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Lilium Aviation, of Munich, says it has flown a prototype of its all-electric VTOL tilt-engine aircraft that the company says will fly 160 knots in horizontal thrust configuration with a range of 180 miles. A video provided by the company of the first flight shows the aircraft, with what looks like a spacious automotive-style cabin, autonomously taking off vertically, turning tightly and transitioning to aerodynamic flight before landing vertically. There has been no independent confirmation that the video is an accurate rendition of the flight but if it’s all real then it appears some breakthroughs have been made by the company, which is reportedly backed by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom. “We have solved some of the toughest engineering challenges in aviation to get to this point,” the company said in a statement. 

They call it a “jet” but it’s powered by 36 electric-powered ducted fans, 24 on rotating “flaps” on the wings and six on each of the tubular canards ahead of the cabin. According to some reports, the motors have a total of 430 horsepower and the main technological breakthrough is in the batteries. The company will have a chance to celebrate, and explain, its milestone at the Uber Elevate Summit in Dallas this week. CEO Daniel Wiegand will be a panelist at the eVTOL Developer Concept and Technologies discussion at the meeting. 

Uber has attracted dozens of speakers from the aviation industry, government and technology sectors to a large summit on “urban air transportation” in Dallas this week. The Uber Elevate Summit kicks off Tuesday and features speeches and panel discussions on the promise and problems of having fleets of electric VTOL aircraft buzzing around major cities. “The Summit will offer an information-packed three days during which we hope to build awareness about the Elevate mission, detail Uber's role in the ecosystem, identify and accelerate opportunities to collaborate within the community, and define a path towards initial urban eVTOL operations,” the company says in its promotional material. In addition to the technological aspects of something Uber seems pretty committed to, the summit looks at regulatory, financial and environmental issues associated with such systems.

As might be expected, there are plenty of tech experts represented, along with a smattering of government and political representatives. But there are also some familiar names in general aviation on the list of speakers like Pete Bunce, the CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association; Paulo Cesar de Souza e Silva, the CEO of Embraer; Ivo Boscarol, founder of Pipistrel; and Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. There are at least four speakers from the FAA there, too. The three-day event wraps up Thursday with an open discussion and closing remarks by Uber execs.

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While electric aircraft have gained press notice, they’ve lagged in market penetration, partly because buyers don’t fully understand the potential for electric aircraft. “I think it all comes down to people’s expectations. The most straightforward form of an electric airplane is one powered by batteries and batteries will always be a factor on the airplane, which is hindering endurance and performance," says Tine Tomažic, a developmental engineer for the Slovenian Pipistrel Aircraft. Pipistrel is a leading developer of light, efficient aircraft and has two electric models in its line. Tomažic presented at the Sustainable Aviation Symposium this week in Redwood City, California, and we spoke with him for this recorded podcast.

Tomažic told AVweb that Pipistrel is looking at the type of missions electric aircraft can perform and for now, training and self-launching gliding are the two most obvious options. But he says electric flight is enabled in most parts of the world and regulatory barriers are slowly eroding. “For the most part, anywhere you go, electric flight is enabled. One can register an airplane and use it for private purposes, as long as it’s non-commercial,” he says, adding that the common belief that electric aircraft are illegal is not true. “The FAA is a bit behind, but they have begun send out signals that they are more than willing to change that,” Tomažic said, with regard to approvals for using electric aircraft in U.S. for training.

One of Pipistrel’s higher-profile projects is the four-seat Panthera, first unveiled at Aero Friedrichshafen in 2012. At the time, Pipistrel was projecting a certified aircraft in about three years. But an engine switch from the Lycoming IO-390 to the 540-series engine has delayed that and so has the final march to CS23, the global version of the FAR 23 revision. Tomažic said once the final rules are aligned worldwide, the Panthera should appear certified in U.S. in about two and a half years.

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Wright Electric, a San Los Obispo-based startup, aims to make every short commercial flight electric within 20 years by building what co-founder Jeff Engler calls their “electric 737.” Wright’s vision is a 150-seat, short-haul aircraft capable of serving routes under 300 miles. Engler told attendees at the Sustainable Aviation Symposium that Wright was inspired to reject energy density arguments by looking at data on the length of commercial flights around the world. While the energy density necessary to sustain commercial aircraft for long-haul flights is far beyond the reach of current battery technology, Engler told AVweb that roughly 30% of routes served by narrow-body jets are under 300 miles. Wright estimates that flying 300-mile routes will require a doubling of the power density available in today’s batteries (400 Wh/kg needed vs. 190 Wh/kg available now), which they believe will be commercially available in the coming decades. Wright’s airliner would carry about 60,000 pounds of batteries for a 300-mile flight.

While Boeing is much better equipped to embark on the task of building an electric airliner, Engler doesn’t believe they will. The history of disruptive innovation is such that market leaders tend to have difficulty introducing technology that would cannibalize their existing portfolio, Engler says, citing Kodak’s inability to lead the way in digital cameras as the canonical example. “I would love to see Boeing throw some money at this,” Engler told AVweb, but he’s not holding his breath.

Subsidized by local funds from Fresno County, a fleet of four Pipistrel Alpha Electro trainers will be made available for primary training in California’s Central Valley late this year, program organizers hope. Fresno County will be installing chargers for the aircraft at four local airports: Mendota, Reedley, Fresno Chandler and a fourth airport to be determined. The Alpha Electro has a maximum endurance of approximately 90 minutes and an 85-knot cruising speed, making round-trip, cross-country flights a stretch. Joseph Oldham, Sustainability Manager for the City of Fresno, told AVweb that the fourth airport will ideally be just over 50 NM, permitting the Alphas to make one-way flights meeting private pilot cross-country training requirements, recharge in about 45 minutes and return home. The fallback plan is for students to do cross-country training in the piston-powered version of the Alpha.

Oldham told attendees at the Sustainable Aviation Symposium that Fresno hopes to have the new aircraft on hand and high-voltage chargers installed at the four chosen airports by the fall of this year. The FAA has not yet released a paradigm for approving electric propulsion airplanes, either in certified aircraft or in light sports, as Pipistrel plans for the Alpha Electro. Oldham is travelling to Washington next week to meet with the FAA about approval of electric LSAs, the last major hurdle in Fresno’s race to get the Alpha Electros into service. The aircraft will likely be available for rent by area pilots, but the priority users of the aircraft will be veterans and low-income youth seeking primary flight training.

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The Sustainable Aviation Symposium (SAS) opened Friday morning in Redwood City, California, for two days of seminars and discussions about the future of efficient flight. The event has drawn the attention of A-list attendees, including representatives from NASA, FAA, Scaled Composites, The Spaceship Company, Icon Aircraft, Epic Aircraft, General Atomics and Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Dr. Brien Seely, chair of SAS, celebrating the event’s success, told AVweb, “Finally, the industry is awakening” to the market opportunities available in sustainable aviation.

Dr. Tine Tomazic, chief engineer at Pipistrel, a leader in commercially available light aircraft, gave the Friday morning keynote lecture imploring guests to work together and keep a close eye on safety, reminding engineers in the audience that certification hurdles will follow closely on the heels of electric aircraft accidents. Representatives from DARPA and NASA, Dr. Carl Schaefer and Al Bowers, also gave impressive presentations Friday morning on their research in hybrid-electric VTOLs and extremely efficient wing designs.

More information on the SAS is available at http://sustainableaviation.org/sas2017/program/.

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AVweb’s General Aviation Accident Bulletin is taken from the pages of our sister publication, Aviation Safety magazine and is published twice a month. All the reports listed here are preliminary and include only initial factual findings about crashes. You can learn more about the final probable cause in the NTSB’s web site at www.ntsb.gov. Final reports appear about a year after the accident, although some take longer. Find out more about Aviation Safety at www.aviationsafetymagazine.com

January 7, 2017, Meeker, Colo.

Cirrus SR22

At about 1000 Mountain time, the pilot made a forced landing on a snow-covered plateau after the engine lost power. The pilot and his passenger were not injured. The airplane was substantially damaged. Visual conditions prevailed.

While en route, the cylinder head and exhaust gas temperatures were erratic. Since the pilot previously had experienced problems with the engine sensors, he reverted to monitoring the analog gauges. Shortly thereafter, the engine backfired and lost power. The pilot elected not to deploy the airframe parachute but instead made a forced landing on a plateau in deep snow.

January 7, 2017, Niles, Mich.

Mitsubishi MU-2B-40 Solitaire

The airplane departed the left side of the snow-covered runway after landing at 1506 Eastern time. The solo private pilot was not injured; the airplane sustained substantial damage. Visual conditions prevailed; the flight operated on an IFR flight plan.

The pilot did not find any Notam about the runway not being plowed. With the airport was in sight, the pilot activated airport lights and identified the runway. The landing was uneventful until the pilot retarded the power levers into beta range and the airplane made an unexpected left turn then exited the runway. The airplane spun and came to rest in snow-covered field left of the runway.

The airport snowplow operator checked runway conditions earlier that day and noted a light dusting to ˝ inch of snow in some areas. He returned about 1530 and observed two or more inches of snow on the runway. An automated weather observation station about nine miles south of the accident site remarked that unknown precipitation began at 1428 and ended at 1438; snow ended at 1428.

January 11, 2017, Green Bay, Wis.

Cessna Model 182T Skylane

At about 0913 Central time, the Canadian-registered airplane was substantially damaged during landing following an in-flight structural icing encounter. The solo pilot was not injured. The airplane incurred structural damage to the forward fuselage and firewall. Visual conditions prevailed at landing.

January 12, 2017, Era, Texas

Steen Skybolt Experimental

Sometime between 1100 to 1200 Central time the airplane sustained substantial damage when it collided with terrain after a loss of control. The pilot was fatally injured. Visual conditions prevailed.

A witness saw the airplane in a Hammerhead climb (going straight up), then it entered a slow spiraling descent straight down. He was certain the airplane was spiraling down and not in a flat spin. It did not appear to him there was any attempt to recover from the descent. The witness clearly heard the engine during the climb, but not during the descent.

Evidence at the accident site indicated the airplane collided with terrain in about a 45-degree nose-down attitude. Control continuity was confirmed from all flight control surfaces to their respective cockpit controls. One of the propeller blades was bent backward about mid-span and exhibited minimal damage on either the chambered surface or the flat side of the blade. The other blade was underneath the wreckage. It exhibited blade twist, extensive chordwise scratching along the entire span of the blade, and gouges and nicks to its leading edge.

January 12, 2017, Lake Hughes, Calif.

Mooney M20J 201

At about 0905 Pacific time, the airplane was destroyed when it impacted terrain. The solo private pilot/owner was fatally injured. Weather conditions at the time of the accident have not been determined.

The pilot used the airplane to commute. On the morning of the accident, which was a Thursday, a co-worker did not hear from the pilot but was not concerned. Days later, a friend of the pilot realized his vehicle was parked at the airport, but no one had seen the pilot for several days. Investigation by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center and the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) determined the pilot’s last known flight date was January 12. When ATC radar data was consulted, a VFR radar track was identified as likely being the missing airplane’s. An aerial search on January 18 by the CAP located the wreckage.

The accident site was on the north slope of a mountain peak, about 70 feet below, and 380 feet from, the Lake Hughes very high frequency omnirange navigation beacon (LHS VOR) antenna.

January 13, 2017, Port Orford, Ore.

Piper PA-28-236 Dakota

The airplane impacted a beach at about 1125 Pacific time after its pilot reported a medical issue. The solo private pilot was fatally injured; the airplane sustained substantial damage. Visual conditions prevailed,

Earlier, at 1052, ATC requested the pilot report clear of Class D airspace. At 1103, ATC queried the pilot on his position. He responded, “I’m having trouble with err headphones err, say again.” The controller asked the pilot to verify clear of the airspace, but only a muffled response was received. About 10 minutes later, controllers at Seattle Center received reports from crews of both a Coast Guard helicopter and an Air Force airplane that the pilot was transmitting on the “guard” emergency frequency of 121.5 MHz, indicating he had lost vision in one eye. At 1122 a transponder squawking the emergency code of 7700 was recorded northbound along the coastline. The target was present for 24 seconds, during which it descended from 1300 to 1225 feet msl at a 100-knot groundspeed. At about 1400, a Coast Guard helicopter located the airplane wreckage four miles north of the last recorded radar target.

January 14, 2017, Mayo, Fla.

Buccaneer II B Experimental

At about 1715 Eastern time, the amphibious airplane was substantially damaged when it impacted power lines and a river. The solo sport pilot was fatally injured. Visual conditions prevailed.

Multiple witnesses reported seeing the airplane take off northbound from the Suwannee River, make a 180-degree left turn, descend below treetop level and fly southbound over the river out of view. Shortly thereafter, witnesses heard a loud “boom” followed by the engine “going quiet.” One witness, about a mile from the power lines, stated he saw the airplane flying about 30-40 feet above the river when it “suddenly flipped backwards and then hit the water.” The wreckage was located beneath a set of power lines running approximately east-west and crossing the river below treetops. All major aircraft components were accounted for at the scene, and flight control continuity was confirmed from the cockpit to all flight control surfaces.

January 16, 2017, Pilot Point, Alaska

Piper PA-32-260 Cherokee Six

The airplane sustained substantial damage at about 1520 Alaska time during a forced landing to snow-covered terrain. The airline transport pilot and passenger sustained serious injuries. The airplane was operated as a VFR Part 135 on-demand air taxi flight.

While en route, the pilot elected to make a precautionary landing due to light ice accumulation on the windscreen. After confirming weather conditions at the destination 48 nm away, the pilot departed and continued southwest at about 800 feet agl. About eight miles from the destination, the engine started “running rough” and the pilot noted ice accumulation on the windscreen. He turned back and selected carburetor heat to the “on” position. The airplane started to accumulate more ice on the windshield and the wing leading edges, and the flight controls felt sluggish.

The pilot noted decreasing altitude and engine performance and at about 400 feet agl, he elected to make a forced landing on ice-covered tundra. During the landing sequence, the right main landing gear sheared off and the right wing sustained substantial damage due to impact with ice. The passenger used her cellphone to call a nearby Flight Service Station and report the accident. A U.S. Coast Guard MH-60 helicopter arrived onsite at 1830 to extract the occupants.

January 23, 2017, Tucson, Ariz.

Beech Model 300 King Air

At about 1233 Mountain time, the airplane was destroyed when it impacted terrain during takeoff. The pilot and the passenger were fatally injured. Visual conditions prevailed; an IFR flight plan had been filed.

A witness observed the airplane take off and rapidly pitch up in its initial climb. At an altitude between 100-150 feet above the runway, the airplane suddenly yawed left while maintaining a nose-up pitch attitude. The airplane then appeared to slow down, the left wing dropped and the airplane began rolling left, striking the ground inverted. After impact, the airplane slid about 650 feet across a ramp before colliding with an eight-foot-tall concrete wall.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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Humans love to look for stuff and, in fact, can’t seem to stop once started. The quest for the next bright shiny object is probably coded into our DNA, a vestige from some primeval organism that slithered out of the muck not yet sentient enough to feel the burning need to fly airplanes, but just looking for something to eat.

And so this week comes a flurry of news reports on the latest aviation mystery of the ages: What happened to and where is Malaysian Flight MH370. Brace yourself, but it has been three years since that airplane, a Boeing 777, vanished on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014.

After burning $160 million looking for it, Malaysia, Australia and China officially ended the search in January, still no more certain of where the airplane might be than when they started 34 months earlier. Now comes new information from drift modeling that claims to put the aircraft within a 9700-square mile area between 40 and 30.5 degrees south latitude, a little north of where the last search was centered. That’s in the southern Indian Ocean, west of Australia. While that’s a more confined search area than has been swept in the past, it’s still the size of Vermont. That’s a lot of lawn mowing with a towed side-scan sonar.

Researchers arrived at this conclusion through drift studies using an actual 777 flaperon like the one recovered on La Reunion in 2015 and a half dozen replicated flaperons. Crunching the data, they’re more confident of a higher probability search datum. The relevant governments haven’t agreed to resume the search based on this data.

But should they? Well, there’s “should” and there’s “will.” My guess is that the latter will prevail because see above. Humans just naturally can’t stop looking for stuff. Rationally—not that aviation is ever that—the argument against resuming the search is pure cost-benefit. We search for and analyze air crashes for one reason: so we can discover the cause and prevent a recurrence. When investigators picked up the pieces of a Lockheed Electra that rained down on Tell City, Indiana, in 1960, they learned about whirl mode flutter in over elastic engine mounts. When they fished a crashed Comet out of the Mediterranean in 1954, they eventually learned that windows in pressurized aircraft needed to be rounded to prevent fatigue-caused stress failures. And the lessons list is a lot longer than that.

If you plotted a curve describing things learned from crashes it would have been a steep slope in the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s now almost flat simply because there are so few crashes to provide new data points. Jet transport aircraft are among the safest machines on the planet and the system in which they fly has evolved to equal that reliability, although we have yet to entirely stamp out human error. On the other hand, ranked against other jet transports, the 777 has a good to middling fatal accident rate at 0.24/1M departures. Of six hull losses, two were due to defects in the airplane, one a fuel distribution design issue, the other a fire caused by wiring and/or crew oxygen hose faults. (Neither of those involved fatalities.)

Just as there’s no way to know if fixing those faults prevented recurrence of accidents, there’s also no way to know if MH370 was lost due to a heretofore unseen defect. But is it worth expending another $150 million to find out? Wrong question. Someone will carry on the search, if not immediately, then eventually, curiosity being the irresistible force pushing against the moveable object—money.

In 1985, when Robert Ballard went after the Titanic, there was no scientific reason to do so. The ship hit an iceberg and sunk. The details may have been murky, but the cause wasn’t. Unbeknownst at the time was that the U.S. Navy funded Ballard so he could develop technology to locate lost submarines. Before that, a private entity or two had conducted its own search. I suspect the same will be true with MH370 if the relevant governments abandon the search. Like the Titanic, the search would make great TV and no one can resist that.

Hey, That Guy’s A Pilot

I’m sure you’ve seen Verizon’s overplayed and massively irritating mic-drop commercials. A month ago, they ran four times an hour on cable. The mic dropper is actor Thomas Middleditch, who has a starring role in HBO’s Silicon Valley series. I haven’t seen it, but I’ll add it to my playlist.

Middleditch is a new pilot and owns a DA40, I just learned in this New York Times interview. So at least one Millennial is interested flying and acted upon a lifelong ambition. Yay!

True to character, when asked if he texts and flies at the same time, Middleditch’s answer? “You can. Honestly, when everything is on autopilot, there’s nothing else to do.” Well, that oughta get a few safety nerds spun up. I’d say maybe look outside once in a while, it’s fun to watch the world go by and might avoid making a hood ornament out of a J-3. Not that I'm personally worried, of course.

The French Air Force's newest tactical transport aircraft, the A400M, has been touring the U.S. in support of the Patrouille de France's 2017 tour. AVweb spoke with aircraft commander Lt. Col. Benoit Paillard about the aircraft and its capabilities.

At the Sustainable Aviation Symposium, AVweb spoke with Pipistrel’s modest Director of Research and Development, Tine Tomažič. Dr. Tomažič received his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Ljubljana and has been with Pipistrel for 16 years as an intern, test pilot and engineer. We spoke with Tine about what electric aircraft can (and can’t) do, Pipistrel’s fast four-seater, the Pathera, and the most scared he’s ever been in an airplane. Listen to our interview below.

Picture of the Week
Picture of the Week

Last year's fire season in the West was among the worst on record and was a tragedy on many levels but it painted the sky in spectacular shades. It was a poignant background for a beautiful aircraft at Redmond Airport in Oregon.

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About 25 years ago I was hauling cargo in a beat-up C210 at dusk near PFN, FL, and overheard the following:

ATC:  "Comair 1234, Nat'l Wx Service just advised us they have recently released a balloon in your area and they say "it should be approx your altitude, and it's pretty large."

Pause of a few seconds...

Comair:  "How large?!"

Pause of several more seconds....

ATC:  "He says about the size of a house."

Pause of a few seconds:

Comair:  "Would that be my house or your house?"


 

Cap'n Dave 

 

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