up here!), Samson Motorworks claims it has the utmost in roadable aircraft with its new SkyBike. The SkyBike is a three-wheeled, two-seat motorcycle with a telescoping main wing and a canard. Powered by a shrouded single propeller driven by a rotary engine, the vehicle will supposedly fly at 130 mph–although it hasn’t flown yet.

The company is developing several models of the vehicle. The SkyBike is the kitbuilt version and due out first, although exactly when isn’t clear. The SwitchBlade will be the FAA-certified version. The SkyBike prototype is under development at Swift Engineering in San Clemente, California.

The idea is that you drive the vehicle like a motorcycle to the airport. There, you extend the telescoping wings and takeoff. At takeoff, the flat panel instrument display transitions from automotive instruments to aviation instruments.

SkyBike is the brainchild of inventor Sam Bousfield. He claims the canard layout, with main wing in the back, serves a dual purpose. For safe ground design and to reduce the potential for overturning, the center of weight is kept low and to the rear. Having a main rear wing places most of the lift where the majority of the weight is located, complimenting safety on the ground with safety in the air. Additionally, a canard is also stall-resistant, affording an added margin of protection.

The company offers an email newsletter through its site for those who want to follow the project throughout development.

So, what’s your pleasure? Terrafugia’s Transition or Samson’s SkyBike?

Accidental finding may help engines of the future

Monday, November 24th, 2008

The Holy Grail for a new generation of turbine engines is some sort of ceramic surface for turbine blades to allow the engines to run even hotter than they do today with advanced metal alloy blades. A solution, found accidentally in a government lab, may be on the horizon.

It’s sort of a geeky article, but is reporting that scientists at the Department of Energy’s Ames labs discovered the new ceramic alloy by mistake in 1999 when they were attempting to find a substance that would generate electricity when heated. It didn’t work, but the result was an alloy of boron, aluminum, and magnesium–BAM for short. The substance is slicker than Teflon and almost as hard as diamonds. The thinking is that for some applications, simply coating the blades of pumps would allow for longer life and better lubrication.

So if it works there, might it be a solution for turbine blades? Time will tell.


Top of the line

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

What goes 200 knots, has two engines, features a Garmin G1000 cockpit, is certified for flight into known ice, and comfortably seats six in luxury? If you said a Beechcraft G58 Baron, you’re right!

If you haven’t had a chance to fly a Baron yet, you need to do it. Sure, it’s not a fancy jet or a turboprop. But the Baron represents the top echelon of piston ownership for many pilots, and there are countless reasons why. You could start that list with all-weather capability, a large cabin, good useful load, and of course, the excellent flying characteristics of a Beechcraft.

There’s just something about the Baron. It’s hard to describe exactly what it is. On our test flight yesterday, I got a good glimpse, though. There’s the power. Apply brakes and full throttle on takeoff and be ready to go when you release the brakes. This beast moves. Then there’s the controllability. It’s not that the control is particularly responsive or quick. It’s just…right.

Pilots must agree because the Baron is sold out through June. In an economy where people are concerned about their portfolios, jobs, and financial security, that’s staggering.

Stay tuned to the magazine for an upcoming feature on the icon and learn what has made it so successful over the years.

Your 15-second “Quantum of Solace” review

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Come for the Star Trek trailer; stay for the sequence in which a Douglas DC-3 tries to outrun a SIAI-Marchetti SF.260TP. Here’s a brief clip of the scene, courtesy Fandango.

Want to know more about the Marchetti? See Marc Cook’s July 2000 article in AOPA Pilot. And feel free to weigh in with your opinion of the flying sequence (how realistic was it?) in the Comments section.

George leaves Joe Pilot at home

Monday, November 17th, 2008

In more than 20 years writing for AOPA Pilot I’ve had the privilege of flying more than 100 models of airplanes. One of the most memorable was a Cessna Caravan on amphibious floats. I spent a couple of days piloting the big airplane around Long Island Sound, even landing on the East River in Manhattan. It was great fun and I was impressed at how easy it was to manage the hulking airplane. It was truly like flying a Cessna 182.

So, too bad that in the future some pilots will miss out on the fun. You see, the U.S. Army is working on a version of the Caravan that will be “optionally-piloted.” That’s Army-speak for remote controlled. Aviation Week and Space Technology is reporting the Army has already flown the Caravan Optionally Piloted Aircraft (COPA). It plans to deploy the COPAs for utility transport in “routine, but sometimes dangerous battlefield and ‘area of interest’ reconnaissance and patrol missions.” Sounds like trying to get into Teterboro at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning.

While remote controlled implies a pilot is required on the ground, COPA will also be configured for possible autonomous missions–meaning you enter the flight plan, wind it up, and let it go. Like a bird-dog, it comes back home after completing its mission.

The Caravan isn’t alone among GA airplanes perhaps destined to leave the pilot behind. Boeing has proposed the use of an unmanned Gulfstream G550 business jet in a military application and the Diamond DA42 piston twin is another that is being developed as an optionally-piloted vehicle. Of course, the real concern is whether these things can truly operate safely autonomously or remotely without the need for airspace restrictions for the rest of us–an ongoing debate.

Makes you wonder what “optionally-piloted” really means. Does it mean you Joe Pilot are welcome to fly, but if you get sleepy or the weather (or lead in the air) gets a little too dicey you can hand the whole mess over to George? Meanwhile, the next day, George may be assigned a mission where Joe gets left home alone to sulk. Not much fun there.

Should we lobby for a new federal mandate: No pilot left behind?

Brave new world!

Why I like Homestead GA Airport

Monday, November 17th, 2008

I was in Miami writing about NASCAR drivers who are pilots, and that included taking a look at the huge fleet of NASCAR aircraft that move the car teams around the country. All aircraft at left are NASCAR planes at Kendall-Tamiami. Notice the prominent racing name.  

For the race at Homestead Miami Speedway the crews use primarily Tamiami, but several use Homestead General Aviation Airport as well because, although it has shorter runways, it is closer. I no sooner showed up at Homestead Executive Jet Center than James Starkweather, husband of the owner of the Jet Center and owner of the Advanced Aircraft dealership at Tamiami to the north, said a Cirrus was waiting for me. “Would you like aerial views of the NASCAR track for your article?” The answer was easy. The results are published here and were taken two days before the final NASCAR race of the season. After the flight I drove a few hundred yards to Roberts Air South to see the jets used by Jack Roush of Roush-Fenway Racing, and Carl Edwards who at the time was in second place for both the Nationwide race series and the Sprint Cup series. There I met Max the dog who steals things. You’ll learn more in an upcoming feature on pilots who happen to be race car drivers or wives of drivers.

NASCAR driver Kyle Petty passes checkride

Monday, November 17th, 2008

One of the newest pilots in the country is NASCAR race-car driver Kyle Petty, who passed his checkride recently in Concord, North Carolina, in a Cessna 172. Petty already owns a Columbia 400 and is in the process of transitioning to his beautiful new airplane. You’ll see it for yourself in a video to accompany an upcoming article in AOPA Pilot.

In that same video, you’ll find out what Matt Kenseth thinks of his new Mooney and hear how aviation comes to the rescue of busy drivers and crew on the circuit. Kenseth qualified third at the Homestead Miami Speedway at an average speed of more than 170 mph in his 800+ hp car. To get that average, he had to drive 210 mph on the straightaways. Look for the “NASCAR Pilots” article in 2009. (If a NASCAR racer were to run in a straight line, top speed would be 240 mph.)

Matt Kenseth (center) watches other cars qualify for the NASCAR race, November 14, at Homestead Miami Speedway while he waits in line for his attempt. He was third fastest after his qualifying run and came in 11th overall in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

1993 Sweeps 172 is training pilots in Miami

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

The aircraft AOPA gave away in 1994 after full refurbishment the year before has helped to train 4,000 pilots and given renters a means to get around Florida for 14 years. The upholstery shows the wear from life as a trainer and the “AOPA” is missing from the “Good as New” logo on the tail, but otherwise the Cessna 172 is fully operational.

It is in the fleet of Dean International headed by Robert Dean and his wife, Elisa. Elisa notes the Garmin GPSMAP 530 added by the school makes this a, “Good as New, New” airplane. Since the picture was taken Nov. 14, the school moved into beautiful new quarters at its home base, Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport in Kendall, Florida, south of and adjoining Miami. The school trains students from around the world and hopes to add those from the Peoples’ Republic of China in coming months.

Hard to beat GA utility

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

It’s hard to believe that more than 31 years after I first soloed an airplane I still get jazzed about how much fun it is to fly general aviation airplanes–and how efficient such flights can be.

A few days ago we had a need to move an airplane from Frederick, Maryland, to Brandywine Airport northwest of Philadelphia. We were taking the airplane to Penn Avionics at OQN for some avionics work. Senior Editor Dave Hirschman (minutes after landing the Sweepstakes Archer on the 20+-hour return from AOPA Expo in San Jose!) posed that we move the airplane to Penn ASAP before the weather went bad. I agreed.

So I fired up my Bonanza at about 4 p.m. and flew in formation with Dave up to Brandywine–about a 35-minute flight. Minutes after landing there, we were southwest bound back to Frederick in the Bonanza, landing at FDK at about 5:45 p.m. after a glorious night flight.

Google Maps shows that driving the trip would take more than 2.5 hours each way, including a circuitous journey around Baltimore. So imagine if you needed something else done around Philadelphia and didn’t have access to an airplane. You’d need most of a business day to accomplish what we did in less than 2 hours.

Days later I’m still thinking, “How cool is that?”

What are your favorite uses for a GA airplane? Share them with us. And don’t forget to let non-pilots know about the Let’s Go Flying! web site where they can learn about the utility of GA flying. We shouldn’t keep this a secret.