Aero Observations: Of Diesels, Electrics and Good PR
Of all the shows I attend, Aero is the only one that I wish would run a day longer. That there was so much to see at this show that I was aware of but simply couldnít carve the time to explore makes me wonder what I completely missed. Next stop AirVenture, I guess. But thereís stuff here that isnít at AirVenture.
The big thing at Aero was diesel and the continuing evolution of electric airplanes. Piperís announcement of the Archer DX got mostly positive if not rave reviews, probably because buyers in Europe were expecting something like it and are expecting more like it. They seem to understand that the DX is all about fuel availability and economics in a way that U.S. buyers donít, because even if avgas is expensive, we donít have much trouble finding it. Thatís not always true in Europe and it definitely isnít true in Asia and Africa, two other markets where the DX will live or die.
When I was shooting the beer garden scene for my wrap up video--and yes, real journalism does happen in beer gardens--I asked the Germans I was sitting with what they thought of the DX idea. They liked it, but when the conversation turned to a comparison of diesel cars versus airplanes, they conceded performance is an issue. I hesitate to lump all Germans into a singular, homogenous monolith, but drivers here like fast cars and I suspect those who are also pilots buy the big Audi and Merc turbodiesels in higher numbers than the general population does. My beer garden companions told me as much. And the fact is, when all of the diesel conversions are compared to the gas equivalent, theyíre slower in climb and donít carry as much. They can hold their own in cruise at higher altitudes.
So thereís a tradeoff for cheaper operation. The essence of good transportation is speed and while those big Mercs blasting past us at 220 kph on the autobahn show that car makers have figured this out, aircraft manufacturers havenít yet, at least for conversions.
Electric airplanes were the focus of a big display in the entry foyer at Aero this year. The star of the show was E-voloís Volocopter, and deservedly. You can see a video on it here. I have to say, this thing is one of the coolest aircraft Iíve seen. Ever.
Right now, itís really not much more than a lab experiment, an oversized electric UAV. But you can clearly see the potential. It hasnít flown manned yet, but probably will later this year or early next. E-voloís Stefan Wolf told me that battery capacity continues to be limiting and unlike supporters of electric airplanes who imagine leaps and bounds in battery technology, Wolf sees incremental improvementsó10 to 15 percent every couple of years. So like other aircraft manufacturers, E-volo is considering a serial hybrid design that would use a small gasoline engine driving a generator. Thatís a challenge for at least two reasons: one is weight, the other power, because the Volocopterís 18 electric motors, while physically small, have limited power output.
Because the Volocopter uses multiple rotors and fly by wire, it turns the usual helicopter control logic on its head. As you can see in the video, thereís no collective and no pedals; everything is done in the software by varying motor speed. As Wolf explained it, the Volocopterís steady state, hands off flying condition is an automatic hover. Theyíre going to need to do some serious debugging of the software to get that right. Still, I canít wait to fly the thing. I think it has potential.
For the first time at Aero, Peter Bowers of WACO Classics had one of his airplanes on display, the WACO YMF-5 the company builds in Battle Creek, Michigan. It was a huge hit. Every time I walked by, the display was mobbed. The Chinese seemed to love having photos snapped in front it. In the next hall over, there was a rather smaller but equally elegant Bucker Jungmann, but it didnít get near the attention that the WACO did.
Thereís probably enough wealth around the world to make a marketing effort for expensive biplanes at Aero worth the expense. The Chinese seem especially attuned to airplanes as status symbols and I canít think of a better one than a bright red biplane with a gleaming wooden propeller. In halls filled with gleaming plastic aircraft, the WACO stood tallest.
Last year, I reported on the FlyEco†engine, a three-cylinder diesel adapted from the European version of the Mercedes Benz Smart Car. I got a chance to fly in an FK9 equipped with the FlyEco on Saturday--just a little toot around the Friedrichshafen area. Iíll have a report on that a bit later. For now, Iíll say this: The engine/aircraft combination is insanely efficientóabout 90 knots on under two gallons an hour.
Iíve only flown in the Friedrichshafen area during Aero a couple of times. The airport is a short walk from the exhibition halls and itís relatively easy to get out on the flightline through a security station. Aero is not a big fly-in event. Iíd guess there were about 50 or 60 aircraft parked in the grass parking area. Most of them were ultralights, with a smattering of Pipers and Cessnas.
And although I think Aero beats the big American shows on almost every count, this ainít Oshkosh. Given the regulations here and the fact that Friedrichshafen is an air-carrier airport, I was surprised to see a grass runway next to the single main runway here. It was being used for GA arrivals, which were then taxied to a grass parking area.
The ATC style at Oshkosh is run-and-gun with a lot of improvisation to stuff as much traffic onto the runways as possible. (But then for $400,000 for the week, you sort of expect this, no?) Here, itís much more structured. We had to rush like crazy to meet a defined VFR takeoff slot and when we finally did, the tower was handling very little traffic. I was supposed to fly another aircraft later in the day and we just couldnít get a slot to do it. Thatís not much of a factor for the show, because this is mainly a trade expo, not a fly-in.
Good PR, Not So Good PR
As a chronicler of the passing parade, I keep informal score on how companies manage their own news and public relations. Iím not sure the American companies here take fullest advantage of the strong press support Messe Friedrichshafen offers. Some had announcements or press conferences concurrent with other events and some didnít bother with a news release, which the Messe is exceptionally good at disseminating. And here, my annual shout out to Sabine Zorell and Gabi Frank in the press office. I canít imagine two more helpful people.
My top marks go to Tecnam, who had an energetic, voluble Brit named †Andy Patsalides doing the ringmastering for the companyís announcement of its aircraft for disabled pilots. Patsalides appears to be a publicist hatched in the old school. He connects journalists with sources, then gets the hell out of the way. Without my asking, he snatched me from shooting the Archer DX, which was directly across from the Tecnam booth, and put with me Fabio Russo for a video interview.
As I was setting up the camera, he was marshaling someone else to do still photos. Sounds like a guy whoís just doing his job, but in the world of marcomm (marketing and communications) so many companies just donít. And a tip of the hat here, too, to Jackie Carlon of Piper, who did a nice job with the DX rollout.
Then thereís Textron. This company just canít seem to get it right. We had a little cappuccino clatch in the press room trying to decide if Textron is actually trying to tarnish its image with the press and public. If they are, theyíre succeeding nicely. Remember the little dustup Cessna CEO Scott Ernest caused at NBAA last fall when he made it clear he didnít want to answer queries at a meet-the-CEO session? Improbably, they managed to reprise it on a smaller scale. The German-language fliegermagazine presents annual awards to manufacturers and this year, the light jet category award went to Cessnaís M2. They sent their European piston guy to accept the award and when he was asked if the M2 was bought by owner-operators or companies, he replied that he had no idea; his gig was pistons. An uncomfortable silence settled on the crowd. (Dude, fake something!) Predictably, the halls were soon buzzing with, ďdid you see the Cessna guy?Ē and not in a good way.
At all of these shows, weíre usually given some kind of access to executives for interviews and we try to accept it. Itís our job to tell their stories and we try to do it as fairly and accurately as we can. These talks can be for background or off the record, as many are. But an interview I had with two Textron executives, arranged by an outside PR firm, was so filled with evasions and ďwe donít comment on thatĒ that my recorder and notebook were functionally empty. A colleague from the UK had the same experience. So we wasted a lot of each otherís time and gained nothing for readers or for the company. Note to Textron: This is not the way other companies do this. Iíd urge some rethinking. Weíll all benefit.
Where Was Diamond?
Not at Aero this year. When the major European airframer is AWOL, people notice. And they did. Dieter Stricker of aeromarkt told me it was like Ford skipping the Detroit Auto Show. For its part, Diamond says theyíll be back next year; theyíre alternating years with a presence at the Berlin Airshow one year,† Aero the next.