Electricity In Airplanes: It's All Over The Place
General Electric, whose DNA extends back to Thomas Edison, started its life as a builder of generators and electrical equipment. It’s more than an electric technology company now, but shoving around electrons is still a core interest.
I thought of that earlier this week during GE’s press briefing at NBAA when a company exec mentioned, almost as an aside, that the company had configured a jet engine—the same GE F110 used in the F-16—to generate a megawatt of electric power. A million watts. To put a megawatt in perspective, it’s enough to run about 1000 coffee makers. For comparison, coal-fired power plants in the 2500 to 3000 megawatt range aren’t uncommon.
So what’s the point of this? GE didn’t say, but I suspect someone came asking for such a thing to support some kind of imagined flying machine. I doubt if GE did it just to keep a few junior engineers busy. It fits into a general pattern of electrification for everything, if not as a prime mover than as a means of controlling and managing mechanical systems with a greater degree of precision than with direct or hydraulically boosted systems.
This came up again when I was shooting this video on Tamarack Aerospace’s next generation active winglets. They’re now to the point that it’s not really a leap to say the wing is inflight configurable beyond just slats and flaps. To squeeze more efficiency out of existing airframes, Tamarack gives the wing expanded span but gets away without a structural penalty by using a trailing-edge device that mitigates gust loads that would otherwise require more heavy metal or composites to defeat.
For the newest technology—which the company hopes to apply to the commercial airline market—the winglet itself rotates in the vertical axis in conjunction with whatever the trailing-edge device is doing. So that means the entire winglet structure rotates on a pivot just inboard of the wingtip. What provides the motive power? Electric motors, of course. And not very big ones at that. There’s an array of accelerometers and logic that measure loads and flight conditions in real time and adjust the appropriate surfaces instantaneously. If that had to be done with hydraulics, forget it. It would so cumbersome and heavy as to cancel out much of the benefit of the extra span and winglets. And the benefit, by the way, is less drag and better climb so the airplane gets to cruise altitude more quickly, where jet engines are more efficient, and once there, it cruises on lower power, saving more fuel.
Nick Guida, Tamarack’s founder, told me he thinks one airline the company has been courting as a customer could save up to $150 million in fuel costs. And it will likely be an airline project, not a Boeing or Airbus project. The OEMs are backed up with orders and strained for R&D resources that might not return much on the investment. Of such things are successful niche business plans made, all riding on a wave of a broad revolution in electrics.
The Aftermarket Glass Revolution
While on the subject of waves, Garmin is breaking one on the retrofit market with its new TXi series displays to replace the aging 500/600 series. Here’s a video tour of what these new products will do. For some time, we’ve been at the point where an older but capable airplane could be converted entirely to glass. But the new TXi products will make it easier because of wide AML support and flexible interfaces with ADS-B and other traffic and weather systems to even include onboard weather radar. They can also be installed without the need for backup systems, making it ever more convenient to finally sever the tether with those vacuum pumps we all love to hate. As part of the drift toward electrics, the TXi’s have battery backup and the open pad abandoned by that vacuum pump can now support a second alternator.
Will this prove economically attractive to owners? I think it absolutely will, given that an airframe worth $80,000 can now be made almost as functionally capable as one costing nearly a million by investing a sum not at all out of line with what owners have been spending for such things.
The dark side of this is what it will do to the competition. Garmin has leveraged its profits to essentially become a near monopoly in general aviation avionics, at least in major systems. Year after year, it has followed brisk-selling products with yet more products, so much so that in the aviation press, we struggle to keep up. I’m disappointed that we haven’t seen the same from the likes of Aspen and BendixKing, although Avidyne remains a player. Garmin has built success upon success and is so utterly dominant that meaningful competition is problematical at best.
Kenny the King Air Salesman
I’ve been covering the Wheels Up charter subscription program since its inception in 2013. I never understood it and when I finally did, I thought it would be, like many new aviation businesses, a crater looking for a grid reference.
Wrong again. Wheels Up seems to be not just prospering, but booming. Listening to Kenny Dichter, the company’s founder, talk about it is to hear a man utterly enthralled with general aviation and in possession of an appreciation for the King Air that borders on the religious. Every time I hear him speak, I have to resist the urge to rush out and order a 350i. Dichter saw in the King Air a unique combination of range, payload and speed that he could marry to the interests of affluent, if not rich, people who want to fly somewhere 500 miles away five times a year. Others have had shards of this vision, but none have quite made the connection that Dichter has.
As we’ve reported, Wheels Up is a subscription business and any such business model requires loyalty, or what we in the publishing business call renewal rate. It’s one thing to retain a $29 magazine subscription and quite another to hold onto a customer spending $14,000 a year. To do that, Wheels Up did something interesting. When Hurricane Irma swirled into Florida, Wheels Up got hit with more demand for flights than its King Air fleet could conceivably handle. Dichter chartered a 737 and hauled his clients out of Florida at no charge. Do you think those customers will renew when their contracts come up? I’d kinda bet on it.