AVweb's Stuff of the Year
As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to take a few reflective moments to consider the year just past, to wonder at the marvel of flight, to appreciate its sheer poetry and to give thanks for that rarified privilege we all reverently share. And also to attempt to make feeble but pointless amends for all the cheap shots, the smarmy asides and the half-baked theories and critiques I have knowingly and willfully allowed to populate this space. (If you thought I was about to go all Jonathon Livingston Seagull, you’re probably in the wrong place.)
Looking back, 2015 was, at best, an average year for general aviation in a string of years that have been anything but encouraging. The last serving of salad would have been 2006 or 2007. Yet still, like Tennyson's six hundred, we charge forward and amidst trying market conditions, I see green shoots. And here’s my list.
Company of the Year—This one’s easy: Nextant Aerospace. I didn’t really get what they were doing until I visited the place a couple of months ago. If anyone proposed to me rebuilding a 20-year-old jet from the ground up to include new engines and entirely new avionics, I’d have said they were nuts.
But that’s what Nextant is doing with its 400XTi, a re-do of the Beechjet 400A that’s finding rousing success. That shows that even in a so-so market, a company with a vision can find sustainable, profitable business. That I had to realize this only after being shown it after the fact explains why I’m not rich.
Airplane of Year—This one is a little difficult, simply because there aren’t that many new airplane introductions anymore and I kinda like to wait until they’re flying before I allow anything beyond a cursory shrug. So I’m picking CubCrafters’ Carbon Cub. Even though it’s not a new model this year, I’m confining my findings to airplanes I flew this year, the Carbon Cub among them.
I will freely concede to being both a victim of circumstance and damn fine pandering to a journalist. We flew the Carbon on floats on a perfect June morning and fetched it up on a lakeside grass strip near Yakima. The airplane was in its element, the light was ideal for photography and Randy Lervold produced a jug of hot coffee and a box of pastries. We flew for a couple of hours, a rare luxury these days. The airplane is just a blast to fly with climb rate to burn and nice table manners. Hell, I give up. It was perfect.
Innovation of the Year—This one’s easy, too. Way out there for innovation in just about everything it does is Pipistrel Aircraft in Slovenia. They’re big into electric airplanes there and way ahead of everyone else, they have one ready to sell, or very nearly so.
I flew the Pipistrel Electro before the dustup with Siemens over the motor, but the airplane was clearly sorted out and production ready. It was easy to operate and fun to fly. Pipistrel now says they’ll use a motor from another supplier and settle on that early next year.
As far as the market outlook for electric airplanes, I consider them plausible eventually, if not immediately in the form we’re seeing now. Call me an engaged agnostic. But for sheer creativity and engineering finesse, Pipistrel is a leader. And if you’ve never been to Slovenia, it’s Europe’s best-kept secret.
Drone Video of the Year—It will probably make my friends at the Academy of Model Aeronautics nuts by saying it, but the revolution in drone technology has spurred some creative applications that are just downright jaw-dropping and insanely hilarious. These guys have their own YouTube channel devoted to flight testing drone and RC technology and the funniest one is how they add warp drive to a Star Wars Star Destroyer. Runner up is the Totally Irresponsible But Still Hilarious genre of attaching Roman Candles to drones. Never do this. But you're allowed to watch the results and sniff about the lunacy of it all.
Product of the Year—I should say products of the year; I’m picking a class of products: self-contained electronic gyros. To pull myself back from the brink of unrestrained boosterism, I’ll just add this: What took so long? The automotive-cellphone-tablet-driven cheap chips and accelerometers have been out there for five or six years, but we’re just now seeing competitive choices. It’s a minor bitch, but my self-esteem precludes being mistaken for a Pollyanna.
There are five choices out there, including Dynon’s D2, the BendixKing KI300, the L-3 Genesis, Sandia’s SAI-340 and the Kelly/RC Allen 2600-3. I suspect there are one or two more yet to appear. On the current list, four are approved for primary gyro use; the Dynon is the outlier. It’s backup only.
On the subject of backup, this gyro horn of plenty falls a little short. While most of them can legally serve as a primary AI where required, it’s not so easy to use for backup when installing aftermarket glass. It’s complicated and beyond the scope of this blog, but suffice to say owners are experiencing frustration in using these products to their fullest advantage. I’m not sure the manufacturers understand that. Nonetheless, at least we’ve got them and there is competition. Not to be a total ingrate, that’s a plus.
Sales Organization of the Year—It's probably too strong to say that the entire GA industry doesn't know how to sell anymore. But it's fair to say the glory days of really good sales organizations are gone or at least temporarily missing. An exception to that is Premier Aircraft Sales over in Ft. Lauderdale. They still do it the old way. Gathering leads, following up, closing the deal and providing the service.
As the year drew to a close, they sent out an e-mailer lucidly listing the tax advantages of buying an airplane before the end of the year and these are considerable. Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have even mentioned this, but it's news now because so few companies either remember how to do this or bother to try. These days, it's quite common to call a company selling a GA product or service and never get a call back. Even if I'm not buying, I find a lot to admire in sales professionalism.
Best New Engine—It’s not like we saw a dozen of them, but Rotax gets props for introducing the 135-HP 915 iS at AirVenture in July. No one expected it and even though I spent a few days at the factory last year, it surprised me. I actually thought they would introduce a 150- to 160-HP four-cylinder and they still might.
Reading the tea leaves here, I suspect this engine is aimed primarily at one customer: the Icon A5. With the 100-HP 912, the airplane appears to be kind of doggy off the water, according to people who observed it at Oshkosh, and it hardly has an impressive cruise speed. More power would help both of those, the former more than the latter.
An engine like this does, however, open up some interesting possibilities. It could be the basis for new, higher-performance LSAs or perhaps even re-engining of existing designs. Nothing like another 35 HP to get the blood boiling. Overall, in a market lacking new engines, at least powerful ones, I was happy to see it.
Man of the Year—This ought to toss the proverbial bolus into the punch bowl. I’m picking Senator Jim Inhofe for his dogged work on coaxing the Pilot's Bill of Rights 2 through the Senate and on to the House—at least we hope. It takes determination and stamina to move anything through the Congress these days, much less getting as many co-sponsors as Inhofe did. He deserves credit.
For my standard selection metric here, I’m using the same reasoning that Time magazine always has: the single person who most changed the world in the preceding year. In the world of general aviation, Inhofe would be the guy, in my view, warts and all. And brother, does he have warts.
Recall that both iterations of the Pilot's Bill of Rights accrued from the Senator’s carelessness in landing on a closed runway in south Texas in 2011, later claiming that the NOTAMs were too hard to find and that approach cleared him to land. The airport has no tower so every pilot I know sees that for what it is: an unconvincing excuse.
Nonetheless, Inhofe made a gallon of lemonade out of his lemons and if the bill is passed into law, we’ll all benefit from relaxed standards for the Third Class medical. I’m a religious adherent to realpolitik and would be even if general aviation weren’t in the sad state it is. Whoever offers me help doesn’t have to meet my flawed standards for the perfectibility of human nature.
And with that closing wart, I offer a tip of the editorial hat and best wishes for 2016.
(Note: A.M. additions; drones and Premier Aircraft corrects previous version.)