Except for a couple of examples from New Piper and one from Raytheon, there's nothing new going on in the new-manufacture piston twin market. Instead most of the action is in the light-light jets under development and in the turbine-powered single market, which seems to have dislodged piston twins as the next rung in the ladder from high-performance piston singles. One company has set out to change that: Adam Aircraft Industries brought their full-size M-309 prototype to AirVenture and announced it is offering initial delivery positions for 2003 through the end of August. AVweb Executive Editor Jeb Burnside met with company officials to discuss their project. Here's his report.
July 29, 2000
Whither The Piston Twin?
One of the categories conspicuously
missing from the raft of revived production aircraft in recent years is the
piston-powered twin-engine airplane. Sure, New Piper is selling Seminoles and
Senecas to flight schools and charter operators, while Raytheon still offers
the Baron 58 series, but only in a normally aspirated, non-pressurized
version. Meanwhile, turbine singles like the forthcoming New Piper Malibu
Meridian and current-production models including the Socata TBM-700 and even
the Pilatus PC-12 super-single offer greater reliability, smoother operation
and lower workloads for their crew than even the most advanced piston twins.
Of course, there are a lot of reasons that very few models of new piston
twins are on the market. Among them are training/currency and safety issues,
operator insurance costs and the manufacturer's product liability exposure.
Similarly, there are a wide variety of used models on the market and they are
often offered at a price much lower than an equivalent piston-powered single.
And then there are the operating costs involved in keeping two sets of engines
and systems happily fueled, maintained and upgraded. Finally, there are few
exciting ideas or products in the new-manufacture medium-to-heavy piston twin
market. Hanging two engines on the wings and fashioning a new nose for an
existing single-engine design is old-hat: Been there, done that.
All of which might lead the casual observer to conclude that this segment
of the new aircraft market is a dead duck. But that observer has obviously
overlooked Adam Aircraft Industries
(AAI) and the company's M-309 display at EAA AirVenture 2000. In stark
contrast to the fear and loathing that must be surging through the marketing,
legal and engineering departments at other companies, AAI is forging ahead
with plans to bring its unusual-but-practical-looking all-composite
centerline-thrust piston twin to what it hopes is an eager market by 2003.
...Adam Aircraft Attempts To Spice Up The Market...
At the first glance through the brochure, the AAI M-309 looks like
any other "vapor-plane": Yet another example of someone's dream twin,
initially sketched on the back of a Denny's placemat early one morning and
later fleshed out on a computer. Its futuristic look might even prompt one to
wonder aloud about the fate of models M-1 through -308. Actually, the M-309's
designation harks back to the fact that it represents the 309th complete
design from Rutan. (Note to AAI: Eventually, you might want to consider giving
your creation a name, not just a number.) But that glance would be faulty, as
even the most cursory attempt to scratch the surface of the plane's
development should reveal.
For one, the placemat theory might be a good guess, but the guy doing the
sketch was none other than Burt Rutan, the reigning and undisputed winner of
the guru championship in unconventional composite aircraft design and
manufacture. Rutan and his Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites Inc. have a
lengthy and repeatable track record of developing and bringing to maturity a
number of unconventional designs over the years. As evidence, one need look no
further this week than the experimental parking area at AirVenture to gaze
upon row after row of his brainchildren. And as the final nail in the coffin
of the "vapor-plane" theory, AAI has built the sucker and is displaying it at
AirVenture. And it's a full-size, proof-of-concept version, not an 85 percent,
or even 50 percent scale model or a "concept-validation" craft built around a
wrecked and salvaged example of a close cousin. Need further proof that the
M-309 is for real? Look up: The prototype is flying every day during the
week-long AirVenture 2000. Its first flight was in March.
Of course, a fledgling company hoping to bring a new design to market —
especially a six-seat, pressurized, all-composite piston twin — had best have
something other than a slick design going for it. AAI thinks it does. George
F. "Rick" Adam Jr., a USAF Academy graduate and "dot-com" type who made his
bucks in an e-business software concern as its chairman and CEO after a
successful stint at investment firm Goldman Sachs and Company, is the
company's CEO and money guy. On his team is Cecil J. Miller, former vice
president of operations at Cirrus Design and with a track record at Beech
Aircraft during the time it was developing the all-composite Starship I, at
American Aircraft when it was developing what has become the Grumman/Yankee
line of slick, efficient singles and at Cessna, to name but a few names
dropped on his resume. Rounding out AAI's management is John Knudsen, a former
FAA trial attorney — everyone's entitled to one mistake — with a career in
the U.S. Navy as a carrier-based attack pilot.
...With A Blend Of Something Old, Something New...
Okay, so AAI has the expertise, resources and experience to make
this happen. But what about the airplane? As it currently exists, the M-309
resembles the results of an immoral encounter between a Cessna 337 Skymaster,
a New Piper Malibu and a Vietnam-era OV-10 Bronco ground-attack platform. Its
centerline-thrust, push-me-pull-you arrangement of two engines is straight
from the one-of-a-kind 337 Skymaster series. Twin booms extend aft from the
low-mounted wings where they house the trailing-link main landing gear before
curving up into the horizontal stabilizer that is the aircraft's highest
point, reminiscent of the OV-10 Bronco's tailfeathers. Rounding out the
aesthetic package is the slightly extended nose — as with the Malibu — which
houses a baggage compartment and fairs into the plane's modern-looking
greenhouse and cabin capable of seating six. Aft, the fuselage tapers off to
house the rear engine and its all-important cooling scoops. Inside, AAI says
the cabin will have dimensions smaller than — but "very close" to — a Beech
Raytheon King Air 90.
So much for appearances, let's look at numbers, which of course, are
"subject to change" as the company's promotional materials plainly state.
Still, they are seemingly impressive: A 220-knot cruise at FL200 and top speed
of 250 knots; a stall speed of 75 knots; and a useful load of 2,300 pounds
balanced between unspecified empty and gross weights. Pressurization will
provide a shirtsleeve environment of 8,000 feet msl at the M-309's service
ceiling of FL250. A generous load of 250 gallons of fuel will be carried in
the plane's wet wings within tanks that extend from root to tip. Power will
come from a pair of FADEC-controlled TCM TSIO-550 turbocharged engines mounted
on either end of the fuselage and turning Hartzell props and capable of 350
hp. So far, though, AAI is not sure about the actual horsepower output of the
final engine configuration — they are reserving the right to de-rate the
engines — but are adamant that their installation will be controlled with a
single lever for each powerplant, instead of the forest of engine-control
knobs and levers that greet pilots of current-production and older twins.
A similar blend of old and new is found in the
aircraft's structure. While some would maintain that using an all-composite
process to fashion the airframe is brand-new, others would point to the
Starship I, to the Raytheon Premier I and to the wide variety of shapes and
sizes of completed, flying aircraft on display at AirVenture 2000 and conclude
that the process of designing and certifying such an aircraft has reached
maturity. And, of course, if anyone can bring together the competing
considerations involved in taking a new design from research to ramp, it's
Burt Rutan. But that's just the design. As anyone who has tried to bring a new
plane to market can attest, designing and certifying it are certainly
formidable hurdles. Getting the production process to fall into place and
running smoothly is quite another. As is financing. Just ask Lancair. So
clearly, there are further hurdles and an unknown number of surprises still
facing the AAI team.
...A Healthy Dose Of Weight Control...
One of the major challenges facing composite aircraft manufacturers is
weight control. Either a component is too strong and too heavy, or it's too
light and not strong enough. Since each part of a wing in a metal airplane
takes up a known amount of space and weighs a specific amount, its total
weight is known before assembly. The same is not necessarily so with composite
structures. While the material's weight is known — carbon fiber in the case
of the M-309 — and the epoxy or other bonding material is accurately
measured, meeting early weight projections is a daunting task for composite
aircraft manufacturers. Just ask Raytheon and the staff who developed the
Starship I. AAI officials tell AVweb that they are extremely aware of
these problems and one of their major development efforts will include a
strict weight-reduction program. According to COO Miller, this will include
extensive testing of sample components to determine their strength. If they're
overbuilt, AAI will do what it can to reduce the weight of the material used
to form the component during the cold-bond process the company is using, then
test it again.
...And Looks To The Future
Without question, certification of the M-309 is AAI's major hurdle.
The company presently expects that achievement to be reached in 2003. And it
would seem that goal is within reach, if the inevitable problems facing all
developers of new aircraft can be minimized. But no grass is growing under its
feet while doing flight testing, final engineering and gearing up for
production. This week at AirVenture, the company announced it would accept
"bids" for the first production examples of the M-309, although its price is
stil not set. Under the company's initial sales scheme, customers are asked to
place deposits on bids for delivery positions six through 25. The minimum
deposit is $25,000, and the maximum ... well, let's just say that the priority
of the delivery position you buy will depend on the amount you bid. In the
time between now and when your M-309 is finally delivered, your hard-earned
bucks will be drawing interest and will be fully refundable.
In the meantime, AAI is forging ahead: It's building a new manufacturing
facility at Denver's Centennial Airport and says it is actively recruiting
engineers and technicians as it ramps up testing and production engineering.
Here's hoping they make it work.