Engine Design: No Talent


I’ve been spending the past couple of days sorting through the results of our avgas replacement survey. The response was overwhelming: more than 3100 respondents completed the survey and perhaps two thirds of them included direct comments. This one, among many, caught my eye:

It is so ridiculous that in this day and age we are designing a fuel to fit an engine whose technology was born in the 1930s. Shame on Continental and Lycoming for not developing their engines at a pace that keeps up with modern technology. Now the industry suffers because we figure out that we should be using something other than Pepsi or Coke. I am an engine engineer working on a new engine that will burn worldwide available aviation fuel. That is simply Jet A and nothing else. This will meet the demands of future markets, and use technology to solve this ridiculous problem. Trying to engineer a fuel for 30 years, you got to be @%&$ing kidding. Meanwhile automotive engines produce more power per liter than ever before, reliably. Tell Conti and Lyco to get off their asses and hire people that know how to design an engine. As a consultant to these companies I can tell you the talent has gone and left. Very little competence there.

I’m sure this sort of sentiment will be received warmly in Williamsport and Mobile. But is it fair and does it reflect the realities of the market?In the late summer of 1998, I sat at a conference table in Connecticut with the developmental team of what became Aerosance. They whiteboarded the technical specs of the system that eventually evolved into Continental’s PowerLink FADEC system. It essentially adapted state-of-the-art automotive-type pulse-injection and variable timing to aircraft engines and by allowing use of lower-octane fuel, it anticipated the demise of 100LL. In fact, that was the major driver. At the time, I didn’t particularly think the Aerosance group lacked talent, nor do I think that now. But some people told me that at the time and many of them are the very same people who, while decrying the inadequacy of other engineers, have produced nothing but talk themselves.So why didn’t PowerLink take off? Buyers said they wanted engines with more technological sizzle. Last year, I asked Continental this very question and they couldn’t answer it. But I can. There was no need for FADEC. The market timing was premature. As long as there were no definite plans to eliminate leaded fuel, buyers saw no benefit. Single lever wasn’t enough.Neither did the OEMs see much merit. Cirrus tried PowerLink and so did Mooney and Beechcraft. They found the juice not worth the squeezing and customers were not lined up outside the door demanding FADEC. It was just the wrong product at the wrong time. OEMs probably had worries about reliability and performance. Perhaps it just needed a better sales effort. (I’ve heard that Beech will be offering PowerLink as an option on the G36 and Baron line this year or next.)During the same period, Lycoming, in conjunction with Unison, proposed its own electronic engine control, the EPiC. It was soon dropped for technical and marketing reasons. General Aviation Modifications Inc. proposed the PRISM system. It may be progressing in the research phase, but is essentially vaporware and GAMI’s engineers are as talented as any you’ll find anywhere. So are Porche engine teams. Remember the PFM Mooney introduced in 1988? It was a six-cylinder, air-cooled engine with automotive-style electronic ignition, fuel injection, autoleaning, automatic cooling control and–what was supposed to be the irresistible marketing lure–a single power lever. Sunk without a trace.More recently, in 2003, along came Bombardier with a much hyped pair of V-6s to take on Continental and Lycoming. Electronic ignition, fuel injection, overhead cams, liquid cooling. Bombardier, through its Rotax division, is the largest maker of aircraft piston engines in the world. They know how to apply technology, they know how to do reliable serial production. Cirrus was on the verge of pushing the button to offer the V-6s as an option. Yet, for internal reasons not clear, Bombardier killed the project. And just as well, because it probably would have failed, leaving Cirrus with a service mess and Bombardier with a black eye.Why would it have failed? See above. Aircraft owners say they want technological innovations in engines, but they are fickle about responding to these by actually buying them unless these products are able to demonstrate clear benefits over the existing offerings and are at least as reliable. Continental’s IO-550 series is smooth, efficient and reliable-and simple. Bombardier’s proposed V-6 was more complex and had poorer fuel specifics. But it was high tech, the fruit of talented engineers. And don’t forget this: The legacy fleet exerts powerful inertia on future development because low manufacturing volumes make clean sheet engines an economic challenge.The much-vaunted Jet A burning piston engines have done a little better, but not much. Thielert and Diamond had impressive success with the Centurion line…until Thielert went belly-up, likely due to a flawed marketing and business model and a mechanically tender engine. You might argue that this had nothing to do with the engine, but it had everything to do with market perception of the engine.SMA has few of its SR305s flying. DeltaHawk has been in development for years in one of the longest cert projects we’ve ever seen. There are a handful of other diesel projects in development whose likelihood of success is minimal. But it’s not due to engineers of no talent, but to a low-volume market sharply sensitive to price and composed of buyers who insist on products with real benefits before they’ll buy. As Diamond demonstrated with the DA42 twin, diesel acceptance is better outside the U.S., for obvious reasons. But diesel is far from the slam dunk its promoters say it is because it hasn’t yet achieved wide market penetration. We will see if the avgas issue pushes the issue. Just saying that’s going to happen doesn’t mean that it will.So, if you’re one of those people who believe lack of talent has put us where we are now, try this thought exercise: Heave an IO-550 or O-320 up on the bench. Write down the purchase price, fuel specifics, operating costs, overhaul costs and run a life-cycle cost analysis. Put your honest-man hat on, and compare your proposed engine. Can it do five percent better? Ten? Then bring your marketing guy in-that’s where you need the real talent-and ask him if he thinks he can sell it. Buyers want what buyers want. The nexus of engineering and marketing just haven’t figured that out yet.My guess is you’ll eventually reach the butt scratching stage where someone will finally say, “Gee, I wonder if maybe we shouldn’t just try to figure out a fuel that will work in this old engine.” Good, bad, indifferent or intellectually bankrupt, that’s more or less where we are now.