Rotax and CubCrafters: Let’s Hear It For Putting Light Back Into Light Aircraft

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When I was but a tender student pilot, my instructor put three of us in a brand-new airplane to fly around North Carolina to complete our cross-country work. The airplane was sleek, sexy and had eyeball vents, just like an airliner. It was a 1969 Cardinal and we knew it would replace the doddering 1967 Skyhawks in the club fleet. (Inside joke: this was the golden age of leasebacks. A two-year-old airplane was all but tapped out.)

And yet, 54 years later, Cessna is still cranking out essentially the same Skyhawks while legions of loyal owners maintain doddering Cardinals which, to this day, still look sleek and sexy. My point in resurrecting this ancient history is that in a fever dream moment, it’s possible to imagine the 160-HP 916 iS Rotax introduced at Sun ‘n Fun this week displacing the venerable Lycoming IO-360 in, say, the Skyhawk. The opposite end of the fever, and Rotax’s likely reasoning, is that the 916 iS’s market entry will ignite a new class of small aircraft under the FAA’s emerging MOSAIC rule, plus a credible experimental market.

That’s closer to reality because those airplanes are already in development and the 916’s launch customer is CubCrafters, with a new, slimmed down Carbon Cub variant.

The 916 iS is a fully formed Part 33 engine with a 2000-hour TBO out of the box. If MOSAIC potentiates, we would have the option of higher performing, heavier airplanes than current LSAs are, but with a less onerous certification load to keep the prices from ballooning toward the half-million mark.

I’m giggling that I actually wrote that sentence because of course prices will balloon. They always do because customers don’t buy down option airplanes, but models loaded with everything they can lard on to the invoice. It’s not airplane buyers who complain about high prices, but those unwilling to devote significant wealth to owning an airplane. I know the feeling. For proof of that, just look at LSA prices, which average in the $160,000 range and north. Some are well over $200,000.

The way I imagine it will go is that if MOSAIC has an impact, the airplanes will be more expensive than current LSAs, but more capable, too, so it’s possible they’ll read as a better value. Don’t forget, by traditional standards, LSA development is unfettered by high certification costs. MOSAIC airplanes may or may not be. But we’re not gonna darken the skies with such things because while there are many thousands of people who can write a check for such toys, there are many fewer who will. After all, Millennials have sworn off cars and motorcycles, not to mention breakfast cereal and bath salts. Whatever, Rotax is positioned to provide engines. Lycoming, too, but a little draggy on the tech curve. Continental has nothing at all.

The 916 iS gives CubCrafters an uncharacteristic opportunity to shear away from driving increased performance with power loading to driving it with structural efficiency, as explained in this show video we shot. CubCrafters caught a little grief when, in 2009, it introduced its own ASTM engine, the 180-HP CC340 developed in conjunction with ECI. “Cheating,” said its competitors. LSAs aren’t supposed to have that much power. It goes counter to the spirit of light sport, whatever that is or was. (Harley riders sometimes say the same thing when passed by adventure bikes, which are just dirt bikes with too much power.)

The 916 iS has 26 fewer horsepower than the CC363i CubCrafters introduced in 2017, but the total installation may be 50 to 70 pounds lighter. CubCrafters’ Brad Damm said the airframe weight will be nibbled down with lighter fabric, smaller avionics and titanium airframe parts. I wonder if the wise owner who will never see a sandbar at risk of death might forgo the 31-inch tundra tires to save a few pounds. Nah, forget I mentioned it.  

If airframers do start to incorporate more technological solutions to save weight, that would be a welcome trend. At least Rotax has an engine to encourage it.

Sun ‘n Fun Show Notes

When I left Sun ‘n Fun last year, I promised myself I wouldn’t be coming back. It felt stale to me, disinterested in any change and from a press point of view, they made it difficult by having a minimal press center in the remote Tom Davis building.

Kudos to improvement this year. The press center, albeit small, was situated just off the food court area near the vendor hangars. There were just enough chairs to make it work and although I wish I could say the Wi-Fi worked, too—it didn’t—it still made our lives easier. Also, big props to the volunteers who ran the golf cart taxi service. They were prompt, efficient and saved a ton of fatiguing shoe leather.

From the Just Like the Paris Airshow file comes the attack of the chalets. These are famous in Paris for being toney, temporary offices where the likes of Airbus, Honeywell, Northrop Grumman and so on do business and schmooze customers and where Boeing will triple its wine budget to try to recover its self-tarred reputation.

I think this is the first I’ve seen chalets at Lakeland and what they lacked in Parisian luxury, they made up for in size. The tent musta been 100 yards long, with numerous companies. Here, if suitably anointed, you can escape the freckle-necked masses, have a beer and watch the airshow, secure in the satisfaction that all the vendors behind you are cursing you for blocking their view. Heavy is the head that wears the VIP name tag.

One new company had a chalet. It’s called E3 Aviation Association and it’s, well, I’m not sure how to describe it. I guess it’s a content and services aggregator. For prices between $14.95 and $49.95 a month, you get a digital magazine, product discounts, interviews, advance notice of fly-ins and so on. And a seat in the chalet, of course. Find them here.

This year, Sun ‘n Fun organizers offered a centrally located vendor area called The Island for campers. Seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t get over there to use it. If you did, leave a comment below. One vendor told me apart from the traffic, his dealings with Sun ‘n Fun were more cordial and professional. I think they’re making an effort here.

But the traffic. No point in sugar coating it. For me, on the first day, it was the worst ever. The traffic inflowing from Medulla Road to the vendor/media lot was backed up so far that it took nearly an hour to get from Medulla into the lot. This smoothed out on the second day, so I figure it had to do with parking passes not sorted. A volunteer was stopping and chatting up every single car. I know how I’d fix this. Send out the passes and wristbands in the mail ahead of the show. Have the waiver signable online. Easy for me to say because I don’t know if they have the budget and staff to do this. But find the resources and the problem goes away.

Oh, and yes, I shaved my mustache. And no, I don’t know why, other than scissors and razor were handy.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Retail for the 916is is almost 50,000 dollars 😳
    There is not going to be less expensive airplanes if the “new technology” engines cost the same as the old technology engines.

    The sad fact is a 1979 Cessna 172, the peak production year where almost 3000 were made, cost the equivalent of about 145,000 inflation adjusted dollars. But a 2023 Cessna 172 cost 450,000 dollars. A new 1979 Cessna 172 was in the reach of normal folks, a 2023 Cessna 172 will either go to a high net worth individual or a high end airline training academy.

    GA as we know it is on a slow inexorable decline. It’s not coming back.

    • My ’75 C172M — which I bought 38 years ago for $13.5K — is now saleable for six figures. Even at that price, it wouldn’t last long if I hung a sign on it. It sold new as a leaseback for just over $20K! I had to increase the insured value last year to keep the insurance company from paying me off and parting it out if it were damaged. There’s your problem as you say, David. Mere mortals can’t afford $500K for new ones so the used or E-AB market is the only way to go for many.

      Even at $50K, I do see the 916iS as a potential game changer IF some wise airframers come up with a similar advanced and modern updated airplane that matches it. IF the knuckleheads running FAA do something useful with MOSAIC — we can hope (but I ain’t holding my breath) — that’ll be a match long overdue. IF the FAA repeats the FAR Part 23 rewrite which resulted in only NORSEE … we ARE doomed. MOSAIC is our last best chance to save GA IMHO.

      I’m hoping Van’s jumps on the bandwagon with the RV-15 and offers the 916iS as an option when they release the kit to the masses. Why put a 40’s vintage tractor engine in one if a modern 916iS would work? I know they’re going after the backcountry STOL market with the thing but not everyone wants to land on sandbars … as Paul opines. Besides … with turbocharging and the ability to maintain power to altitude, that’s an attractive alternative option for those not interested in competing in Valdez like STOL competitions. Sipping fuel, the RV-15’s range would be great, too. Beyond that … I think it’s time for some wise restoration outfits to offer STC’ed engine update packages using that engine for — say — the 172, like mine. Kinda like the PFM Mooneys but with a good engine. Would I pop for one … yes.

      Bottom line … I see the 916iS as a long overdue game changer in GA.

      OH! I shunned SnF in protest this year … I didn’t succumb to the temptation. I’ll spread my money in Oshkosh.

    • The price for the 916is will either come down with volume, or be static for years. I just bought a 912is for my Kitfox I’m building and the price of those hasn’t changed in a few years. In fact I just looked it up. In 2012, when the 912is came out, it was $23,918. which is $30,278 in todays dollars (according to an online calculator). I bought mine in January for $23,754. So a net decrease in cost over the last 10 years. Has Lycoming done that?

    • Could it be part of the reason for the death of GA is not just the cost of the engines but their ancient design?

      I am not an engine guy, but I’d bet dollars to donuts the rotax will be able to scale for volumes which the Lycoming no longer can. Also, I bet maintenance on the rotax, once it gets through it’s teething process, is less in every way.

  2. Thought your were going to claim that the missing mustache was part of an effort to “incorporate more technological solutions to save weight”. Sheesh- missed opportunity. At least there’s an engine for that.

  3. Everything written above “Oh, and yes, I shaved my mustache. And no, I don’t know why, other than scissors and razor were handy” isn’t pertinent to me with three homebuilts of which two are primarily for aerobatics and don’t go beyond my airport fence. However, I woke up when I read the last sentence.

    While attending Army Flight School and not being allowed a mustache, the day they pinned the wings and Warrant Bar on me, I’ve had a mustache for the past 52 years. That mustache accompanied me on all things related to my flying career and remains a proud reminder of all those years. A picture of me with a C rations supplied Marlboro dangling from my lips and wearing the SPH4 helmet used by Army aviators is worth a thousand words. While enroute on the umpteenth mission in the ’72 Spring Offensive to a bitterly contested area of operation in which every description of aircraft had been shot down from small arms, 50 cal, ZU-23-2 to the Strela manpad.

    This aviator’s face wore a tired, detached look that mirrored the emotion. The mustache neatly trimmed, just touched the cigarette and the mike covered the rest of his lips. You couldn’t see the eyes behind the Government issued aviator’s glasses but I know they were wide open in anticipation of this particularly difficult upcoming mission.

    In fact, I’ve had nightmares thinking not about that mission but someone coming to my layover room and shaving off the mustache in my sleep. How would the crew recognize me in the morning for the van ride to the airport? I awoke in a sweat and reassured myself in the mirror all is well. Even an engine failure on takeoff had never interfered in getting a good night’s sleep.

    So I retired 16 years ago with the mustache intact and I’ll shave it just as soon as I go all glass in the RV4, Pitts S1S and the Laser. 🙂

    Besides, no one at the airport would recognize me.

  4. Way to bury the lede, Paul!

    For my 13th birthday I was given the traditional electric shaver, which was never used because I aspired to be a beatnik. I was the only student in my high school with a mustache (and scruffy beard) because they had no rule forbidding facial hair. The idea of that obligatory morning ritual didn’t appeal to me either. I treat my facial hair with the same attention as head-hair, and no more frequently, which these days, is less and less.

    I gave up on Sun’nFun seven years ago, after pimping my Mosquito as a booth-babe and seeing how vendors were treated. It’s a shame, because SnF an easy flight down from Raleigh in the 172A, I have friends and relatives in the area, and the wx is generally pleasant. SnF is space-constrained (and getting worse) and with 24-hour commercial departures, there is no place to camp where you can sleep through the night.

    I’ve missed only one Oshkosh in 35 years and fly up a week early to help set up the Vintage grounds. It’s a lot of work but I am treated much better.

  5. Paul attends big av event; shaves mustache – why does this make me think of the restaurant critic dining at the trendy new bistro with one of those paper-bag-with-eyeholes incognito devices on his head?

    AFAIC The lightening by CubCrafters and Rotax of my bank account would completely offset any benefit. That itch can be scratched other ways. I heard from a friend of a friend that long long ago somebody gave an airplane superpowers by installing 90HP and 108HP engines in airframes that did pretty well with 65HP. I can build one of these now but buying outright is out of the question.

  6. Point of reference – I’ve spent all week at SnF for the last 28 years and independently coordinate a particular technology donation to ACE. I’m just a retired dude (hanging on to my mustache) trying to “Do Good Things”. I’m not affiliated with SnF in any way other than bringing a specific donation to ACE.

    I think the articles tone on the SnF Chalets is a little harsh. Sure, the actual height of the tents would benefit by being lower, but there is PLENTY of unobstructed viewing along the show line to the east towards the Warbirds area. The tents were moved west to be within the display area and I found that much better and made for easier access for folks making that kind of contribution. Bravo to President Gene Conrad for doing this. Nowhere in the article is it mentioned that these type of facilities are major drivers to the purpose of the whole gig, the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE). The Chalets contribute to the funding that stimulates and supports all the public school students who have access to higher education throughout the year, courtesy of the SnF event. SnF isn’t about excluding show visitors or blocking their view with a VIP tent, it’s about supporting public school engagement and young minds in something we all love.

    I’m not Media, so can’t comment on that, but I would support smooth ops for these folks. All while understanding we all need to work together and the media’s objectives may be secondary to the mission at large.

    I actually used “The Island” as a regular person by using an Uber in and out. I thought it was great and will likely grow. While waiting on an Uber I had a dozen raw oysters and enjoyed touring the store. If I were camping out on the eastside, this is a HUGE improvement in support of those folks. It also makes it super simple to arrive and leave with no traffic issues whatsoever. Again, thank you to Gene Conrad and I expect this island will be growing in the years to come!

    The bottom line is to understand what you are doing when you spend a dollar at SnF. You are making a larger contribution and become part of that motto, “Do Good Things”.