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Amid signs that avionics shops are busier than they have been in nearly a decade, the 58thAircraft Electronics Association convention opens this week in Dallas with a sold-out hall and record pre-registrations. “Since the beginning of 2015, it seems like general aviation, especially the electronics industry, has really been picking up some steam,” says Paula Derks, president of AEA.

“The mood is more positive. People seem to be busier, the repair stations are busier. Our advance registration is way up and our exhibit hall has been sold out for a month,” she added. AEA expects 33 new product announcements at the convention, a record, and while we don’t yet know what the products are, it’s a sure bet that some of them will be in the ADS-B segment, despite a growing glut of choices. Connectivity and cabin entertainment systems are also a hot market area, particularly for Part 25 aircraft plying the business market. Perhaps sensing rising demand, manufacturers are stepping in with 95 hours of specialized training aimed at supporting their products, another robust year for this activity. Derks says the product mix is likely to be all over the map.

Sure to be on the agenda at AEA is discussion about ADS-B market penetration, installation costs and above all, a lack of clarity for buyers seeking to install these systems. We count nearly three dozen choices, with more appearing every month. “What we’re really promoting to our repair station members is that they really need to know the products so that they can educate their customers, the pilots, who are coming in looking for answers on what they need to install,” Derks says.

When asked if AEA expects the ADS-B mandate to be pushed back, Derks told AVweb that the FAA remains adamant that it will not be, despite the fact that every such mandated program in the past—Mode-C transponders, ELTs, TAWs and RVSM—were given implementation extensions.

In addition to new product intros, AEA offers extensive technical and regulatory training to attendees and the convention’s opening speech will be given by Michael Whitaker, the FAA deputy administrator heading up the agency’s NextGen program. AVweb will have full coverage of the convention beginning Wednesday. You can hear a podcast interview with Paula Derks here.

Ahead of the 2015 Aircraft Electronics Association trade show, we reached out to AEA president Paula Derks for her show forecast.  She answered a few questions about the ADS-B mandate and what FAA nextgen specialist Mike Whitaker may have to say at the show, as well as hinting at some of the product announcements in store.

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With a massive buy of 10,000 of its low-cost RANGR Lite ADS-B products, FreeFlight Systems says the economy of scale is beginning to flatten on ADS-B and buyers waiting for further price breaks might not see them. In an interview for this podcast from the Aircraft Electronics Association Convention in Dallas on Wednesday, FreeFlight president Tim Taylor says the company has had good response to its $1995 ADS-B Out only RANGR Lite product, suggesting that under $2,000 for all the hardware may be the market sweet spot. (Add to that another $1,500 to $2,000 in installation costs.)

At AEA, FreeFlight Systems, a Texas-based company specializing in NextGen products including ADS-B, formally announced its Equip-It 2020 marketing program that includes both a RANGER Lite with Out capability and a companion product that offers the full UAT In/Out solution for $3,695 for the basic hardware.

“We had been having the debate about price versus performance and we realized the right debate to have was price versus volume,” Taylor told us. “And it’s more than just a marketing campaign. The systems are slightly different. We took some of the integration features out of our standard RANGR product line so we could reduce costs and get it down to the absolute minimum. We’re going to build 10,000 of these and make them available first-come, first serve, with deliveries around June,” he added.

Taylor also said if a customer buys the transmit-only version and wants to upgrade to the transceiver later, FreeFlight will have a path for that. The full-featured versions of FreeFlight’s UAT units display on panel-mounted equipment; the Lite version is designed to display on portables through a wireless node. The system will work with several apps, including a free version provided by FreeFlight.

“Two things are different going forward. One is the price point, which the community has said is good one,” Taylor added. Second, organizations like AOPA and EAA had been urging caution in ADS-B purchasing, but Taylor says he has been told they’ll advise would-be buyers to consider pushing the button. “Now,” Taylor says, “equipment price is not going to be the issue, the issue is going to be installation capacity. If you wait too long, than that capacity is going to have a price tag attached to it.”

AVweb's Paul Bertorelli spoke with Tim Taylor of FreeFlight Systems about the company's EquipIt 2020 initiative, which aims to provide low-cost equipage options to meet the FAA's coming ADS-B mandate.  With the Aircraft Electronics Association show going on now in Dallas, Taylor explained the logistics of FreeFlight's RANGR Lite system, encouraged owner-pilots to equip sooner rather than later, and answered that all-important question:  Does he see ADS-B getting any more affordable than it already has?

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Although there are still hopes that China will be a big market for business aviation, recent events in that country have all but negated gains made in recent years. There's perhaps no better illustration of that than a strategic shift announced by one of China's largest bizjet financing companies. Minsheng Financial Leasing Corporation told Business Jet Investor blogger Alud Davies Tuesday that it will be looking outside China for new business. The change in fortunes for general aviation in China has manifested in three ways.

The government imposed a restraint program that was immediately felt by charter operators. Senior officials who had customarily traveled by charter began booking economy airline seats instead to distance themselves from the shows of wealth that the ruling Communist Party suddenly found reprehensible. The restraint program dovetailed with an anti-corruption drive that prompted the wealthy to stop partaking in their customary lifestyle perks. Private air travel was especially frowned upon and not only did charters dry up but a lot of jet orders from Western manufacturers were cancelled or deferred. Finally, the pace of airspace reform has slowed and the infrastructure construction required to support a vigorous GA industry has also been a casualty of the restraint program. Minsheng is talking about being able to service domestic needs for its services in "several years' time" according to the Corporate Jet Investor blog.

Flight Design has partnered with AeroJones, a Taiwanese company working in China, to build its airplanes in Xiamen, a coastal city, for the Asian market. AeroJones has successfully completed a "full manufacturing evaluation," Flight Design said in a news release this week. Flight Design CEO Matthias Betsch, Director Christian Wenger and Flight Design USA President Tom Peghiny visited AeroJones recently to witness the completion of the company's first conforming CTLS. "We examined a batch of four AeroJones-produced prototypes," said Peghiny. "After training was conducted on composite structures, the team fabricated multiple prototypes, of which the fully conforming CTLS was the fourth built by the company."

The final prototype, built 98 percent of carbon fiber as are the company's European airplanes, complies with all ASTM standards, Flight Design said. "Now that they have completed the run of four prototypes culminating in a fully conforming article, AeroJones can begin the effort for serial production," said Wenger. AeroJones is breaking ground on a new 250,000-square-foot production facility in Changzhou. The company will produce airframes for the CTLS light-sport aircraft as well as Flight Design's four-seat C4, which is expected to take its first flight soon.

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All seven people on board were killed when a Cessna 414 light twin crashed into a soybean field near Bloomington, Illinois, at about 12:15 a.m. Tuesday. Conditions were reportedly foggy and rainy at the time. The flight had departed Indianapolis just after the NCAA basketball championship game, and was heading for Central Illinois Regional Airport, in Bloomington. NTSB investigator Todd Fox said on Tuesday evening the plane was cleared to land at Bloomington but appears to have made a turn away from approaching the runway just before the crash, for reasons that are not clear. 

Two of those on board were members of the athletic department at Illinois State University. The Cessna owner's son was on board, and the others were his guests. The ATP-rated pilot, age 51, had about 12,000 hours total time, Fox said.

The NTSB issued four safety alerts on Tuesday, highlighting safety issues relevant to general aviation pilots and mechanics. The alerts warn pilots to master mountain flying skills and emergency survival procedures before venturing into the mountains, seek transition training before flying an unfamiliar aircraft, and perform thorough preflight checks on airplanes after maintenance. The mechanics' alert offers advice on avoiding misrigging mistakes. The safety board said it has identified these issues based on several recent investigations.

Each of the alerts includes summaries of accidents and an exploration of the safety issues involved. The alerts also provide advice on how to apply the lessons learned and information about where to find educational resources to learn more. The new safety alerts, along with dozens of others previously released by the safety board, can be found at the NTSB website.

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My first experience with an autogyro was not auspicious. I was a newly minted private pilot waiting to take off from what was then Baltimore Airpark, north of Baltimore. Number one for the runway was a Bensen Gyrocopter of the sort I’d seen a million times in Popular Mechanics ads, but never in the flesh.

Off it went down the runway—I can’t say charged because it sort of crawled. It lifted off, wobbled and sliced through the tops of trees at the end of the runway, after which a wispy column of black smoke—or was it dust?—wafted up. Uh-oh, I thought, have I just witnessed my first fatal crash? But no, a few minutes later, the uninjured pilot emerged from the tree line helmet in hand, none the worse for wear. Can’t say the same for the Bensen.

I also can’t say it put me off autogyros, basically because unless you were willing to build one, access to these unique aircraft was essentially non-existent. Forty years later, that’s still true in the U.S., although in Europe—why is it always Europe?— a vibrant renaissance in autogyro technology is underway, picking up where Pitcairn left off during the 1930s. Every time I go to Aero in Friedrichshafen, the place is just lousy with autogyros of all kinds—tandems, side-by-sides, single-place, open cockpit. The variety is considerable. Autogyro GMBH builds about 300 a year and that’s just one company. That’s more airframes than Robinson shipped in piston helicopters and about what Cirrus sold last year.

And every year, I’ve tried and failed to get my mitts on the controls of one of these things. No joy, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on my part. Finally, at the Sebring Sport Aviation Expo, I flew with Bob Snyder in one of his Autogyro Calidus models. Once strapped into the seat, I’ll admit to thinking about that Bensen crash, but the Calidus is no Bensen. It’s built to modern light sport aircraft standards and the workmanship and detail suggest quality. Of course, you can only judge that by looking at what you can see and surmising that the underlying engineering, materials quality and construction match the shiny surface. I paid particular attention to the rotor system because as in a helicopter, that’s the Jesus link; if it goes, you’re fresh outta lift.

But there the helicopter comparisons end, because an autogyro is a whole ‘nuther thing. As you can see and hear in the video, flying an autogyro is all about managing the energy in that rotating disc, energy that comes not from the engine, but from air passing through it from below. You have to take care not to let the rotor RPM drop below the point where the disc won’t generate sufficient lift. A passage in the POH illustrates how counterintuitive this can be for a fixed wing pilot: “Any maneuver resulting in a low-G (near weightless) condition can result in a catastrophic loss of lateral/roll control in conjunction with rapid main rotor RPM decrease. Always maintain adequate load on the rotor and avoid aggressive forward control input performed from level flight or following a pull-up.” The reason is that this reverses the airflow over the rotor blades from below to above, essentially reversing the energy input. It’s likely to be unrecoverable.

And that’s just one reason why it’s a good idea that transitioning to an autogyro requires a category rating and 10 to 12 hours of training. And personally, I wouldn’t think of skipping that myself. Yet the accident record shows that many would-be autogyro pilots have gone the DIY flight training route. The lucky ones, like that Bensen pilot I witnessed, live to tell the tale, but many have not.

But the concepts are hardly unlearnable and the flight experience is unique. The German-based Autogyro is advancing autogyro technology in terms of flight dynamics, construction methods, safety and practicality. I found the Calidus pleasant to fly, with superb visibility above and below. Like the Cub, it’s ideal for low-altitude sightseeing and at 90 knots cruise speed, it’s suitable for leisurely cross countries like this nice little tour of Europe by Gyrocopter Girl. And this video would suggest there’s some attraction in flying an autogyro without a stich of clothing. For her, I get that, but personally, I’d prefer to have something between me and those whirling blades. And not just clothes.

And that gets us back to access to these unique flying machines. In Europe, there’s an approved rotorcraft section in the microlight regulations that are similar to the U.S. light sport rule. That means that Autogyro and its competitors are free to sell fully assembled, ready-to-fly autogyros, which explains why we see so many in Europe. But in the U.S.—you guessed it—you can’t do that. As with electric airplanes, the U.S. light sport rule doesn’t have a rotorcraft section and it’s unclear if it ever will. However, because most autogyros meet the light sport weight rules, they can be flown without a required medical. But that still means you’re likely to be flying an experimental. There are a handful of certified gycrocopters (the McCulloch J-2 is one), but certified gyros were never a significant market in the U.S.  

The experimental gyrocopter market hardly lacks for choice. By my count, there are at least a couple of dozen designs out there, either gyros or copters, not including the offerings from Europe, of which the Autogyro models are just one company’s examples. There are lots on the FAA registry, although I’m not sure of the active total. Still, for whatever reasons, gyros seem to be more of a European thing and maybe they always have been, by predilection and cultural preference. In one of the odder turns of history, during World War II, some German U-boats carried their own collapsible gyrocopters, the Focke Achgelis FA-330. The gyro was stored in a tube on deck and could be assembled to launch an observer who was then towed behind the boat, whose forward speed spun the rotor. At up to 400 feet, the gyro extended the crew’s range of visibility up to 25 miles. It wasn’t considered successful because when attacked by aircraft, U-boats had to submerge quickly, with not nearly enough time to recover the gyro pilot.

But the FA-330 had one intriguing feature modern gyros lack and perhaps could use: a parachute. The 330’s blades could be ejected in flight and the pilot could separate and deploy his own parachute. For obvious reasons, full aircraft recovery parachutes aren’t common on gyrocopters, although one manufacturer, Matto, does offer such a system. Free-spinning rotor or not, I’d take one.

I’d also support the argument that LSA ought to include gyrocopters. They’re fun and not difficult to fly and, with thorough training, probably as safe as any other aircraft. It seems to me that it’s a little niche in the flying machine market that we’re just ignoring, for no compelling reason.

Find out more at Bob Snyder's website.

Reading List

As we've reported, at AirVenture this year, the U.S. Air Force will be displaying a B-52 for the first time. If you've never seen one up close, put it on your must-see list. And if it's not roped off and the bomb bay doors are open, take a peek inside. You'll wonder how the thing could get off the ground with all the ordnance they could—and did—stuff in there.

Ahead of that, recommended reading is B-52 Days Remembered, by Phil Rowe, who was an electronic warfare officer in the early days of the Strategic Air Command. It's a quick read and is a series of vignettes and war stories stitched together to give a broad portrait of how this massive airplane was deployed in its early life and how flawed it was, as many designs often were. There's a fascinating description of how the engines were started, including something I didn't know: They could be started with a variation of Coffman cartridges; basically big shotgun shells that shoot pressure into the pneumatic ducts used to spin up the engines. 

Available for the Kindle, the book is definitely worth a read.

Jeppesen Chart Clinic Confidential || Read Charts Like an Insider with Tips from the Experts!

Autogyros are big in Europe — but in the U.S., not so much.  The reason for that is primarily regulatory.  The U.S. light sport rule doesn't include rotorcraft.  As Paul Bertorelli discovered on this AVweb flight demo, that's too bad.  Gyros are fun and easy to fly, but they do take specific training for the required category rating.

What Everybody Ought to Know About the CGR-30P from Electronics International

L-3 Aviation was among several ADS-B manufacturers presenting new, mandate-compliant solutions to the flight training community at the 2015 National Training Aircraft Symposium (NTAS) at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.  In this video, Aviation Consumer editor Larry Anglisano presents an overview of the Lynx product line with L-3's Todd Scholten.

The Quietest Aviation Headset Available Is Also the Most Intelligent || Zulu PFX from Lightspeed

Daher recently opened a new sales, maintenance and support facility in Pompano Beach, Florida. AVweb was there and shot some video of the event.

2020 Starts Today || A Complete ADS-B System for Less than $2,000

Knowing what the examiner expects will diminish Practical Test Stress on any checkride. As the examinee, you can expect to skate through your next ride by acing this quiz.

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Picture of the Week
Picture of the Week

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to top the list of weekly reader photos here on AVweb — and that's exactly what photographer Dave C. and pilot Gerry Mixon of Okeechobee, FL did. Click through for other incredible shots from AVweb readers.