2006 Year In Review
Brisk sales, new airplanes, no hurricanes -- despite troubles in the towers, some tragic flights, and worries about the future, overall a pretty good year for general aviation. Here's our year-end review of the news.
Eclipse -- The Little Jet That Could, But Didn't (Yet)
The Eclipse crew lit a fire under the Very Light Jet (VLJ) segment some eight years ago when CEO Vern Raburn said he could build a six-seat twin-engine jet for under $1 million. This year, the Eclipse 500 jet was certified, finally, amid fanfare on the ramp at Oshkosh in late July. But that "provisional" certification was not enough to let the company start deliveries. A brand-new copy in DayJet livery was rolled out for admiration by the AirVenture masses, but the handoff never took place. On through the summer and into fall, Eclipse chipped away at the restrictions and finally got full certification on September 30. But still, deliveries did not commence. Over and over, first delivery was said to be weeks, or days, or wait, maybe just a few more days, away ... then the fleet was grounded while problems with wing fasteners and wind screens were addressed. The jets are now back in the air, but as of this writing at the tail-end of December, customers are still waiting to see their very own Eclipse jet arrive at their hangar door.
Cessna Starts Mustang Deliveries
Cessna delivered its first Mustang VLJ in November. The first of the six-seat, $2.65 million fleet went to Mustang Management Group (MMG) of Fresno, Calif. The group will lease back the aircraft to Cessna for 10 months to use as a demonstrator. MMG then plans to keep the Mustang busy with flight training. Cessna also got its FAA production certificate for the Mustang, authorizing the company to produce, flight test and grant airworthiness certificates for the jet. "All of us at Cessna are ecstatic to have these two significant milestones occur in one day -- the delivery of the first Citation Mustang and the awarding of the FAA production certificate," said Cessna CEO Jack Pelton. The first delivery to a customer who will put the Mustang into regular service is expected to take place early in 2007. Cessna plans to deliver 40 Mustangs by year's end, with production scheduled to ramp up through 2009.
HondaJet Launches Into Production Mode
Meanwhile, the HondaJet folks moved right along this year, announcing in the summer that they would form a new subsidiary, the Honda Aircraft Company, to manage the further development, promotion and production of their innovative VLJ. The new company is based at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C., where the prototype HondaJet was assembled and flight tested. An alliance with Piper Aircraft also was announced at Oshkosh. "The goal of this alliance is to provide a new level of sales and service to meet the needs of jet customers with the goal of setting a higher standard for the quality of the ownership experience," said Honda in its news release. By October, the new company was ready to start selling at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) show in Orlando, and left with 100 orders in hand. The initial price is set at $3.65 million. Both type and production certification are expected by 2010.
... And The Rest Of The VLJ Field
Spectrum Aeronautical lost its Spectrum 33 prototype and two crew members in a takeoff accident in late July after the aileron controls were mis-rigged. "Specifically, the linkage was connected such that left roll input from the side sticks would have deflected the ailerons to produce right roll of the airplane," the NTSB preliminary report said. The jet entered a right roll almost immediately after takeoff and the right wingtip impacted the ground. By October the company was saying it would not only continue the aircraft program but would also add a new midsize business twinjet called the Freedom S-40 to its product line. The Freedom is considerably larger than the Spectrum 33, which has been rebranded as the Independence S-33. Excel-Jet also lost its prototype Sport-Jet in a takeoff accident in July, though the crew survived. They came to Oshkosh anyway with the damaged fuselage on display, to show how it stood up to the crash, and announced plans to continue the program. Adam Aircraft this summer attracted $93 million in new financing to accelerate its A700 jet program, and in September got an FAA production certificate for the A500 piston twin. Aviation Technology Group is continuing the development of its sporty two-seat Javelin Jet.
Coming Soon: Next-Generation Personal Jets
It's odd that with barely a handful of VLJs in the air, manufacturers already are talking about the next generation. But so it goes in the long, slow world of new aircraft development. Diamond attracted a lot of attention this year flying its single-engine D-Jet prototype, and toured the shows with a mock-up of the cabin to let everyone get a feel for the roomy interior. Cirrus officially launched its long-whispered-about single-engine jet project in June. Calling the new model simply "The Jet," Cirrus said at NBAA in October that it has selected the 1,900-pound-thrust Williams FJ33-4A-19 turbofan as the powerplant. The jet will have an emergency recovery parachute, retractable gear, and fly up to 25,000 feet and cruise at more than 300 knots. Piper Aircraft showed a mockup of its PiperJet at NBAA, revealing a small, six-passenger jet with winglets and a tail-mounted turbofan engine. The $2.199 million jet will have a 360-knot cruise speed, 35,000-foot ceiling, 1,300-nm NBAA IFR range, 800-pound payload, and 2,500-foot takeoff distance, the company said. Maverick Jet said it will build a single-engine Solo Jet, which they say will fly 472 knots at 31,000 feet, and an "economy" version, the twin-engine SmartJet, which will go 290 knots at 22,000 feet, at half the operating cost. Both will have five seats. Target prices are $899,000 for the SmartJet, which will be certified, and $1.25 million for the single-engine, experimental Solo Jet, which offers an optional BRS full-airplane parachute.
Tide Turns On Age-60 Rule?
When FAA Administrator Marion Blakey visited Oshkosh last summer, she was asked the usual question about the age-60 rule, which requires airline pilots to retire at that age. She expressed a subtle shift in the FAA stance, which seemed to morph from the standard "give us a good reason to change it," to "give us a good reason not to." What made the difference was that in November, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was scheduled to change its rules to allow one airline pilot to be as old as 65, as long as the second crewmember is under 60. A study panel convened by the FAA in September, however, failed to reach a consensus on the issue. Airline pilot unions continue to oppose any change. At year's end, the FAA seems to be waiting for 2007 to take any further action. The coming changeover to a Democratic-controlled Congress may make a difference, depending on which way they weigh in on the issue.
NATCA, FAA Spar Over Staffing, Contract
Early in the year, the FAA trounced the feisty National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) in a standoff over a new contract. The agency quickly lost patience with negotiations and fell back on its right to send the contract to Congress instead. When Congress failed to act on it, the FAA's "last, best offer" was imposed on the union. What seemed to rankle most, beyond criticism of the FAA's apparent lack of a plan for ensuring staffing levels and the excruciatingly slow pace of technological improvement, were new "work rules" that dictate everything from dress codes to lunch breaks. As predicted, the retirement rate accelerated, but at year's end, FAA was saying it will have to cut back on hiring unless Congress does something about money. Stay tuned for an active year on this front in 2007.
American Pilots In Brazil
In late September, a Brazilian 737 and an Embraer Legacy executive jet converged at the same altitude in the skies above the Amazon jungle. The airliner, its left wing torn, fell from the sky, killing all 154 on board. The Legacy crew steered the bizjet, with damage to a winglet and the horizontal stabilizer, to a safe emergency landing at a remote air strip. The accident was the worst in Brazil's history. The American pilots' passports were confiscated and they holed up in a Rio de Janeiro hotel for over two months, as U.S. and international alphabet groups lobbied for their release. The accident led to chaos in Brazil's air traffic control system, as 10 workers were placed on leave pending the investigation, and others protested their working conditions with a slowdown. In December, the two pilots were finally allowed to leave, but told they would have to return and face criminal charges. Questions remain as to why the two airplanes were on a collision course and why neither crew was warned by the onboard traffic alert systems.
Continuing Crankshaft Woes
Crankshafts in thousands of Lycoming engines are continuing to pose problems for owners. An Airworthiness Directive issued in September required that crankshafts in 3,774 engines must be replaced. Lycoming's Service Bulletins named over 5,000 engines affected. Lycoming has offered the replacement parts at a discount but won't cover labor costs or reimburse owners for downtime expenses. Some owners protested that they should not have to bear any of the cost, lawsuits have been filed, and the issue remains in dispute.
MU2, Caravan Face Safety Concerns
The Mitsubishi MU-2B is not inherently unsafe, the FAA said in January, though an analysis found that compared to similar twin-turboprop airplanes, the MU-2B accident rate is about twice as high, the fatal rate is about 2.5 times higher, and fatal accident rates in icing conditions are four times higher. An MU-2B pilot is seven times more likely to lose control and have a fatal accident during an emergency compared to pilots flying similar airplanes in similar situations. The airplane is complex and high-performance, the FAA said, and pilots and maintenance workers need better training to properly handle and fly it. Concerns also persisted about the performance of Cessna's popular Caravan in icing conditions. The NTSB said in January that the aircraft shouldn't be allowed to fly in anything but "light" forecast ice and, that at the first sign of ice, pilots should keep airspeed at 120 knots or higher, even if it means descending. Canada's Transportation Safety Board released a similar statement in December. "This Cessna [Caravan] should not take off into anything more than light icing -- period," said Wendy Tadros, chair of the Canadian safety board.
New Single-Engine Piston Aircraft
The introduction of new aircraft to the market is a long, slow process, but Cessna kicked it off this year by introducing its long-rumored Next-Generation Piston (NGP) single-engine four-seater. At Oshkosh, the prototype did a quick, surprise flyby, but didn't stop. In November, at the AOPA Expo, Cessna showed a mock-up of the design. The company said it anticipates a launch decision for the NGP program by early 2007, which would be followed by an 18-month certification schedule if given the green light.
LoPresti Aviation announced over the summer that it will introduce the LoPresti Fury, a sporty two-seat airplane that cruises at about 175 knots. The airplanes are expected to sell for about $295,000. LoPresti is building a new 100,000-square-foot production plant in central New Mexico. A couple of existing designs were tweaked, as Columbia and Mooney fought for first place as fastest piston single, at 230 knots plus. At years' end, it was rumored that Diamond was working on a fast, new design, perhaps a piston version of the D-Jet.
LSA -- More Models To Choose From, Brisk Sales
Cessna also dominated the Light Sport Aircraft news, bringing its new LSA prototype to Oshkosh, where it was kept on the ground and behind barriers, far from curious eyes. By October, it was flying, and visitors to AOPA Expo in November got a closer look at it. CEO Jack Pelton said he hopes to bring it to market at a price point below $100,000.
Van's Aircraft, which has sold thousands of kit airplanes, brought out its RV-12 at Oshkosh, and had it flying by November. It has two side-by-side seats, an all-metal airframe, and a Rotax 912S 100-hp engine. Sales are expected by late 2007, at the earliest. Overall, development and sales in the LSA sector were strong, with the number of approved aircraft up to 38 by July, a pace of two new airplanes a month since the year before.
From January to July, about 500 LSAs were delivered in the U.S., and about 500 more were expected be in pilots' hands by the end of the year, LSA spokesman Dan Johnson told AVweb. With many manufacturers working now to ramp up production capacity, deliveries for 2007 could easily total 1,500 or even 2,000, Johnson said. In October, the swoopy-looking Nexaer LSA joined the small but growing field of made-in-the-USA sport aircraft, with its first flight in Peyton, Colo. The launch was seen as a step ahead for U.S. designs to compete with the European imports that have dominated the category since it was approved two years ago.
GA Aircraft On Track For Record Sales
Existing GA models sold well this year, on track to break records when the numbers were added up in June. "This is the highest recorded billings for the first half of a year in general aviation's history," said Pete Bunce, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). Industry billings rose 35 percent over last year. The biggest increase was in business-jet sales, which rose 28 percent to 415 units, but shipments of piston-powered airplanes were up 17 percent from the same period last year, to 1,270 units. Turboprop shipments rose 12 percent, to 158. "High corporate profits and high commodity prices, coupled with emerging market growth, have produced a likely all-time market high this year -- 901 planes worth $13.6 billion -- with further growth likely into 2007," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for the Teal Group. Final numbers for 2006 should be reported later this month.
Green Goes Mainstream
Maybe it was former Vice President Al Gore and his PowerPoint. Maybe it was those pictures of melting glaciers at Kilimanjaro and starving polar bears at the North Pole. Or maybe it was the pain in the pocket caused by hiked-up fuel prices ... but whatever prompted it, 2006 was the year that concerns about carbon emissions and global climate change got serious. Aviation was called to account for its impact on the environment, especially in the U.K. and Europe. Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, pledged to spend $3 billion on research into alternative fuels. Late in the year, he also started work on a program to cut emissions right now by using aircraft more efficiently. Companies offering "carbon offset schemes," some aimed at bizjet and even piston operators, sprang up on just about every virtual street corner, promising to clean up after us in various ways. And virtually every story about new technology research included an angle on how the next generation of aircraft will be quieter, way more efficient, cleaner, and better for the planet.
Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and an instructor were killed when their Cirrus SR22 crashed into a Manhattan skyscraper in October. The accident drew intense media scrutiny. Pilot Scott Crossfield, famous as the first man to fly at Mach 2 and an accomplished test pilot with a long and colorful career, died when the Cessna 210A he was flying went down in a thunderstorm in April. He was 84. Ron Bertram, president of AOPA Australia, died in the crash of a Lancair 360 homebuilt near Sydney, in April. Bertram was taking the 360 for a test flight after some maintenance work. On August 27, a Comair CRJ-100 crashed in Lexington, Ky., after the crew attempted to take off from the wrong runway. Only the first officer survived, the 49 others on board were killed. In December, the NTSB said all airline flight crews should check the runway heading before departure. Rotax's REV V6 engine, which had been under development for a while and looked forward to with considerable interest, was shelved by BRP-Rotax in November. "Management decided to concentrate the company's core activities on powersports products," said Gerd Ohrnberger, general manager of BRP-Rotax. In September, the U.S. Air Force destroyed 110 single-engine trainers that it bought for $32 million then grounded due to safety concerns. One of the two flying Grob SPn Utility Jets flying prototypes was destroyed during a demonstration flight in Germany in November. The test pilot was killed.
The Power Of Pixels
Among all the amazing, outrageous, sad, compelling, frustrating, and fascinating stories we covered this year, one stood out for showing us that all this effort really can affect events in the real world. Texas inventor and industrialist Joe Jamieson pledged $2 million toward a $3 million project to help return the Commemorative Air Force's B-29 Fifi -- the world's only flyable B-29 -- to flying condition. And it turns out that this came to pass because Mr. Jamieson read about the B-29's plight in AVweb, and contacted the CAF to see if he could help. As great as it is to know we keep readers informed, it's even better to think we can inspire them to do something they would never have thought to do, if they hadn't been AVweb subscribers.
Hints For The Future
A few stories that were simmering for much of this year promise to be in the headlines for 2007. Foremost is the problem of how to fund the FAA into the future, and what changes or user fees might lie ahead. The new Congress will have to wrangle with that, one way or another. Another long-term concern, the low number of new pilot starts, will likely get lots of attention in the coming year, as AOPA has pledged to make it a top-priority effort. The LSA sector is continuing to grow, with more models made in the USA coming on the market. Fractional ownership plans, for everything from jets to sport aircraft, are growing more varied and widespread. In 2007 we should finally start to see VLJs getting to work, and find out how that will affect the rest of us sharing the airways, and which of the various air-taxi concepts will (or won't) succeed with the traveling public. All year long, our AVweb crew will be working nonstop to keep you informed. Watch for daily updates to our Web site and our twice-weekly AVwebFlash newsletter and podcasts. We have lots of coverage ahead in 2007, and hope to see you there.
Et Cetera ...
The Airbus 380 behemoth was certified jointly in Europe and the U.S. in December ...
Mooney CEO Gretchen Jahn left that job in October but stayed on to see the Acclaim through to certification. Dennis Ferguson was named the new CEO ...
Mary Peters succeeded the retiring Norman Mineta as Secretary of Transportation ...
NATCA President John Carr lost his reelection campaign, and was replaced by Pat Forrey in September ...
Chicago had to repay the FAA $1 million in airport funds for closing down Meigs Field ...
Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson reached 50,699 feet in a glider over the Andes, setting a world record ...
Arizona pilots are dealing with sharing their airspace with unmanned aerial vehicles ...
Raytheon Aircraft Corp. was sold for $3.3 billion in December to Hawker Beechcraft Corp., a newly formed joint venture between Onex and GS Capital Partners ...
On Christmas Day, Embry-Riddle's Daytona Beach campus was hit by tornadoes, destroying most of its airplane fleet.
AVweb's overviews of aviation news from previous years:
More news features are available here.