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Continental Motors will build a new plant in Mobile, Alabama, the company announced on Monday. The huge new facility, with 225,000 square feet of space, will house both corporate offices and manufacturing space, replacing 11 buildings currently in use across 44 acres at the Mobile Aeroplex. “The current operation being spread throughout multiple buildings, drives many challenges and inefficiencies,” said Michael Skolnik, executive vice president for Continental. Further, he added, most of those buildings date back to the 1940s or earlier. New manufacturing equipment will be installed in the new facility, including a special area for evaluating new manufacturing techniques and processes, including additive manufacturing and automation.

Along with building the new factory, Continental said it will build a new infrastructure for customer and technical service that will enable the company to assist customers anywhere in the world using phone, email and app support, anytime, day or night. Also, the company said it will increase its capacity to develop new products and expand China market access with a new engineering and design service center based in China. Continental was acquired by AVIC, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, in 2010AVweb’s editorial director Paul Bertorelli is on site in Mobile for the announcement and will report on Tuesday with more details. 

Mooney's two new models, the M20U Ovation Ultra and the M20V Acclaim Ultra, now are FAA-certified and ready to start deliveries, the company announced this week. Both airplanes come with an all-new interior and a Garmin G1000 NXi panel. The once all-metal airplane now has a composite-wrapped cabin, which the company says produces a quieter ride. And to ease the getting in and out, the cabin now comes with two wide doors. The company is starting deliveries now and taking orders for the first batch of 50 airplanes planned for this year's production.

The twin-turbocharged Acclaim Ultra has a top speed of 242 knots with a range of 830 NM, and the Ovation Ultra maxes out at 197 knots with a 1,080-NM range. The fully certified Acclaim Ultra will make its first public appearance next week at Sun 'n Fun.

As expected, uAvionix, a manufacturer of avionics for the UAV segment, announced this week four new ADS-B-related products that it hopes will ignite what have been lackluster sales of this equipment as the NextGen mandate looms. The California-based company says it plans to leverage potential volume in the UAS market to drive down ADS-B prices for manned general aviation aircraft while also producing products of much smaller physical size. However, for the time being, uAvionix’s products are limited to experimental and light sport aircraft, not certified aircraft.

The four products announced ahead of the Sun ‘n Fun show in Lakeland include the EchoUAT, SkyFYX, SkyEcho and EchoESX. The EchoUAT is 978 MHz UAT transceiver with ADS-B In and Out. Although it meets the requirements of TSO-C154c, it’s not a TSO’d box. It does meet the requirements spelled out in FAR 91.227 to fly with ADS-B in the National Airspace System. At $999, it lacks an onboard GPS source so unless an owner has a suitable WAAS GPS source in the aircraft, the installation will also require uAvionix’s SkyFYX, a WAAS GNSS sensor that sells for under $500. The EchoUAT has integrated WiFi and will support popular tablet apps for IOS and Android.

For European and UK pilots, uAvionix announced the SkyEcho, a portable CAP 1391 Electronic Conspicuity product that the company says is the first approved portable ADS-B Out. So-called EC devices are low-powered units intended to make aircraft visible to each other in areas that lack ATC surveillance. It’s similar in concept to the U.S. Traffic Awareness Beacon system (TABS) meant to light up TCAS and other traffic awareness systems. SkyEcho will be shown at the Aero trade show in Friedrichshafen, Germany, in two weeks.

The EchoESX, at $1699, will be available later this month and marks uAvionix’s entry into the crowded Mode S ADS-B transponder market. It’s designed to link directly with popular EFIS products found in light sport and experimental aircraft and meets the 2020 ADS-B mandate. AVweb will provide more coverage on these products during Sun ‘n Fun. 

The NTSB should conduct an internal review to determine why several recent reports regarding general aviation accidents included “speculative” conclusions that aren’t supported by factual data, AOPA said on Tuesday. In a letter to the safety board’s acting chairman, Bella Dinh-Zarr, AOPA’s government affairs vice-president Jim Coon objected to reports that cited medical incapacitation of the pilot “contrary to other compelling evidence.” AOPA said it is concerned “that in some cases the NTSB is relying less on facts and more on speculation.”

The problem has persisted despite a meeting on the issue between then-NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart and AOPA President Mark Baker in 2016, Coon wrote. AOPA cited two cases in which the pilot lost control, leading to a fatal crash. Medical examiners attributed death of a pilot in Wisconsin to blunt-force injuries, after a crash while in the landing pattern flying a Quad City Challenger II. Yet the NTSB report concludes the pilot lost control because of a “cardiovascular event.” The pilot had a history of heart problems, but AOPA says there is no evidence that was a factor in the crash. Another crash, in Ohio, killed a pilot with a history of coronary artery disease, flying as a sport pilot in a homebuilt Europa XL. The airplane impacted terrain about a half-mile from the airport. The NTSB report concludes “it is likely” the pilot experienced incapacitation due to a “cardiovascular event,” but AOPA says there is no evidence to support that.

“Personally, after having worked with the NTSB for decades, it is disheartening that the Board is now allowing someone at the staff level to approve these academic probable-cause determinations,” Coon wrote. “Moreover, I am dismayed that the Board’s Chief Medical Examiner allows this speculative practice to continue.” A spokesman for the NTSB told AVweb on Tuesday the board will issue a response to the AOPA letter within the next few days.

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The pilot of an Airbus AS350 helicopter that crashed in July 2015 failed to perform a preflight hover check, the NTSB said in a synopsis of its probable-cause report on Monday. If he had performed the hover check, as required by operational procedures, he could have found that he hadn’t returned the yaw servo hydraulic switch to its “On” position after completing preflight checks on the ground. This resulted in a lack of hydraulic pressure in both the tail rotor servo control and the yaw load compensator accumulator, a lack of hydraulic boost to the pedals and significantly increased pedal loads. Surveillance videos capturing the liftoff show that the helicopter yawed to the left and rotated counterclockwise several times before descending and impacting a recreational vehicle and the parking lot. The impact forces were survivable, the NTSB said, but the helicopter then caught fire. The pilot was killed, the two flight nurses on board were seriously injured and the helicopter was destroyed.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the preflight hydraulic check, which depleted hydraulic pressure in the tail rotor hydraulic circuit, and the lack of salient alerting to the pilot that hydraulic pressure was not restored before takeoff. Such alerting might have cued the pilot to his failure to reset the yaw servo hydraulic switch to its correct position during the preflight hydraulic check. Instead, the mistake resulted in a lack of hydraulic boost to the pedal controls, high pedal forces and a subsequent loss of control after takeoff. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to perform the hover check, which would have alerted him to the pedal control anomaly at an altitude that could have allowed him to safely land the helicopter. Also contributing to the severity of the injuries, the NTSB said, was the helicopter’s fuel system, which was not crash-resistant and facilitated a fuel-fed post-crash fire.

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The FAA banned jets from Florida’s Lantana/Palm Beach County Airport in 1973, but that ban is now lifted, the Palm Beach Post reported on Tuesday. Errol Forman, a retired Eastern Air Lines pilot, had landed his newly acquired 1983 Cessna Citation I/SP jet there in May, and a neighbor reported the violation to authorities. Forman then challenged the restriction and filed a formal complaint with the FAA, with the argument that the county was violating conditions of its federal grants. “It looks like the FAA made a reasonable decision,” Forman told the Post on Monday.

Deandra Brooks, the FAA’s airport compliance specialist for the region, wrote in a Dec. 6 letter that while her agency had declared no objections in 1973, she was unable to find any documentation or analysis showing “why previous FAA reviewers believed this discriminatory restriction was just or reasonable.” She said the ban has “denied a class of aeronautical users the benefits of federal funded improvements” at the airport. An airport neighbor, William Coakley, told the Post in December that the community wouldn’t be happy to see the ban lifted. “We fear for our lives over here,” Coakley said. “It was already saturated before the helicopters got here. Now they want jet traffic? … There will be a storm of protest.”

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Natilus, a small company with just three employees, based in Richmond, California, is working to launch a transoceanic cargo business with airliner-size drones. They are currently building a 30-foot-long prototype that they plan to test this summer, according to their press kit. They then plan to produce a full-scale, 200-foot-long turboprop drone, built of carbon-fiber composite, by 2020. The design is fairly simple, since there is no need for a cockpit, or landing gear, or pressurization. The drone is designed to land and take off from the water, and motor up to a dock for loading. CEO Aleksey Matyushev said the vehicle would cost about one-tenth as much as a crewed freight aircraft, and transoceanic trips would cost about half as much as standard air freight.

Matyushev says he plans to launch an 80-foot-long production-ready vehicle with 40,000-pound cargo capacity for a launch customer in 2019, to fly a route between Los Angeles and Hawaii. The next step will be a 140-foot-long vehicle with 200,000 pounds cargo capacity, to fly between the U.S. and China by 2020. Since the drone won’t be flying in U.S. airspace, no FAA approval is required, he said, which simplifies the production process. The drone will land in international waters, about 12 miles offshore, and taxi into port under the control of a remote human pilot at speeds of about 30 knots.

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Almost as a condition of entry, people who voluntarily engage in general aviation at any level have to be slightly delusional. It takes a hearty constitution to look at gracefully declining sales numbers and eroding flight activity and think, sure, I’ll just keep on going here. I mean, what the hell?

In that context, yesterday’s high-profile announcement by Continental that it’s building a new engine factory in Mobile was both interesting and shrewd. The company enticed the aviation press to attend and the announcement itself featured the usual glad handing with city politicians all duly recorded by the local press. It’s a nice Chamber of Commerce story.

I thought it shrewd because it lets a little gas out of the argument that the Chinese state-owned AVIC, which bought Continental in 2010, intended to move the company to China where they would promptly steal the highly sensitive technology of machining camshafts and promptly corner the lucrative light aircraft market, leaving us for dead as hollowed-out husks. Monday’s announcement was a sort of in-your-face we’re staying put.

Let’s put the investment in context. It totals about $70 million. About $40 million of that will be for new machinery and production systems and $30 million for a new physical building that consolidates the company’s operations—now scattered among 11 buildings—mostly under one roof. The building itself isn’t a Continental investment, but will be leased.

What we have here is normal industrial manufacturing reinvestment that all companies have to do if they hope to survive. That’s especially true of aviation manufacturers because there’s more decline than growth and not much headroom to significantly raise prices. That means survival is dictated by taking cost out of things and you do that with new machinery and systems that make it more efficient to make stuff. Henry Ford figured this out a century ago just this year and it’s been going on ever since.

In all my trips to the engine manufacturers—and that’s a lot of visits—I’ve seen this kind of routine reinvestment. Here’s a video of what Lycoming did. Continental has done similar. When I first visited the factory in the early 1990s, there were a lot of guys operating manual machine tools. Few of those are left, having been displaced by modern flexible CNC equipment.

What’s different about this round of investment is both the scale and the fact that it’s a clean-sheet, ground-up factory. As industrial investments go, $40 million is not staggeringly large; it’s coffee money for Boeing. But it’s perhaps twice or three times what we’ve seen in GA in the past on an aggressive time line that envisions a completely redesigned production flow acutely attuned to the conundrum both Continental and Lycoming face: low volume, high product mix manufacturing. This is at the ugly opposite end of both economy of scale and quality through statistical process control that depends on big numbers. Heretofore, production revisions at these factories have been incremental nibbling reinventions from the inside, but this one is tabula rasa. So if there’s a bigger deal about this story, that’s it.

As Continental’s Rhett Ross explained in a podcast I’ll post later this week, the company hopes to free up resources to develop and certify new products. That’s likely to include a new generation of electronic ignitions for gasoline engines and certified versions of the popular Titan line. I suspect others will emerge because even though the GA market is flat, new products can and do excite sales.

Ross has repeatedly said Continental recognizes the reality of the GA market and that the company believes the only way to grow is to gain market share and that’s what has animated its purchase of both the former Thielert Aircraft Engines diesel line and, more recently, the assets of Danbury Aeospace/ECI. Neither of those companies, by the way, found western investors who saw value in retooling them for a business segment that might deliver 5 percent margins instead of 25 percent margins. AVIC evidently did find value, especially in the context of the long return-on-investment timelines the Chinese seem comfortable with.

And the immediate China connection here is that Continental will establish in China a new design and development center aimed at stimulating the Asian market for airplanes. We have long since exited the dancing sugar plums phase of the Chinese aviation market. It remains an aspirational market and although the future of GA may reside in the far east, anyone who thinks China will suddenly become a bottomless pit of aircraft demand hasn’t been paying attention to the daunting economic, cultural and demographic challenges China confronts.

In this sense, Continental’s announcement is sort of a twofer. It plays right into the notion advanced by the current administration of halting the export of the U.S. jobs if not actually reshoring what’s already been lost. But it also recognizes the utterly futility of thinking the U.S. can be an insular economy that sells while the rest of the world buys. It’s just another example of how the U.S. economy is affixed to China’s as surely as a con rod is bolted to a crank journal.  

For 2017, Cirrus has re-engined its entry-level SR20 with a 215-HP four-cylinder Lycoming IO-390, which replaces the 200-HP six-cylinder Continental IO-360 used on the SR20 for years. To find out what drove the company's decision to swap engines, and to see how the aircraft performs, Aviation Consumer Editor Larry Anglisano flew the G6 SR20 and talked with Ivy McIver during a visit to the Cirrus Vision Center delivery hangar in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Picture of the Week
Picture of the Week

Spring means getting back in the air in the Northern Hemisphere and Gilbert Benzonana caught the start of gliding season in Montrichet. Lots of fun ahead.

During a VFR approach in a busy airport in mostly-Catholic Colombia, a student pilot was given landing clearance. It seemed she didn't understand the controller.

Student: "Could you please confirm?”

Tower: Sure: I confirm you in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son..." 

Of course the controller gave her the right instructions afterwards!


 Juan Velasquez 

 

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