Electricity In Airplanes: It's All Over The Place

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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.  

Comments (15)

"Tamarack gives the wing expanded span but gets away without a structural penalty by using a trailing edge device that mitigates gust loads"

It's a neat idea, but the skeptic in me wants to know what happens should the system fail, and what sort of redundancies it has.

"Wheels Up seems to be not just prospering, but booming."

That's certainly true, just based upon how frequently I see them on the ramp of the FBO where I'm based. They seemingly came out of nowhere, and now they're there regularly.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 12, 2017 7:37 AM    Report this comment

The Tamarack system used an annunciation to advise of system malfunction. It them imposes a lower speed limit within the existing wing's structural limits. About 50 systems are flying.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 12, 2017 8:53 AM    Report this comment

Everything old is new again.

The -500 variant (circa 1979) of the Lockheed L-1011 had an extended wing span using active controls. Referred to as "ACS" for active control system.

Maybe Tamarack can modernize "DLC" (Direct Lift Control) and tout it as new and innovative.

Posted by: Jeff Land | October 12, 2017 8:56 AM    Report this comment

Eviation. Interesting editorial.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 12, 2017 9:57 AM    Report this comment

"The -500 variant (circa 1979) of the Lockheed L-1011 had an extended wing span using active controls. Referred to as "ACS" for active control system."

And I think the 787 also has some sort of similar system. And the B1 bomber, if I recall. So such systems obviously are proven, but that doesn't stop me from having questions ;-)

"I'm disappointed that we haven't seen the same from the likes of Aspen and BendixKing, although Avidyne remains a player."

Me too. But in my hands-on evaluation of the Garmin 650, BK something, and Avidyne IFD540, I ended up liking the 650's interface the best (and this was before I was using Garmin Pilot on my tablet). The 650's interface is different enough from the 430 that I think it was still a fair comparison of the three in terms of evaluating user-friendliness without reading the operating guide. It seemed to me that Garmin took the 430 and just modernized much of it. Maybe the BK and Avidyne were more closely trying to emulate an actual FMS (of which I have little experience with), so maybe those interfaces might make more sense to someone stepping down from a more sophisticated aircraft. In any case, my point is that Garmin doesn't seem to lack new ideas, but it'd still be good to see some other player to become a true competitor.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 12, 2017 11:22 AM    Report this comment

GE currently has an entire line of turbine powered electric generators. They can be used for peak loading situations to supplant the electric grid or provide back up power or even primary power for customers. Some run on petroleum fuels and other can run on compressed gas, natural or propane. So it is not much of a surprise that they are looking at adding another engine to their product mix. In situations where the excess heat can be recovered for some other process, heating or cooling use, the combined system efficiency can be impressive.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | October 12, 2017 1:39 PM    Report this comment

GE has a long history of using aircraft engines (referred to as aeroderivatives) for power generation. Starting with the LM2500 series they now offfer the LM6000 engine based on the venerable CF6 series aircraft unit. They run the gaumt from about 10 MW up to 50 MW, with the latest iteration having a 100 MW electrical output. Their larger Frame Series engines start there and run up to over 200 MW, but those are heavy industrial type machines. The aero engines are popular becuase they can run on anything from diesel to propane and are compact and reliable. Users like them for their quick start/stop ability. From an efficiency standpoint, when used in a combined cycle or cogeneration application, they can have up to 70% thermal efficiency.

Posted by: John McNamee | October 12, 2017 4:04 PM    Report this comment

Garmin does pretty well own the glass panel and avionics market right now. Their innovation and frequent upgrades make it tough on anyone wishing to compete. However, one issue has caused some dissatisfaction among users of their products. That is their tendency to bring out new products that will not fit where their predecessors did. There were a lot of complaints when the new GTN 650 and 750 radios would not fit into the same space as the popular GNS 430 and 530. Apparently they have done the same with the new TXi line. That basically opened up the niche for Avidyne, whose 440 and 540/550 units are direct plug ins to the orphaned GNS series. When I did my last upgrade, I went with Avidyne because I felt it offered a better user interface and it saved on installation costs.

With regard to Bendix King and Aspen, I too was disappointed with their offerings. The Aspen Pro is a good PFD, but very overpriced by today's standards. And they tend to nickel and dime you by offering feature upgrades - basically software modifications - at ridiculous prices. They will have to make some serious upgrades or price reductions when the Dynon Sky View PFD's get approved, or their customer base may well evaporate. For the lower end of GA, Bendix King has basically gone the way of Narco.

Posted by: John McNamee | October 12, 2017 4:21 PM    Report this comment

"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?"

Ah, customer service, how elusive to find now adays.

I've been through a few hurricanes in my time (nothing major/no direct hits). We'd be without power from a few days to a little over a week. Supply and demand and all that, ice would be hard to come by and folks would make a killing selling bags for as much as $10/bag.

One grocery store chain saw the opportunity. They sent 3 and 4 tractor trailer loads of ice to each of their stores and gave ice away for free. As I recall, 3 bags per person in line. Get in line as many times as you wanted. They kept trucking the stuff in. So many trucks full of ice that you didn't have to stand in line for more than five minutes.

What the price gougers will never understand, is that grocery store made more money giving away free ice than they could have made selling it for $20 a bag.

Posted by: Robert Ore | October 12, 2017 8:55 PM    Report this comment

On avionics. What we have here is a conga line of rapidly changing gadgetry challenging the mind of pilots. I stay with GARMIN as they have an operational base or knobology that although extensive it is also profound and enigmatic. The others are cheerfully less pragmatic.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 12, 2017 9:46 PM    Report this comment

"A conga line of rapidly changing gadgetry". Emphasis on rapidly changing. In the past, you could buy a King KX 170 or KX 155 and it was good for 10-15 years. Steam gauges never changed. Now, just like most consumer electronics, you are lucky if you get 5 years out of some device before a newer/better/faster one comes along. Unfortunately, unlike comsumer electronics, the prices have climbed as fast as the rate of change. With the advent of STC's for non-TSO equipment, maybe that will change for the better.

Posted by: John McNamee | October 13, 2017 1:28 AM    Report this comment

"There were a lot of complaints when the new GTN 650 and 750 radios would not fit into the same space as the popular GNS 430 and 530. "

The 650 should fit in the same footprint of the 430, though the wiring harness is completely different. The 750 does take up more space than the 530.

"When I did my last upgrade, I went with Avidyne because I felt it offered a better user interface"

I guess everyone has their preferences. I wanted to like Avidyne's interface more than the 650, but as I dug in to it more, it seems to be more confusing and inconsistent. I do hope they have success, though. Some competition to Garmin is a good thing for everyone.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 13, 2017 7:24 AM    Report this comment

"Some competition to Garmin is a good thing for everyone."
The Dynon Skyview and its companion units are getting close to being better-than-Garmin, at a small fraction of the cost.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | October 13, 2017 8:49 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Ore: It isn't about "price gougers" that "will never understand"; that's just a simple reaction to a market opportunity. It's how the market adjusts. The higher price commanded by a small supply attracts new entrants to the market, perhaps with different business strategies (in this case, offering a "loss leader" product). Besides, all those people offering $10 bags of ice may have been spending the equivalent of $9 in generator fuel to make or store that ice throughout the outage. Should someone be required to sell their products at a loss? Careful with the answer; we have people calling for "price gouging" laws on one hand and punitive tariffs on the other... should the government just fix a price for everything?

Regarding avionics; yeah, the "old school" units may have lasted 10-15 years until it broke, but with no new features the replacement would do pretty much the same thing the same way. And with modern avionics, you get new features and capabilities. But are those new features and capabilities *needed*? Do the old units not work any more, or do you just want the "latest and greatest" item? A decent company like Dynon will continue to support its older products as long as they can, even if they aren't the new shiny thing on the market.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | October 14, 2017 10:21 AM    Report this comment

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.

Or airborne laser weapons - Pew! Pew!

It is generally reported in the defense press that an effective weapon on weapon laser would need to put out about 100,000 watts of the focused energy. Given the inefficiencies involved in the conversion process maybe a megawatt of juice is what is required. Don't know but I've been wondering for some time now if the shaft-driven lift fan of the F-35 was a test bed for the powerplant of a laser weapon system. After all, what is that big heavy shaft doing when it's not "lifting", hmmm?

Posted by: Larry Martin | October 15, 2017 12:35 PM    Report this comment

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