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As expected, Textron Aviation announced a third member of its family of next-generation Citation aircraft at NBAA 2015 with the introduction of the Hemisphere. The new aircraft will have a range of 4500 nautical miles and "best in class" everything else but details were scant on the aircraft's other specs. The engine and avionics choices have not been made. One thing Textron CEO Scott Ernest made clear, however, is that the plane is not a warmed-over version of the Columbus, a project he killed shortly after replacing Jack Pelton as Cessna CEO. He said there was a lot of "old technology" in the Columbus and that it was killed long ago.

The range of the Hemisphere suggests a 12- to 18-passenger capacity and three-zone seating. Ernest said the plan is for a Mach .9 aircraft with a stand-up cabin and flat floor that will put Textron in the intercontinental market. First flight will be in 2019. He did not confirm the aircraft will be built in Wichita but he did say he was impressed with the work Textron's employees have been doing with the other projects introduced in recent years.

Textron Aviation displayed the test article of its Cessna Citation Longitude super mid-size business jet at NBAA 2015 in Las Vegas. Kriya Shortt shows us around.

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Leveraging its expertise in military and commercial jet engines, GE's business aircraft engine division has announced a new turboprop engine in the 850- to 1650-HP range that will compete with the market-dominating Pratt & Whitney PT6 series. The new engine, which GE calls the Advanced Turboprop engine, has already found a launch customer in Textron's just-announced single-engine turboprop, a 12-passenger aircraft that enters a market already crowded with choices.

In announcing the ATP at the NBAA convention in Las Vegas Monday, GE's Brad Mottier said that the ATP's advanced technology will allow the engine to produce up to 10 percent more horsepower on 15 percent less fuel consumption than competitive engines in the class. Furthermore, it will feature electronic engine controls that will improve efficiency, provide exceedance protection and allow single-lever operation, as with a jet engine. Development on the new powerplant began five years ago, shortly after GE purchased the Czech Republic-based Walter Aircraft Engine Company with the intent of entering the commercial turboprop business. GE is already the market leader in commercial jet aircraft engines.

And it will be using that expertise to manufacture the ATP with such military-adapted technology as 3D aerodynamic turbine blades and variable stator blades. The engine will have four axial stages, one centrifugal stage with two high-pressure turbines and one low-pressure turbine, a spool build up that Mottier said has never been attempted in a turboprop of this class. Mottier said the ATP will have a 16-to-1 pressure ratio, nearly double that of typical turboprops currently on the market. Using cooling technology developed for its military engines, the ATP will run at higher temperatures than typical turboprops, which increases thermodynamic efficiency. It will weigh about 535 pounds and will be about the same length as an equivalent PT6, albeit at a slightly smaller diameter. Mottier said this will make the engine suitable for retrofits. The ATP will be manufactured in Europe, where GE will invest some $400 million in new manufacturing facilities.

The engine has not been assembled or operated yet, but GE said it plans to provide Textron with a test article in the 2017 to 2018 time frame. Since it bought Walter, GE has expanded the turboprop business from under $100 million to an expected $1 billion by 2020. The company's current offerings, the H-series engines based on Walter's original M601, are finding application in the retrofit market.

Sandel Avionics, a niche player best known for its TAWS units and other specialized cockpit instrumentation, plans to take on the likes of Garmin, Collins and Honeywell with what it describes as the most advanced and sophisticated glass cockpit yet. At the NBAA convention in Las Vegas Monday, Sandel's Gerry Block unveiled the new Avilon system, which he said will be primarily aimed at the King Air retrofit market. For as surprising as the announcement itself was, the price is even more of an eye-opener: Sandel promises a $175,000 fly-away price for retrofits, a sticker that's half the price (or less) of competing systems.

Block said to hit those numbers, the Avilon will be a modular system manufactured entirely by Sandel, including the panel itself with pre-mounted displays and line replaceable units, and shipped to dealers complete. He said the labor ratio for shops installing the equipment should be 80 percent removal and 20 percent installation for a total of about 100 hours and a week's downtime. In announcing the new system on Monday, Sandel also said it has signed on four dealers in North America; three in the U.S. and one in Canada.

"In designing this system," Block said, "we decided there were better ways to do things. But we wanted to manufacture an economical system that has profit for dealers and is a good value for customers." The Avilon is a complete multi-display system that includes navigation, communication, ADAHRS, transponder and an ADS-B solution. It will also include an envelope-protected autopilot that will use the aircraft's existing autopilot servos. Block said part of the design ethos for Avilon was safety, both in reliability and ease of operation for pilots. He said the aviation accident history is peppered with incidents of pilots being confused by onboard automation, either due to its complexity or because the systems perform in unexpected ways. The Avilon operating logic, he said, is simpler and more direct and features a predictive path system that anticipates future NextGen capabilities. Hardware-wise, the system is driven by triple redundant data networks that provide all the flight data to each component through multiple channels.

Sandel is planning an ambitious certification program that promises deliveries by mid-2016. It was expecting STC approval for the King Air 200 shortly and will add other models after that. Block said thus far, there has been no OEM interest, probably because no OEMs know about the system. "We're a retrofit company. We don't have any OEM for this," Block said.

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Wheels Up, a startup fractional operator specializing in King Air 350i aircraft, says it's seeing strong demand for a service that provides fractional customers with on-demand transportation at prices below those offered by established jet fractional companies. At the NBAA convention in Las Vegas Monday, Wheels Up CEO Kenny Dichter said the company has flown 25,000 fractional-flight hours in 2015 and expects to fly 45,000 hours next year. Wheels Up, which launched in 2013 with an order for $1.4 billion worth of King Air 350i's, currently has 55 airplanes and has been expanding at the rate of two airplanes a month for the past 24 months.

Wheels Up is a member-based fractional company with about 2000 members, Dichter said. The company has found growth at the low end of the market that jet fractionals have been able to tap, probably because of cost. Members can spend as little as $50,000 a year for on-demand transportation in the King Air 350i fleet, but Dichter said the average members spend about $100,000 and typical trips are under two hours. While he estimates the average age of jet fractional members and owners is 60-plus, Wheels Up is targeting a younger market between 25 and 40, hoping to land these customers before they make decisions based on brand. Wheels Up is reaching many of its prospects through social media.

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Pilatus has flown the second prototype of its PC-24 twin-engine jet, the company announced Monday at the NBAA convention in Las Vegas. The aircraft, designated P02, took off from Buochs Airport in Switzerland on Monday morning and flew for 82 minutes. The P02 jet will complete initial test flights in Switzerland, then will be deployed mainly in the U.S. and Canada, where it will be used for systems tests and certification flights. Its flight regime will also include cold-weather trials and icing tests. The first prototype, P01, has been flying since May, and has logged about 143 hours in the air. A full-size mock-up of the jet is on display all this week at the NBAA show.

"The PC-24 test-flight program is well underway and we are pleased with initial results,” said Oscar Schwenk, chairman of the Pilatus board of directors. “The PC-24 flies entirely as expected and we are confident of our ability to achieve, or even exceed, the guaranteed performance.” Schwenk said the aircraft has helped the team to identify some “teething problems,” but added that is the purpose of a prototype, “to pinpoint areas requiring early attention in order to remedy them as soon as possible.” The PC-24 is designed to operate from very short runways and rough strips, and will include a cargo door as standard. Certification and first deliveries are expected in late 2017. The company has sold out the first three years of production for the jet.

Some enterprising business folks are offering to help drone owners with the FAA’s coming registration process, for a fee, but the FAA said today that owners should wait before parting with any cash. Drone users “should know they probably won’t need help registering their drones when the system is in place,” the FAA said in a news release. “Owners should wait until additional details about the forthcoming drone registration system are announced later this month before paying anyone to do the work for them.” An FAA task force is working to develop recommendations for the registration rules, with a deadline of this Friday, Nov. 20. A Google search turned up one online solicitation from a company that’s offering to provide a “simplified process” to help clients obtain a drone registration with the U.S. government that’s “quick, easy, secure, and worry free” for a starting price of $24.99.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the task force to provide guidance on a streamlined unmanned aircraft registration process that will be simple and easy to complete, and to suggest which types of drones would need to be registered and which would not. The task force agreed and is working on recommendations for a system that’s similar to registering any newly purchased product with its manufacturer, as well as recommendations for a minimum weight for unmanned aircraft that must be registered, the FAA said.

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Nextant is following up its success with the 400 XTi Beechjet remanufacture with a new project to redo the popular King Air C90. Prior to the NBAA show in Las Vegas, AVweb visited Nextant's Cleveland headquarters for an overview.

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Industrial espionage being what it is, I suspect the execs at Pratt & Whitney knew about GE’s blockbuster announcement of a new engine at NBAA Monday before the press did. I was sort of suspecting something because I recently interviewed GE about the H-series engines of the sort Nextant Aerospace is using in the King Air G90XT remanufacture project. But I didn’t expect such a ground shifter so soon.

While this will be a slow-motion train wreck for the PT6, it is nonetheless a seismic shift in the small- to medium-power turboprop market. The reasons are several, but they relate to GE’s deep pockets and massive experience with large commercial transport engines and tactical military engines. GE dominates these markets and now it has shown a willingness to leverage that acquired technology into the turboprop market that Pratt has largely owned.

The PT6 is a little jewel of an engine, but having emerged in 1964, it’s tarnished with age and long overdue for technological upgrades, not the least of which is basic electronic controls, which it still lacks. That this hasn’t happened probably has at least something to do with the fact that P&W Canada has nothing like GE’s technological base, nor did anyone else with an interest in challenging the PT6. So for years, it languished as a nice little profit center for Pratt. But GE saw an opening when it acquired the Czech Republic-based Walter Aircraft Engines in 2008 and it has wasted little time in capitalizing on Walter’s expertise and manufacturing base. GE invested heavily in Walter and improved the original M601 engine into the new H-series, which are both more efficient, more robust and more sophisticated than the PT6 models they compete against. GE hasn’t found a lot of buyers for the H-series engines yet, but I’m sure they have a long-haul business plan to change that.

Meanwhile, GE’s new Advanced Turboprop engine finds a launch customer in Cessna’s new single-engine turboprop. When news of this airplane leaked out, it didn’t make much sense to me. Why put an also-ran into the market with the PC-12 or the TBM? But an engine can make all the difference and the ATP might. It’s projected to be 10 percent more powerful (per unit weight) on 15 percent less fuel, and it will have a more modern build and a longer overhaul with no hot section inspections. While it’s premature to say if that’s a market-shifter itself, it sure looks impressive on paper and is probably enough of an improvement to sell airframes against the competition. And these days, that’s all it takes to make the business case. It will be a while coming. GE won’t put engines into Cessna’s hands until 2017 or 2018, with certification sometime after that, I’m sure. In any case, that’s plenty of time for Pilatus to ring up GE for a little chat. Daher may want the same. Given the engine's claimed form factor, the mod market is likely to ignite, too.

Sandel’s Bold Plan

A second surprise here at NBAA was Sandel’s announcement of a new, next-generation retrofit glass panel for the King Air line. Why a surprise? For one thing, why Sandel? It’s a company that has specialized in small instrumentation such as TAWS and blind AHRS boxes to drive other displays. A major new avionics suite is quite an undertaking and doubly so when you consider that the likes of Garmin, Collins and Honeywell/BendixKing are already competing fiercely for the King Air retrofit business.

Then again, the fact that I would think such a thing, much less write it, shows why I’m not an avionics entrepreneur. From what I can tell, Sandel has come at the glass panel problem from an entirely different perspective than, say, Garmin, applying a much simpler design and operating philosophy and shrinking the guts of the system to the extent that the lot of it can live right behind the panel displays, greatly simplifying installation. And they appear to have done what all of us in the peanut gallery insist, in our penetrating knowledge of manufacturing, should have always been possible: They’ve halved the prices. A G1000 redo for a King Air costs an eye-watering $350,000. Sandel promises a flyaway cost for its Avilon system of $175,000.

It won’t be long before we see if these numbers prove accurate. Sandel is well along with the Avilon and looking at deliveries next summer. But even if the numbers are just close, Sandel ought to find buyers because one thing I’m pretty certain of is this: Buyers are getting tired of an avionics market in which Garmin remains the dominant choice. I hear this all the time and I’m hearing it more often. Even at the turboprop level, aircraft owners are getting fed up with hardware, maintenance and services that cost too much, and not just avionics. Increasingly, the value is just not there.

And that’s why the King Air has become such a hot date lately. There are a lot of those airframes out there, they’re maintainable and sustainable and a new one is north of $5 million with engines—as noted above—that are technologically stale. In a way, Sandel’s Avilon is to the G1000 as GE’s ATP is to the PT6. General aviation is everyone’s favorite backwater, but every once in a while, the tide washes through and flushes the swamp. We might be seeing a little of that now.

Las Vegas Love (Not)

So if we’ve got a solution for aging PT6s and overpriced G1000s, could we please find another place to put this convention other than Las Vegas? I understand the convention center here is one of few large enough to accommodate a show of this size, but in the years I’ve been coming here—about 25—it has gotten steadily worse as a working venue. Today, it was blowing gales and 55 degrees, which did nothing to brighten the mood.

The hotels and restaurants are overpriced, but mainly it’s the traffic. On Sunday, the city thought it wise to have a marathon that closed the strip for most of the day. The cab ride from the airport was an hour and $55. Getting to the static display at Henderson via bus consumes the better part of a day, round trip. I don’t know why it is that people who come to these shows put up with this. I am rapidly getting to the point where I don’t want to. Others have told me the same.

I have no love for International Drive in Orlando, but at least you can negotiate the place without losing half a workday to traffic jams. I say just put the show there permanently and leave Vegas to Wayne Newton. (Yes, he’s still alive.)

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Nextant Aerospace in Cleveland, Ohio has had great success remanufacturing Beechjet 400As.  AVweb recently visited their shops and prepared this video.

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There's Something (Affordable) in the Air || January 20-23, 2016 || U.S. Sport Aviation Expo || Sebring, FL
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