Cessna's SMA Diesel Play

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When Diamond launched its diesel-powered DA42 in 2004, no one knew how well it would sell or if it would sell at all. But sell it did, despite later maintenance and support issues with the Thielert engines. At the time, the doubters said diesel wouldn't really fly until Cessna got into the game and this week at AirVenture, it did just that with the announcement of the 182 NXT powered by the latest version of the SMA SR305. So now the notion that as Cessna goes, so goes the world will get a test.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Although Cessna once drove the light GA market as the dominant player, that's not necessarily true anymore. All aircraft sales are global now and Cessna isn't the only player around. Diamond and Cirrus are also out there and active in Europe in Asia in ways we don't necessarily see because of our U.S.-centric tilt. In briefing after briefing here at AirVenture, companies downplay aircraft sales in North America and say the rest of us should do the same. So when you're forming an opinion on diesel, think on the scale of world sales, especially China.

The 182 NXT will replace the turbocharged version of the Skylane, the 182T. This model has never been a huge seller for Cessna even before the 2008 downturn. Since then, Cessna has sold 30 to 40 a year. I'm sure the thinking at Cessna is that with a Jet A/diesel burning engine, the airplane now has far greater appeal in Europe, Africa and Asia. Even if that increases sales five fold, we're talking under 200 airframes a year. For now. On the world scale, that's hardly a market mover. But it is a trend driver and since Jet A is seen as the fuel of the future, it now becomes a question of how rapidly the trend develops. It's accepted wisdom that this is inevitable and that gasoline for aircraft engines is a sunset product.

My view is—and has always been—that diesel powerplants for airplanes aren't the universal killer product some believe them to be and that the diesel revolution isn't a revolution at all but an evolution with a shallow ramp. Gasoline as an aircraft fuel is ramping in the opposite direction, gracefully downward. But the fact remains there are still thousands of aircraft gasoline engines out there and Michael Kraft at Lycoming likes to say that at current production rates, it will take almost 100 years to replace them. That's one reason Lycoming opted to sit out diesel for now and why Cessna went with the SMA engine for the 182 NXT. It didn't have many choices. The Thielert 2.0 Centurion doesn't have the power for a 182 and I doubt the Austro AE300 could work, either. Both are heavier than the SMA, too.

The fact that press conferences at AirVenture this year were characterized by Chinese executives speaking blandly through interpreters gives rise to more accepted wisdom that no one seems inclined to challenge: China is on the verge of explosive growth in general aviation to the extent that some people have visions of the golden max of 1978 dancing in their eyes. While it may be true that China may become the next big impossibly huge thing and that companies need to position to prepare for it, let's not get too woozy over the potential volume, which thus far remains more imagined than proven. Not that I doubt the market, just that people playing this game should leave a little room in their mental engine rooms for disappointment.

But in a market where companies stay alive selling 50 to 100 of a particular model every year, China isn't the only place to sell diesel airplanes. Wherever avgas is getting scarce or more expensive than it already is—Europe, Africa, South America, India—Cessna will find takers. Continental senses this, too. They're going after the STC retrofit market that SMA used as a proof-of-concept to try to move real volume for the SMA-derived TD300 engine. Maybe the timing will be right. It certainly wasn't for SMA the first time around.

Comments (34)

Be interesting to see what developes with the China market. Lots of signs that their economy is in even more of a bubble than our was in 2007. IF that's true the popping of that bubble anytime in the next several years will make all these prognosications moot.

All that said, if I were shopping for a new plane right now (and I honestly doubt I'll ever have that kind of money anyway) I'd have to look at diesel as a possibility. Lots of quesiton marks over it, and I might well pass as I'm usually one to let others be the guinea pigs. But the (supposed) operating costs and freedom from 100LL are enticing.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | July 25, 2012 3:27 PM    Report this comment

If the STC market for "popular" airframes isn't too wildly expensive you could see Diesel coming in at a higher rate. Let's say the engine to replace the IO-360 new (it's busted in a way that a new engine makes sense) and the diesel is within $8k and the STC is $5k, it's feasible that you could get that back in use over life of the motor (including overhauls, if they aren't ridiculous).

On the other hand, it could easily be priced out of the market. The FAA has to step up here too. Make the STC process simpler (a little), faster (a little), and less onerous overall to speed up the transition to a single lead-free fuel.

As far as new airframes, this will result in only a trickle. Should it prove viable, however, and you could see other manufacturers follow suit. Things could start in the trainer market that way, BUT flight schools would have to see net benefit. That means fuel, maintenance, and availability or they won't bite. Where the trainers go, eventually the trainees do.

A single fuel is enticing. The problem I see is the STC process, because one false step prices it right out of the market.

Posted by: Joseph Servov | July 25, 2012 5:53 PM    Report this comment

One thing that I think the diesel engine makers should be considering at least would be to certify their engines with not just Jet-A, but as many heavy fuels as possible. #2 diesel, bio-diesel, and other flavors of jet-fuel. That way owners have the ability to use as many sources of fuel as possible. I don't expect that to have any effect on Jet-A prices, but it not only gives the pilot some ability to use the least expensive fuel it also opens up options that are legal to use in all applications when Jet-A is unavailable (e.g. Jet-A1 is a slightly different formulation, in some back-woods areas like where missionaries go you can get diesel but not jet fuel, etc).

Posted by: Andrew Upson | July 25, 2012 6:19 PM    Report this comment

"Freedom from 100LL?"

Does the (new) Turbo 182 even need 100LL? The engine in the normally aspirated 182 doesn't.

Posted by: Kris Larson | July 25, 2012 7:41 PM    Report this comment

Price, price and price again.... There are a handful of SMA's retro-fitted in Europe and, although they have had some problems (bad alternators and minor over heating are the main reports) those with them seem happy. There are not many more because quoted prices for a retrofit are around €100,000, five times more than a re-build of the old motor. Unless this can come down (not hand building in France may help) the gasoline alternative will carry on for years.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | July 26, 2012 5:00 AM    Report this comment

A club I once belonged to decided to put a diesel motor in a PA28 and they recovered the replacement costs within 9 months from the fuel cost savings.

Having traveled throughout Africa I can tell you that there may not be Petrol (gas), Jet-a or diesel in many places but there is certainly always paraffin which is used by everyone as a cooking fuel. Sold by little shops out in the middle of no where. Don't know much about the rest of the world especially that place I think they called it the USA :-)

Posted by: Bruce Savage | July 26, 2012 5:21 AM    Report this comment

Diesel...here we go again. It seems like it's been The Next Big Thing for as long as I can remember. Someday it may actually be a contender.

Posted by: Richard Montague | July 26, 2012 8:33 AM    Report this comment

If the fuel efficiency of a turbocharged Diesel like what is used in the new C-182 can compensate for the increased engine weight relative to a spark-ignited engine, and if said Diesel can run on Jet A, we can be sure it will find takers especially if environmentalists in California succeed in banning 100LL (which would cause octane rating to drop to no more than 93 or so, like premium autogas).

We note that Cessna has built a single engine turboprop mockup, using the same low-wing T-tail configuration as their Mustang jet but with a turboprop up front instead of two turbofans pushing on the rear. Here's a suggestion for Cessna: Since they already make a perfectly fine strut-braced high-wing fixed landing gear single engine turboprop plane, and since they have in the past had a cantilever high wing single piston engine retractable landing gear airplane, why not a cantilever high-wing retractable airframe, somewhat larger than the old 210, with a ~500 HP turboprop up front? With 100LL being such an issue, I think both a turbocharged Diesel 182 and a turboprop super-210 would be winners.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | July 26, 2012 9:11 AM    Report this comment

I dont know why everyone thinks China is such a big future market. They have ridiculous airspace restictions. Mostly from the military but also from civil govt. Europe is free flight by comparison. GA is totally impractical for transportation there for what we have as part 91. Just look at how slow the FAA and EASA work. You might have a workable system over there in 100 yrs.

Posted by: Eugene Haller | July 26, 2012 9:14 AM    Report this comment

I am not surprised by this but am happy to see it. Remember Cessna almost got a factory 172 with a Theilert engine to market just before Theilert went bankrupt. What Cessna and all the US GA companies need to do is come up with new designs with these new engines. If they insist on selling the same airplanes they have been building with very few changes for the last 50 years they should be getting relatively inexpensive not overly expensive slightly upgraded antiques.

Posted by: Whitney | July 26, 2012 9:23 AM    Report this comment

Having several thousands of hours as a ferry pilot for a number of aircraft sales companies I developed a hatred based on fear of the odor of avgas in the cockpit...it happens. I was enthused by what Zoche was doing and was really hoping that engine would work ...it just looked and seemed so good! Diesel or JetA or #1 kerosine in an aircraft just makes so much sense to me...gasoline is just so volatile, has such a low ignition temperature by comparison to diesel, it just makes so much sense from the consideration of safety. A half a million for a 182 seems sort of ridiculous. The adoption of aircraft diesel will follow the market like everything else...if they build it (economically) they will come.

Posted by: Billy Laatsch | July 26, 2012 9:26 AM    Report this comment

"If they insist on selling the same airplanes they have been building with very few changes for the last 50 years they should be getting relatively inexpensive not overly expensive slightly upgraded antiques."

You can blame the lawyers for that.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | July 26, 2012 10:04 AM    Report this comment

It used to be that Cessna was the market driver. It may be that Van's Aircraft is in the driver seat now (in terms of volume, not dollars). So plan on seeing the demise of AVgas after Van comes out with an SMA powered RV-14. One problem with diesel/JetA is that you're competing with the airlines, the military and the truckers for the same barrel of fuel; and they're big users. That will tend to keep the price high in a market environment.

Posted by: Stephen Phoenix | July 26, 2012 10:53 AM    Report this comment

I compared the upcoming diesels years ago. The SMA was the worst in every way. Mostly, the power to weight was just sad. Has this changed? Isn't the Delta Hawk more promising? Why is it that Continental AND Lycoming seem to be adopting the SMA? I am totally confused.

Posted by: Eric Warren | July 26, 2012 11:45 AM    Report this comment

Andrew, I used to blame lawyers for a lot of things. However, my brother lives (and practices) in a state with a malpractice cap. That hasn't helped his premiums in the slightest. I've learned that, more often than not, they're just a convenient scapegoat.

One real pricing problem is similar to early autos in one respect, too much manual labor (craftsmen) required to build one. Another is onerous support (government). Another is the extreme time to get certified (government, huge investment).

I'll put some of this on the media and public too. They want an impossible standard in airplanes. They want them to be perfect.

All of this adds up fast. I won't even go into (other than avionics companies) a distinct lack of innovation from companies. Look at Van's, Velocity, Pipistrel, and so on. Excellent speeds, much less in terms of GPH (often) so better MPG, and so on.

We need the government to step back (a little), and we need people slapping everyone from ABC to Fox News for hyping every little airplane story. We really have to fight back when there is no injuries, fatalities, and / or property damage.

Posted by: Joseph Servov | July 26, 2012 12:00 PM    Report this comment

Years ago having an accident in a car may get the headlines no chance of that today. The IRA survived because of the press coverage and when that stopped so did the IRA. The auto industry was forced by the legs (people,money etc)to get their act together and what an act they did. There are few unreliable cars today and all are cost effective. To pay in excess of a few thousand pounds/dollars on a car equivalent to a cessna which is in the hundreds of thousands is really a shame. The aviation industry engines are a lot better than those found in the past when they were better than the auto engines but today the aviation engines are way behind the autos in reliability. There are too few of us to make any difference and the numbers are diminishing. So Joseph I do like your attitude keep it up

Posted by: Bruce Savage | July 26, 2012 1:00 PM    Report this comment

Seems that Cessna was selling mnore turbo 182's than non. In fact I wouyld say 70% or better of the 182 production was for the turbo model. The article said sales were flat for the turbo version....all sales were flat since 2007. Though Cessna may have confidence in the diesel I think too many folks still think of black smoke belching out of an old volkswagon. I think it'll take a price cut and lots of information on the new engines. BTW I Love the 182, probably one of the best planes made. Good luck Cessna.

Posted by: Ralph Lacomba | July 26, 2012 1:50 PM    Report this comment

"I compared the upcoming diesels years ago. The SMA was the worst in every way. Mostly, the power to weight was just sad. Has this changed? Isn't the Delta Hawk more promising? Why is it that Continental AND Lycoming seem to be adopting the SMA? I am totally confused."

Deltahawk still isn't certified, whereas SMA and Theilert are. Latest info on the website claims 1Q 2013. Much as I'm a fan of their design philosophy and would really love to find a way to fly with one of their engines, they aren't there yet, and at the rate they're going it's questionable if they ever will.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | July 26, 2012 2:21 PM    Report this comment

My IO-470-K is a fuel injected 225hp and a VERY LIGHT engine. It burns 80 Octane autogas. As long as there is Gasoline around (and yes, it is also in Africa), this is a far less complex, far cheaper proposition. And if you want altitude performance, you could always turbo-normalize it. The key to Diesel success would be a 350hp STCed AE500 in an older LIGHT 206 or even better 207. Now we are talking!

Posted by: Robert Ziegler | July 26, 2012 9:23 PM    Report this comment

Cessna continues to miss the mark with the 230 HP 182 gas or Jet A. The newer 182s are so loaded down that they are no longer a real 4-place airplane and hardly a 3-place craft, with an anemic climb rate and service ceiling. I have a 1965 H model and I can safely and LEGALLY fill the tanks, put 4 adults and luggage in and fly farther than bladders allow at 130 NMPH. Try that with a re-start model. They should have gone to 300 HP to start with and whether it is gas or oil, that would be the key to getting the 182 back into the proper market niche - worldwide. The old saying was either go fast or haul a lot. The current 182 gas or Jet A can do neither.

Posted by: Dale Rush | July 27, 2012 2:01 PM    Report this comment

Dale: we have a 2000 182S and can put 4 people and luggage with 4.5 hours of fuel, all at 145 TAS. Is the T model that much worse?

Posted by: Bradley Spatz | July 27, 2012 2:38 PM    Report this comment

Legally? We all know that 182s will haul quite a bit if one ignores the book, but review recent analysis articles of full fuel payload, climb rate and ceiling which are not much different from a Skyhawk. Are you saying that you think your Skylane is adequately and appropriately powered? I have a friend who recently bought a 206 because he wanted to have what he should be getting in a 182.

Posted by: Dale Rush | July 27, 2012 4:38 PM    Report this comment

The 182S works well for us; it's far more capable than a 172. Our passenger and luggage weights are modest, by design. YMMV. Our next engine could be a diesel... Blue Skies!

Posted by: Bradley Spatz | July 29, 2012 12:50 PM    Report this comment

Robert Z: I happen to be one of those SMA-flyers in Europe since 2009. I can assure you that with 5,5 hours in the tank and four 80 kg persons I can leagally take ca 60 kg of load and take off. Can you do that with your 1965H ?

Posted by: Stellan Nilsson | July 31, 2012 3:13 PM    Report this comment

I looked at the diesel 182 at Airventure. It surprised me that in addition to diesel, it also has FADEC, presumably making it "easy" to manage the engine/prop, a la Cirrus. Not sure why, since I've always thought a CS prop was easy to learn (a 10 minute process). But I am sure that it adds to the complexity of the installation.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | August 1, 2012 8:18 AM    Report this comment

Stephen, propeller GA uses such a tiny percentage of the overall fuel market that it makes zero difference in the price. 100LL is primarily alkylate, just like in unleaded mogas. Reduced GA demand wont move the price down any noticeable amount. Distillates (diesel,jet,etc) wont go up in price either. GTL from natural gas can, however, increase the supply of distillates, not gasoline.

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | August 2, 2012 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Diesels are superior to gasoline engines in propeller-driven aircraft because:

1. They run on jet fuel and are 30% more efficient;

2. Energy content of diesel fuel is higher than gasoline, which offsets the cost of diesel fuel. Oxygen-containing additives, like alcohol, reduce energy content of gasoline;

3. Diesel or jet fuel is a lubricant; gasoline is a solvent, affecting lubrication, esp. at startup;

4. They run more efficiently at slow speeds and so do propellers. Gas engines are more efficient at high speeds, some using reduction gears;

5. Propeller performance is rated in torque (N•m or lbf-f) rather than horsepower (W or J•s)]. A small diesel with its high torque performs like a larger gas engine, affecting size, weight, and starter motor size. Diesels should emphasize torque, not horsepower;

6. No ignition system (dual magnetos, wiring harness, dual spark plugs) affecting reliability and maintenance. Once started, diesels run continuously, needing only fuel, air, and exhaust;

7. They use fuel injection (less sensitive to changes in altitude);

8. Electronic management is sophisticated using one single control;

9. Overhaul times and oil changes much longer than gas engines (built to closer tolerances); and

10. Diesel and jet fuels have lower flash points of (>66°C and >38°C, respectively (combustible liquids). Gasoline’s flash point is <–40°C (flammable liquid). Gasoline is much more dangerous in a crash.

Posted by: Lawrence Gettleman | August 2, 2012 10:31 AM    Report this comment

Diesels are superior to gasoline engines in propeller-driven aircraft because: 1. They run on jet fuel and are 30% more efficient; 2. Energy content of diesel fuel is higher than gasoline, which offsets the cost of diesel fuel. Oxygen-containing additives, like alcohol, reduce energy content of gasoline; 3. Diesel or jet fuel is a lubricant; gasoline is a solvent, affecting lubrication, esp. at startup; 4. They run more efficiently at slow speeds and so do propellers. Gas engines are more efficient at high speeds, some using reduction gears; 5. Propeller performance is rated in torque (N•m or lbf-f) rather than horsepower (W or J•s)]. A small diesel with its high torque performs like a larger gas engine, affecting size, weight, and starter motor size. Diesels should emphasize torque, not horsepower; 6. No ignition system (dual magnetos, wiring harness, dual spark plugs) affecting reliability and maintenance. Once started, diesels run continuously, needing only fuel, air, and exhaust; 7. They use fuel injection (less sensitive to changes in altitude); 8. Electronic management is sophisticated using one single control; 9. Overhaul times and oil changes much longer than gas engines (built to closer tolerances); and 10. Diesel and jet fuels have lower flash points of (>66°C and >38°C, respectively (combustible liquids). Gasoline’s flash point is <–40°C (flammable liquid). Gasoline is much more dangerous in a crash.

Posted by: Lawrence Gettleman | August 2, 2012 10:33 AM    Report this comment

In an airplane, its power (for a propeller driven plane), not torque, that gets you where you want to go. Torque is more applicable in a car, where you want good low-end torque to launch the vehicle when the light turns green. But once a car gets up to speed, its power that overcomes aerodynamic drag, friction and (when going uphill) gravity. I would expect that to be true for airplanes as well. So a small Diesel engine will not perform like a larger spark-ignited engine in an plane.

As for current Cessna 182's being anemic: The reason for that is government mandates for more crashworthiness, which means increased airframe weight. And watch out my friends: There are people out there who want the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide from mobile sources, including aircraft. If such people get their way, the aircraft industry - like the auto industry - will be squeezed to death between fuel economy and safety.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | August 3, 2012 1:14 PM    Report this comment

Diesels are superior to gasoline engines in propeller-driven aircraft because: 1. They run on jet fuel and are 30% more efficient; 2. Energy content of diesel fuel is higher than gasoline, which offsets the cost of diesel fuel. Oxygen-containing additives, like alcohol, reduce energy content of gasoline; 3. Diesel or jet fuel is a lubricant; gasoline is a solvent, affecting lubrication, esp. at startup; 4. They run more efficiently at slow speeds and so do propellers. Gas engines are more efficient at high speeds, some using reduction gears; 5. Propeller performance is rated in torque (N•m or lbf-f) rather than horsepower (W or J•s)]. A small diesel with its high torque performs like a larger gas engine, affecting size, weight, and starter motor size. Diesels should emphasize torque, not horsepower; 6. No ignition system (dual magnetos, wiring harness, dual spark plugs) affecting reliability and maintenance. Once started, diesels run continuously, needing only fuel, air, and exhaust;

Posted by: Lawrence Gettleman | August 3, 2012 2:04 PM    Report this comment

A diesel powered C182? Oh my...I see more negatives than positives on this Cessna announcement. It is a no thank you from me......

Posted by: Brent Wagner | August 3, 2012 7:58 PM    Report this comment

Having flown in Europe an SMA equipped Cessna 182 with good experience, I believe that Cessna has made the right descision. Although the enginepower seems appropriate for the aircraft, the initial offered retrofit cost of about 100 K$ was an absolute no go. I doubt the current manufacturer will offer the diesel retrofit at an affordable price level. However the big break through might be when the retrofit cost is comming down to a realistic level of about 1 third of the initial pricelevel.

Actually paying for AVgas 100LL about 20 dollar a gallon, this kerosine solution is again affordable.

Having flown thousants of hours in my Cessna FR 172 Rocket (IO 360 conti 200 HP) I most regret not to have a similar choise for conversion. Having flown a Cessna 172 fitted with the Thielert diesel, I consider the Thielert Diesel version still as too light and underpowered for the usage I expect from a Cessna 172.

Posted by: ludo huybrechts | August 6, 2012 10:45 AM    Report this comment

Once again I believe Cessna finally made the good choice to go for a jet fuel engine for his single engine fleet. But the decision to start with may be for the wrong aircraft type as the current C 182 is not a fantastic seller to day at the current price and I might not even be a fantastic seller, fitted with a diesel on even an higher price. I believe Cessna had no other choice as there was only the SMA on the market available, certified and ST-ed. I was really disapointed that it took so long before the conventional engine makers (Lycoming or Continental) took any action in regards to preparing the jet fuel age by developing a diesel engine. I believe Cessna could make much more monney to fit the simple C 172 with a reliable diesel engine in a new airplane, or to provide a retrofit kit at an affordable price level. As the GA industry is still using very thursty engines, develloped 70 years ago, with only minor modifications with marginal improvements (crank- cases??!!) Recently a friend invited me for a ride in his Robin aircraft (4 seats), fitted with Citroen PSA Turbo Diesel 2.2 l engine,(millions of engines build) watercooled and fitted with pulley/belt drive. Fantastic experience while the aircraft uses less than 3 gallons an hour on cruise speed (55%). The aircraft has now mote than 1000 hours flown on that engine, without any inproper functioning. That are Diesel engines of today. Why can Lycoming or Continental not do such issues?

Posted by: ludo huybrechts | August 13, 2012 7:57 AM    Report this comment

The Cessna 182 JT-A is the ideal combination of a robust design, G1000 avionics, autopilot, and Jet-A piston engine, with modern single-lever, FADEC controlled engine and propeller. The direct driven SMA engine was designed for aviation and has been improved for 10 years, making it the best piston engine nowadays (on paper at least). These choices will carry the model into the next 20 years. The price is certainly high but the advantages are numerous. I'm predicting a great success for this model and a diminishing success for all the other single engine piston from Cessna. I sure want one!

Posted by: Rui Rodrigues | November 27, 2012 9:29 AM    Report this comment

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