AirVenture: Rutan Likes Rotax and Swift Bets Big on Fuel

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Rutan Lays Hands on the 915 iS

I was in the Rotax booth on Tuesday shooting avideo on the new 915 iS when Burt Rutan, towing a small entourage, popped in. He hadn’t heard about the new engine, but when Marc Becker rattled off the specs, Rutan pronounced it the perfect engine for his new SkiGull amphibian, said to be a versatile design with the capability of flying from the West Coast to Hawaii if not beyond. Rutan confessed to doing something he said he had never done before: showing off a design before the airplane is built.

As Rutan noted, the 915 iS, at 135 hp, has just enough additional horsepower over the 912 iS without much weight penalty to hit a sweet spot. At first blush, its fuel specifics look attractive too, just as the 912 iS’s have to the light sport segment. I’m guessing that Rotax is feeling some heat from the evolving small diesel engine market and is doing exactly what the automotive industry is doing: offering improved gasoline engines that are more powerful and more efficient, but without the weight penalty that continues to dog diesel engines.

I knew Rotax was developing some kind of higher horsepower engine. When I visited the factory last year to produce this video, they said as much. But I was looking for something in the 150-hp range and given current market conditions, I wouldn’t have expected it this soon. The 135-hp power point may be a shrewd choice. At 185 pounds, it’s a little heavier than the 912 iS, but also lighter than the 180-hp Lycoming-based Titan four-cylinders that are going into airplanes like the Carbon Cub and now the American Legend. On a power-to-weight ratio, the Lycoming type is still better than the 915 iS, but the overall weight is quite a bit less and the fuel specifics are likely to be better, too. Niggling little differences like this are what airplane designers look at when selecting engines and although it’s not likely to be transformational, a slightly more powerful engine with slightly better altitude performance and economy can make enough of a difference to give an airframer a potential edge.

Being as delusional as everyone else in aviation, I’ve always had this fantasy of a fast, two-place cruising airplane with enough baggage space to make it a practical traveling machine. Such a thing would need good range, at least 1000 miles, if not 1500, and speed near the 200-knot range. Maybe a 135-hp engine would make that reachable where a 100-hp motor would not. The airplane would need to be slick, however, to move that fast on so little power. New engines have traditionally sparked new airframe designs and I’m going to predict the 915 iS will, too. But whether it does or doesn’t, it shows that Rotax isn’t risk-averse and that it continues to follow a business plan that envisions moderate volume with a long timeline. In my view, that’s the only way to ply a market that just isn’t going to support large numbers.

Swift Fuel’s Interesting Play

Late in the day, after I recorded a podcast with Swift’s Chris D’Acosta on the company’s new 94 MON fuel, something curious happened. The company sent a press release that announced they had reached an agreement with AvFuel Corp., the dominant distributor of aviation fuels in the U.S. The press release is a little vague about what’s going on here, but I see the relevance in this phrase: “… a framework agreement to serve as a template allowing equitable distribution processes amongst the major avgas distributors for Swift 94 MON Avgas and any future avgas replacements.”

This strikes me as a truce of sorts that Swift hopes will allow its new 94-octane fuel onto airports without facing the exclusionary contracts that have, from time to time, kept mogas from propagating to more airports. And although Swift says its new 94-octane fuel is an approved aviation fuel, it fits into the market space that mogas now occupies—or at least has attempted to occupy. Despite a price break against avgas, mogas is available on only about 100 or so airports. There are several reasons for this. One is that ethanol-free unleaded premium can be difficult to find in the distribution chain, a second is the aforementioned fact that supply contracts often preclude airports from offering competing fuels, and a third is that many pilots simply don’t trust mogas.

Will Swift 94 change that? We’ll see. To reach any kind of critical mass, the company will have to find enough distribution points to make a brand identity dent. The downside is you still need an STC to use this fuel, just as you do with mogas. Furthermore, FBOs we’ve surveyed have expressed a distinct disinterest in a two-fuel solution to address the slow-moving leaded avgas crisis. In a market where fuel sales continue to decline, what rational business case is there for investing $50,000 or more in a second tank farm and pump? I keep hearing that this isn’t really a barrier, but I keep not seeing mogas make significant inroads in fuel sales.

Swift’s Chris D’Acosta told me the FBOs who are now selling the 94 MON fuel are pricing it in the $4 to $4.25 range. If that’s true and it holds, that’s a pretty good price, in my view. It could be that buyers will see this and put pressure on airports to provide the fuel. That could be a good thing. If nothing else, it will be a real-world test case to add another data point to prove or disprove whether fuel price has anything to do with flight activity. (I’m in the camp that believes it doesn’t.)

Cirrus Flock: Not

Earlier in the week I bumped into Mike Radomsky, who’s a past president of the Cirrus Owner and Pilots Association. He happened to mention he had been involved in the Cirrus mass arrival. These things have become a fixture as AirVenture, with Bonanzas, Barons, Cessnas and Mooneys organizing group fly-ins.

How many did you get, I asked? Seven airplanes, Mike said. I think the Mooney group had about 40. With Cirrus touting the 6000th airplane sold, isn’t that kind of pathetic? Not really. Cirrus owners are just different, Radomsky told me. They tend to be skeptical if not out-and-out reticent to join in such things, but that’s not to suggest they’re not joiners. COPA is, without exception, in my view, the most potent of the owner groups, having demonstrated a measurable positive effect on the Cirrus accident rate. Maybe the fact that they’re reluctant to join large clouds of airplanes flying the same direction actually reflects a healthy survival instinct.

And you know what? I’m not sure I would join the flock, either. I’m basically anti-social and that definitely applies to flying in trail of someone I just met that morning. No offense, but I’d just rather be alone.