AVwebBiz - Volume 13, Number 9

February 25, 2014

Lithium Ion Battery Certified For Light Aircraft

The FAA and EASA have certified the first lithium ion battery for engine start and main ship use in light aircraft. Mid-Continent Instrument announced at HAI Heli-Expo Tuesday that the TrueBlue TB17, a 17 amp hour battery designed for piston and light turbine aircraft, is now available for OEMs to incorporate into new aircraft. The battery will not be available as an aftermarket item, at least at first. The company is also developing a 44 amp hour lithium ion battery for the business jet market. The batteries were announced at NBAA in Las Vegas last October and featured in an AVweb Audio podcast.

The batteries are about 45 percent lighter than lead-acid batteries, charge faster and last longer, according to the company. Although they cost more initially, Mid-Continent says they cost less overall because of their longer life and because they need less frequent maintenance. The fast charge adds a level of safety because full battery power is available shortly after startup in case of an engine or alternator failure early in the flight. Lithium ion batteries have been in the news because of fire problems on Boeing 787s but Mid-Continent says its stable "nanophosphate" chemistry and multiple redundant layers of protection against overcharging and overheating make them safe. No OEMs have announced they'll be using the new batteries but Mid-Continent officials said at NBAA there had been interest.

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Job Cuts Hit Sikorsky, Qantas

Qantas is expected to cut up to 5,000 jobs, including pilots, and sell off its terminal lease at the Melbourne airport as it struggles to get out of debt, according to media reports this week. An official announcement from the airline is expected on Thursday. A Qantas spokesman wouldn't comment on the speculation, but said the airline will have to make "some tough decisions" to cut $2 billion in expenses over the next three years. The airline sunk into debt by adding capacity ahead of passenger demand while the economy failed to rally, according to The Australian. In the U.S., helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky also is continuing to reduce jobs, with 600 cuts announced on Friday.

The cuts at Sikorsky follow 200 layoff notices sent last July, and 200 more in September. The company cited the "challenging and unstable economic conditions that continue to affect our industry." The U.S. military has cut back on its orders for Black Hawk helicopters, cutting Sikorsky's sales by hundreds of millions of dollars. Recent reports have claimed that parent company United Technologies may be looking for a buyer for Sikorsky, but the company has declined to comment.

Defense Cuts Target A-10, U-2

U-2 spy plane

Secretary Hagel

Under a proposed new budget for the U.S. Department of Defense announced on Monday, the Air Force would shut down its fleet of A-10 "Warthog" close air support aircraft and also would retire the U-2 spy plane. Funding would be continued to develop the new Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new aerial refueling tanker, and the unmanned Global Hawk system. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also recommended investing $1 billion in "a promising next-generation jet engine technology," which should provide savings in fuel and maintenance costs. He also recommended changes in the National Guard's helicopter fleet.

A-10

"We've recommended Army Guard Apache attack helicopters be transferred to active-duty units," he said. The active Army will transfer Black Hawk helicopters to the National Guard, and the Kiowas and the Jet Ranger training helicopters used at Fort Rucker will be retired. The active Army's overall fleet would decrease by about 25 percent, and the Guard's fleet of helicopters would decline by 8 percent, Hagel said. The budget proposals now go to Congress, where some of the cuts are expected to meet opposition.

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Helicopter Sales Remain Strong

The bright spot in the bleak aviation market of the past five years has been helicopters and there's no sign of their continued strong performance abating. In its annual five-year forecast for the industry announced at the opening of the Helicopter Association International Heli-Expo convention in Anaheim, Calif., Honeywell said that while the market will shift some, sales will remain strong. The company predicts worldwide demand for civilian use helicopters at between 4,800 and 5,500 through 2018 with large fleet operator requirements offsetting a slightly softening market in other sectors. Latin America leads the world in new purchase rates and 32 percent of operators will be replacing existing aircraft or adding new ones in the next five years.

More than 25 percent of North American operators are planning purchases and about 23 percent of European companies will be buying new helicopters. "Global demand looks steady on the heels of strong 2013 performance," said Tom Hart, Honeywell's VP of defense and space sales. He also noted that a spate of new aircraft announcements in recent years is helping to drive interest and demand.

Heli-Expo Focus Is On Safety

Heli-Expo is under way this week in Anaheim, Calif., and safety is a major theme. The FAA just last week released its final rule on helicopter safety, which requires helicopter operators, including air ambulances, to have stricter flight rules and procedures, more on-board safety equipment, and improved communications and training. The NTSB this week issued two helicopter Safety Alerts to promote proper maintenance and simulator training, and the board said its session at the Expo on Monday morning, on "Lessons Learned from Helicopter Accidents," drew a full house. Helicopter Association International, host of the event, on Monday launched its "Land and Live" program to promote safe decision-making. "The philosophy is simple," said HAI president Matt Zuccaro. "As I read many helicopter accident reports, had the pilot made a precautionary landing at some point, the accident never would have happened."

In industry news at the show, AgustaWestland brought its complete family of new-generation helicopters, including the AW189, newly certified by EASA earlier this month. Bell Helicopter reported on progress for its newest products, the Bell SLS and Bell 525 Relentless. Airbus Helicopter brought a full-scale mockup of its next-generation EC175, which received EASA certification in January, and also announced it's developing an upgraded version of its EC225 Super Puma, the EC225e, in response to operatorsí requirements for extended-range missions.†Erickson Air Crane announced it is re-branding, and will now be known simply as Erickson, reflecting its recent efforts to expand and diversify.

Bell Helicopter Introduces New Jet Ranger X

Bell Helicopter unveiled a new short light single class helicopter, the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X, at the Heli-Expo in Anaheim, Calif., on Tuesday. The five-seat turbine helicopter is designed to be safe, easy to fly, and affordable, according to Bell. "It's an exciting time to be at Bell Helicopter, working side-by-side with our customers to create the next generation of vertical lift," said CEO John Garrison. "Throughout our entire planning and development process, we are engaging our customers." The Jet Ranger X is a multi-mission helicopter, designed to support a wide variety of operations categories, including the utility segment, corporate and private owners, and training schools.

The helicopter can cruise at 125 knots, fly up to 360 nautical miles nonstop and carry a useful load of 1,500 pounds, according to Bell. The aircraft features a Turbomeca Arrius 2R engine, dual channel FADEC, a Garmin G1000H integrated avionics suite, and a high-inertia rotor system. The cabin features a fully flat floor and clamshell doors. The company is taking orders now, and expects first flight later this year.

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Business Jet Activity On The Rise

Analysts keep finding good news about the business jet market and the latest is UBS's David Strauss, who says there's a sustained uptick in business jet activity in the U.S. The Wichita Eagle says Strauss figures the use of newer business jets is almost back to "pre-crisis levels" and that use of older airplanes is still in decline. That could point to a general loosening of the market as companies who have made do with their older jets get ready to kick the tires on the latest and greatest. The Eagle said Strauss reported that bizjet activity had grown at a "solid rate" for six of the seven months prior to the end of January 2014

As expected, the bigger the business jet, the more it flew. UBS said long-range business jets flew an average of 11 percent more in January of 2014 compared to the same month in 2013 and mid-sized aircraft saw a 4 percent jump. While light jets have generally suffered in such comparisons, Strauss said even they saw a 2 percent uptick. Embraer continues to add to its fleet in North America and flights by its jets were up 30 percent year over year in January.

Abu Dhabi Air Expo Grows

More than 17,000 people are expected to attend the Abu Dhabi Air Expo in the United Arab Emirates through Thursday. The show began Tuesday and is in its third year. A total of 170 exhibitors are at the event, which bills itself as the largest display of general aviation aircraft in the Middle East. "The show helps to significantly boost the footprint of general aviation industry in Abu Dhabi, which forms part of an ongoing effort to support the development of new business sectors and diversify the Emirates' economy," said Ali Majed Al Mansoori, chairman of Abu Dhabi Airports.

The show is held at Al Bateen Executive Airport, which is the region's only purpose-built GA airport. The airport saw 5,138 aircraft in 2013. All the usual business aviation exhibitors are involved in the show, which has shown sustained growth over its brief history. "The private aviation market is witnessing tremendous growth in Abu Dhabi and the wider region, and the numbers speak for themselves,Ē Al Mansoori said.

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Niches Within Niches

If youíve been paying attention to our news columns, youíve noticed that new aircraft sales have rebounded in late 2013 and early 2014, although they remain a far cry from the last spike in volume in 2007. For example, Cirrus was happy to report 276 aircraft sold in 2013, a nice bump from 2012, but just over a third of the 710 airplanes it sold in 2007. Piper and Diamond are also seeing an uptick. Thatís all good news.

But prices of new aircraft remain in the stratosphere, so the universe of buyers who can afford new is vanishingly small. On a planet with 7.2 billion people, the entire GA industry found 933 buyers to write a check for a new piston airplane in 2013. Tall cotton we ainít. Piston GA continues its devolution deeper into being a niche within niche, even if some of us imagine there is some sure-fire thing we need to do to reverse this to return to the salad days of 2007, if not 1978. In my increasingly grim view, demographics and wealth trends define this fantasy as utter futility. Even narrowly potent marketing efforts are shoveling thimbles full of sand against a tsunami of disinterest in spending large portions of ever-more-distressed disposable income on airplanes and flying. Iím not the guy to pretend the romance is still there.

So, as markets always do, GA is beginning to embrace its nichedom in the form of modest refurb projects that offer better value than new airplanes do. I reported on this last fall†and this trend continues to trickleónot torrentóalong, with this weekís announcement of a Cessna 172 diesel project from Premier Aircraft in Fort Lauderdale. Premier can best be described as an all-purpose professional sales and mod house run by people whose sales experience dates to when 172s had straight tails. Iíve known the principals there for years.

Premierís diesel conversion idea is similar to the Redbird Redhawk.†Theyíre converting used 172s (Rs and Ss) to the Continental Centurion 2.0 diesel and offering upgraded avionics packages. The two programs vary in detail and focus, but only by degree. The overarching point is that theyíre refurbing existing airframes and bringing them up to new standards for a price about two thirds of new. Redbird hasnít set a final price yet, but Jerry Gregoire told me it wonít be any more than $249,000. My current guess would be about $230,000. In this news story and accompanying podcast, Premierís Art Spengler predicted a $289,000 fly away price or theyíll convert an ownerís existing 172 to the Centurion diesel for about $95,000. Just in case youíre wondering, in another example of how the industry abuses its customers, thereís currently no way to convert a G1000 Skyhawk to diesel.†

Coincidentally, the evening before Premier made its announcement, I was giving a presentation on dieselnomics to the local airport association. A 172 owner told me he was interested in the diesel conversion and asked what I thought it would cost. When I said around $100,000, he drew a sharp breathóa perfectly understandable response. He could re-engine his Skyhawk with a Lycoming for a quarter the cost. But this is where niche psychology kicks in. Because owning an airplane is an economically irrational act at any level, some owners will go with the diesel anyway for the novelty, for the economy, for curiosity.

There wonít be hundreds of such buyers, but there will be dozens and any business plying this nicheóPremier or anyone elseócan probably make acceptable profits on dozens of sales, not multiple dozens. Redbird envisions larger volume, but the core of its approach is the flight training market, with a tilt toward leasing and power by the hour--yet another niche. Looking at this globally, I think Continental is going to need more than the sum of these niches to make the Centurion truly viable. They need OEM business. But re-engining is a start.

While the Centurion diesel promises lower operating costs, albeit at a higher initial investment, Iím not sure thereís anything magical about its appeal in a refurb market. I see another opportunity in early G1000 Skyhawks which are selling used in the mid-$150,000 range. And there are a lot of them. I can see a niche there in refurbing them with a fresh Lycoming, new upholstery, distinctive paint and an ADS-B unit like Garminís GDL 88 with internal WAAS or perhaps a yet-to-appear ADS-B Out solution. Figuring out a mogas STC for these aircraft wouldnít hurt. (Lycoming already approves the engine for 93 AKI.)

For what itís worth, such an airplane would probably sell in the $225,000 to $250,000 range, which is where the other refurbs are priced. Coincidentally, when Cessna was enjoying the fat part of the Skyhawk market in 2006 and 2007, those airplanes went out the door for between $200,000 and $250,000. That was a different economic era, to be sure, but I wonder if thereís a price/value departure at a quarter of a million? Does the buyer curve drop off sharply at that point? Could be.

Even if thatís true, I donít imagine Cessna will ever reduce Skyhawk prices to under $300,000 if it even could, which I doubt. A loaded 2014 Cirrus SR22 is well into the mid-$600,000 range. In 2007, the typical SR22 cost $371,000. Thereís no chance weíll see that kind of price again, so thereís probably a budding Cirrus refurb opportunity, too, especially on the early SR22s.

As for the 172 archetype, it remains popular as a basic airplane. Is it because itís an easy-to-fly and cheap-to-operate high-wing or because itís a Cessna? Probably a little of both, even if Cessna isnít doing much these days to burnish its brand. There are a couple of test cases out there to challenge the Hawk. The Tecnam P-2010 is a high-wing, four-place airplane thatís faster than the 172 and has a third door to the backseat. But at $365,000 for a G1000 version, itís as expensive as a Skyhawk. Then thereís the Flight Design C4, which is similarly a four-place high-wing, but one that is at least initially priced, with glass, at $250,000, that imaginary magic number. Both of these would-be Skyhawk challengers have traditional gasoline engines; the P-2010 has a Lycoming IO-360-M1A, the C4 a six-cylinder Continental IO-360AF. Significantly, both of these engines are mogas approved which has sales appeal everywhere in the world except, it seems, in the U.S. Here. we like to bitch about high fuel prices without doing much about demanding mogas as a cheaper alternative.

How about the Centurion for these airplanes? Maybe, maybe not. Iíd be surprised if Continental hasnít discussed this with Flight Design. In Europe and Asia, mogas appears to be more of a player than it is in the U.S., at least for now. On a strictly operating-cost basis, mogas competes favorably with diesel, without giving up either payload or speed, both of which the diesel choice may force. On the other hand, in some parts of the world, diesel is more widely available than mogas, both on and off airports.

As interested bystanders, we make great sport in bashing engine and airframe companies for their idiotic marketing decisions. But when you consider the variables, the marketís mile-wide shallowness and the fickle nature of buyers, Iím sometimes surprised the industry sells as much as it does.

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Podcast: Private Airport Owners Seek Help

The Bower family of Gualala, California would like nothing better than to keep their private, public-use airport open ó but since they don't fly themselves, they're hoping those with some skin in the game will pay the $60,000 necessary for repairs. †AVweb's Russ Niles spoke with Julie Bower about the unique situation in a remote corner of Mendocino County.

Video: Why This Landing Went Wrong

St. Barts, in the eastern Caribbean, is famous for having a short, narrow runway with a tall hill off one end. †It's tricky to get into, and more than one pilot has come to grief in trying. †In this video, AVweb's Paul Bertorelli reviews a landing that went wrong and why.

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