Motor Head #14: Future Tech -- So Much Bunk Until We Get an Engine

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You've seen the stories about great airplanes we could have if only those ''heads-in-the-sand'' airplane manufacturers would listen to some crazy, basement inventor. Takes a lot more than an idea to fly a plane, says AVweb's Marc Cook.

Motor Head

Like the changing of seasons, I imagine this scene happens at regular intervals through the year: The managing editor of some large technology magazine catches a story on the net about some crazy aviation idea that could revolutionize the industry, make flying possible for every man, woman and (quite possibly) child on the planet with the desire and modest means. This new technology shows tremendous promise in testing and, if applied correctly (presumably by people smarter and more forward-looking than we have in aviation right now) will make possible light, strong, smart, cheap, uncrashable airplanes that will finally break us free of the parking boot of ground-based transportation and finally (finally!) put us into the realm of The Jetsons.

This magazine staffer takes the idea to the editor-in-chief, who sees a big "future think" cover as a potential seller; the piece is commissioned, bright minds are consulted and a savvy, phrase-turning journalist joins the elements together along with some spiffy CAD drawings and wispy sketches that would make Carl Sagan grin like a Queen Air owner who just found somebody else's credit card lodged in the self-serve pump.

The result will probably be something like I found in my dentist's office -- no kidding -- on the pages of Popular Mechanics. The cover story for July looked at promising new technologies that included synthetic-vision instruments -- some of which I've flown, and wouldn't launch into IMC with until I had, oh, about 20 hours behind the screen -- self-healing composite structures, and adaptive fly-by-wire (FBW) controls that could compensate for a loss of control effectiveness (from, say, the surface jamming, a truly unfortunate bird strike or perhaps an FBW equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death) by making the other surfaces work counter-intuitively to keep the airplane upright. There must be something going on under the surface of composite technology, because just last night I read in F1 Racing magazine about more future technology that would allow F1 race cars with minor damage to fix themselves. Seems to me that if the driver puts the front wing into the diffuser of the car ahead of his, he deserves the time in the kitty litter to reflect on his actions.

Anyway, the other patients in the waiting room no doubt thought I'd happened upon a Lewis Lapham editorial or perhaps a dusty stash of R. Crumb comics from the cackling.

But I couldn't help myself: This kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking, the hope that technology will lead the way to a more perfect existence on this planet, has been and remains a bunch of unfocused, wishful hooey. There; I've made it officially into curmudgeondom.

Infrastructure Issues

There are three reasons I just don't see airplanes-for-everyone ever panning out, and one of them (you'll be happy to know) has to do with engines. But first, let's look at two pieces of the infrastructure pie that would need more than just another trip through the microwave; they'd need an entirely new recipe.

One concerns airports themselves. It's no secret that our airports, at least in urban centers (where, hey, it just happens many of the people live!) are constantly under siege from noise complaints and land developers. How long can you keep them alive? In Los Angeles County, where I live, there have been some 80 airports big and small -- not all in concurrent operation, admittedly -- and there are fewer than a dozen now. The survivors are, for the most part, realigning themselves for the hoped-for onslaught of Very Light Jets that promise big fuel sales at ever more exorbitant prices to the well-heeled. Good service for the Average Joe in the Skyhawk is fast becoming a memory at the larger fields, although I have to admit that I've found better-than-expected service at places like Phoenix (Cutter) and San Antonio (Raytheon Aircraft Services) with small airplanes.

Then again, where are you going to house all those high-tech airplanes? (No one in the PM piece, by the way, suggests anything like a personal hovercraft that you park in your driveway.) Try to find a hangar in Los Angeles County. Go ahead, try. There's a darn good reason I drive 45 minutes to my airplane. I abhor the drive (and the waste of fuel that goes with it) but love to fly out of sleepy little Chino, with reasonable hangars, generally good facilities and some of the best controllers I've seen. So, just how many of the new aviators will put up with the same thing?

The second issue is aircraft certification. I'm certainly not alone in suggesting that the current system is as broken as our health care. But when the bureaucracy gets bogged down processing benign modifications to production aircraft, how can you expect any movement on shape-shifting airframes or FBW systems than can take control of the airplane from the pilot should a crash threaten to mar the day? This nascent technology may indeed show up some day but the certification process we have now will kill it dead.

High-Tech Engines?

Now, on to the engine side of the equation.

I have yet to see a rational discussion of how we get from where we are now -- an industry dominated by engines with roots in the 1930s and 40s -- to this future perfect, where engines are light, compact, and run just about forever on a tiny amount of fuel. Much of what I have seen is cast in a gauzy light, such as, "No doubt the technology will be developed to allow lighter, more-efficient engines to power these new designs." Great, but what's the mechanism? How do you convince a company to invest in the research and development for what is, and what probably always will be, a small industry burdened by a cumbersome certification process? And, perhaps the most difficult nut to crack, how do you liberate more energy from whatever source you choose than we can get now?

When in doubt, always look at the smartest kid in class. For my money, the highest of high-tech internal-combustion engines remain in motorcycles and certain racing cars, specifically the European Formula 1 series. This year, by mandate, the series switched from 3.0-liter V-10s to 2.4-liter V-8s. To recover some of the power lost through smaller displacement, the manufacturers -- and we're talking big guns like BMW, Renault, Mercedes, Honda and Toyota -- haven't used their third wish from the horsepower genie but instead have resorted to ever-higher engine speeds. In testing, the Cosworth engine has turned 20,000 rpm, and the race engines routinely run 18,000 rpm, and have to do so over two race weekends.

What's the secret? Intense development, careful manufacturing and a host of small technological advances in materials all aimed at reducing friction and weight while maintaining durability in the face of intense internal forces. These engines are at the top of the pile in terms of development and potency. And yet, if you were somehow allowed to witness their combustion chambers or caress a piston, you -- as a common engine enthusiast -- would recognize instantly what you're seeing. There is no black magic, but there is sufficient motivation for the factories to spend millions of dollars a year to develop these engines that, in and of themselves, have absolutely no hope of ever arriving in a road-legal car. (Sure they may say certain features are "inspired by F1," but that's like saying my dual-processor G5 Macintosh is inspired by the Sperry Univac.)

It's not that we in general aviation haven't tried. Anyone remember the NASA GAP (general aviation propulsion) engine program? Of the two prongs -- one a turbine and one a FADEC-managed two-stroke compression-ignition four-cylinder engine being developed by Teledyne Continental -- only the turbine only the turbine ever flew, and its development has, apparently, stopped in its tracks. According to NASA, "The goal of the IC Engine Element is to reduce engine prices by one half while substantially improving reliability, maintainability, ease of use and passenger comfort." And yet the program was concluded in 2002.

I know that Continental put a tremendous amount of development effort into the GAP engine; I know that the SMA engineers have rubbed the numbers off their slide rules trying to develop that engine; I know that the guys behind the Delta Hawk have lived for years on the brink of success with that design. And yet walk the line at Oshkosh this year and tell me how many airplanes you see powered by truly forward-thinking engines. (I give a nod of acknowledgment to the hardy souls developing Experimental rotary engine installations on airplanes originally penned for flat piston engines. And also to Mistral for methodically working through the development of its own rotary powerplants.)

Distill the needs of the future airplane down and you get this: The powerplant required to achieve these lofty goals needs to be incredibly efficient, powerful and durable -- much improved over what we have today, in order to make the payload and efficiency predictions come true -- and dramatically less expensive. I hate to be the one throwing ice on the cozy campfire, but unless there's some dramatic swing in the mechanics of economic incentive, we're going to do well to get one or two of those requirements. Hoping for more is like leafing through a magazine and wishing for a pain-free root canal.


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