Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

Flying Trains on Tracks

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

You can’t look at the emerging future of aviation without being interested in drones.  Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are going to explode in the coming years.  No matter what your area of focus – agriculture, power generation and exploration, wildlife management and protection, news gathering, law enforcement, military, personal entertainment,  etc., the list goes on and on – there’s a drone in your future.

I’ve been specifically looking at drones lately for a specific project (that I’ll mention in a later post), and I’m impressed with the options and versatility of what is available for things like fighting poachers in Africa, just as a starter.

There are a host of small, model-aircraft-like platforms with very sophisticated sensor packages and GPS-based capabilities – most a byproduct of military development – that start around US$ 10,000 and go up from there.  The sky is literally the limit.

In this case, the limit may well be the concept that the folks at Biosphere, LLC and their Dorsal drone air freighter project.  This is really quite intriguing.  They have a number of models on the drawing boards, starting with their Quad aircraft (shown below) that is designed to establish a new commerce transportation bridge across oceans. Quad

This is an all-cargo, unpressurized aircraft with standardized containers that become an integral part of the structure of the aircraft.  It will have a 362,000 pound useful load capacity and a range of 8,400 nm.

With people removed from the aircraft, it can now fly in the most fuel efficient method, which usually means slower and lower altitudes resulting lower fuel costs.· In addition, weird looking heavy load configurations are possible as there would be no people on board requiring aesthetic design and noise reduction considerations.· McDonnell Douglas once had a program testing an unducted prop fan.· Even though it showed potential of having fuel savings of 30% or more, it was never pursued because the cabin noise would have been higher and it needed to fly slower than other jet aircraft.

Smart ‘load sensing’ containers are equipped with interlocks which connect together to become a structural load carrying component of the airframe. In commercial transport this could result in twice the payload delivered for the same amount of fuel.pic2

World trade today is standardized on Intermodal containers that can be shipped via cargo ships, trains, and trucks.  However, aircraft systems have developed their own LD containers and pallet systems, primarily because if they carried containers, the container weight would reduce the overall payload the aircraft is able to carry.  With today’s fuel costs, the drive to go to extremes to eliminate weight can be seen with the costs of developing new lighter systems such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 aircraft.

Re-purposing unmanned military aircraft is as simple as changing the Dorsal Pods (containers).  Logistics supply, mid-air fuel tanker, attack platform and more -  all with the same single drone airframe.

An interesting aspect of the concept is that it will only fly over the oceans from new, dedicated intermodal airfields near the coasts that connect the fleet with trains and trucks. In flight these giant drones will operate like trains on tracks – flying standard oceanic tracks on given schedules, just like flying trains.

Watch this short video on their commercial trans-oceanic drone concept.  Rather interesting.

Why mention this big commercial aircraft in a GA blog? Well, it is a clear indication of the present direction to the future of GA.

Tell me, in five years if these folks have got this kind of platform functioning, that the success, technology and principles of operation won’t very quickly percolate down to GA design . . . and even operation.  It would be very hard to develop a new aircraft in this environment that didn’t begin to integrate some of these innovations.

This is just the high end of a very rapidly moving trend that will obviously change the role and operation of GA aircraft in the not too distant future.

What Makes an Engine Airworthy?

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

If we’re going to disregard manufacturer’s TBO (as I have advocated in earlier blog posts), how do we assess whether a piston aircraft engine continues to be airworthy and when it’s time to do an on-condition top or major overhaul? Compression tests and oil consumption are part of the story, but a much smaller part than most owners and mechanics think.

Bob Moseley

James Robert “Bob” Moseley (1948-2011)

My late friend Bob Moseley was far too humble to call himself a guru, but he knew as much about piston aircraft engines as anyone I’ve ever met. That’s not surprising because he overhauled Continental and Lycoming engines for four decades; there’s not much about these engines that he hadn’t seen, done, and learned.

From 1993 and 1998, “Mose” (as his friends called him) worked for Continental Motors as a field technical representative. He was an airframe and powerplant mechanic (A&P) with inspection authorization (IA) and a FAA-designated airworthiness representative (DAR). He was generous to a fault when it came to sharing his expertise. In that vein, he was a frequent presenter at annual IA renewal seminars.

Which Engine Is Airworthy?

During these seminars, Mose would often challenge a roomful of hundreds of A&P/IA mechanics with a hypothetical scenario that went something like this:

Four good-looking fellows, coincidentally all named Bob, are hanging out at the local Starbucks near the airport one morning, enjoying their usual cappuccinos and biscotti. Remarkably enough, all four Bobs own identical Bonanzas, all with Continental IO-550 engines. Even more remarkable, all four engines have identical calendar times and operating hours.

While sipping their overpriced coffees, the four Bobs start comparing notes. Bob One brags that his engine only uses one quart of oil between 50-hour oil changes, and his compressions are all 75/80 or better. Bob Two says his engine uses a quart every 18 hours, and his compressions are in the low 60s. Bob Three says his engine uses a quart every 8 hours and his compressions are in the high 50s. Bob Four says his compressions are in the low 50s and he adds a quart every 4 hours.

Who has the most airworthy engine? And why?

Compression/Oil Level

Don’t place too much emphasis on compression test readings as a measure of engine airworthiness. An engine can have low compression readings while continuing to run smoothly and reliably and make full power to TBO and beyond. Oil consumption is an even less important factor. As long as you don’t run out of oil before you run out of fuel, you’re fine.

This invariably provoked a vigorous discussion among the IAs. One faction typically thought that Bob One’s engine was best. Another usually opined that Bobs Two and Three had the best engines, and that the ultra-low oil consumption of Bob One’s engine was indicative of insufficient upper cylinder lubrication and a likely precursor to premature cylinder wear. All the IAs agreed Bob Four’s was worst.

Mose took the position that with nothing more than the given information about compression readings and oil consumption, he considered all four engines equally airworthy. While many people think that ultra-low oil consumption may correlate with accelerated cylinder wear, Continental’s research doesn’t bear this out, and Mose knew of some engines that went to TBO with very low oil consumption all the way to the end.

While the low compressions and high oil consumption of Bob Four’s engine might suggest impending cylinder problems, Mose said that in his experience engines that exhibit a drop in compression and increase in oil consumption after several hundred hours may still make TBO without cylinder replacement. “There’s a Twin Bonanza that I take care of, one of whose engines lost compression within the first 300 hours after overhaul,” Mose once told me. “The engine is now at 900 hours and the best cylinder measures around 48/80. But the powerplant is running smooth, making full rated power, no leaks, and showing all indications of being a happy engine. It has never had a cylinder off, and I see no reason it shouldn’t make TBO.”

Lesson of a Lawn Mower

To put these issues of compression and oil consumption in perspective, Mose liked to tell the story of an engine that was not from Continental or Lycoming but from Briggs & Stratton:

Snapper Lawnmower

If this one-cylinder engine can perform well while using a quart of oil an hour, surely an aircraft engine with 50 times the displacement can, too.

Years ago, I had a Snapper lawn mower with an 8 horsepower Briggs on it. I purchased it used, so I don’t know anything about its prior history. But it ran good, and I used and abused it for about four years, mowing three acres of very hilly, rough ground every summer.

The fifth year I owned this mower, the engine started using oil. By the end of the summer, it was using about 1/2 quart in two hours of mowing. If I wasn’t careful, I could run out of oil before I ran out of gas, because the sump only held about a quart when full. The engine still ran great, mowed like new, although it did smoke a little each time I started it.

The sixth year, things got progressively worse, just as you might expect. By the end of the summer, it was obvious that this engine was getting really tired. It still ran okay, would pull the hills, and would mow at the same speed if the grass wasn’t too tall. But it got to the point that it was using a quart of oil every hour, and was becoming quite difficult to start. The compression during start was so low (essentially nil) that sometimes I had to spray ether into the carb to get the engine to start. It also started leaking combustion gases around the head bolts, and would blow bubbles if I sprayed soapy water on the head while it was running. In fact, the mower became somewhat useful as a fogger for controlling mosquitoes. But it still made power and would only foul its spark plug a couple of times during the season when things got really bad.

Now keep in mind that this engine was rated at just 8 horsepower and had just one cylinder with displacement roughly the size of a coffee cup, was using one quart of oil per hour, and had zilch compression. Compare that to an IO-550 with six cylinders, each with a 5.25-inch bore. Do you suppose that oil consumption of one quart per hour or compression of 40/80 would have any measurable effect on an IO-550’s power output or reliability—in other words, its airworthiness? Not likely.

In fact, Continental Motors actually ran a dynamometer test on an IO-550 whose compression ring gaps had been filed oversize to intentionally reduce compression on all cylinders to 40/80, and it made full rated power.

Common Sense 101Let’s Use Common Sense

I really like Mose’s commonsense approach to aircraft engines. Whether we’re owners or mechanics (or both), we would do well to avoid getting preoccupied with arbitrary measurements like compression readings and oil consumption that have relatively little correlation with true airworthiness.

Instead, we should focus on the stuff that’s really important: Is the engine “making metal”? Are there any cracks in the cylinder heads or crankcase? Any exhaust leaks, fuel leaks, or serious oil leaks? Most importantly, does the engine seem to be running rough or falling short of making full rated power?

If the answer to all of those questions is no, then we can be reasonably sure that our engine is airworthy and we can fly behind it with well-deserved confidence.

On-Condition Maintenance

The smart way to deal with engine maintenance—including deciding when to overhaul—is to do it “on-condition” rather than on a fixed timetable. This means that we use all available condition-monitoring tools to monitor the engine’s health, and let the engine itself tell us when maintenance is required. This is how the airlines and military have been doing it for decades.

Digital borescope (Adrian Eichhorn)

Digital borescopes and digital engine monitors have revolutionized piston aircraft engine condition monitoring.

For our piston aircraft engines, we have a marvelous multiplicity of condition-monitoring tools at our disposal. They include:

  • Oil filter visual inspection
  • Oil filter scanning electron microscopy (SEM)
  • Spectrographic oil analysis programs (SOAP)
  • Digital engine monitor data analysis
  • Borescope inspection
  • Differential compression test
  • Visual crankcase inspection
  • Visual cylinder head inspection
  • Oil consumption trend analysis
  • Oil pressure trend analysis

If we use all these tools on an appropriately frequent basis and understand how to interpret the results, we can be confident that we know whether the engine is healthy or not—and if not, what kind of maintenance action is necessary to restore it to health.

The moment you abandon the TBO concept and decide to make your maintenance decisions on-condition, you take on an obligation to use these tools—all of them—and pay close attention to what they’re telling you. Unfortunately, many owners and mechanics don’t understand how to use these tools appropriately or to interpret the results properly.

When Is It Time to Overhaul?

It takes something pretty serious before it’s time to send the engine off to an engine shop for teardown—or to replace it with an exchange engine. Here’s a list of the sort of findings that would prompt me to recommend that “the time has come”:

Lycoming cam and lifter

Badly damaged cam lobe found during cylinder removal. “It’s time!”

  • An unacceptably large quantity of visible metal in the oil filter; unless the quantity is very large, we’ll often wait until we’ve seen metal in the filter for several shortened oil-change intervals.
  • A crankcase crack that exceeds acceptable limits, particularly if it’s leaking oil.
  • A serious oil leak (e.g., at the crankcase parting seam) that cannot be corrected without splitting the case.
  • An obviously unairworthy condition observed via direct visual inspection (e.g., a bad cam lobe observed during cylinder or lifter removal).
  • A prop strike, serious overspeed, or other similar event that clearly requires a teardown inspection in accordance with engine manufacturer’s guidance.

Avoid getting preoccupied with compression readings and oil consumption that have relatively little correlation with true airworthiness. Ignore published TBO (a thoroughly discredited concept), maintain your engine on-condition, make sure you use all the available condition-monitoring tools, make sure you know how to interpret the results (or consult with someone who does), and don’t overreact to a single bad oil report or a little metal in the filter.

Using this reliability-centered approach to engine maintenance, my Savvy team and I have helped hundreds of  aircraft owners obtain the maximum useful life from their engines, saving them a great deal of money, downtime and hassle. And we haven’t had one fall out of the sky yet.

Get Excited!

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014
Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

So, OK – how do you feel now?

Try this:

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Feel better?

Want a little more?

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

How about this: electric/jet, 120 miles, 100 mph, 2500 ft., 550 kts, 38,000 ft., 700-1000 miles @ max gross?

Can you take one more?

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Wait! You’re overheating. You need to cool down. Take this: 4 years, $3-5 million. Hooked? Here’s more.

Editor’s note: AOPA reached out to Greg Brown, one of the men behind the project, who offered some exclusive information about the craft’s expected performance and comfort: “Compared to a traditional business jet, the GF7 will fly as fast in the air with all the comforts and luxury of a high end sedan, and then save between 10 – 20 minutes interfacing with the airport for each leg, as well as reduce the need to coordinate with multiple entities at each destination. For a business jet to save 10 minutes on a 300 mile leg it would have to cruise faster than the speed of sound. Depending on the state, half to a third of public airports do not offer ground transportation. But, with the GF7 operators can drive off any airfield in a vehicle with high end comfort and road performance rivaling many cars. The GF7 advantage is convenience, speed, and flexibility.”

Why Returning To The “Golden Age of Aviation” Is A Terrible Future

Monday, June 16th, 2014

pilot

Here’s a Private Pilot, circa 1930. (photo credit: James Crookall)

I’m not a big fan of nostalgia. Here’s why:

The Golden Age of Aviation” was a time when the only people who flew themselves in an airplane were titans of industry, movie stars, or crazy people.

The aviation industry is on course to revert back to the 1930′s. This is bad, bad, news, because if you look at what aviation was like back between the world wars, it was a terrible time.

Folks in our community complain about how private aviation is circling the drain, that it’s a lost cause. I refuse to believe that. We just have too many things going for us. I believe the future of private aviation is viable, as long as we stop trying to relive the past.

The first few chapters of the book, “Free Flight,” by James Fallows, pretty much lit my brain on fire. It remains one of the best, most objective, primers on the state of aviation in America. The rest of the book focuses on the trajectory of both Cirrus and Eclipse and their attempts to disrupt and reinvent air travel in the last decade.

Fallows nails it when he explains that there are two kinds of people. There are “the Enthusiasts,” (You, me, and most anyone reading this.) and “the Civilians.” (everyone else.)

On Enthusiasts
“…The typical gathering of pilots is like a RV or hot rod–enthusiasts’s club. People have grease under their fingernails. The aircraft business is littered with stories of start-up companies that failed. One important reason is that, as with wineries or small country inns or literary magazines, people have tried to start businesses because they loved the activity, not because they necessarily had a good business plan.”

On Civilians
“Civilians–mean most of the rest of us– view airplanes not as fascinating objects but as transportation. Planes are better than cars, buses, or trains to the extent that they are faster. Over the last generation, most civilians have learned to assume that large airliners nearly always take off and land safely. …From the civilian perspective, the bigger the plane, the better. Most civilians view people who fly small planes the way I view people who bungee-jump or climb Mount Everest; they are nuts.”

James Fallows, “Free Flight, Inventing the future of Travel

Fallows calmly explains how travel for most of us has gotten worse, not better in the last 30 years. He stresses that the hub and spoke system adopted by the airlines post deregulation has contributed to the misery. He cites former NASA administrator Daniel Golden, who noted in 1998 that the average speed door to door traveling on commercial airlines had sunk to only around fifty or sixty miles an hour.

The book concisely charts how we got into this fine mess. He compares how air travel works today to that of the world before automobiles. In the last generation, the airlines have benefited the most from investment in development and infrastructure. Today we pack most people onto what may as well be very fast train lines that go from major metro to major metro. Cornelius Vanderbilt would be so proud.

The other side of the coin is what General Aviation has evolved to for the folks who have the means to fly private jets. The industry has done a fabulous job of responding to the needs of the very small percentage of us who can afford to operate or charter turbine aircraft. This equipment flies higher and faster than most airliners, and can get people to small airports much closer to almost any destination. Fallows shows how this is analogous to travel by limousine. Remember, when cars first appeared on the road, they were considered too complicated and too dangerous for mere mortals to operate. Anyone who could afford one, hired a professional driver. I’m sure Andrew Carnegie was chauffeured from point to point too.

So for the most part, we have trains and limousines. It’s like some bizarre alternate history world where Henry Ford never brought us the automobile.

I refuse to believe that we’re simply on the wrong side of history here.

It’s actually a pretty great time to be a pilot. The equipment has never been more reliable, the tools keep making it easier, and the value proposition keeps getting more compelling compared to other modes of travel when you note that moving about the country on the airlines or the highways keeps slowing down due to congestion. For the first time in history, for most of us the country is no longer growing smaller. It’s getting bigger.

A few examples of what excites me about the future of aviation, and what I hope can prove to be disrupters looking forward…

  • ICON A5 – A 2 seat jet ski with wings that you can tow behind your pickup.
  • Cirrus Vision SF50 – 5 Seats, single jet engine, it’s going to define a completely new category for very light jets. I imagine it to be like a Tesla and an iPad mashed together in one 300 knot machine.
  • Whatever it is that Elon Musk builds next – please, please, please, let it be a flying car.

The future is bright, as long as we don’t go backwards.

Fly By Mind

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

In previous posts here I’ve suggested that one of the big problems with the future of flying is that it is too hard to learn how to fly an airplane.  Pilots today are manually controlling the same elevator-aileron-rudder combination like Lindbergh did when he was flying in the early 1920s, and mastering the control of three dimensions is not intuitive. Getting the mind and body to work in the right way to keep from crashing takes a lot of work and money and presents a significant barrier to entry to aspiring aviators.

FlyByMind1The solution to this problem is obvious.  Make all new airplanes fly-by-wire and drive the controls with a computer . . . which can be programmed to convert any new and easier pilot input scheme into appropriate control surface outputs.  The inputs could be almost anything – including, it is now clear, your mind.

In late May researchers from Technische Universität München in Germany described the emergence of a new paradigm. In part they said:

The pilot is wearing a white cap with myriad attached cables. His gaze is concentrated on the runway ahead of him. All of a sudden the control stick starts to move, as if by magic. The airplane banks and then approaches straight on towards the runway. The position of the plane is corrected time and again until the landing gear gently touches down. During the entire maneuver the pilot touches neither pedals nor controls.

FlyByMind2This is not a scene from a science fiction movie, but rather the rendition of a test at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of the Technische Universität München (TUM). Scientists working for Professor Florian Holzapfel are researching ways in which brain controlled flight might work in the EU-funded project “Brainflight”.

I’ve tried to make it clear that we are on the verge of an unprecedented revolution in aviation, driven and supported by information technology.  We’re talking things much more than glass panels and things like that that, which although new, would look familiar.  This revolution is being described by the convergence of a number of breakthroughs, some of which (like mind control of the aircraft), seem very foreign how we think of flying and airplanes.

Many big breakthroughs in display and computer interface technologies get their start in the gaming and entertainment sectors.  Here demands for lifelike, high resolution presentations (think of the 3D film Avatar), compete with compellingly immersive virtual reality goggles and new, more intuitive input-output device.  Early computer thought control approaches showed up first in the gaming space. Now it is spreading to aviation.

FlyByMind3The gaming (and now Facebook) world has also produced another breakthrough product that is certain to change how we fly . . . and everything else.  The cover of the present issue of WIRED characterizes it thus:

This kid (21-year-old inventor Palmer Luckey), is about to change gaming, movies, TV, music, design, medicine, sex, sports, art, travel, social networking, education – and reality.  The Oculus Rift is here, and it will blow your mind.

Oculus is talking about a set of virtual reality goggles that: “. . . creates a stereoscopic 3D view with excellent depth, scale, and parallax. Unlike 3D on a television or in a movie, this is achieved by presenting unique and parallel images for each eye. This is the same way your eyes perceive images in the real world, creating a much more natural and comfortable experience.”

The WIRED article explains why Facebook paid $2 billion for this little start-up with two dozen employees a couple of months ago and why it represents a paradigm shift that will obviously change the whole idea of IFR flying.  Just think of putting on your Oculus Rift and making all of the weather disappear.  Drop it over your eyes and there’s a new augmented reality world that has every bit of information available from every database you select superimposed in front of your field of view.

Couple that with only needing to “think” about what you want to do and where you want to go and you’ve clearly got a new world out there.

Happy Birthday Garmin G1000 – 10 Years

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

G1000 Birthday Cake 10th AnniversaryCongratulations to Garmin on introducing the G1000 ten years ago. I bet most readers are surprised that this wildly successful glass cockpit has been around so long. If you still haven’t flown one of these fun systems yet, don’t let another ten years slip by before you do!

A Brief History
Rarely in the last fifty years has General Aviation experienced such a tidal wave of change. In only two years, the industry converted nearly 100% of piston aircraft shipments from round gauges to glass cockpits. And for the first time, it meant that a student pilot could learn behind the same glass panel that he or she might later use in a jet!

Cirrus and Avidyne led the revolution in 2003 by adding a PFD (Primary Flight Display) to the MFD (Multifunction Display) that already shipped in the SR20 and SR22. That glass cockpit system, the Avidyne Entegra had its greatest success at Cirrus until the Cirrus Perspective, a G1000 derivative, debuted in the SR22 in May 2008.

The Garmin G1000 was first shipped in a Diamond DA40 in June 2004. Meanwhile, in Independence, Kansas, nearly completed Cessna 182’s were filling the ramp as the factory awaited their G1000 deliveries. The first Cessna 182/G1000s were delivered in July 2004 and 172s began shipping with the G1000 in early 2005.

By mid-2005, five aircraft OEMs including Cessna, Diamond, Beechcraft, Mooney, and Tiger announced shipment of the Garmin G1000 in most of their piston aircraft. Columbia, which previously offered the Avidyne Entegra in their 350 and 400 aircraft, converted to the G1000 in early 2006, though not without a major problem from Mother Nature. Nearly 50 new Columbias were parked outside the factory, all awaiting delivery of G1000 systems, when a freak hailstorm pelted the planes. Months were spent quantifying the damage and determining how and if to repair the composite wings, which had hundreds of micro dents from the hail.

The Revolution
Reading or hearing about a glass cockpit for the first time is akin to reading or hearing about EAA’s AirVenture at Oshkosh. Until you actually experience it, it’s hard to imagine just how great it is and how much it will exceed your expectations.

I was initially skeptical when I read magazine reports about the then new G1000. I’d spent 25 years working in the high technology industry, where occasionally I saw technology thrown at problems that could have been solved in simpler ways. So when I first read about the G1000, I recall thinking “What a waste of a computer,” to install one in the instrument panel of a GA aircraft. How wrong I was.

By early 2005, curiosity led me to get an hour of dual instruction in a G1000-equipped Cessna 182. Immediately I knew it was different, but I didn’t want to rush to judgment until I’d had time to reflect on the experience.

I wrote about my conclusion in Max Trescott’s Garmin G1000 and Perspective Glass Cockpit Handbook

“The single biggest benefit of the G1000 and Perspective, compared to competitive products, is that it allows you to aviate, navigate and communicate from a single 10-inch or 12-inch display. In contrast, competitive products have pilots looking in multiple places to see data and reaching in multiple places to operate controls.”

Having your eyes near the primary flight instruments all the time reduces the odds of entering an unusual attitude while tuning a radio or entering a GPS flight plan. Plus, the 10-inch wide artificial horizon is far superior to the 2-inch airplane symbol found in most round gauge attitude indicators. But that’s just the beginning. Glass cockpit aircraft contain many safety features, like traffic, terrain, and weather information that have the potential to reduce accidents when pilots are trained in their use and use them properly.

Glass cockpits have also changed the paradigm for avionics. Historically, avionics stayed on the market for many years with few changes until entirely new models replaced them. Quoting again from my G1000 Book, “The G1000 system clearly breaks this paradigm. First, with two large software-driven displays, new features can be continually be added to the G1000 in far less time than it took to design, manufacture, and release traditional avionics…The Ethernet bus architecture also makes it easy for new devices to be designed and connected to the G1000.”

But if engineering school taught me anything, it was that there are tradeoffs in every design decision. Today’s new computer and software-based avionics, as good as they are, occasionally suffer from the same woes seen in the computer world. For example, one time a Columbia 400 equipped with TAS, an active traffic system, came back from maintenance with TIS, a less capable traffic system. It turned out the maintenance personnel forgot to reload the software for the TAS system, so it effectively disappeared!

The Future
So where are we headed? Undoubtedly, Garmin will pack a few more new features into the G1000 and Perspective through software upgrades and possibly more hardware additions. So existing owners can expect some new features. Eventually the speeds of the now ten-year old processors will limit upgradability. But it is a modular architecture, so Garmin might in the future offer new hardware modules to provide G1000 and Perspective owners with an upgrade path that adds robust new features.

The G1000 and Perspective may appear in a few more aircraft types, possibly as retrofits to older turbine and jet aircraft and perhaps in a few new aircraft types. But Garmin now offers the G2000, G3000, and G5000 on the high end and the G300 on the low end, so that keeps the Garmin G1000 from moving up or down into these markets. I don’t expect to see the G1000 being retrofitted into many older single engine piston aircraft. With the average age of the GA fleet approaching 40 years, the cost of the upgrade would exceed the value of most of these planes, so the market opportunity is too small for Garmin to pursue. However these older aircraft are an excellent target market for partial glass cockpit upgrades using solution like Aspen Avionics and portable iPad solutions.

Of course someday the G1000 will be replaced with something new. The workhorse Garmin 430 shipped for about 14 years. But the G1000 is more upgradeable, so it could conceivably have a longer product life cycle. And there’s always the possibility that Bendix/King, or another competitor, could introduce a new product that replaces the G1000 in a future refresh of new aircraft cockpits.

The impact of the G1000 and other glass cockpits cannot be overstated. For years, airline pilots told me the G1000 “was better than what I have in the airliner I fly.” But sadly, glass cockpit-equipped aircraft are still a small fraction of the overall GA fleet, partially because of the slowdown in new aircraft sales since the 2008 recession. Most pilots still aren’t flying in them and thus aren’t benefiting from their safety advantages.

So on the tenth birthday of the G1000, we should thank Avidyne and Cirrus for starting the glass cockpit revolution in GA aircraft, and thank Garmin and Cessna for making it such a widespread phenomena. Kudos to all of these companies for their great work! Now let’s get started on the next revolution in General Aviation…What do you think it will be?

Quest for a TBO-Free Engine

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

“It just makes no sense,” Jimmy told me, the frustration evident in his voice. “It’s unfair. How can they do this?”

Jimmy Tubbs, ECi’s legendary VP of Engineering

Jimmy Tubbs, ECi’s legendary VP of Engineering

I was on the phone with my friend Jimmy Tubbs, the legendary Vice President of Engineering for Engine Components Inc. (ECi) in San Antonio, Texas. ECi began its life in the 1940s as a cylinder electroplating firm and grew to dominate that business. Starting in the mid-1970s and accelerating in the late 1990s—largely under Jimmy’s technical stewardship—the company transformed itself into one of the two major manufacturers of new FAA/PMA engine parts for Continental, Lycoming and Pratt & Whitney engines (along with its rival Superior Air Parts).

By the mid-2000s, ECi had FAA approval to manufacture thousands of different PMA-approved engine parts, including virtually every component of four-cylinder Lycoming 320- and 360-series engines (other than the Lycoming data plate). So the company decided to take the next logical step: building complete engines. ECi’s engine program began modestly with the company offering engines in kit form for the Experimental/Amateur-Built (E-AB) market. They opened an engine-build facility where homebuilders could assemble their own ECi “Lycoming-style” engines under expert guidance and supervision. Then in 2013, with more than 1,600 kit-built engines flying, ECi began delivering fully-built engines to the E-AB market under the “Titan Engines” brand name.

Catch 22, FAA-style

ECi’s Titan Exp experimental engine

A Titan engine for experimental airplanes.
What will it take to get the FAA to certify it?

Jimmy is now working on taking ECi’s Titan engine program to the next level by seeking FAA approval for these engines to be used in certificated aircraft. In theory, this ought to be relatively easy (as FAA certification efforts go) because the Titan engines are nearly identical in design to Lycoming 320 and 360 engines, and almost all the ECi-built parts are already PMA approved for use in Lycoming engines. In practice, nothing involving the FAA is as easy as it looks.

“They told me the FAA couldn’t approve an initial TBO for these engines longer than 1,000 hours,” Jimmy said to me with a sigh. He had just returned from a meeting with representatives from the FAA Aircraft Certification Office and the Engine & Propeller Directorate. “I explained that our engines are virtually identical in all critical design respects to Lycoming engines that have a 2,000-hour TBO, and that every critical part in our engines is PMA approved for use in those 2,000-hour engines.”

“But they said they could only approve a 1,000-hour TBO to begin with,” Jimmy continued, “and would consider incrementally increasing the TBO after the engines had proven themselves in the field. Problem is that nobody is going to buy one of our certified engines if it has only a 1,000-hour TBO, so the engines will never get to prove themselves. It makes no sense, Mike. It’s not reasonable. Not logical. Doesn’t seem fair.”

I certainly understood where Jimmy was coming from. But I also understood where the FAA was coming from.

A brief history of TBO

To quote a 1999 memorandum from the FAA Engine & Propeller Directorate:

The initial models of today’s horizontally opposed piston engines were certified in the late 1940s and 1950s. These engines initially entered service with recommended TBOs of 500 to 750 hours. Over the next 50 years, the designs of these engines have remained largely unchanged but the manufacturers have gradually increased their recommended TBOs for existing engine designs to intervals as long as 2,000 hours. FAA acceptance of these TBO increases was based on successful service, engineering design, and test experience. New engine designs, however, are still introduced with relatively short TBOs, in the range of 600 hours to 1,000 hours.

From the FAA’s perspective, ECi’s Titan engines are new engines, despite the fact that they are virtually clones of engines that have been flying for six decades, have a Lycoming-recommended TBO of 2,000 hours, and routinely make it to 4,000 or 5,000 hours between overhauls.

Is it any wonder we’re still flying behind engine technology designed in the ‘40s and ‘50s? If the FAA won’t grant a competitive TBO to a Lycoming clone, imagine the difficulties that would be faced by a company endeavoring to certify a new-technology engine. Catch 22.

Preparing for an engine test cell endurance run.

Incidentally, there’s a common misconception that engine TBOs are based on the results of endurance testing by the manufacturer. They aren’t. The regulations that govern certification of engines (FAR Part 33) require only that a new engine design be endurance tested for 150 hours in order to earn certification. Granted, the 150-hour endurance test is fairly brutal: About two-thirds of the 150 hours involves operating the engine at full takeoff power with CHT and oil temperature at red-line. (See FAR 33.49 for the gory details.) But once the engine survives its 150-hour endurance test, the FAA considers it good to go.

In essence, the only endurance testing for engine TBO occurs in the field. Whether we realize it or not, those of us who fly behind piston aircraft engines have been pressed into service as involuntary beta testers.

What about a TBO-free engine?

“Jimmy, this might be a bit radical” I said, “but where exactly in FAR Part 33 does it state that a certificated engine has to have a recommended TBO?” (I didn’t know the answer, but I was sure Jimmy had Part 33 committed to memory.)

“Actually, it doesn’t,” Jimmy answered. “The only place TBO is addressed at all is in FAR 33.19, where it says that ‘engine design and construction must minimize the development of an unsafe condition of the engine between overhaul periods.’ But nowhere in Part 33 does it say that any specific overhaul interval must be prescribed.”

“So you’re saying that engine TBO is a matter of tradition rather than a requirement of regulation?”

“I suppose so,” Jimmy admitted.

“Well then how about trying to certify your Titan engines without any TBO?” I suggested. “If you could pull that off, you’d change our world, and help drag piston aircraft engine maintenance kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”

An FAA-inspired roadmap

I pointed out to Jimmy that there was already a precedent for this in FAR Part 23, the portion of the FARs that governs the certification of normal, utility, aerobatic and commuter category airplanes. In essence, Part 23 is to non-transport airplanes what Part 33 is to engines. On the subject of airframe longevity, Part 23 prescribes an approach that struck me as being also appropriate for dealing with engine longevity.

Since 1993, Part 23 has required that an applicant for an airplane Type Certificate must provide the FAA with a longevity evaluation of metallic  wing, empennage and pressurized cabin structures. The applicant has the choice of three alternative methods for performing this evaluation. It’s up to the applicant to choose which of these methods to use:

  • “Safe-Life” —The applicant must define a “safe-life” (usually measured in either hours or cycles) after which the structure must be taken out of service. The safe-life is normally established by torture-testing the structure until it starts to fail, then dividing the time-to-failure by a safety factor (“scatter factor”) that is typically in the range of 3 to 5 to calculate the approved safe-life of the structure. For example, the Beech Baron 58TC wing structure has a life limit (safe-life) of 10,000 hours, after which the aircraft is grounded. This means that Beech probably had to torture-test the wing spar for at least 30,000 hours and demonstrate that it didn’t develop cracks.
  • “Fail-Safe” —The applicant must demonstrate that the structure has sufficient redundancy that it can still meet its ultimate strength requirements even after the complete failure of any one principal structural element. For example, a three-spar wing that can meet all certification requirements with any one of the three spars hacksawed in half would be considered fail-safe and would require no life limitation.
  • “Damage Tolerance” —The applicant must define a repetitive inspection program that can be shown with very high confidence to detect structural damage before catastrophic failure can occur. This inspection program must be incorporated into the Airworthiness Limitations section of the airplane’s Maintenance Manual or Instructions for Continued Airworthiness, and thereby becomes part of the aircraft’s certification basis.

If we were to translate these Part 23 (airplane) concepts to the universe of FAR Part 33 (engines):

  • Safe-life would be the direct analog of TBO; i.e., prescribing a fixed interval between overhauls.
  • Fail-safe would probably be impractical, because an engine that included enough redundancy to meet all certification requirements despite the failure of any principal structural element (e.g., a crankcase half, cylinder head or piston) would almost surely be too heavy.
  • Damage tolerance would be the direct analog of overhauling the engine strictly on-condition (based on a prescribed inspection program) with no fixed life limit. (This is precisely what I have been practicing and preaching for decades.)

How would it work?

SavvyAnalysis chart

Engine monitor data would be uploaded regularly to a central repository for analysis.

Jimmy and I have had several follow-on conversations about this, and he’s starting to draft a detailed proposal for an inspection protocol that we hope might be acceptable to the FAA as a basis of certifying the Titan engines on the basis of damage tolerance and eliminate the need for any recommended TBO. This is still very much a work-in-progress, but here are some of the thoughts we have so far:

  • The engine installation would be required to include a digital engine monitor that records EGTs and CHTs for each cylinder plus various other critical engine parameters (e.g., oil pressure and temperature, fuel flow, RPM). The engine monitor data memory would be required to be dumped on a regular basis and uploaded via the Internet to a central repository prescribed by ECi for analysis. The uploaded data would be scanned automatically by software for evidence of abnormalities like high CHTs, low fuel flow, failing exhaust valves, non-firing spark plugs, improper ignition timing, clogged fuel nozzles, detonation and pre-ignition. The data would also be available online for analysis by mechanics and ECi technical specialists.
  • At each oil-change interval, the following would be required: (1) An oil sample would be taken for spectrographic analysis (SOAP) by a designated laboratory, and a copy of the SOAP reports would be transmitted electronically to ECi; and (2) The oil filter would be cut open for inspection, digital photos of the filter media would be taken, when appropriate the filter media would be sent for scanning electron microscope (SEM) evaluation by a designated laboratory, and the media photos and SEM reports would be transmitted electronically to ECi.
  • At each annual or 100-hour inspection, the following would be required: (1) Each cylinder would undergo a borescope inspection of the valves, cylinder bores and piston crowns using a borescope capable of capturing digital images, and the borescope images would be transmitted electronically to ECi; (2) Each cylinder rocker cover would be removed and digital photographs of the visible valve train components would be transmitted electronically to ECi; (3) The spark plugs would be removed for cleaning/gapping/rotation, and digital photographs of the electrode ends of the spark plugs would be taken and transmitted electronically to ECi; and (4) Each cylinder would undergo a hot compression test and the test results be transmitted electronically to ECi.

The details still need to be ironed out, but you get the drift. If such a protocol were implemented for these engines (and blessed by the FAA), ECi would have the ability to keep very close tabs on the mechanical condition and operating parameters of each its engines—something that no piston aircraft engine manufacturer has ever been able to do before—and provide advice to each individual Titan engine owner about when each individual engine is in need of an overhaul, teardown inspection, cylinder replacement, etc.

Jimmy even thinks that if such a protocol could be implemented and approved, ECi might even be in a position to offer a warranty for these engines far beyond what engine manufacturers and overhaul shops have been able to offer in the past. That would be frosting on the cake.

I’ve got my fingers, toes and eyes crossed that the FAA will go along with this idea of an engine certified on the basis of damage tolerance rather than safe-life. It would be a total game-changer, a long overdue nail in the coffin of the whole misguided notion that fixed-interval TBOs for aircraft engines make sense. And if ECi succeeds in getting its Titan engine certified on the basis of condition monitoring rather than fixed TBO, maybe Continental and Lycoming might jump on the overhaul-on-condition bandwagon. Wouldn’t that be something?

The end of ice?

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

I don’t know about you, but for me, the rapid buildup of ice on an airplane in flight (next to an engine failure, I suppose), is one of the most attention-getting events in aviation. Like the upcoming ground seen from behind a very slowly turning (and silent) prop blade, the more the ice builds up, the more the mind congers up an invisible brick wall, rapidly getting closer and closer.

A lot of effort over the years has gone into trying to get rid of ice sticking on airplane parts. Early approaches were mechanical, with pneumatically activated leading edge boots, then came weeping wings, heated surfaces and electrostatic systems—all designed to break the bond between the ice and the structural material.

One of the things I mention in the talks that I give around the country about the future of aviation is the extraordinary science and technology breakthroughs that are piling on top of each other to produce the accelerating, exponential change that will reconfigure all aspects of our lives. Out of the innumerable examples of gobsmacking (as the Brits put it) inventions that contribute to this unprecedented shift are a couple new products that point to the possible elimination of the issue of ice in aviation.

LiquiGlideThe first is LiquiGlide, designed by a MIT PhD candidate (he quit school to run the company), which makes surfaces so slick that liquids don’t stick to them. Check out the video on the right. The company suggests that ice on aircraft wings behave the same way as liquid water and therefore will not stick. The presumption is, as I understand it, that the rain is liquid until it hits the surface and then freezes. LiquiGlide advertises aviation anti-icing as one of their industrial applications so it’s likely that commercial applications will be out in the not too distant future.

You can’t get samples of LiquiGlide to try on your airplane, but there’s NeverWet, another hydrophobic coating that advertises anti-icing characteristics that you can try. The video on the left shows a test of coated and uncoated electrical insulators in a freezing rain situation. NeverWet has teamed up with Rust-Oleum to produce a two-part spray product that can be bought at major home improvement stores.

I mention this because AOPA Pilot’s Dave Hirschman told me back in January that he had sprayed this stuff on one wing of his airplane, drove it into an icing environment and watched with pleasure when the uncoated wing acquired ice and the coated one didn’t. Not a scientific study, but it showed that the basic claims appear to be true. Both companies say that their coatings are very durable and only if it is scratched is the underlying surface vulnerable to ice. Interesting stuff.

If you happen to be in the Phoenix area and would like to hear a very wide-ranging review of new things that will revolutionize flying, I’m giving a keynote presentation in the near future in Phoenix opening the Aviation Insurance Association annual meeting on May 5. If you’re there, come by and say hi.

Lindbergh and Embry-Riddle Team up on Electric Flight

Monday, April 28th, 2014

That is, Lindbergh and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) are teaming up to research and develop electric light aircraft if the FAA will come around on its recent proposal to practically exclude electric powered aircraft completely from the general aviation experience (see report from AOPA by clicking here) in the U.S. It’s an odd restriction, given the push for more sustainable and affordable propulsion technologies going on in general aviation around the world.

Need proof? Take a look at the excellent reporting on the recent Aero Friedrichshafen air show, held annually in Friedrichshafen, Germany. If you want to see aircraft teetering on the bleeding edge of alternative energy propulsion, that is the place to go.

Lindbergh flies the E-Spyder

Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh, tapped into that energy years ago because it dovetailed nicely with the green emphasis of his family’s foundation, the Lindbergh Foundation. Yet, his Powering Imagination initiative takes a new step.

“It is critical to create a sustainable future for aviation,” he said, announcing the new program. “Emissions and noise are issues that are causing increasing restrictions on aviation around the world. Solving these challenges will ensure that future generations can share our dreams of flight.”

ERAU’s Professor Pat Anderson, Director of the Eagle Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle and his students have been working on green flight for years in their Green Flight Program, so the new alliance is a natural for them. They’ve had experience with both a Swiftfuel powered Piper and an electric and solar powered Stemme.

The students and faculty at the ERAU Daytona Beach, Florida campus plan to swap the piston-engine in a Diamond HK36 motorglider to electric power and test it in noise-sensitive areas to demonstrate the potential benefits of electric or hybrid-electric propulsion for significantly reducing noise. The aircraft, which they expect will fly in mid-2015, will also be used for testing new components of electric engines under real-world flight conditions. This airborne test lab will enable more efficient R&D on electric power systems.

In 2016 Lindbergh plans to follow in the footsteps of his grandparents, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, by retracing their 1931 adventure across the United States, Canada, Siberia, Japan, and China, covering 8,000 nautical miles in a modern floatplane powered by alternative fuels.

It’s a wonderful plan, but first we need to make sure that electric powered and hybrid powered aircraft can do more than just be flying testbeds in the U.S.!

Do Piston Engine TBOs Make Sense?

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Last month, I discussed the pioneering work on Reliability-Centered Maintenance (RCM) done by United Airlines scientists Stan Nowlan and Howard Heap in the 1960s, and I bemoaned the fact that RCM has not trickled down the aviation food chain to piston GA. Even in the 21st century, maintenance of piston aircraft remains largely time-based rather than condition-based.

mfr_logo_montageMost owners of piston GA aircraft dutifully overhaul their engines at TBO, overhaul their propellers every 5 to 7 years, and replace their alternators and vacuum pumps every 500 hours just as Continental, Lycoming, Hartzell, McCauley, HET and Parker Aerospace call for. Many Bonanza and Baron owners have their wing bolts pulled every five years, and most Cirrus owners have their batteries replaced every two years for no good reason (other than that it’s in the manufacturer’s maintenance manual).

Despite an overwhelming body of scientific research demonstrating that this sort of 1950s-vintage time-based preventive maintenance is counterproductive, worthless, unnecessary, wasteful and incredibly costly, we’re still doing it. Why?

Mostly, I think, because of fear of litigation. The manufacturers are afraid to change anything for fear of being sued (because if they change anything, that could be construed to mean that what they were doing before was wrong). Our shops and mechanics are afraid to deviate from what the manufacturers recommend for fear of being sued (because they deviated from manufacturers’ guidance).

Let’s face it: Neither the manufacturers nor the maintainers have any real incentive to change. The cost of doing all this counterproductive, worthless, unnecessary and wasteful preventive maintenance (that actually doesn’t prevent anything) is not coming out of their pockets. Actually, it’s going into their pockets.

If we’re going to drag piston GA maintenance kicking and screaming into the 21st century (or at least out of the 1950s and into the 1960s), it’s going to have to be aircraft owners who force the change. Owners are the ones with the incentive to change the way things are being done. Owners are the ones who can exert power over the manufacturers and maintainers by voting with their feet and their credit cards.

For this to happen, owners of piston GA aircraft need to understand the right way to do maintenance—the RCM way. Then they need to direct their shops and mechanics to maintain their aircraft that way, or take their maintenance business to someone who will. This means that owners need both knowledge and courage. Providing aircraft owners both of these things is precisely why I’m contributing to this AOPA Opinion Leaders Blog.

When are piston aircraft engines most likely to hurt you?

Fifty years ago, RCM researches proved conclusively that overhauling turbine engines at a fixed TBO is counterproductive, and that engine overhauls should be done strictly on-condition. But how can we be sure that his also applies to piston aircraft engines?

In a perfect world, Continental and Lycoming would study this issue and publish their findings. But for reasons mentioned earlier, this ain’t gonna happen. Continental and Lycoming have consistently refused to release any data on engine failure history of their engines, and likewise have consistently refused to explain how they arrive at the TBOs that they publish. For years, one aggressive plaintiff lawyer after another have tried to compel Continental and Lycoming to answer these questions in court. All have failed miserably.

So if we’re going to get answers to these critical questions, we’re going to have to rely on engine failure data that we can get our hands on. The most obvious source of such data is the NTSB accident database. That’s precisely what brilliant mechanical engineer Nathan T. Ulrich Ph.D. of Lee NH did in 2007. (Dr. Ulrich also was a US Coast Guard Auxiliary pilot who was unhappy that USCGA policy forbade him from flying volunteer search-and-rescue missions if his Bonanza’s engine was past TBO.)

Dr. Ulrich analyzed five years’ worth of NTSB accident data for the period 2001-2005 inclusive, examining all accidents involving small piston-powered airplanes (under 12,500 lbs. gross weight) for which the NTSB identified “engine failure” as either the probable cause or a contributing factor. From this population of accidents, Dr. Ulrich eliminated those involving air-race and agricultural-application aircraft. Then he analyzed the relationship between the frequency of engine-failure accidents and the number of hours on the engine since it was last built, rebuilt or overhauled. He did a similar analysis based on the calendar age of the engine since it  was last built, rebuilt or overhauled. The following histograms show the results of his study:

Ulrich study (hours)

Ulrich study (years)

If these histograms have a vaguely familiar look, it might be because they look an awful lot like the histograms generated by British scientist C.H. Waddington in 1943.

Now,  we have to be careful about how we interpret Dr. Ulrich’s findings. Ulrich would be the first to agree that NTSB accident data can’t tell us much about the risk of engine failures beyond TBO, simply because most piston aircraft engines are voluntarily euthanized at or near TBO. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t see very many engine failure accidents involving engines significantly past TBO, since there are so few of them flying. (The engines on my Cessna 310 are at more than 205% of TBO, but there just aren’t a lot of RCM true believers like me in the piston GA community…yet.)

What Dr. Ulrich’s research demonstrates unequivocally is striking and disturbing frequency of “infant-mortality” engine-failure accidents during the first few years and first few hundred hours after an engine is built, rebuilt or overhauled. Ulrich’s findings makes it indisputably clear that by far the most likely time for you to fall out of the sky due to a catastrophic engine failure is when the engine is young, not when it’s old.

(The next most likely time for you to fall out of the sky is shortly after invasive engine maintenance in the field, particularly cylinder replacement, but that’s a subject for a future blog post…stay tuned!)

 So…Is there a good reason to overhaul your engine at TBO?

Engine overhaulIt doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering) to figure out what all this means. If your engine reaches TBO and still gives every indication of being healthy (good performance, not making metal, healthy-looking oil analysis and borescope results, etc.), overhauling it will clearly degrade safety, not improve it. That’s simply because it will convert your low-risk old engine into a high-risk young engine. I don’t know about you, but that certainly strikes me as a remarkably dumb thing to do.

So why is overhauling on-condition such a tough sell to our mechanics and the engine manufacturers? The counter-argument goes something like this: “Since we have so little data about the reliability of past-TBO engines (because most engines are arbitrarily euthanized at TBO), how can we be sure that it’s safe to operate them beyond TBO?” RCM researchers refer to this as “the Resnikoff Conundrum” (after mathematician H.L. Resnikoff).

To me, it looks an awful lot like the same circular argument that was used for decades to justify arbitrarily euthanizing airline pilots at age 60, despite the fact that aeromedical experts were unanimous that this policy made no sense whatsoever. Think about it…