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Boeing plans to start flight tests next year of an artificial-intelligence system that would be capable of flying a commercial jet, Mike Sinnett, vice president of product development at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said at a recent press briefing. Sinnett said his team will fly a simulator later this year with the AI system making some of the piloting decisions, and they will test-fly it next year on a real airplane. “There’s going to be a transition from the requirement to have a skilled aviator operate the airplane to having a system that operates the vehicle autonomously, if we can do that with the same level of safety,” Sinnett said, according to the Seattle Times. “That’s a really big if,” he added.

The standards that airplanes must meet are much higher than for cars, where fatality rates are high. Autonomous cars can easily improve on the accident rate compared to human drivers. Yet U.S. airlines have not had a fatal accident since 2009. That means the accident rate of autonomous airplanes will need “to be as good as zero,” Sinnett said. Sinnett said Boeing’s interest in autonomous flight is driven by a concern that the supply of qualified pilots may not be adequate to meet the needs of airlines. In the next two decades, Boeing forecasts sales of about 40,000 new commercial jets. “Where will the experienced pilots come from?” Sinnett asked. Sinnett plans to talk more about the autonomy project next week at the Paris Air Show, according to the Times.

Can wi-fi make you a smarter pilot?

Lufthansa Airlines has chosen the SR20 for its primary training airplane, Cirrus announced on Tuesday. Lufthansa Aviation Training has ordered 25 airplanes to lead its ab initio, multi-crew pilot certificate, and other flight-training programs in Goodyear, Arizona. The SR20s will be used to train pilots from many airlines besides Lufthansa, including Swiss Air, Austrian Airlines, Eurowings, All Nippon Airways and KLM, as well as the German Air Force. The SR20 cockpit offers advanced navigation and safety systems similar to the systems new pilots will use in the airlines’ fleets, said Todd Simmons, Cirrus president of customer experience.

The integrated Cirrus Perspective+ by Garmin flight deck includes two large flight displays, a flight management system keypad controller, an electronic stability and protection system, plus integrated engine indication and crew alerting/warning systems, all features found on today’s airliners. Delivery of the 25 Cirrus aircraft to LAT will begin in October and is expected to be completed by next February, Cirrus said.

Unriveled range of cylinders unbeatable list of benefits, only from Continental

The first Cessna Citation Longitude jet rolled out of the hangar in Wichita on Tuesday. Production of the new clean-sheet design super-midsize business jet has benefited from new manufacturing systems, the company said. “We’re incorporating a number of new and innovative fabrication and assembly techniques that will improve processes, reduce the number of parts and provide excellent quality and precision that will aid in the overall maintainability of the aircraft,” said Ron Draper, senior vice president, Integrated Supply Chain. “We are able to move more quickly from concept to delivery with a high-quality product.”

This aircraft will join the company’s demonstration fleet this summer and will travel the world to demonstrate the Longitude’s performance and interior to customers. The first Longitude flew in October 2016 and to date, the flight test program’s four aircraft have accumulated more than 550 hours. A fifth aircraft will join the flight test program this summer. The Longitude is expected to achieve certification and start deliveries by the end of the year, the company said.

Surf Air, which operates an “all you can fly” membership service with its fleet of Pilatus PC-12 turboprops based in northern California, has acquired Rise, a similar operation based in Texas, and its closest competitor. The consolidation brings the total number of weekly flights for Surf Air up to 445, serving 17 destinations. “Today, the all-you-can-fly membership model is here to stay,” said Sudhin Shahani, CEO of Surf Air. “Our current routes from the Los Angeles to San Francisco areas already corner one of the largest short-haul markets in the country; now, with our acquisition of Rise, we’re taking a significant step into expanding this footprint across the southeastern U.S.” The expanded company also announced it will add service to more markets in the next 18 months, including Las Vegas, New Orleans, Scottsdale and Tucson, plus weekend flights to Mexico, Aspen and Sun Valley, Idaho.

The monthly subscription flight-sharing model, introduced by Surf Air in 2013, provides its members access to scheduled daily flights that launch from easy-to-access general aviation FBOs instead of crowded commercial terminals. The service is affordable compared to regional, commercial airlines, and offers the comfort, time savings and premium experience of flying privately, according to Surf Air. Since inception, both Surf Air and Rise report they have experienced escalating demand for more service, flights and destinations. Surf Air membership fees start at $1,950 per month. A new fleet of Surf Air aircraft will be brought to Texas to fly the scheduled Rise routes between Dallas, Austin, Houston and San Antonio, the company said.

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Bell Helicopter’s 505 Jet Ranger X is now certified by the FAA, the company has announced. The aircraft, which falls into the short light-single class of helicopters, incorporates “the latest advancements in safety and aviation technology,” according to Bell CEO Mitch Snyder. Customer response from around the world has been “outstanding,” he added, with about 400 letters of intent from likely buyers. The aircraft was certified by Transport Canada last December and the first delivery was made last month at Heli-Expo. It has also been certified in Australia. Bell said they are working with EASA and other aviation authorities around the globe and expect more certifications to come soon.

Key features of the aircraft, according to Bell, include a fully integrated Garmin G1000H flight deck with dual 10.4-inch displays, a newly designed cabin with forward-facing seats, large cabin doors for easy loading, a Turbomeca Arrius 2R engine with dual-channel FADEC, and a high-inertia rotor system. The aircraft will be manufactured at Bell's Mirabel plant in Quebec. The aircraft sells for about a million dollars.

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Bell Helicopter’s 505 Jet Ranger X is now certified by the FAA, the company has announced. The aircraft, which falls into the short light-single class of helicopters, incorporates “the latest advancements in safety and aviation technology,” according to Bell CEO Mitch Snyder. Customer response from around the world has been “outstanding,” he added, with about 400 letters of intent from likely buyers. The aircraft was certified by Transport Canada last December and the first delivery was made last month at Heli-Expo. It has also been certified in Australia. Bell said they are working with EASA and other aviation authorities around the globe and expect more certifications to come soon.

Key features of the aircraft, according to Bell, include a fully integrated Garmin G1000H flight deck with dual 10.4-inch displays, a newly designed cabin with forward-facing seats, large cabin doors for easy loading, a Turbomeca Arrius 2R engine with dual-channel FADEC, and a high-inertia rotor system. The aircraft will be manufactured at Bell's Mirabel plant in Quebec. The aircraft sells for about a million dollars.

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N-numbered routes in France are sort of like our better state roads or U.S.-numbered highways. Some are dual-lane divided, some just two lanes. Like most airports, the one at Tarbes has just such a highway that runs by the southeast perimeter of the airfield. When you tip out of the inevitable roundabout, there it is and there they are: dozens upon dozens of the great moveable cathedrals of modern industrial society--the transport airliner, lined up wing to wing. There are only a few places on the planet to see this. Tarbes is one, nearby Toulouse is another and of course Everett and Renton, Washington. (Airports don't count; the airplanes aren't parked cheek by jowl, usually.)

But I'm exaggerating in saying there are dozens and dozens at Tarbes; more like 15 or 20, if that. And they aren't coming fresh out of a factory here, but are flown in here to either die or be repurposed to customers who can't afford or don't need the efficiency of a state-of-the-art twin-engine airliner capable of spanning the Atlantic. Want a cheap four-engine A340? A company at Tarbes called Tarmac can probably get you into one for the price a used Citation. You're on your own for buying the gas.

In a way, those airplanes I saw at Tarbes have come full circle. Across the field is Daher, builder of the popular single-engine turboprop, the TBM. And while most of us in the U.S. know Daher only for the TBM, in global aerospace it's better known as a manufacturer of components that go into the Airbus line that will, inevitably, make their way back to Tarbes for recycling.

I knew this about Daher, but I had no idea of the volume of aerospace work it does that isn't the TBM. Daher's Philipe de Segovia showed me around the plant last week and the quick walk around took more than two hours. On a second, more methodical walk through, I shot video of the various activities there--at least what I was allowed to shoot--and I'll have that ready sometime next week.

Like so many aircraft plants, Daher is a study in the evolution of both aviation and the processes of building aircraft. But its history is longer and richer than any other factory I've been in. The original building established by Morane-Saulnier around 1911 is still in use. The company built aircraft during World War I but its history took a bizarre turn during World War II. After the French Army collapsed during the Battle of France, Tarbes--which is in the very south of the country, in the Pyrenees foothills on the Spanish border-- became part of Vichy France and was nominally unoccupied. Nonetheless, the German military impressed the factory to do repair work and production on the Focke-Wulf 190, among other aircraft. (Correction here: an earlier version said the DO 17 was produced at Tarbes, but de Segovia contacted me and said that wasn't the case.)

Some of the plant's machinery dates to the 1940s and it's tantalizing to imagine some of those machines built German aircraft. But that machinery was retired after the war. The oldest equipment builds parts for the still-supported TB-series airplanes. When I walked through the plant, I saw bins labeled for TB20 and 21s. As for the TBM, its production processes long ago left the old machinery behind. For instance, there's a 1940s-era metal stretching machine that's been updated with digital controls. You see a lot of that sort of thing in these older plants. But it doesn't stretch metal for the TBM. The airplane now uses lighter and stronger composite parts for the compound bends that were once coaxed into metal.

Composites are a big part of what Daher does and it does big parts. In one shop area, I was shown the composite gear door for an A400M that, were it not for its squarish shape and compound bend, was bigger than the wing of Cherokee. The company also has a line dedicated entirely to gear doors for the A350; think two-car garage doors and add a third and the size is about right. Some months ago, I was talking to Daher's Nic Chabbert who told me that aerospace companies subcontract a lot of work, including major subassemblies such as doors, control surfaces and entire subsections, including the staggeringly large front end of the A380 that, yes, Daher builds. And competition being what it is, these prime contractors want it ever cheaper so that forces companies like Daher to find efficiencies where they can.

Find efficiencies they do, too. I was shown a new line being developed to produce composite layups robotically, including, if I read it right, cutting and placing the material, applying resin and shuttling the thing off to giant autoclaves that reminded me of some of the mountain tunnels we rode through in the Pyrenees. Composite still requires hand work, however, to trim up the mold flash and install the hard parts such as metal hinges, latches and fasteners. You may have read that Boeing is using robotic riveting and Daher is getting there too for sub work it's doing for Dassualt, among others.

When I asked Chabbert recently if this sort of thing could trickle down to the TBM, he said Daher wouldn't rule it out. But at 40 to 60 units a year, the only way I can see it working is if TBM production piggybacks on investment with a higher margin and in that sense, Daher seems to be another version of Rotax economics. Rotax's aircraft engines are a rump on its production of recreational engines, but the component manufacture benefits from the factory's sheer scale.

You can see a little of that at Daher. The factory has a numerically controlled hydroform machine that spits out a million parts a year. I doubt if TBM manufacture alone would support that. I got the impression it makes a lot of stuff in the same way the Rotax factory makes a bunch of parts that happen to also go into airplane engines. Anyway, even with that level of automation, there's a lot of handwork just in cleaning up the parts. An entire platoon of benchworkers was touching up with files and checking bend angles with gauges. Do they do that at Airbus and Boeing? I suspect so.

Riveted metal airplanes like the TBM will always be time-consuming builds. The airplane has about 40,000 rivets and I watched mechanics hand setting and bucking them. Even so, just as I reported on Mooney having squeezed out build hours from the M20s, so has Daher done with the TBM line. The new 930s coming off the line are more efficiently built than the TBM 700 was nearly 30 years ago and whatever comes next will probably be more efficient yet. But those gains are still likely to be in the margins for the same reasons they always have been: low volume and limited return on limited investment capital. But the story at Daher appears to be the same as it is at Continental, Lycoming and Mooney. As new machinery becomes more affordable and more flexible, even low-volume airplane companies can benefit from its use.

We had the opportunity to go on the test flight when John Sessions, of the Historic Flight Foundation, picked up his refurbished DC-3 from Sealand Aviation in Campbell River, British Columbia a few years ago. He was guided through his first landing by DC-3 guru Dan Gryder.

Picture of the Week
Picture of the Week

Beautiful photos this week but here's a suggestion. Don't send us a whole bunch of your photos all at once. We need to give everyone a chance and we'll never remember to look back in the files to find those we couldn't use. Send them one at a time and you'll have a better chance. Having said that, Jack Fleetwood, who sent four stunning images this week, rose to the top with the pic of Rusty Morris's beautiful Cessna 170.

Electronics International 'Aviation Alert! Short video on how EI saved this pilot's life

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