Motor Head #8: Return from Oshkosh -- Engines in the Headlines

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Oshkosh was a good destination for the engine lover last month. New airframes sometimes inspire new powerplants, and even the big boys had some R&D news, as AVweb's Marc Cook explains in this month's Motor Head column.

Motor Head

No doubt you've read plenty here and elsewhere about the 2005 edition of EAA's AirVenture -- something we who have to work it just call "Oshkosh" -- and I'm happy to add to the coverage because, for fans of internal combustion, it was a pretty good show.

Yes, it's true that Honda's nifty jet, the pair of Eclipse jets doing flybys, and the much-anticipated arrival of SpaceShipOne hanging like fruit about to drop from White Knight formed the highlights of a packed show for most. I bet Garmin just about paid for development of the extremely desirable, weather-enabled 396 handheld from sales at the show; by Wednesday, they were just about impossible to find.

And, in truth, there weren't really any huge, earth-shattering stories to emerge from Oshkosh on the engine side. No mention of perpetual motion, no 500-hp turbines the size of a toaster that run 10,000 hours between overhauls on three gallons per hour, no miracle oil that can stop engine wear in its tracks. (And, truth be told, had anyone the temerity to stand up in the front of the usually sweltering press tent and announce such a thing, I'd have snorted out loud.)

What The Big Guns Have To Say

News from the Big Two, Continental and Lycoming, was a mixed bag.

From Lycoming came the announcement that it is entering the kit-engine business for experimentals in a program that sees five selected shops around the country responsible for the build-up of experimental-class engines for homebuilts. This is a significant shift and, I think, a smart one for the company.

For years, the choice for a homebuilt boiled down to three: Buy new (which, until recently, hardly anyone did because of the high cost), find a used but otherwise stock, certified engine donated by a crunched Cessna or Piper, or scrounge for the pieces and have a local shop do the assembly. This last option has evolved into a network of many smaller shops -- and some big ones, like Mattituck -- creating custom engines out of mostly new parts. (Some have had to send hard-to-get parts out for overhaul, but insist on new limits, so it's safe to assume that these custom engines were just about all new.)

Lycoming, properly, recognized that there are some buyers who just don't want a bone-standard factory engine. They're willing to spend as much or more than a factory-built powerplant to get the options they want, which include different cylinder assemblies, alternate ignition and induction systems, and a basic variety of configurations. Savvy builders have very specific desires: "I want a parallel-valve, 180-hp engine with an Airflow Performance injection on a front-facing mount, Bendix mags, a counterweighted crank, Dynafocal II mounts, aftermarket cylinders and a higher compression ratio," one might say. It's possible this combination largely exists among Lycoming's huge number of engine variants, but often it does not. The independent builders have stepped in to fill the need, and have done a terrific job.

What Lycoming has done is come to the rational conclusion that there's a market for custom engines, and it might as well have a piece of it. So five shops -- Aerosport Power, Barrett Precision Engines, G&N Aircraft, Teledyne Mattituck Services and Triad Aviation -- will start selling Lycoming kit engines. Part of the program is a new flexibility in ordering. The shops can specify certain combinations of parts that don't appear in nature. Lycoming then creates a parts sheet and fills the order. The local shop takes the parts and builds you an engine.

The restrictions aren't, however, trivial. You must use all Lycoming parts. So if you're a fan of ECI's or Superior's cylinders, sorry; you'll have to wait until it's time to top the engine before you can make the change. (Of course, you could do it sooner, but the shops are obliged to send the engine out only with Lycoming components.) There will be no porting, polishing, hopping up, or other miracle aftermarket ministrations. These engines will be essentially factory powerplants built outside the factory.

The next few months will show us if Lycoming has made a good move. The engine shops now have a fighting chance at the buyer who wants a mainly stock engine, and at least these five companies now have an unprecedented amount of support from Williamsport. I'm also told, on the quiet, that the pricing structure, which Lycoming has not revealed to the press, is such that the shops can remain profitable while being price competitive with shops building engines from aftermarket parts. One area where Lycoming's kit engine program has the leg up is the variety of powerplants. The market up to now has concentrated on the parallel-valve 320- and 360-cubic-inch engines, and is starting to open up to a few varieties of angle-valve 360s as well as the six-cylinder models. (Heck, six or eight years ago, no one really was interested in 540s for the experimental market; but one airplane, the Van's RV-10, has spurred something of a frenzy for this engine family, and I know that the major aftermarket players would dearly love to have their own versions of this engine. It's only a matter of time.)

Other news from Lycoming isn't really news at all, but it's now official that roller tappets are part of every kit engine and are an option on a great many factory new and overhauled engines. I sure hope Lycoming and subcontractor Delphi have done their homework on this technology, because there are about to be a ton of roller tappets and their special camshafts out in the world.

At Last, Some R&D

The final bit of news from the gray-engine company is that it's embarked on a new phase of research and development for its engine. No, I'm not talking about all-new diesels or rotaries or anything that you would not recognize as a plain-Jane Lycoming; instead, the company is talking about developments inside our otherwise conventional engines, centering on combustion-chamber design and extending to new (for them) construction methods and materials. Lycoming's brass would not be drawn out on the specifics, but it's a widely held belief that the company had help from no less an engineering powerhouse than Toyota. I know of one well-known airplane undergoing testing with some of these new components, and the early indications are promising.

I consider this to be tremendously good news. It's long been my belief that there's nothing inherently wrong with the engine designs; pound for pound, they make very good power and have, when set up and operated properly, extremely good fuel specifics. A slow-turning, high-torque, direct-drive aircraft engine is still a viable design, in my view, wanting only to take advantage of some recent discoveries in combustion-chamber design -- all fueled, by the way, on automotive research looking for increased efficiency (better fuel mileage) and reduced emissions. Give our "legacy" engines good fuel control, properly designed baffling -- some of the original-equipment stuff is just dreadful, some quite good, even among the newest designs on the market -- and an adaptive ignition system, and you'll find they are as full of life as a coffee-chomping puppy.

OK, one last thing on Lycoming, and we'll move on. I hadn't met Lycoming's new general manager, Ian Walsh, until Oshkosh. I'd had a few telephone interviews with him, and -- wishing no offense, Mr. Walsh -- was slightly put off by the MBA speak. But I've met the man, spent a bit of time with him, and, just as importantly, shared a beer or two with his management staff, and raised my opinion of the whole affair. Walsh is clearly a fixer, someone brought in to see what can be done. I get the impression that Textron has given him quite a bit of financial rope, something he's wrapping around new programs and R&D. I can't say enough about the importance of manufacturers like Lycoming (and Continental) keeping on the R&D trail. It's been years since anything truly new has come from either company, and even now products like the IO-390-X, Lycoming's bored-out, angle-valve 360 for the experimental market, are just developments of familiar themes.

Both companies have to get on the stick if they want to retain their place in the industry. More than ever, I think the time is coming for new manufacturers, with new engine designs, to make inroads. You need only look at Diamond, an innovative company unafraid to try new engines, too see where it's going. The company's Twin Star, powered by the Thielert four-cylinder turbodiesel, was shown at Oshkosh with a pair of 360-cube Lycomings. (It looked good, too, even if the air inlets reminded me of Michael Schumacher's 1996 Ferrari F310.) It's hardly a fair fight, as the Lycoming has 360 horses total to the diesel's 270, but it's important to note that Diamond is willing to experiment with different powerplants on a given airframe. Could you imagine Beech -- sorry, I just can't call it Raytheon -- offering your choice of IO-550 Continental or IO-540 Lycoming in your new Bonanza?

Continental Says ...

Continental O-200

TCM's announcement for the show was that the venerable O-200 was going back into production for the new Light Sport aircraft. Somehow I doubt that Rotax is worried about its almost complete lock on the LSA market with the excellent -- if slightly expensive, thanks to the exchange rates -- 912UL (80 hp) and 912S (100 hp) powerplants.

As for Continental's linkup with Honda on the four-cylinder engine shown two years ago, there are conflicting indications. On one hand, a company rep., as reported here on AVweb, said, "The piston engine is still alive. It's still in the research and development phase ... we're very conservative." Without the context of the quote, I can't tell if he means that this engine is still alive, or an engine is alive. Semantics sometimes have sharp teeth.

Nonetheless, rumors I hear from multiple sources indicate that this particular little engine is essentially dead. Write it off as a marketing trial and, perhaps, a bit of preparatory work for Honda's engineers. And yet a collection of whispers and off-the-record comments from elsewhere -- beyond the company rep. quoted above -- suggest that Honda has definitely not given up on building its own piston aircraft engine, but merely will take another tack. I can't wait to see what the engineers come up with.

As I've said before, I don't doubt for a minute that Honda has plans for aviation that won't be public for many years to come, and I don't doubt that Toyota is right in there, too. In fact, this comes from someone intimately familiar with one of the projects: "Don't underestimate the competitive nature of these two companies. It's not just business to them, it's a kind of war." Could it be that Honda's jet is a preemptive strike on the light-jet market and that Toyota could decide to strike where Honda is not; i.e., at the high end of the piston market? Make no mistake about it: When either of these companies decides to jump in, there won't be an early announcement, followed by years of progress reports that finally (hopefully) culminate in the launch of a product that's by then so familiar we're all bored with it. It will simply happen, and we'll stand there at Oshkosh with slack jaws.

Other Possibilities

Early in the show, I made a beeline for the Bombardier tent, which had no airplane in front -- the Murphy Moose is still flying, but wasn't at the show -- but a pile of engine parts. Oh, and a new name: Aircraft Engine Services, which is the marketing and development arm here in the U.S. for Rotax.

The engine on display had been through a 1000-hour test run on the dyno and, for the parts that were on display, showed promising wear properties. I applaud AES for going the extra distance and making sure the engine has been thoroughly tested in the lab. However, what that doesn't tell us is a lot about how the engine will fare out in the real world, where pilots run the engine for a few minutes from hangar to fuel farm, then fly for a few hours, and then park it for three weeks. Aviation history is full of examples of airplanes and engines that worked great in the lab -- on the test stand or in maximum-effort flight test -- that turned out to have significant problems in the real world.

I'm told that AES's current low-profile approach won't last and that a bona fide airframe manufacturer is about to announce that either the V220 or the V300 -- two versions of the same 189-cubic-inch V-6, one turbocharged and one not -- will be available on a new production airplane. AES's reps would not so much as hint at which manufacturer that would be, but did say that pilots everywhere would recognize the name.

So who could it be?

Let's eliminate a couple right off the bat. I don't think it's Beech or Cessna. Beech's product development at the moment centers on getting glass panels into the piston models; I just don't see the company investing in wholesale airframe developments. In fact, I'm fairly surprised that Beech hasn't been sold off by now. You can swipe Cessna off the list, not just because its parent company also owns Lycoming, but because of what I interpret as its inherently conservative culture. (This from a company that, 50 years ago, would try just about anything: a push-pull twin, a geared engine in a lightweight single, a military trainer jet.)

I would be slightly surprised to see the launch customer be Piper, as I understand that the company is still working hard to keep up in a softish economy and after hurricane damage at the plant. However, I understand that the turbocharger used on the AES V300 engine is sufficiently large to supply a pressurization system. Is there an outside shot that the Malibu will get its fourth different engine? (That's counting both piston versions and the Meridian, but not the aftermarket offerings.) I've flown Malibus, and like the design a lot; but the airplane's high-altitude efficiency makes Flight Level flying not just desirable but preferable, which in turn puts a lot of strain on the existing piston engines. A liquid-cooled, turbocharged, FADEC-controlled engine with ample compressor output could be just the ticket.

OK, next: Mooney? I give the company an outside shot at this. It's suddenly healthy under new management, and selling a good number of airplanes. If it's to compete against Cirrus and Columbia (nee Lancair), it will need more than the legacy of Al Mooney's design skills and a Garmin G1000 package. Fitting the V300 would be a lot of work, and Mooney might just be sufficiently gun-shy after the Porsche-engine program, to hesitate. But they all laughed when the aftermarket shoehorned a big-block Continental onto the M20J airframe, saying it violated the economical spirit of the M20. I guess that's why the Ovation has been so popular, eh?

Cirrus and Columbia could be on that list as well, but I'd say the Bend contingent is more likely to jump. Cirrus has a lot invested in the development of the SR series, and is known as an innovator. Even so, there's some evidence to suggest that an AES/Cirrus relationship has not been made. If innovation is indeed the Cirrus calling card, a good way for Columbia to steal a march -- now that the company is sufficiently funded and really getting production together -- would be to offer some truly new technology under the hood. And then as soon as I think that, it occurs to me that developing a new engine installation is the last thing a company only recently standing on its own needs to tackle. (Remember, this is all barroom speculation at this point.)

Finally, there's Diamond. A colleague pointed out that the company is ever eager to innovate, and is forward-thinking enough to put its bad service experience with Rotax behind it. Couldn't you just see a stretched DA40 Diamond Star with the V220? Or a retractable version -- all the parts are there in the DA42 -- using the turbocharged engine? It wouldn't be a slam dunk by any means -- developing new aircraft never is -- but it's certainly in the realm of possibility.

Shifting Sands

I think we're finally there, in the transition point from the legacy airframers -- Beech, Cessna, Mooney, Piper -- to the young guns -- Cirrus, Columbia, Diamond, (and Van's?) -- and there's no reason engine design can't come along with it. After all, a big part of why we continue along with the familiar aircraft engines is that the airframes were built for them. That the Twin Star has successfully used both the Thielert and the Lycoming is an indication that it can be done -- aided, of course, by the fact that the pod on a twin doesn't have to conform to the shape of the cockpit -- and I'm ever more convinced that they won't be the only ones. It's safe to assume that Continental and Lycoming (and Honda and Toyota) fully understand the dynamic. Now let's see what they do about it.


Got motors on your mind? Check out the rest of Marc's columns.