AVwebBiz - Volume 12, Number 21

December 3, 2013

Shell Announces Unleaded 100-Octane Fuel (Updated)

Shell Oil announced on Tuesday that it has developed an unleaded 100-octane piston-engine fuel to replace 100LL and hopes to achieve certification of the product within two to three years. Although the company has no hard numbers on pump price, it predicts that its new product will be comparable in price to 100LL.

Tim Shea, Shell’s VP for aviation fuels development, told AVweb on Tuesday that the fuel is the culmination of a 10-year internal research project to find an unleaded 100-octane fuel, a problem that has dogged the industry for more than three decades. Although Shell currently doesn’t directly refine piston avgas in North America, Shea said it intends to make the new fuel widely available, but he declined to describe any specific licensing terms. “Our plan is to make this fuel, once approved, widely available on a global basis. Whether that’s through Shell refineries or licensing, the plan is to make it available,” Shea said.

Traditional avgas is composed of what refiners call aviation alkylate, a blend of branched-chain hydrocarbons such as isomers of isooctane which, of themselves, have high octane and good anti-knock characteristics. Refiners add a small dose of tetraethyl lead to boost octane to a bit over 100 to meet the requirements of ASTM fuel spec D-910. Tetraethyl was banned from automotive fuels during the 1980s and there’s pressure to remove it from aviation fuels to achieve new, more stringent air quality standards. Shea explained that Shell is using an aviation alkylate base with a blend of aromatic compounds to deliver a fuel with performance characteristics almost identical to 100LL. 

“In our formulation direction, we started with what aviation gasoline looks like and then removed the lead. From there, the question was how do we maintain D-910’s physical properties while achieving the MON requirement for high-octane fuel? It’s fair to say it’s alkylate-based in its approach,” Shea said. If this approach sounds familiar, it should; General Aviation Modifications, Inc., one of two other companies proposing a 100LL replacement, is using similar formulation.

“A lot of the chemistry has been around, but what we’ve figured out is how to make the chemistry work in an aviation fuel. A lot of the existing molecules that people are well aware of struggle in aviation applications because when you use them, you really struggle with the low temperature properties of the fuel,” Shea explained.

To prove those properties, Shell will embark upon an intensive program that will include submission to ASTM International for a new piston-engine fuel spec. Shea said the new spec will be almost identical to D-910 in performance, but will vary slightly.

“In a physical property sense, we are extremely close. We meet every performance criteria and the two that we’re off, we’re off very slightly,” Shea said.

Following ASTM approval, Shell will submit its fuel to the FAA’s Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative program that emerged for the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Committee for unleaded fuel last year. Last summer, the FAA asked for fuel candidate submissions from the industry and Shell’s new product represents the first major oil company to announce a candidate fuel. GAMI and Swift Fuels are already well along in testing, but haven’t formally submitted to the FAA yet.

We were surprised to learn that Shell has been working the problem for a decade, but it now thinks the timing is right to move the fuel quickly through the certification process. “The FAA timelines are a little bit longer than ours. We think we can commercialize this fuel quicker than what the FAA has currently laid out,” Shea said. Shell will concentrate its testing on materials compatibility, which is always a concern with high-aromatic fuels because of potential seal and o-ring swelling caused by high concentrations of compounds such as toluene and xylene.                        

For its initial proving, Shell enlisted two OEMs, Lycoming Engines and Piper, both of whom have done basic testing on the new fuel. “From a performance perspective, it appears to be the equivalent of D-910 100LL fuel. From a materials compatibility perspective, we haven’t seen anything on the engine. But it’s beyond Lycoming’s expertise to judge that,“ said Michael Kraft, general manager of Lycoming. Kraft said Lycoming is contracted with Shell to examine and test the fuel. The company has tested the fuel in its most octane-demanding engine, the TIO-540-J2BD. Piper has flown the fuel in a Piper Saratoga.

Kraft said for Lycoming to certify fuel usage on its engines, it will need an ASTM spec for a basis. “We’re watching to see what Shell’s next step is with regard to ASTM. That will give us something to work with,” Kraft said. With an ASTM spec in hand, engine approvals are relatively straightforward for Lycoming, but the issue isn’t as simple as that. Hundreds of airframe models will also have to be approved and everyone in the industry is hoping for some kind of blanket approval.

Shea said configuring refineries to make the new fuel is essentially an overnight process. “Then the question becomes does FAA grant blanket, fleet-wide certification that would allow everyone to essentially switch overnight?,” he adds. To get as close to that as possible, Shea said Shell wants to make its replacement fuel look at much like a D-910 avgas as possible.

And what of price? “It’s a bit early stage, but our early estimates are that it will be comparable to the current leaded product,” Shea told us. “Historically, if you look where unleaded fuels have come to displace leaded fuel, the cost generally goes up a bit, but it should be within a very reasonable figure,” Shea added.

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China Opens Up For Private Pilots

On the heels of recent announcements about easier access to airspace, China on Sunday made it easier for civilians to earn private pilot privileges. Any citizen age 17 with at least a junior-high education will be eligible to apply for the training, and they can take the required tests after 40 hours of flying and 40 hours of ground school. They also must pass a physical exam. Under the old regulations, issued in 1996, the standards for private pilots were essentially the same as for commercial pilots. The change is expected to drive an upsurge in demand for general aviation aircraft in China, a market that U.S. manufacturers have long been anxious to tap.

China's Civil Aviation Authority said it was making the changes "to enable more people to be able to realize their dream of flying." The change is expected to "promote the development of China's general aviation industry, increase the talent pool for professional pilots and play a positive role." As of June 30, there were only 1,610 general aviation aircraft registered in China, compared to more than 230,000 in the U.S., according to China Daily. That difference illustrates the "huge market potential in China," said Gao Yuanyang, director of a general aviation industry research center at Beihang University. However, he warned that "reckless" construction of industrial parks to accompany every new GA airfield could lead to an investment "bubble" with an "adverse impact on the industry."

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Embraer Offers "Sky Yacht" Luxury Version Of Bizjet

Embraer is offering a "SkyYacht" model of its Lineage 1000E business jet, designed to evoke the luxury of custom yachts. The company teamed with designer Eddie Sotto, previously with Disney's Imagineering studio, to create an interior rich with wood paneling, brass fittings, and details from ancient navigation charts. Even the exterior reflects the yacht aesthetic, with "faux mahogany" across the belly and the empennage, highlighted by polished aluminum accents on the rudder and the wing leading edges. Much of the design, according to Sotto, was inspired by a custom yacht called the Thunderbird, built by master boatbuilder John Hacker in 1939.

The yacht was commissioned by George Wittell, who wanted a powerboat for use at his Lake Tahoe home to match his polished Douglas DC2. The 1000E, the largest airplane in Embraer's fleet of executive jets, is based on the E190 airliner. It has a range of 4,600 nm and sells for about $83 million. If you want one, order now and be patient -- it will take two to three years to deliver.

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Learjet 85 First Flight Imminent

Bombardier says the first flight of its Learjet 85 mostly composite business jet is imminent. Bombardier Aerospace President Guy Hachey told reporters he's traveling to Wichita this week to oversee final preparations for the flight. "I believe that we're very close but problems happen at the end, we're not going to do anything that is unsafe but we're very close," the Montreal Gazette quoted Hachey as saying. The midsize Learjet 85 has at least 30 firm orders and 20 options from fractional operator Flexjet plus a few more for a total book of about 60. Hachey said it might be a year or two before the used aircraft inventory is depleted enough for the smaller business jet sector to return to normal. And while winter in Quebec isn't known for being pleasant, the season so far has been so miserable Bombardier is considering sending its CSeries prototype to the balmier (really) climes of Wichita to maintain the test schedule.

Bombardier's test facilities at Mirabel Airport outside Montreal have been hit with a series of winter storms and been beset with low ceilings. Hachey said the weather makes it tough to rack up the hours necessary for certification testing. "If we have a week of solid snow storms here, then it's difficult to get credit because you have to have the right environment conditions," Program Manager Rob Dewar told reporters. CSeries avionics testing is also planned for Wichita.

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Video: A Visit to Hawker Pacific in Shanghai

AVweb visits Hawker Pacific in Shaghai.

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Skycatcher's Demise: Barely a Ripple

Memes are ideas, accepted wisdom and cultural touchpoints that get handed from one person to another via, well, who knows how? By e-mail, television, blogs, word of mouth. They take on a life of their own. When I ask myself how some in aviation get started, maybe I only need look in the mirror. In December 2009, I wrote this little gem about the Cessna Skycatcher: “If there’s anything that passes for conventional wisdom in the world of light sport, it’s that Cessna would dominate when it entered the market. In our view, the Skycatcher more or less confirms this.”

Yet four years later, the conventional wisdom has been turned on its head and I find myself wondering why I wrote that. So I spent last week talking to more than a dozen people about their impression of Cessna’s decision to exit the light sport business. (Note please here that Cessna hasn’t plainly said the Skycatcher won’t be built anymore; just that it has no future.)

What about this notion that when it entered the business, Cessna would—or so many people said—validate the entire light sport thing as somehow legitimate? I’m sure people told me that, which is why I felt it worthy of repeating.

“I may have heard it enough times myself that I just parroted it back,” says Flight Design’s John Gilmore. “I think everybody was maybe hoping for the resurrection of the 150.” That didn’t happen, of course, and with about 200 airframes in the field, the Skycatcher never achieved the market dominance everyone assumed it would. There are a host of reasons for this, but the overarching one is probably price. When Cessna raised the price to nearly $150,000 for an entry level airplane that had weight issues and didn’t outperform its many competitors, it gave position holders an opportunity to bail, and they did. In droves.

What are the implications for LSA at large? Not much. No one I talked to told me that Cessna’s axing of the Skycatcher resets the market. “There’s not too much rumbling going on about this,” says Dan Johnson, chairman of the Light Aircraft Manufacturers Association. “Within the industry, many had already dismissed Cessna sometime ago for the reason that the airplane never seemed to really meet what the market wanted. So I don’t think there’s any great rush to say, ‘oh great, now there’s an opportunity, or, oh dear, we don’t have the validation of Cessna being in the market anymore,” Johnson says.

A couple of dealers and Cessna Pilot Centers I contacted say they wish Cessna would have given the Skycatcher more time to mature, but none thought the $150,000 price was right; too much money for too little airplane. One dealer told me that selling the Skycatcher was tough, not so much because of the price, but because potential buyers required extensive education on the limitations of light sport, including not being able to install equipment some of them wanted in their Skycatchers. The fact that the Skycatcher sported Garmin equipment while many other LSAs don’t evidently wasn’t much of a strong selling point, say the people operating these airplanes in flight schools.

Despite its warts—and all LSAs have them—the Skycatcher gets good reviews from the people using it. It’s easy and fun to fly, economical and other than initial problems with door openings in flight and some strut beef-up work, the airplane seems to stand up to the rigors of flight training. But one operator, Jim Whitt at J.A. Air Center in Aurora, Illinois, doesn’t think the Skycatcher will prove as long-term durable as the 152 and 172. But he says it doesn’t really matter, since the airplane can be operated profitably and replaced as necessary. He’s one who thinks Cessna should have stayed with the program. In any case, he expects Cessna will continue to support the airplane and Cessna confirms this.

Cessna has traditionally owned the flight training market and for years it profitably built on the idea that if you taught people to fly with basic airplanes, they would eventually buy your bigger, high-margin models. Now that they’ve abandoned the LSA market, they’ve sent a clear message that the company is less committed to low-end training, except for those schools willing to do it in a $400,000-plus Skyhawk. And those schools are dwindling.

Frankly, I’m more worried about that segment of the market than the LSA slice. There are still plenty of companies building LSAs so buyers won’t lack for choice. And many of the schools I spoke with thought the Skycatcher wasn’t a good choice, anyway. “Nobody cares if Cessna is in the market. When Piper dropped the Piper Sport, the market didn’t hiccup and it won’t with Cessna,” says Paul Shuch, who operates a one-aircraft flight school with an Evektor on the hallowed ground of Lock Haven Airport in Pennsylvania. Even the CPCs don’t seem particularly worried, since they still have plenty of aircraft to choose from and Cessna has bunches of Skycatchers boxed up and ready to ship for anyone who wants them.

While the absence of Skycatchers might not dent the market in the slightest, I think there’s cause to worry about Cessna just losing interest in pilot training entirely. Other entities, namely Redbird, are stepping up to fill the void, but Cessna is still a big dog. All of the more than a dozen schools I talked to had either a Cessna 152 or 172, if not multiples, on the flight training and these remain popular choices. It would be a pity if Cessna prices the 172 out of the market entirely. Some say they already have, but I like to think they’ll be around for a while. At least until the next generation of light training aircraft emerge, whether from Cessna or someone else.

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

Video: How Sensenich Wooden Props Are Made

Composite props may be the latest shiny object to make airplanes go, but most of them have wood cores, and the basic wooden prop is enjoying somewhat of a resurgence.  AVweb's Paul Bertorelli took a tour of Sensenich's prop factory in Plant City, Florida to see how these products are made.

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Video: Garmin's Factory Avionics Pilot Training

Owners who are new to Garmin's GTN750/GTN650 and G500/G600 avionics systems may not realize that the company offers a training course at their Olathe, Kansas factory support center.  Aviation Consumer's Larry Anglisano recently took the class and reports on it in this AVweb video.

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