Sport Expo: Electrics, Titans and Drones

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As a percentage of the total cars sold in the U.S., Corvettes and Camaros are but a tiny slice. Chevrolet sold about 35,000 ‘Vettes last year. The fact that they moved even that many shows that Americans have a taste for vehicles stuffed with far more horsepower than they could conceivably ever need. But need isn’t the point. Neither is speed, really.

So it is with airplanes, especially the emerging trend in light sport aircraft with the four-cylinder Lycoming knockoff, the Titan 340. A few years ago, CubCrafters pioneered this trend with the Carbon Cub, but now everyone’s getting into the act. As I reported in this video, American Legend has the Super Legend HP and this week, John McBean of Kitfox told me he’s fitting an S7 with one. I heard that RANS is planning the same thing.

And why the hell not? I’ve heard some people sniff that this cramming of so much power into a light airframe somehow defiles the “spirit” of the LSA rule. Baaaah! Was the spirit slowness? Long takeoff runs? Weak performance in high density altitude? That’s not my kinda spirit, thanks. The Titan turns any of these light airframes into STOL champions that embarrass a Super Cub, even though most will never be used that way, just as Corvettes never see the track nor are many of them driven in the spirited way they’re certainly capable of. But it’s not so much the doing as the having. All of these pumped-up LSAs will be best sellers. I won’t even claim you read it first here.

Drones made their first appearance here at Sport Expo and given the interest in this technology, that’s a good thing. But I have to say, the execution was a little sad. And not because of anything the show organizers did, but because of the irrational fear still gripping the aviation community over anything to do with unmanned aerial vehicles.

The drone area was a big net cage which was itself inside a huge hangar, as though the drones were some kind of virus about to escape a Level 5 bio-containment to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting populace. I had hoped to do a little video on the topic, but when I asked one of the drone demo guys to fly one, all he could produce was a palm-sized micro drone, which is like trying to film mosquitos hyped up on crack. Why not something bigger? Because the big ones are now geo-fenced and won’t fly on airports. (Actually, I think some can be flown in non-GPS mode, but I digress.) It’s too bad, really, because the bigger drones would show people the true capability of these aircraft; the micros are toys.

That we have become so fearful of everything makes me eternally grateful for having grown up in the 1950s when, if I had come home with a piece of rebar stuck in the side of my head, my mom would have removed it, applied iodine and a Band-Aid and shooed me back outside to play with my pet rattlesnakes. In those days, if you came in tenth in dodge ball, you didn’t get a thanks-for-playing trophy to preserve your tender self-esteem, you got labeled what you were: a loser. And you did what losers always do; you let the air out of the bike tires of the kids who did win. Here’s to hoping the rise of the drones will reignite that spirit. We need a little of it.

I expected to see at least one actual electric airplane here at Sebring because … well, just because. The closest was the little Merlin one-place sport airplane that Chip Erwin had on display. He had the hardware for a potential electric power package set off to one side and I wanted to get a better look at it. I’m interested in what designers are doing for thermal containment of these potent battery systems. That 75-pound pile of batteries represents a lot of joules—but the equivalent weight would yield 12 gallons of avgas. As I’m sure you’ve read, when lithium-ion fires get going, they’re frightening and difficult to extinguish. That’s mainly because they have electrolytes composed of volatile organic solvents.

I asked Erwin if his battery array would have a durable thermal containment of some kind. He said the company is using the recommended 5 mm cell separation and applying a Kevlar matrix around each cell for containment. Call me skeptical. Little is known about the battery fire risk for pure electric aircraft simply because there are so few flying in real service as to amount to nearly zero experience.

I don’t meet to overstate the risk because it may prove to be not much of a risk at all. Nor would I sweep it under the rug; it’s just an unknown for the moment. In speaking to people about electrics, the Boeing 787 lithium fires always comes up as an evergreen spook factor. Those really shook the industry. An engineer I know with years of experience in designing aircraft electrical systems told me that he thought Boeing’s solution to the Dreamliner fires was to add an EICAS code that says, “Oh, by the way, your battery is on fire.” Black humor, perhaps, but sometimes it’s the cynics who own the wisdom.

Speaking of wisdom, I polled a few manufacturers on the service history of Rotax’s 912 iS, which now has nearly four years in the market. It represents the most electronically sophisticated certified gasoline engine and I’ve been periodically asking how it’s doing.

The uptake hasn’t been without warts. As is often the case, there were problems with connectors and minor electrical glitches, including failed EGT sensors. Rotax had to redesign the connectors for the engine’s direct-fire coils and it addressed flat torque curve issues with the follow-on Sport model. And that’s the only version being shipped for the U.S. market.

Lockwood Aviation, based in Sebring, is the main U.S. service center and the company’s Dean Vogel told me there are at least 100 912 iS engines flying in the U.S., mostly in LSAs. He said the main problems have occurred when installers have gone off script in mating the engine to the airframe. The iS is by no means a simple engine to install and set up and Rotax is particular about how it’s done. The fact that there have been teething pains should come as no surprise and should be the expectation for any company applying electronic controls to conventional engines, as both Lycoming and Continental are. This sort of thing is hardly unheard of in the automotive and motorcycle industries, I might add.

As the rest of the world more or less drags its feet on installing ADS-B, it’s suddenly appearing in more LSAs. The Super Legend I flew on Wednesday had the Trig system and Flight Designwas showing one with a new Dynon package. Darin Hart hadn’t mentioned the installation before we took off so I was a little startled to hear traffic annunciations and see them on the Garmin aera 796. There was enough traffic buzzing around Sebring on Wednesday to make it a nice-to-have option.

While we’re talking about buzzing, one great thing about this show is how convenient it is to demo an airplane. They turn a taxiway into a runway and the temporary tower does a great job of marshaling traffic with advisories and useful information. The runway is almost next to the grass test flight area, so it’s a short taxi in and out. It’s also easy to push an airplane from the main display midway right to the departure ramp, as Darin Hart and I did with the Super Legend. This is why, I think, that despite the low numbers of total attendance at Sport Expo, it can be a good show for exhibitors to show what they’ve got.

But alas, it’s not a good place to eat. In the name of all that is holy, I wish someone would do something to improve the food here. That little red shack in the middle of the grounds dispenses food-like objects thatare just this side of edible. But they are expensive, so there’s that. Expensive, crummy food at expositions is an American tradition, I suppose, but I think next time, I’ll go all maverick and bring a bag lunch. Or maybe the let the air out of the tires of whatever tows that shack into place.

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