AirVenture: AOPA's Yellowbirds and Redbird's Challenge

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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.

Electric Flight

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.

Redbird Challenge

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.

Join the conversation.
Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (71)


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 31, 2014 1:49 PM    Report this comment

AOPA's approach may not halved the cost of training but it won't quadruple it either. It is a good idea, I agree. Now let's talk about a massive airframe purchase. A one shot deal 15 to 20 thousand units. We delivered about 18,000 aircraft in 1980 - we can do this again. Cessna, Piper and even Cirrus can bid.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 31, 2014 2:12 PM    Report this comment

With apologies in advance for sounding negative, I assert - as an engineer - that I'm just being a realist. As described, the PC Aero Sun Flyer electric airplane - if it ever becomes real - is a bust before it even leaves the ground. "Lower the cost of learning how to fly?" Please show me how.

With a good-weather endurance of 2.5 hours, the vehicle will need a fresh battery pack before it can accumulate 2 hours of flight time (daylight) - even less in darkness. That pretty much rules out any usefulness in satisfying the cross-country requirements of the Private Pilot certificate - unless you somehow have fresh battery packs waiting for installation at all of your away-from-base landing sites. Clearly, cross-countries will require the use of combustion-engine-powered vehicles - and the required extra training (and attendant costs) that will accompany their use by solo student pilots. How will that aid in lowering the cost of learning how to fly?

Even near home base, a classic one-hour flight lesson will stretch the endurance of the vehicle beyond the ability to provide a 30-minute reserve after a second consecutive 1-hour flight. This means that an operator will need to keep on hand six or more shipsets of batteries - if the vehicle is to remain in service throughout a typical 10-hour day. With each set of batteries costing "10-to-15 thousand dollars," that equates to an additional $60k to $90k of capital cost per vehicle. Add that to the (unlikely) $180k purchase price, and the capital cost will be in excess of a cool quarter of a million dollars. When you contrast that with the < $20k price of a typical C-150 / Tomahawk-class trainer, how will this Sun Flyer electric airplane aid in lowering the cost of learning how to fly?

For many of us, there are winter operations - which will mean heating the cabin using precious battery power (talk to owners of electric cars about this). Which means you'd be lucky to get even one hour of flight out of a fully-charged battery pack. How will that aid in lowering the cost of learning how to fly?

But I may be all wet; the article suggests that the market may not be primary flight training... "The target market is flight schools that are looking for ways to cut costs for pilot clients who are seeking to fly professionally and are facing the new, extraordinarily high hourly requirement to become an airline first officer." Great. We're going to certify a new generation of post-Colgan ATPs whose flight experience will consist chiefly of 1,200 hours or more of 2-hour-or-less bursts of daylight flying in a 75-knot LSA. Thanks, Congress - nervous flyers should feel better already.

There's innovation, and there's ignorance-fueled wishful thinking. This vehicle looks like a fine example of the latter.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | July 31, 2014 2:23 PM    Report this comment

"PC-Aero's Sun Flyer, a solar-electric proof-of-concept airplane, is getting attention--its developers are promising that the two-place version will cut the cost of flight training by over half." and this folks is at an approximate price tag of $200k.

Show me the numbers!

Now, I believe that advertising and editorials columns should work for the public's best interest, truth should prevail. Advertising that the "Sun Flyer" will cut the cost of flight training over half seems inaccurate. Perhaps comparing costs against flying a $420k Cessna C172 "Diesel" may be correct but it is not explained categorizing the statement as disingenuous.

Hinting in favor or going along with the hype is offensive.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 31, 2014 6:29 PM    Report this comment

Sun Flyer's prayer has been the answered;

"Boeing's ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant--referred to as a cadet... The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner--in virtually every country except the United States. ...They did say that they anticipate that U.S. program graduates will be hired into the program as flight instructors to build flying time to the 1500-hour mark."


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 1, 2014 8:43 AM    Report this comment

"Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner--in virtually every country except the United States."

The land of opportunity. All it costs is $150k to get an instructing job to build up another 1250 hours for the hope of a right-seat airliner job.

I'm surprised the announcement didn't have any mention of allowing for the reduce-hour requirement (1200 hours, I think?).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 1, 2014 12:13 PM    Report this comment

AOPA wins what? When was the downturn beginning? 2005 or so? What was the cost of a new 172 then? Adjust for inflation? And you are talking about a used plane for that now? Am I wrong?

What portion of the modern wannabe pilot population can actually fit in a 152? Wants to fit in a 152?

Reviving GA is going to take something new. The best thing that could happen that likely might, is the FAA stop allowing Cessna and others to make old planes under old standards. Many FBOs are refusing to sign off on some of the really old frames anymore. That's actually a good thing. Most planes in the fleet should have been totally rebuilt and restored by now, but most have not been.

Job one for AOPA is the certification rewrite and some fixes for tort issues. Maybe Paul can ask a few CEOs what the current cost of liability is on a 180hp trainer. You know, the safer planes.

Posted by: Eric Warren | August 1, 2014 7:45 PM    Report this comment

The refurb of the older 150's at the price point they are at may make sense.

Now how about the same thing for a C-172, at say, $130K?

Posted by: Richard Mutzman | August 2, 2014 7:14 AM    Report this comment

Gents and Ladies: FIRST, "we" need to realize/recognize THIS (GA recreational) like it/or believe it or not, is FOR those aviation (pilots/and prospective pilots) consumers who feel the BENEFIT, ideally, is GREATER than the cost - period!

NO amount or degree of radical "cost reduction" is going to entice the "general population" - (see post WW II experience) in flying. This HAS become (2014), and IS, a QUALITATIVE BUSINESS, and the sooner the "powers to be" come to the reality of this, MAYBE this "business" can "make the airport. Is this the REAL issue here - I think so.

Many here, largely bias, still hand on to the belief "flying is for everyone" theme - NO, it's available to those who see the benefit equaling the cost - AVAILABLE. t Pragmatic; very much so - sorry folks -t he "ROI" business mind at work!

Posted by: Rod Beck | August 2, 2014 8:28 PM    Report this comment

Errin Warren. AOPA wins for the best approach at this time. The need to reduce costs, coming out with design ideas and executing to completion is more than just talk. AOPA wins this round. Now "Friends of AVweb" are coming out with what appears to be another good idea - a nationwide co-operative effort but at a larger scale.

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