Reflections On NBAA-BACE 2019

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Urban Mobility Progress?

I think it’s probably my job to think through the structure and impact of revolutionary developments in aviation but I confess I haven’t given this whole point-to-point urban mobility thing much thought until I attended NBAA-BACE in Las Vegas this week.

Oh, like most people with an interest in aviation and its future, I figured I had a working knowledge of the basics. Skyports would be added to building rooftops where sophisticated autonomous flying machines would whisk passengers across town in minutes all the while thumbing their noses at the wretches trapped in the clogged streets below. Sounds pretty appealing, right? And to this point most of the discussion has been about the safe operation of fleets of eVTOLs flitting about our major cities. 

Certainly there’s a lot to discuss there but there might be an even more important discussion ahead. Uber Elevate’s head of aviation Eric Allison says that stuff is all but a slam dunk and his company’s now looking at how human beings fit into the concept. Good call, Eric, because the little promotional video played at the end of his presentation certainly gave the audience pause.

The video followed a young woman on a typical urban journey involving an aircraft and was meant to show how Uber’s phone app seamlessly integrated her into the system to get her where she was going.

It looked utterly exhausting to me.

She started out in a self-driving car before getting on a bicycle to ride to a transit station where a bus or a train finally got her to the skyport. Then it was on to the eVTOL for a few minutes to the next skyport where she presumably faced a variation of the same staccato of ground trips before collapsing at her destination. I just don’t see much progress here.

Cities all over the world have already solved this problem with fast, safe and convenient mass transit. True, you might end up sharing space with folks you wouldn’t normally want that close to you but you can put up with just about anything for a half hour.

As for our intrepid traveler of the future, it seems to me she would have been better off sticking with the self-driving car the whole way if she didn’t want to trade butt sweat with other subway patrons. It might have taken a little longer but with a little planning and maybe some work to do along the way it wouldn’t necessarily be less productive.

The other eye-opener was the hardware on display. Certainly there are some nifty machines being developed for the job but with one exception they looked kind of flimsy to me. No matter how much you couch it in whizz bang technological terms, these aircraft are going to do dozens of cycles a day in some pretty challenging circumstances and the consequences of component failure in that kind of environment are intolerably high. They need to be tough, durable and virtually perfectly reliable.

Bell Helicopters knows something about moving people and cargo vertically so I think their take on an urban mobility aircraft is both telling and ominous. Their Nexus ducted fan aircraft is simply enormous. The six fans are about seven feet in diameter and they’re powered by a fuselage-mounted turbine generator. It’s complex, heavy and looks pretty expensive to buy and operate. It’s as big as the biggest single-rotor helicopters, which can carry more than a dozen people, but Nexus would carry just five passengers.

Maybe there are some breakthroughs ahead that will tackle these issues but it seems to me physics and cost will determine the success or failure of this movement, just like they always have in aviation endeavors.

Lear’s Last Gasp?

Almost lost in the noise of launching even bigger, faster and more luxurious business jets at NBAA-BACE was a progress report on a reheated version of the nameplate that arguably took the business jet business mainstream. Bombardier, which owns Learjet, announced in July that it was launching an updated and less expensive version of the existing airframe with fewer seats and the company gave an update at NBAA-BACE. The Learjet 75 Liberty will have a new interior but no APU or lavatory sink to get the cost in line with the CJ4 and Phenom 300.

Asked directly what the modest investment and market adjustment for an in-service airframe might mean for the future of Learjet, Bombardier Aviation CEO David Coleal dodged the question deftly.

Like most industries, aviation lives or dies by innovation and investment in new products and Learjet hasn’t had a clean-sheet introduction in years. The Liberty might coax a few more sales but it’s not a big enough platform to support the weight of an iconic airplane maker like Lear.

Russ Niles

AVweb Contributing Editor

Modern Avionics For Old Jets

Just as I was feeling jaded by all the latest and greatest gadgets for jets, a reader flagged me down while I was shooting some video on the convention floor because he was looking for advice on what avionics he might install in his company’s Jurassic jet. After chiding that he was asking the wrong guy and that he oughta just soldier on with the 1970s vintage Collins stuff in the airplane, I sent him over to Avidyne to talk with Tom Harper who was showing the new Atlas FMS. I think Avidyne is doing something with the Atlas that finally makes perfect sense for aging jets begging for a modern navigation system. Look for a video overview of the Atlas coming up.

In a nutshell, Avidyne creatively repackaged its successful IFD-series panel navigator into a dzus-mounted chassis that fits nicely in the center pedestal of older jets. These are aircraft that may not even have LPV approach capability or even displays suitable for playing weather, traffic and terrain—all stuff you really do want in a jet cockpit. Kudos to Avidyne for going after this forgotten segment of the market at a price that makes sense—around $50,000 for starters. Better yet, Avidyne is working hard to make the system easy to transplant into these older airframes, while also offering versions with and without VHF radios. That will save a ton of dead weight and open space on the panel and in the avionics bay of these old jets. In a market that seems to be served by over-the-top retrofit avionics, Avidyne is taking a utilitarian approach that pilots of older jets seem to embrace, based on the ones I listened to while at the Avidyne demo.

While handing out big-iron kudos, good for Pilatus for making the already excellently executed PC-12 NG even better with the PC-12 NGX. Two years in the making, the third-gen PC-12 has an updated electronic-controlled engine with a noise-friendly prop, a better interior, FADEC with autothrottle, more autopilot automation and extended maintenance intervals that could save some bucks. Link here to the PC-12 NGX video we shot over at the static display at the show. 

Speaking of static displays, while walking the line over in the desert, I spotted the latest slick little SyberJet SJ30i, which was dwarfed by those big Gulfstreams and Falcons on display. The latest SyberJet is hardly an unfamiliar airplane, of course, since the Ed Swearingen-design SJ30 model dates back to the 1980s. But the latest SJ30i, which is well along in the certification process with Honeywell’s latest gee-whiz avionics and an ultra-modern interior, has some impressive performance numbers that I hope will give some welcome competition to the crowded light jet market. Check out the SyberJet SJ30i video shot at NBAA here. 

With buyers’ best interest in mind, my eyes are always scanning for signs of more competition across the entire market and I sure was glad to see a healthy dose of it on the turbine level at this year’s NBAA gathering in Vegas.

Larry Anglisano

Editor, Aviation Consumer  

Sustainable Aviation Initiatives

It can be easy to feel like things never change at these big aviation shows. As journalists, we show up each year to write and record as much material as we can put pen or camera to and I, at least, am guilty of sometimes getting sidetracked by deadlines rather than the potential significance of what I’m covering. This year, however, my attention was diverted from my hunt for the perfect show newsletter by the strong presence of the sustainability conversation. Last year, it was an occasionally-mentioned sideline at NBAA-BACE. 2019 was another story.

For the first time that I can recall, questions were raised in nearly every relevant press conference about whether the aircraft under discussion could or did run on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Quite a few of the companies flew in on biofuel blends including names like Gulfstream and Dassault. There was a panel on sustainable aviation fuels with representatives from GAMA, FAA, Bombardier, GE and Aerion Supersonic which, NBAA said, was aimed at “turning the industry’s excitement about SAF into action.” Finally, NBAA and GAMA announced the first Business Aviation Global Sustainability Summit, a gathering to be held in March 2020 designed to accelerate SAF usage and availability.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments both for and against the trend toward exploring sustainability initiatives like SAF. Personally, I tend to believe such initiatives are a good thing. At a bare minimum, if we don’t ask the questions, we’re unlikely to find any good answers. However you feel about it, one thing is for certain: It will definitely be interesting to see where the sustainability conversation goes.

Kate O’Connor

Senior Editor, AVweb

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20 COMMENTS

  1. Forgive me for asking, but:
    Exactly what about good old Jet-A is UNsustainable?

    Every time some expert warns us that the planet is about to run out of petroleum, some killjoy oil company discovers enough additional stock to double the planet’s known reserves.

    This sounds a lot like the Impossible Burger “plant-based-meats” that contain no actual meat, deliver no improvement in nutrition, and cost four times as much as actual hamburger. I call ’em Social Justice Burgers. They don’t make your stomach feel good; they make your conscience feel good.

    So now, we get Social Justice Jet Fuel?

    • I don’t know what all the aviation entities that are pursuing “urban mobility” are eating, but it surely must be your ‘impossible burgers,’ Yars. Same thing with pure electric / battery powered airplanes. What’s the point, as Russ aptly points out? Same thing with autonomous package delivery too. The first time one of those things bops someone in the head trying to deliver a six pack to a thirsty customer OR an airplane runs into one … the politicians will be up in arms “solving” the problem. Don’t believe me? Look at the B-17 crash aftermath.

    • Speaking of sustainable fuels, Yars, I notice that they had nothing to say about unleaded Avgas, sustainable or not. I guess the NBAA regards piston power as beneath their radar. Taking the lead out of airplane fuel would have a big economic impact on 90% of the airplanes flying today. It would promote longer engine life, greatly reduce spark plug and valve guide fouling and get the lead freaks off our backs. But, I guess that form of environmental consciousness doesn’t get their attention.

      • Yeah, but the 125hp version of the O-235 in my old Tomahawk requires 100-octane fuel.

        I suppose a 140-hp Rotax would work – IF the vehicle were re-registered as an Experimental…

        Of course, that would provide cover for a Dynon panel…

        • I always find it funny that 8:1 is called “high compression” on airplanes and can’t run on pump gas. I would assume that the O-235 would run MUCH BETTER on 93 pump MoGas and a pair of SureFly electronic mags from Les Staples. Simple, better, good for 2000hours, and cheaper than traditional mags!

          I keep praying that the FAA stops over-thinking things and only offering more expensive “solutions”.

  2. The world is not running out of petroleum. That has been obvious for the last thirty years or so.

    The unsustainable thing isn’t that we will run out of gas. It’s that we will tip the CO2 balance in the upper atmosphere. The reason for that is we take carbon (in the form of hydrocarbons) that were sealed under ground, and we combust them with oxygen from the atmosphere to create carbon dioxide.

    The solution (the sustainable path) is to create our hydrocarbon fuels from sources that consume carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In other words plants and animals (algae) that use the photosynthesis process. In this manner, the carbon loop is closed. Carbon dioxide that we create by combustion is sourced from carbon dioxide that was taken from the atmosphere.

    The current open-loop system of taking carbon from the ground and exhausting into the air is unsustainable in the long term. (It will be a serious problem for our great-grandchildren, if not our grandkids.)

    The other unsustainable molecule, which you hit on the bull’s-eye, is methane. Eating our vegetables (like Mom always told us) would be a big help here, but I’m not ready to become a vegetarian myself. The near-meat products seem to have some promise, but I haven’t tried one yet. Most of us (certainly myself) could probably stand to eat a little less overall anyway.

    I’m definitely not the example to follow. I eat too much and I eat the wrong things. I drive a fast wasteful car and I fly an airplane. That doesn’t mean I am ignorant of the science. There is more in play than just feeling good about social justice. There is an actual problem to be solved.

    • ” It’s that we will tip the CO2 balance in the upper atmosphere”

      Since co2 is a trace gas AND it absorbs only in a very few discrete wavelengths of the total black heat re-radiation back to space, no one seems want to admit that it’s not a problem (much less a crisis). It’s not driving the climate. Period.

      On a good note, the experts were also wrong on the possibility of heavier-than-air flight, spaceflight, ozone holes, global cooling, peak oil, feeding billions of people, and New York being under water by 2015. All good news; enjoy your day.

  3. I’m excited about electric aircraft.

    Electric cars are going to be a thing, which will reduce demand for oil making jet A a safe bet long term.

    All peak oil arguments are semantic nonsense based on a twisting of the legal term “proven reserves” rather than on science. If you want to know about oil, ask a frigging geologist rather than a women’s studies lecturer. (There’s actually new peak oil discussions flipping the meaning based on when global demand will peak and the oil companies will start failing. Irrational idiots who pay more for a gallon of maple syrup than a gallon of gas get all giddy about this because they just hate oil companies)

    If people can sell non meat burgers and other people want to buy them, that’s cool with me.

    The so-called climate scientists lost my trust decades ago. They might convince me of something only after they get together and issue a really big mea culpa, offer a plan on how they will fix their community’s fundamental problems, and swear off politics. They’ll need to admit they know nothing about oil supplies or the desirability of nuclear power as well.

    Did I mention I’m excited about electric aircraft? More flying stuff is more better! Yippee!

  4. This is sooo much fun…in one article and the comments it has generated already, we get to comment on sustainable Jet A, methane, veggie burgers, unleaded avgas, climate change, electric powered airplanes, and urban V-TOL flight. Each and every one of these topics are rife with politics, urban myth, scientific fantasy, unrealistic expectations, firm, virtually unchangeable opinions, and gobs and gobs of money. What an editorial smorgasbord. And all of this has been generated by the NBAA convention where the posturing is more important than substance.

    It has been oft said, opinions are like rear-ends ( PC correct nomenclature for a__holes)…everybody has one. Since I have a rear end too ( still maintaining my PC), I too have an opinion…or two, three…maybe whole bunch of them. The problem is, I don’t know where to start!

  5. I call ’em Social Justice Burgers. They don’t make your stomach feel good; they make your conscience feel good.”

    Ridicule tends to have precisely the same effect. Tolerance should be on the field for anyone judging others for using their limited knowledge to apply their limited affect on issues they deem important to themselves. They may not see their viewpoint in as broad a scope as some others might, but maybe, they see even broader.

    Everyone operates in their own limited circle of information and knowledge – everyone. Enjoy your delusion if you think you’re the exception. Some posters like Jim H. and others on the previous blog illuminated that concept very well by showing ‘better and worse pilot skills’ as arbitrary ideas limited and influenced by countless conditions.

    When the question of ‘why do other opinions bother me?’ is candidly asked and answered, you’ve broadened your own personal circle of knowledge. Congratulations!

    Interesting that the two climate scientists I know from ASU are both apolitical – absolutely despise politics. Strangely, it’s usually the doubters and haters who force politics, not scientific evidence, into their climate change discussions.

    I support eventual integration of electric usage in aircraft too. But meanwhile, I’m just giddy over the performance of my 130hp, 600lbs of thrust, 4.5gal per hour, no carb, no magnetos, Vtec, waterless coolant direct fuel injected powerplant. Uses 91 octane mogas or 100LL. It’s the bees knees.

  6. I don’t like the idea of moving away from petroleum-based fuels for a long list of practical and economic reasons. I also resent scientists, who should know better, demonizing fossil fuels and fulminating in the media about the need for the rest of us to change our behavior.

    But there are still some pertinent facts. Mark mentions that CO2 is a low-concentration gas that absorbs only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Both true, but that tiny sliver of the spectrum (250-350 Kelvins black body radiation) is, sadly for us, where the earth dissipates its absorbed solar radiation – or tries to. It’s not necessary to block all of it, or most, or some, or even a little to make a difference. A miniscule change in transmission can disturb thermal equilibrium at the surface over time. Global data collected since the 1950s links CO2 and temperature pretty convincingly. Climate models vary widely in their predictions and liberal pundits pathologically cite the worst-case results. Still, every credible model suggests CO2-induced climatic change will catch up with us sooner or later.

    Speaking for myself, I don’t know which dismays me more; reluctance to look at the issue from both sides, or businesses co-opting it for a marketing opportunity.

    • ” A minuscule change in transmission can disturb thermal equilibrium at the surface over time”

      The theory is that co2 will increase the heat trap in the atmosphere, and that increased heat trap will make the land surface warmer. Since co2 has risen BUT the atmosphere has not warmed, the theory of co2 is causing the surface warming is incorrect. Now THAT is interesting and is worth investigating.

      If surface warning is being called a problem, it behooves us to think up a new theory, test that new theory, and if we find a causal effect; we can address the root cause. That’s science.

  7. Okay, maybe it’s time for a few facts. First, rest assured I am not going to wade into the politics of climate change, since both sides are right – and wrong at the same time. They just throw out facts to help their cause and make the other side look foolish. No one wins at that game. Second, the climate IS changing; always has, always will. Humans are influencing SOME of that change. How much is the big issue. For our part, Americans have been doing a pretty good job at managing our carbon emissions. For the past two decades, carbon emissions from power generation have decreased by about 15%. Emissions from transportation have remained about the same in spite of a large increase in vehicle use. Most of this is due to the decommissioning of coal fired power plants that have been replaced by gas turbines as well as wind and solar. Natural gas is now our largest power generation fuel. On a worldwide basis, the so-called developed world (i.e. Europe, U.S., Canada, Japan, Russia and Australia) has held carbon emissions relatively constant (15 gigatons annually, plus or minus 10%) since 1980! It is also showing a decline in the past decade. In the same time period, the rest of the world (lead mainly by China and India) has increased its emissions from 4 GT/y to over 22 GT/y and still climbing (rapidly). So, instead of the self-appointed climate “protectors” (aka Hollywood celebrities and politicians running for office) beating on the American public about their shameful ravaging of the earth, maybe they should move to China or India and beat on them for a while. Don’t get me wrong, America should lead the way in addressing climate change, but by research into better methods, and not pointing fingers at your neighbor’s SUV.

    Okay, now to the electrification of cars and airplanes. Electric cars are easy, and are well on the way to claiming a small portion of the transportation pool. Electric airplanes are another matter. Unless there is a quantum increase in storage density for batteries, hybrid and pure electric planes are a long way from prime time. But, even electric cars have one big nasty problem: If they intend to significantly replace hydrocarbon fueled engines, we need to get really serious about building new power generation. At the present time, all U.S. power plants consume about 38-40 quads (quadrillion BTUs) of energy to turn out roughly 11 trillion KW hours of power annually. The rest is, unfortunately, wasted heat (about 60% of the total). That power generation capacity is pretty well maxed out for the current demand of residential, industrial and commercial consumption. In other words, current capacity and demand are in balance. In order for a large increase in electricity for transportation, more capacity is needed. How much? America currently consumes around 18 million barrels of oil a day, mostly for transportation and industrial uses. The data varies, but over two-thirds of those barrels are for transportation. That makes 12 million BPD of oil for transit. Assuming 40% of that is for auto gas, then we have around 5 million BPD of gasoline demand. A little math reveals a demand of 76.5 billion gallons of gasoline used each year. Replacing a mere 10% of that with wind generated power would require roughly 120,000 new wind turbines. Keep in mind that wind power is statistically available only a third of the time. If we want to get serious about getting off petroleum for transportation, nuclear power is the only zero emission, highly reliable power source we have. There ain’t no free lunch.

    • Atmosphere is not warming but surface temps are moving up very slightly. That means greenhouse co2 it’s NOT causing the surface warming; it’s FOLLOWING the warming. Correlation does not imply causation; consensus is not science.

      What is sad is that NBAA-BACE 2019 and much of the aviation industry has disregarded science and observation and is instead designing aircraft because of actors, politicians and activists. When the industry so completely loses it’s collective mind and follows fads and nonsense, it’s no wonder WHY aviation companies in the USA are going bankrupt and being BOUGHT by a country that does not swallow the nonsense.