AirVenture: AOPA's Yellowbirds and Redbird's Challenge
As we careen around AirVenture in our obnoxious green newsteam shirts, we’re often approached by readers with the question: what’s the big thing at the show? My answer is I haven’t seen any one big thing, although the energy level I mentioned in yesterday’s blog is often remarked upon. Things were jumping on Wednesday. Even more so this morning on Thursday, as I post this.
One surprise is that when I ask people I see about AOPA’s refurbed Cessna 150/152 project, the answer I get is that either people haven’t heard of it or, if they have, it gets barely a shrug. I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe AOPA hasn’t done enough promotion yet or maybe people just don’t resonate with the idea that a 35-year-old airplane restored to new standards and selling for $89,000 to $99,000 is a good idea.
But I think it’s a good idea, even if I can nitpick at Aviat’s execution of the refurbs. AOPA is touting the airplanes as “reimagined,” but they really aren’t that. They’re the same old airplanes just brought to new standards. Reimagined would be a composite two-seat trainer with no struts and a glass panel—an LSA, in other words, but a robust one.
Nonetheless, remanufacturing these venerable trainers represents a forthright change in directionality of the cost of training if your point of departure is flying in an airplane that isn’t a clapped out pile of crap. It’s not going to halve the cost of training, but it will push the cost down measurably. I think AOPA’s estimate on hourly costs for the refurbs—about $63—is a little low and I’ll examine those in detail later, but the concept is sound and AOPA is right to pursue it.
The airplanes present as new. The panel is basic steam gauge with a single radio, transponder and a Garmin aera in a flush mount. The upholstery and cabin panels are similarly Spartan, but I would have wished for fabric-covered panels instead of the old-as-dirt Royalite. That would have let the imagination at least nibble at the margins. The airplane on display here has a nice metal panel, but the lower panel is refreshed Royalite. I think it would look better in metal. Yellow airplanes aren’t my favorite, but at least the thing stands out. We’ll have a video up later today with Mark Baker explaining where AOPA is going with this project.
For the past four years or so, electric airplanes have appeared at AirVenture and they have just as consistently been shy of the proof-of-concept stage. Remember the Chinese-built Yuneec? I called the company last spring and they never called back. The idea isn’t quite soup yet.
But in the Redbird tent, PC Aero is showing a more mature design called the Sun Flyer. For some years, PC Aero has been developing light electric aircraft that have solar panels on the wings for extending flight or ground recharging. But the economics remain difficult. Here’s a video and news brief on the airplane.
The Sun Flyer is expected to sell for about $180,000 and will likely require at least a couple of extra battery packs at $10,000 to $15,000 per. On the one hand, fuel costs—electricity charges—will be dirt cheap. Ten bucks an hour, perhaps. On the other hand, utilization may be low for a $200,000 investment. In the video, Charlie Johnson said the Sun Flyer could charge itself by sitting in the sun for two or three days. But if I own a spanking new $200,000 training airplane that I’m trying to turn a buck on, I’m not going to want it idling for two days or baking in a flood of UV to refuel itself. Two years ago, PC Aero’s Calin Gologan told me battery capacity increases are still crawling along and that continues to stymie the market appeal of electrics. I think I can see the practicality on the horizon, but it’s going to be a long walk to get there. Greenies, keep your shirts on.
I spent a half hour watching the Redbird Challenge Cup at Boeing Plaza Wednesday morning. Here’s a video on it. Redbird announced the challenge in April at Sun 'n Fun, offering it as a simulator-based skills challenge involving a max performance takeoff, a steep turn and a spot landing, with performance graded by machine in real time.
Redbird got good response to the project, with more than 5000 flights and about 1800 registrants, at least as of mid-June when I got the last data. In yesterday’s event on the stage, the 12 top finishers competed in the finals. Redbird did its best to make the event ESPN-like, but we’re not talking World Cup excitement here. Watching a guy—there were no women—sit in a metal box pulling levers while peering at computer screens is somewhat nerdesque, but they displayed the action on a Jumbotron and the announcers did their best to inject drama. The viewing of it was far better than the describing of it.
As with AOPA’s refurbed trainers, the underlying concept here is good and about the best potential promotion for new pilots that I’ve seen. However, the potential was unrealized in that Redbird didn’t get the cross promotion to other aficionado markets—motorcycling, boats, sports—it had hoped for. In our desperation for new pilot starts, we imagine that these interest areas are rich with would-be GA participants whose hearts swell with a burning desire to learn to fly. All we need is to usher them through the magic door into the wondrous world of aviation. To date, no such door has revealed itself, but this Redbird thing looks the most promising to me, if they can get it to work. It’s accessible, creative and integrates with the modern digital world. If it gains no traction, we’re more doomed than we thought.
Diesel vs. Jet A
When we cover aerodiesel engines, we get a little trickle of e-mail pointing out that diesel is a stinky, smoky truck fuel and Jet A is clean-burning kerosene.
First of all, if you think modern diesels are stinky and smoky, you’re living in the 1970s. Automotive and truck diesels have, just is the past decade, become cleaner, quieter and more efficient than ever before. That level of technological innovation applies directly to aircraft diesels.
But should we be calling them Jet A piston engines? Well, I suppose. But when we term them “diesels,” we are talking about the combustion cycle, not the fuel. And the Continental, SMA and Deltahawk diesels all run on the diesel cycle, even if they burn Jet A.