TCM Buys a Diesel: Does This Make Sense?

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Behind the scenes video from the Mobile press meeting.

So now comes Teledyne Continental jumping on the diesel/Jet A bandwagon. It took my e-mail inbox about 10 minutes to load up with comments. What’s Continental thinking? Have they made a terrible mistake? Why aren’t they pursuing a simpler two-cycle design like the Deltahawk?All legitimate questions, of course – and all unanswerable. One thing that is knowable – because Continental says as much – is that the company senses an inflection point on the disappearance of 100LL and believes the decision on a new fuel needs to be made sooner rather than later. Make no mistake: This represents a major realignment in Continental’s business plan.The diesel is just part of a range of solutions Continental has in mind. It simply wants to be ready, and that’s just smart business. Rather than developing its own engine, Continental simply bought technology fully formed from SMA, which has been flogging away at diesel for longer than anyone else.Setting aside why SMA doesn’t want Continental to say where the technology came from – not sure why this is, but the French have their own way of doing things – does this decision make a lick of sense?Yeah, it does. Despite its long time in grade, the SMA SR305 is the Rodney Dangerfield of aerodiesels. From what I can tell, users who have installed it are happy with both its performance and its reliability. I did an in-depth report on the engine in this video. There are some shortcomings, however, which Continental will have to address.

Video of an actual SMA conversion.

One, there just aren’t enough of these engines out there to form an opinion based on large fleet usage. There are some conversions flying, and Maule has been selling them for a few years to a handful of owners. (Maule is mad at us and won’t speak to us, so following up with them is a lost cause.) Well under 100 of the SR305s have been fielded. That’s not much experience.Second, the engine doesn’t like cold weather. It seems to start okay, but it has issues with low power settings in flight and in-flight restarts. Cirrus tried the SMA engine a few years ago and shelved it as a result. Continental’s Johnny Doo told us the company thinks it can solve this problem or it wouldn’t have bought the technology. I’m no diesel expert, but this ought to be solvable. I mean, c’mon, this is 2010.The deal has a couple of sweet spots. Most important, it’s not a sales or co-branding arrangement, but licensed, turn-key technology. That means TCM can pick up the diesel ball at the 40-yard line, not back against its own goal. This is a big deal because with a proven foundation in place, Continental can concentrate limited R&D funds on improvements and on leveraging the four-cylinder into a more powerful six-cylinder diesel, which the market desperately needs. And remember, TCM sees time as a driver here and they don’t think they have enough of it to re-invent the SMA wheel. They think – rightly – that the industry is dragging its butt on the 100LL conversion, and if others get caught short, Continental doesn’t want to be one of them.I can see a benefit for SMA, too, in that getting what could be a high-juice market push from TCM toward the OEM sector, SMA will get some cred. Why they don’t want to ride that wave by keeping their name off the street on this deal is baffling, but it’s consistent with what buyers have told us about SMA. They haven’t really pushed sales of this engine. On the downside, they are also getting a very able competitor in the OEM market. Continental probably won’t concentrate on conversions, so SMA may still have a market there.Technically, the engine has some pros and cons. It’s oil- and air-cooled, so there’s no cooling radiator to fuss with, but the intercooling and oil plumbing is still complex. It’s essentially single-lever and has power density that’s comparable to Continental’s gasoline engines and better than the Centurion and Austro designs. It’s also smooth, and, being direct drive, there’s no heavy and failure-prone gearbox. I’ve flown it several times, and it’s a nice ride.What I don’t like as much is the old-school mechanical fuel distribution system. Yeah, it’s electronically scheduled, but it doesn’t have the pulsed common rail injectors of state-of-the-art diesel. Although the SMA approach may have a reliability advantage, the diesel world long ago evolved into pulsed electronic fuel injectors driven fully by FADECs. I don’t know if TCM will get there with its engine, but I’d like to see them try. For market purposes, it may not matter. No one really knows.The fuel specifics are good, at .36 BSFC. Continental’s very best gas engines can run at .38 or .39, and although that doesn’t sound like much of a Delta, over the life of the engine it adds up to very big savings. That’s attractive for U.S. buyers on fuel prices alone. For some foreign buyers in countries where avgas isn’t available, it’s a deal sealer.The fuzzy warm part of this development is that a major engine company has finally chased the diesel train out of the station and gotten on board. That will help convince the diesel Luddites once and for all that resistance is futile.Bottom line: This is a perfectly rational business decision with some strong pros, a few cons and moderate risk. It meets TCM’s design brief for time to market.Continental has in place an entirely new management team. These guys don’t have any choice but to reinvent the company and now we get to sit back and see if they can do it.To that, I say “bravo.”