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Mooney M10

Just months after resuming production at its Kerrville, Texas, factory, Mooney International has unveiled two new models, both diesel-powered and both aimed at the global training market. Surprisingly, rather than riveted metal, the company said the new aircraft -- the M10T and M10J -- will be of composite construction. The company made the announcement at the principal general aviation show in Zhuhai, China, this week, where it had a mock-up on display.

Although the rollout was announced in Zhuhai, the company said the aircraft will be aimed at both the mature global training market and the developing market in China and Asia. The M10T is a fixed-gear design powered by Continental's CD-135 diesel and is meant to provide what Mooney calls a seamless step up to Mooney's traditional fast and efficient cruisers, the M20 line. The M10J, reminiscent of the popular M20J 201, will be a retractable powered by the Continental CD-155 diesel. It too will have a Chinese marketing component. Mooney says the airplane would have a cruise speed of about 170 knots and although no fuel burn specs were given, the CD-155 typically burns about 5.5 GPH in cruise flight. 

No prices for the new aircraft were offered at Zhuhai, but the company said the aircraft would be "competitive." Certification and deliveries are planned for 2017, an aggressive schedule. After some five years of dormancy, Mooney resumed limited production in Kerrville. The company was bought by Chinese interests last year and resumed production this summer, initially completing airframes already underway when the company shut down in 2008. It's not known if the new airplanes will be built in the U.S. or in China.

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The proposed rules for integrating unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace may be published before the end of this year, according to a report in the National Defense Industrial Association blog on Tuesday. The rules "will open the door to a lot of commercial operations that aren't authorized today," according to Jim Williams, manager of the FAA's UAS integration office. Williams provided the update during a program review last week with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, according to NDIA. "We're taking great strides to authorize commercial operations in the U.S., and the small unmanned aircraft systems rule that we've all been waiting on so long is getting really close to being done," Williams said.

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A mandate from Congress in 2012 specified that the FAA should have a plan to integrate small UAS -- 55 pounds or less -- into the domestic airspace by September 2015. Williams said the FAA has received 117 requests for exemptions from the current rules, as of Nov. 5, and more are coming in every day. Under the current rules, no commercial use of UAS is allowed, although recently several exemptions were granted for the film industry. In other drone news, the first film festival exclusively for movies shot with drones is set for Feb. 21 in New York City. All films must be under five minutes long.

Bell Helicopter has flown its 505 Jet Ranger X for the first time, the company announced this week. "The Bell 505 performed exactly as anticipated today," Yann Lavalle, senior flight test pilot for the company, said on Monday. The 30-minute flight, at the company's facility in Mirabel, Quebec, comprised two laps around the pattern, a hover check, and a low-speed controllability assessment. Top speed was 60 knots. The aircraft is a clean-sheet turbine design with seats for five, designed to be easy and safe to fly and competitively priced for its category. The multi-mission helicopter can fly up to 360 nm at a cruise speed up to 125 knots, according to Bell.

The Bell 505 also features a Garmin G1000H integrated avionics suite and a Turbomeca Arrius 2R engine with FADEC. It's driven by a high-inertia rotor system, which the company says will deliver superior autorotation capabilities. It was first publicly introduced at Heli-Expo in Anaheim, California, in February. The aircraft sells for about $1.3 million.

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Chinese officials flew their J-31 twin-engine stealth fighter in public for the first time at this week's Zhuhai airshow, and said they plan to market the airplane globally as a lower-cost alternative to the Lockheed Martin F-35. "It is our dream to break the monopoly that foreign countries have on new-generation jet fighters," said Li Yuhai, the deputy general manager at AVIC (Aviation Industry Corporation of China), at an airshow news conference. "The J-31 will also be a flagship product for us in the international arms market." The J-31, which first flew in October 2012, flew during the Tuesday airshow, but was not put on display on the flight line. A mock-up of the jet is on exhibit.

The biannual China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai is being held this week for the 10th time. It has become the biggest commercial and defense aviation event in Asia, with more than 700 companies exhibiting.

NetJets has flown its first paying customer in China. NetJets announced its intention to do business in China years ago and put a foothold in the country earlier this year. It made the announcement about the charter customer flight and a new arrangement with MedAire at Airshow China in Zhuhai. NetJets, which is doing business as NetJets Business Aviation in China, is based in Zhuhai. It received its operating certificate in September.

The company flew its first charter customer from Shanghai to five locations in China on Oct. 24 in a Hawker 800XP. It didn't identify the customer but Eric Wong, NBAL's vice chairman, said the businessman illustrated the value of private air travel. "It was wonderful to see several years of hard work culminate in a highly successful trip," said Wong. "The trip client was able to visit facilities in multiple locations on a schedule that is not possible to complete in a timely manner via commercial airlines." NetJets also signed a deal with MedAire to provide first aid training and on-call medical services for its charter clients.

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Almost exactly a year ago, when I fishing around for something provocative to say about Chinese interests buying Mooney, I came up with this nugget: "So personally, I'm okay with the sale of Mooney to a China-based company, but only if it pulls in some investment to get the company to the next stage. Let's see if that happens."

I feel like my bluff has been called. This week, Mooney announced two models pitched at the training market, the M10T and M10J. They're both composite and both powered by Continental diesels. I had opined that Mooney needed Jet A options and now that's what they've proposed. I have to admit, I'm a little stunned at how fast they've moved. But that's what having a lot of capital and the willingness to invest can do. It's obvious that these airframes were in the works by Mooney—or somebody—before the purchase was announced last year. Mooney now becomes the certification channel.

At first glance, does launching two models now make sense? It depends on where Mooney thinks the sweet spot of the market will be. The fact that these were announced in China suggests they're betting mostly on China, where training aircraft market growth should be steady, but not explosive. But no one really knows. The Chinese have aviation in their current five-year plan and if they want to train the pilots domestically, they'll want basic trainers and probably a step-up retract. The M10T does the former, the M10J the latter. I have no clue of the potential volume, but I'm going to guess in the many dozens, not hundreds.

The diesels make perfect sense. In China, you can find fuel for them anywhere, they're economical and operators are telling me the engines have reached a level of robustness that suggests they're beyond the passing fad stage. The more the engine volume increases, the better the production and service economics look. And not to obsess too much on China, but every airplane these days is a global airplane and these will be, too, I'm sure.

The choice of composite was a bit of a curve ball, but a year ago, I thought riveted metal—at least the way Mooney does it—is difficult to make profitable because of the high parts count and high build hours. Composite reduces the parts, but may or may not reduce build hours, depending on how it's done. Mooney is all about efficient metal airframes; that's their core expertise. How they incorporate composite production will be interesting to see. Both Cirrus and Diamond have been at this for years and discovered that composite structures aren't necessarily lighter than metal and it's challenging to ramp up the throughput for high production. Will they go vertical and learn it themselves or traverse horizontally and farm the work out to companies who already have this expertise? (That's what I'd do.)

Mooney isn't saying yet what they'll do, nor are they ready to make an announcement on where the airplanes will be built, a Mooney spokesman told me on Tuesday. Building them in China would meet the goal of broadening the aerospace skill base, but possibly at the expense of a longer certification program. The CAAC, I'm told, is not quite up to speed to the point that a manufacturer could anticipate using the CS23 revision standards to squeeze some cost out the cert program, as Flight Design is doing in Europe with its C4, for instance. That argues for an FAA certification effort in the U.S., perhaps in California where the company has an office, and production in the U.S. But we can only wait to hear what Mooney says.

No price figures were announced by Mooney, other than to say the new airplanes will be competitively priced. But what does that mean? If the Cessna Skyhawk is $400,000 or $430,000 with a diesel, then about $395,000 is competitive and similar to where Piper has placed the new diesel-powered Archer DX. But my guess is they'll be less than that-- perhaps significantly less.

One reason for believing this is that Mooney says the trainer version (M10T) will be a three-seat airplane, while the retractable M10J will have a third seat as an option. Call me crazy, but I just don't see how a two-seat airplane will be priced the same as a four seater like the Skyhawk. But then new aircraft prices came adrift from sanity five years ago, so any rational notion of what airplanes should cost is about as useful as a losing lottery ticket. As Cessna discovered with the Skycatcher, building an airplane in China is not necessarily cheaper than doing it elsewhere. I suppose it could be if profit isn't a top priority and that could very well be the case. China is, after all, still a centrally planned economy. Their business decisions span decades, not just the next quarter.

The M10J revives the idea of the Mooney 201, a popular airframe that was more economical than fast. But it's fast enough. Just pushing some numbers around, if the M10J meets Mooney's anticipated cruise speed of 170 knots, it will be the airplane version of a Prius. Okay, maybe a Jetta TDI. The Continental CD-155 sips fuel at 5.5 GPH so this new airplane would steam along at nearly 200 MPH at 36 MPG. If it makes those numbers and Mooney can resist larding it up with a ridiculously overblown avionics suite, could there be a U.S. market for a moderately fast two-place airplane that's super economical? You know what? I hope so.

While I don't sense a crackling light aircraft rebound in the works, the market is clearly showing signs of life. Mooney may be getting the timing just right. And in a market starved for new products, it's nice to see it.

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