Fuel Crisis: What We Really Need …

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The companies that build aircraft engines-and for the purposes of this discussion, let’s call them Continental and Lycoming-are staffed by the dumbest people on the planet. This would be the general gist of opinions of pilots who know automotive technology and who also own or fly airplanes.To them, the ongoing discussion about finding a replacement for 100LL is simply a failure on the part of the Big Two to freely adapt the advanced engine technology that’s out there for the taking. There are various reasons why these companies haven’t done this, but for us experts sitting on the sidelines, the general thinking seems to be that they could do this. They just have chosen not to.The reality is different. And it’s not a question of understanding and adapting technology because the automotive engineers who can do this work are readily available. Some of them even work at Continental and Lycoming. Some are pilots, too. The challenge is to find enough buyers to actually construct a business plan that won’t crater within, say, five years. This is another way saying buyers say they want one thing, but when presented with that very thing, they demure.Want examples? The recent history of light aircraft engine development is littered with the smoking holes of the very thing the automotive-savvy guys say they want. Where to begin? How about this: A six-cylinder engine with automotive-style ignition and fuel injection, autoleaning and-the ultimate-single-lever power control. That was 1988-the Mooney PFM. Mooney sold 41 before the project sunk, with Porsche actually buying back the engines.More recently, Continental’s FADEC-whose development goes back some 12 years-is, yup, an automotive-style system with variable timing and sequential pulsed fuel injection. On the plus side, it more than doubled the PFM’s sales volume, which means about 100 are flying. Big whoop.Well, goes the argument, those are just band-aid solutions on the ancient air-cooled lumps that still define the market. What we need are water-cooled Vs with advanced combustion chambers and overhead cams. This is the ever popular “Rotax are you listening?” cry. Yes, Rotax was listening. With great fanfare in 2003, it launched a pair of six-cylinder watercooled, top-cam Vs, crowing that V6 was the future of general aviation and, what with the fuel issue in doubt, they were sure they’d own the market. This project slipped silently below the surface, for various reasons some of which were surely related to buyer disinterest. Could be the timing was all wrong and Rotax could retool and relaunch. Maybe fuel panic could make it work now where it wouldn’t five years ago.And let’s not forget the vaunted Toyota. It threw a bunch of money at certifying a watercooled V aircraft engine of its own and actually completed the project. It involved some of the very same engineers who developed Continental’s FADEC. If Toyota ever intended to market this engine-doubtful-it ultimately never did.Not bold enough? Consider the Diamond/Thielert diesel effort. Spanking new airframe (the DA42) with an untried high-tech diesel engine adapted from those razor-sharp whiz kids in the automotive segment. Three years later, Thielert is bankrupt and owners are steamed, despite sales totaling more than 1000 units. I could go on, but you get the point.Against this backdrop of consistent failure, anyone planning a clean sheet design-watercooled, electronic everything, high power output, light weight-has to be realistically mindful of two things: The market is fickle and overwhelmingly conservative and the vast investment required has to pencil out with absurdly small volumes. We’re talking hundreds of engines a year, not the thousands that an automotive engine plant makes on one shift in one day.Further complicating this is the legacy fleet. It’s both a millstone and a source of critical business for the Big Two in a market that is simply in decline. So, somehow, the business plan has to account for addressing the older airplanes while boldly forging ahead with the next generation engine, whatever that’s going to be. To build for the future requires surviving the present.You have to blindly hope that something will succeed. The fuel issue may push market forces in the direction of these new developments. The PFM, for instance, didn’t perform as well as the Lycoming it replaced and TCM’s FADEC offered no clear benefits. If 100 octane fuel goes away, maybe that will provide the tipping point. But the fact is, no one knows. And this is why the people who have to make these decisions at Continental and Lycoming are worrying now about the fuel problem. The only certain thing is uncertainty.So the challenge for the budding market pundit is build a little spreadsheet whose inputs allow for investments in the multi-million dollar range, with sales in the multiple hundreds. And never mind profit, you just have to survive long enough for your new creation to become the GA engine of the future, after which the world will be yours. While it’s occasionally true that who dares, wins, it’s also true that the meek selling cylinders, lifters and crankshafts cling to profitability.When you get the spreadsheet thing worked out, send me a copy, willya? I’m kinda stumped on this one. I know someone will eventually figure it out. We certainly know they’re trying.