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Continental Motors Group said today that it will purchase Danbury Aerospace, a group of aviation manufacturing companies that includes Engine Components International, the San Antonio, Texas-based manufacturer of PMA engine parts. Danbury is a privately held company and the dollar amount of the deal wasn’t disclosed by Continental. Because Continental is itself owned by the Chinese-based AVIC International, the purchase must still be approved by the State Department’s Committee for Foreign Investment, according to Rhett Ross, director of the Continental Motors Group and an AVIC vice president.

Continental’s purchase includes all five of Danbury’s business units which, in addition to ECI, are Precision Machined Airparts, Sterling Machinery & Process, Automotive Engineering Corp. and EC Services, which provides overhaul of aircraft components. Danbury is estimated to have about $27.5 million in annual revenues, according to buzzfile.com.

Continental’s Ross said if the purchase is approved by regulators, ECI and other companies in the group will see an infusion of capital and that Continental wants to inject more marketing energy into ECI brands, including Titan engines, a favorite among some home builders. “Right now, ECI has a long list of engines under the brand. We want to get that list in front of the customer,” Ross said. Ross further pledged that the company will continue to produce and market PMA cylinders, even though these may compete with Continental’s own products.

The deal gives Continental some presence in the experimental market with ECI’s Titan line of engines, including the X320, X340 and X370 models, to name several. These engines are Lycoming-type designs that have proved popular in the experimental amateur-built segment. Continental has had little presence in the experimental market dominated by Lycoming’s Thunderbolt line. Ross said none of ECI’s experimental engines are competitive with Continental products.

The ECI deal marks the third acquisition by Continental during the past two years. It has its own avionics shop, Southern Avionics and Communications at Fairhope and Mobile, Alabama, and recently bought United Turbine, a Miami-based overhauler of turbine engines. Valentino Passarelli will oversee the transition and integration of Danbury's assets into CMG. The deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2015 and until then, Danbury's companies will operate normally, with all orders being honored and filled.

Cirrus Aircraft will likely announce a new delivery center in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Wednesday. Tennessee officials, including Gov. Bill Haslam, have invited media to a news conference at McGhee Tyson Airport near Knoxville to reveal "a significant economic development announcement." It's unlikely the announcement has anything to do with aircraft production as new facilities and programs are established at the company's Duluth, Minnesota, operations. However, there has been discussion about moving the delivery center, where customers pick up their aircraft and do type training, to a less, uh, vigorous climate.

Celebrity purchasers of Cirrus aircraft have apparently suggested that the windy end of Lake Superior is a less-than-ideal setting for their first encounter with their new airplane (especially if it rolls off the line in January). With the new Vision SF50 jet now in production those sensitivities are likely to be magnified. The new facility will likely employ 40-50 people. Knoxville has much milder weather than Duluth's but it's likely the economic climate had as much to do with the decision. Tennessee is aggressively pursuing aerospace development with generous tax and infrastructure incentives, all of which will be explained in Wednesday's announcement.

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The electrical systems on Boeing 787s need to be shut down and restarted before they reach 248 days of continuous power, the FAA said on Friday, to prevent a "loss of all AC electrical power, which could result in loss of control of the airplane." The airworthiness directive was issued "straight to final rule," without a preliminary notice, and is effective immediately. The FAA said it was informed about the problem by Boeing, and the manufacturer is working on a software upgrade that will address the issue. "Once this software is developed, approved, and available, we might consider additional rulemaking," the FAA said.

According to the AD, the software internal to the generator control units (GCUs) will overflow after 248 days, causing that GCU to go into failsafe mode. "If the four main GCUs (associated with the engine mounted generators) were powered up at the same time, after 248 days of continuous power, all four GCUs will go into failsafe mode at the same time, resulting in a loss of all AC electrical power regardless of flight phase," the AD says. The reboot procedure can be completed with just one hour of work, the FAA said, and there is no other cost involved.

As part of its investigation into several events when airplanes landed at the wrong airports, the NTSB told the FAA this week it should amend its ATC procedures. "Controllers [should] withhold landing clearance until the aircraft has passed all other airports that may be confused with the destination airport," the NTSB said. Also, software that warns controllers about minimum safe altitudes should be modified to also warn them if the airplane crew is trying to land at an airport different from the one in the flight plan. Currently, the software automatically switches to the airport where the crew is landing, without signaling a change.

The two new safety recommendations (PDF) are based on the NTSB's investigations of two recent wrong-airport landing events, including a Southwest flight that mistakenly landed in Branson, Missouri, in January 2014, and an Atlas Air B747 cargo flight that landed at the wrong airport in Wichita, Kansas, in November 2013. Both aircraft landed safely and nobody was hurt in either incident. The NTSB also cited several other recent incidents, including a Beech Bonanza that mistakenly landed at an Air Force base in Shreveport, Louisiana, last November.

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image: NASA

NASA has successfully flown a remotely piloted aircraft powered by 10 electric motors that can take off vertically, then rotate its wing and tail surfaces and fly like an airplane. The aircraft, which weighs about 62 pounds, has a 10-foot wingspan, with eight motors on the wings and two on the tail. "During the flight tests we successfully transitioned from hover to wing-borne flight like a conventional airplane then back to hover again," said Bill Fredericks, aerospace engineer. "Now we're working on our second goal -- to demonstrate that this concept is four times more aerodynamically efficient in cruise than a helicopter." The tests took place recently at a military base about two hours away from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, according to NASA's news release.

The drone could be used for small-package delivery or for long-endurance surveillance for agriculture, mapping and other applications, Fredericks said. Also, he added, "A scaled-up version -- much larger than what we are testing now -- would also make a great one- to four-person size personal air vehicle." The drone, called Greased Lightning, or GL-10, is on display this week in NASA's exhibit at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International 2015 conference in Atlanta. After that, NASA said, drone test flights will continue, with the next goal to confirm the design's aerodynamic efficiency.

NASA says it has successfully flight-tested wings that can change shape in flight without seams or gaps and is calling it a next-generation breakthrough in aircraft design. In cooperation with the Air Force and FlexSys Inc., the developer of the system, NASA mounted the morphing wings on a Gulfstream bizjet and put it through its paces. “We are thrilled to have accomplished all of our flight test goals without encountering any significant technical issues,” Air Force Research Laboratory program manager Pete Flick said in a joint news release. By eliminating the drag-inducing structural components of conventional control surfaces, the researchers are hoping for significant efficiency improvements.

Having an almost infinitely moldable wing will allow the systems that control it to find the "sweet spot" for efficiency in all phases of flight and in all flight profiles. "The completion of this flight test campaign at Armstrong [Flight Research Center] is a big step for NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation [ERA] Project," said the project's manager, Fay Collier. "This is the first of eight large-scale integrated technology demonstrations ERA is finishing up this year that are designed to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment." The added bonus is that much of the noise made by aircraft on landing and takeoff is from the flaps and the gapless result of the wing shaping cuts noise by 40 percent.

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Organizers are calling this Friday's flyover of the nation's capital "one of the most diverse arrays of World War II aircraft ever assembled," with 56 aircraft in 15 historically sequenced formations flying 1,000 feet above the National Mall to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The formations will represent the war's major battles, from Pearl Harbor on through to the final air assault on Japan. The flight will conclude with a missing-man formation. The flyover is being held to honor the large number of veterans expected to gather at the WWII Memorial for a ceremony on Friday morning. For those not in the capital city, the event will be broadcast live on the Internet, with the ceremony starting at 10:30 a.m. and the flyover at 12:10.

For visitors to Washington, the flyover can be viewed from anywhere along the Mall, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. The National Air & Space Museum has posted a set of "spotter cards" to help observers identify the aircraft. On Saturday, 22 of the airplanes will gather outside NASM's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport. The display will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The weather outlook so far looks promising, but in case of rain, the flyover would be rescheduled for Saturday. Washington's Reagan National Airport will be closed to commercial traffic from 12 noon to 1 p.m. on Friday to accommodate the flyover.

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At the Electric Aircraft Symposium in Santa Rosa, California, on Saturday, I scribbled in my notebook a wry comment from Tine Tomazic of Pipistrel Aircraft, the innovative Slovenian company that’s an unabashed supporter—and maker—of electric airplanes. Tomazic said he hoped the era of electric conversions was coming to an end and he pointedly noted that he bothered to place a question mark in the title of his half-hour discussion about conversions.

His comment represented a watershed of sorts in that it has become clear—and probably always was—that converting conventional airframes to electric propulsion are merely technical exercises in the service of conceptual aspiration and not necessarily products with market legs. Pipistrel’s own recently introduced Alpha Electro may or may not cross that threshold. It is a converted gasoline model, but because it’s so light and so aerodynamically efficient, it may represent the very minimum in what an electric airplane can eventually be. We’ll know in a couple of years if it finds market viability in Europe, where noise and emissions drive purchase decisions in a way they don’t in the U.S., further reinforcing the notion that market tides outside North America are shaping electric aviation.

Further proof of that resides in the two big players who presented technical details of their projects at the symposium, Airbus and Siemens AG, the giant German electrical concern. As we reported, Airbus is planning a two-place trainer and a four-place personal aircraft for the U.S. general aviation market. The trainer is a battery-powered electric, the four-placer a hybrid drive. In the distant future is the ambitious E-Thrust project, a multi-engine regional airliner with as-yet-to-be-developed hybrid drive. In case you're wondering, the hybrid's theoretical advantage is that its energy conversion cycle can be more efficient than a turbine engine alone. It would use a smaller turbine than might otherwise be necessary for takeoff and climb; batteries supply the necessary burst energy for those phases of flight, while the airplane would cruise on a smaller, less thirsty engine. The efficiency equation may pencil out, but there are huge challenges in weight, complexity and certification to overcome, so in specific dollars (or Euros) per knot or seat-mile costs, we're a decade from seeing where this is a slam dunk.

Siemens is just as bullish on hybrids and has already developed stunningly power-dense electric motors that address the thrust side of the equation ahead of proven solutions for the energy conversion side. Taken together, these two initiatives represent a clear trend toward the hybrid idea and when I asked Siemens’ Frank Anton where pure electrics—that is battery electrics—fit into the emerging market, he figured they’ll retain a niche foothold and I think he’s probably right. But the foothold doesn’t even exist yet. Pipistrel’s Alpha Electric hasn’t delivered any airplanes and won’t until later in the year.

When they do, we’ll find out if 90 minutes of endurance is a realistic number for flight schools, we’ll find out how customers like e-flight and we’ll find out how quick-change battery packs and fast charging perform in the real world. We may also find out if potential buyers are fence sitting, awaiting the magical high-endurance battery breakthrough. 

If so, they’ll wait a while. As expected, much of the discussion at EAS focused on battery developments, but the general consensus seems to be that lithium-based technologies are simmering along with 7-percent improvements each year and I didn’t hear much that suggests a corner to be turned, at least one that’s in sight. Right now, 180 wh/kg batteries are available and by the time you account for connectors, containment and controls, it’s about 155 wh/kg, which is what Pipistrel specs for the Alpha Electro. In five years time or a little less, we might see 300 wh/kg. That’s obviously better, but it’s not clear to me that it’s transformational.

In one session, Yi Cui of Stanford and a company called Amprius threw up a slide charting the commercialization of various battery technologies. His timeline carries lithium, lead-acid and nickel metal hydride well past 2035, but other theoretical technologies such as sodium ion and zinc ion are best guesses for 2020 or beyond and the really hairy stuff like aluminum and magnesium-based energy storage are far beyond that. Cui’s company, Amprius, is working on silicon-based anodes for lithium cells. It’s unclear when that will be commercialized. Another company, ZAF Energy Systems, showed some data for nickel zinc and zinc air technology that it claims can deliver up 450 effective wh/kg. That’s a nice bump, but the company’s Zach Favors also conceded these are laboratory-demonstrated numbers and industrialization, as with many of these technologies, remains an unknown.

What is not an unknown is lithium-ion hazards. We sat through quite a few video snippets of smoking, flaming, melting and exploding batteries. The people in this industry are, if nothing else, cognizant of their limitations. Pipistrel’s Tomazic jokingly described the Alpha Electric’s battery pack as “664 little nightmares.” The NTSB’s Michael Bauer gave a nice dissection of the Boeing 787 battery fires, complete with more gruesome photos and lab-test conflagrations. Watching his talk, I couldn’t help but wonder that with all the rigor the FAA forces on manufacturers to certify fly-by-wire systems, how did they ever let these potentially deadly battery systems into commercial aircraft? The fact that they failed as soon and as frequently as they did indicates to me that the technology wasn’t ready. I think they’ve probably got it tamped down now, but it was a fortunate turn of events that prevented those fires from causing more havoc than they did. Airline passengers shouldn’t be beta testers.

And as dicey as an airliner battery fire is, think about the same thing in a spacecraft. NASA has and Eric Darcy of the Johnson Space Center described how the agency built ceramic containment barriers and foam so as to mitigate thermal runaways to a degree that the ISS filters could handle the smoke. “It is doable,” he said.

That’s good, because as experience has shown, lithium-ion batteries are BYOB with regard to fire; they supply their own fuel and oxygen and are all but impossible to extinguish. But there’s help coming there, too. We heard about research on non-organic, non-flammable electrolytes that may some day render lithium-ion no more hazardous than carbon cells, or at least less susceptible to runaway. Yi Cui discussed so-called “smart separators” that sense potential internal shorts that can drop the cell offline before it becomes dangerously anti-social.

The range of research and actual commercialization expressed at EAS shows just a glimpse into the intellectual energy being poured into electric everything, not just electric flight. It hardly represents everything going on out there, but judging by who was at this event, there’s plenty of seed money and interest available to commercialize these technologies. The likes of Cessna, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are showing up at these conferences, which suggests they're paying attention.

The larger question is will there be customers or customers sufficient to sustain businesses? One representative of a major OEM whose name you would readily know said, “not there yet.” I detected a definite emphasis on yet, a view that I share. I particularly resonate with the hybrid drive idea for it recognizes, as many pure-electric acolytes do not, that we’re still in the age of oil, but aircraft are uniquely inefficient users of that energy. If hybrids can help, I wouldn’t bet against them finding a market, just as Siemens’ Frank Anton predicts they will. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Show us some flying prototypes and actual flight data. From now until 2020 is going to be interesting. 

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Go behind the scenes of the record-breaking attendance at this year's Electric Aircraft Symposium with CAFE Foundation founder Brian Seeley, who also gave us a history lesson on CAFE and the Symposium.

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Self-flying aircraft are coming, says Sanjiv Singh of Near Earth Autonomy, though it may be a while before they're safe and reliable enough to carry passengers. Singh spoke with us at the Electric Aircraft Symposium in Santa Rosa, California, about the remaining problems to be solved, both technical and regulatory.

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Dr. Frank Anton from Siemens AG attended this year's Electric Aircraft Symposium, where he spoke with AVweb about the possibilities of electric-powered flight and, more practically, Siemens's own plan to introduce viable hybrid aircraft over the next two decades.

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Diamond Aircraft's DA62 twin diesel, showing at Aero 2015, is now EASA-certified.