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An 18.8 million-cubic-foot super-pressure balloon flown remotely by NASA has successfully completed a midlatitude circumnavigation of the Earth, NASA said today. The balloon, carrying a Compton spectrometer and imager payload, achieved the milestone 14 days, 13 hours, and 17 minutes after launching from Wanaka Airport, New Zealand, on Tuesday, May 17. At the moment the balloon crossed the meridian, it was flying at an altitude of 110,170 feet and heading northeast at 53.85 knots. The route was flown well south of the Equator, so the total distance flown was less than the actual circumference of the Earth.

The science team for the flight continues to collect and transmit data to the University of California, Berkeley. On May 30, the science team had a significant breakthrough, NASA said, in detecting and localizing their first gamma ray burst. The balloon’s gamma ray telescope observed the burst for nearly 10 seconds. The team plans to continue flying the balloon as long as possible, and it should complete a full circumnavigation every one to three weeks, depending on the wind speeds. The current record for a NASA super-pressure balloon flight is 54 days, and NASA says it hopes to eventually fly the technology for more than 100 days. The real-time location of the super-pressure balloon can be tracked online.

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image: Chunichi Shimbun

In case there aren’t enough flying cars in the works, a team of 20 young engineers from Japan’s auto industry now say they plan to have a true flying car ready to launch at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The design, called Skydrive, will be a small single-seat VTOL about the size of a compact car, with three wheels for driving on the ground and four rotors for flying. It’s operated like a car, with a steering wheel and a gas pedal. The team raised about $25,000 on a crowdfunding site last year and built a one-fifth-size prototype, which they have flown successfully. “We hope to complete [the full-size vehicle] and get it ready for use as soon as possible,” said Tsubasa Nakamura, the team leader. The vehicle could prove a lifesaver in the event of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, Nakamura said, when normal travel by road is difficult.

The team says they plan for the vehicle to have a top flight speed of 62 mph, while traveling up to 32 feet above the ground. Besides the small test vehicle, the team also has been working with a full-size technology tester that has completed some flying maneuvers while tethered and operated remotely. In a timeline posted at the team’s website, they say they plan to have a full-size manned prototype flying next year.

 

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As soon as the weather window looks favorable, Solar Impulse pilot Andre Borschberg plans to depart from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, and fly about 100 miles to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, according to the support team. The flight path will provide several opportunities along the way for New Yorkers to catch a glimpse of the unique solar-powered aircraft. The plan is for Solar Impulse to cross over the Verrazano Bridge at an altitude of 1,500 feet, at about 5:10 a.m. on the day of the flight. The airplane will then fly over the Statue of Liberty and continue east above Brooklyn on its way to JFK. Liberty State Park, in New Jersey, Battery Park in Manhattan, and several other sites along the coast will provide views of the flight, according to the Solar Impulse team.

After the landing in JFK, pilot Bertrand Piccard will fly the next leg, across the Atlantic, when the weather provides an adequate window. Since crossing the Pacific and landing in California, the airplane has landed in Phoenix, Tulsa, and Dayton. The global flight began more than a year ago, in Abu Dhabi, and the team plans to return there later this summer. New Yorkers who want to see the airplane can sign up online to get advance notice of the takeoff.

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A U.S. Navy TBM-1C Avenger airplane, which had been missing since July 1944, was found last week about 85 feet deep in the Pacific Ocean, near the island nation of Palau, by Project Recover. The project is a collaborative effort between the Office of Naval Research, several universities and private funders, and is working to locate all aircraft and associated Americans missing in action since World War II. “This recovery is another step closer towards Project Recover’s goal,” said Dan Friedkin, chairman of the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation. “Every family member impacted by the loss of a service member deserves this type of closure.” The search teams have combined the use of the most advanced oceanographic technology with archival research, veteran interviews and satellite imagery, and have found six wrecks since 2012. The team’s search equipment includes scanning sonars, high-definition and thermal cameras, unmanned aerial systems and underwater robots.

Mark Moline, one of the university researchers working with the group, said the Avenger was identified mainly by its distinctive gun turret. "When it's coming in at 400 knots, it doesn't look much like a plane anymore," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. The wreck is covered with coral and algae. The group does not divulge whether the wrecks they find contain the remains of American servicemen. Information on the sites is turned over to the Pentagon's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which is tasked with recovery and repatriation efforts, including contacting surviving relatives. The team plans to search for wrecks in the waters off England this summer, according to the Inquirer.

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Daily news comes fast and furious in the aviation world, but some stories deserve a second chance to reach your eyeballs. Below are stories you may have missed recently.

The new TBM 930 looks like a regular TBM 900 but it's what's inside that counts. AVweb's Paul Bertorelli spoke with Daher's Nicolas Chabbert about taking electronic envelope protection to the next level.

 

The CAFE organization has been through big changes this year, and last week offered a whole new version of their 10-year-old annual Electric Aircraft Symposium, with a new venue and some new ideas about emphasis and priorities. 

 

 

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Last week, when AVweb Editor-in-Chief Russ Niles phoned me about Icon’s breaking announcement of its retrenchment, he happened to mention he had been reading Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs and … ”Stop right there,” I said, “I know where you’re going and I already have that blog written." And so I did, displaced by a few days by Icon’s newsier announcement.

The connection here will be obvious; the parallels are unmistakable. In our own little backwater of an industry, Icon’s audacious A5 has much in common, at least on the surface, with the launch of the iPad six years ago. Steve Jobs had a vision few could see and it was to produce this handheld tablet thingie running simple, specialized apps to do things none of us realized needed doing. It wasn’t, by any means, the first tablet computer and maybe not even the best one. Anyone with passing knowledge of tech will recall that Microsoft introduced one in 2000 and who could forget Apple’s own Newton, the Palm Pilot and the HP iPAQ to name a few of what became known as PDAs or personal digital assistants, a term now banished to the etymological scrap heap right next to VLJ. The iPad soared because of a potent combination of a competent, if not revolutionary, product, masterful promotion and perfect timing. It happened to work well, too.

Similarly, the A5 is not a reinvention of the airplane, but a blending of (apparently) uncompromised technical development and relentless promotion centered not just on the airplane nor even on flying, but the “experience” of the machine and the activity in a narrow recreational setting: flying off lakes and rivers and perhaps towing the thing back to your garage or camping on a beach somewhere. Icon shrewdly focused its early promotion on the large-circulation general press, not the potentially critical aviation press. Not that it need have worried, given the favorable reports the A5 has enjoyed.

The iPad comparison frays when you examine Icon’s expectations in the hard light of a few numbers. Icon’s Kirk Hawkins has said the company intends to “democratize” aviation and while I’m not certain I can explain what that means, I think it means—as he has said in other words—that the airplane and the company’s sales efforts will reset GA, stimulating anemic sales and expanding the industry.

It's possible to examine the claim if you make some reasonable assumptions based on what we think we know about how airplane manufacturing works. Icon says it has 1850 A5s in the order book and said last week that despite that, it’s not ready for high-volume serial production. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, Cirrus found itself in the same place around 1999. It took the company four years to reach production of 400 airplanes a year. It eventually reached a peak of 721 in 2006. The A5 is a simpler airplane, so let’s assume it reaches 400 units a year in three years time. By then—say 2020 or 2021—it will have manufactured about 700 airplanes and if some sort of frenzied critical mass is thus reached and the world hungers for light sport amphibians, you can imagine, say, 2500 A5s—or its follow-on variant—by 2025.

Does that qualify as a market reset? Does it reach disruptive levels? That depends on how you define those terms, but applying the iPad metric, I’d say probably not. Three years after its introduction, Apple sold 22 million iPads in a single quarter and it owned more than 60 percent of a market it almost invented. If Icon delivers 300 to 400 airplanes a year into a market that’s currently building about 1000 piston aircraft a year, that’s a 40 percent market expansion, assuming the A5 does indeed bring in new participants and doesn’t cannibalize sales from other channels. I’d call that impressive growth. In fact, if Icon sells just a third of what it’s claiming, I wouldn’t quibble about calling it a reset, but I’d say by any measure, that’s still resounding growth in an industry that’s been flat or declining slightly quarter after quarter. Never say never.

But first, it has to get through the rocky patch it admitted to last week. It has to figure out efficient serial production and convince both buyer/depositors and investors to stay the course while it does this. That’s no mean feat and, as I’ve said before, it puts depositors in the unique position of sharing the risk just for the privilege of owning a cool airplane. Call me crazy, but I’ve never seen the sense of this.

As far as market sustainability, I doubt if anyone really knows this. The A5 is still a $250,000 recreational toy and while there’s real wealth in this country and throughout the world, that price tag is still $70,000 more than the median price of a house in the U.S.

What made the iPad such a profit machine was that it was a device that had improved performance over the competition in a precious, pretty package and Apple was able to charge usurious prices for it because enough people believed it was better enough to justify the price, Android users excepted.

Will the A5 be perceived similarly? Since I haven’t flown it, I can’t comment directly but I phoned a fellow journalist friend whom I trust and who has flown it and asked him directly if it’s really that good. He assured me that it was and there flowed forth a five-minute soliloquy of superlatives that ended with me surrendering that the defense so stipulates. Then I asked if he thought it was enough better than competing airplanes to sustain the kind of market expansion I’ve described above. In other words, even if it’s good, is it potentially disruptively good? Once the glow of initial promotion wears off, will buyers sense in the A5 something they’ve never seen before and lust for it? He had no opinion and, actually, neither do I, immersed as I am in writing the obits of so many failed airplane projects.

Is it possible to cheer for such a project to succeed while still maintaining clear-eyed, non-emotional neutrality? I think it is. It’s in everyone’s interest for Icon to have 2500 new airplanes out there that don’t exist now. You can’t help but admire the cheekiness of the entire enterprise. All we can do is watch and wait to see if it happens.

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As important as batteries are, the brushless DC motors that power electric airplanes are just as critical. In this brief AVweb video, Siemen's Frank Anton explains how they work.

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Autonomy, electric engines and distributed powerplants will drive the design of a new generation of general aviation airplanes, says NASA researcher Mark Moore. AVweb’s Mary Grady talked with Moore about the possibilities, which he reported on at last week's CAFE Electric Aircraft Symposium.

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Picture of the Week
Picture of the Week

Tom Ciura of Lancaster, NY kicks off our latest batch of reader-submitted photos. Click through for more shots from AVweb readers.

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