Plans for Alternative Aviation System Take Flight
KRTBN Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News: Tulsa World - Oklahoma
Copyright © 2000 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News; Source: World Reporter ™
On the shore of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota and in a mountain-ringed valley in central Oregon, two aircraft manufacturing companies are providing windows into the future of U.S. civil aviation.
Cirrus Design of Duluth, Minn., and Lancair Co. of Bend, Ore., small, 15-year-old general aircraft manufacturing companies, are incorporating computer-assisted designs, composite materials, satellite weather forecasting and state-of-the-art avionics into a new generation of single-engine aircraft.
Executives at the two companies said their goals in designing the futuristic aircraft are to address the cost and safety issues that have kept many Americans from venturing outside the well-worn paths of commercial aviation.
Their efforts are directed at producing small aircraft that nonpilots will find easy and safe to fly, speedy enough to beat commercial airlines on short- to medium-length trips, and so inexpensive that they will be comparable in price to a recreational vehicle or luxury car. With mass production and further refinements, they hope to lower the price significantly.
Their aircraft are being cited by experts at the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as the forerunners of general aviation aircraft that may be as user-friendly in 20 years as the automobile is today.
NASA’s Small Aircraft Transportation System, a $9 million program in NASA’s proposed $14 billion 2001 budget, is a broad vision for an alternative air transportation system that would bypass the nation’s crowded hub airports, said Bruce Holmes, a senior NASA engineer.
“The hub-and-spoke (commercial airline) system is not working as it is supposed to,” Holmes said. “We believe SATS could be the innovation that could bypass hub blockage. Even the airlines that have taken a look at SATS believe it can off-load (air traffic) growth into airports we don’t use today.”
There are nearly 5,000 public airports in the United States today that have no commercial airline service but are open to anyone with a private pilot’s license.
Over the next 10 years, SATS would research and develop aircraft and navigation systems that would enable pilots and even nonpilots to fly more directly to their destinations instead of the roundabout, time-consuming and increasingly expensive commercial airline routes.
Chris Maddy, spokesman for Cirrus, said his company has orders for 644 SR20 single-engine, four-seat, 200-horsepower aircraft. The SR20 has a cruising speed of 184 mph and consumes 10 gallons of fuel per hour – better than some SUVs.
Sixty-two planes have been delivered at a base price of $188,300, and the 608-employee factory is turning out two aircraft a week.
“Our target market is just about anybody with a private pilot’s license, but we’re also targeting people who can’t fly and people who are intimidated by cost and safety issues,” Maddy said. “We have done that by making the instrument panel easy to read. We have a multifunction display computer screen that gives pilots more and better information about what’s going on with the aircraft so they can make better decisions.”
The SR20 also has a number of innovative features, chief among them is a parachute for the airplane itself. More than 40 test drops with parachutes have proved the system will enable the plane to make a survivable landing under the worst possible circumstances, Cirrus executives said.
Although veteran pilots may scoff at the idea, Cirrus designers wanted to eliminate the fear of flying by having a fail-safe system when other options were exhausted.
“The airframe parachute has made a difference in some sales,” Maddy said. “We tried to address all the barriers to flight that existed before as well as interesting pilots and owners that want a more technologically advanced, easier-to-maintain aircraft.”
Instead of the typically cramped cockpit of most single-engine planes, the SR20’s cabin is wider and taller, and the instrument panel is uncluttered by the usual maze of gauges and dials.
Two-thousand miles west of Cirrus’ factory, Lancair Co. of Bend, Ore., is producing a cutting-edge propeller-driven sports car compared with Cirrus’ family sedan. Cirrus’ Columbia 300 is another sleek composite, but it is powered by a juiced-up 310 horsepower engine that carries it to a cruising speed of 220 mph, 40 mph faster than the SR20. At $299,700, it is also more expensive.
Mike Schrader, Lancair’s marketing chief, said the Columbia’s target market is doctors, lawyers, airline pilots and small corporations.
“The plane is very user-friendly,” Schrader said. “I can bring very low-time pilots in this plane with no problems. Our aircraft is designed around spin resistance: You can be in a full stall and the airplane will have full recovery.”
Like the SR20, the Columbia has a spacious cockpit, uncluttered instrument panel with side stick controls and a 12-inch flight monitor – a moving color map display that instantly shows the pilot if the plane is on course, heading into difficult terrain, near airports or restricted airspace.
Lancair and Cirrus executives are members of Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments (AGATE), an industry and government consortium that has been working since 1992 to refine airframe and avionics technology and simplify pilot training.
“The idea of SATS is to take what we’ve learned from AGATE, extend the aircraft technology gains, and bring in the technology at small airports and have the whole system tied together through Global Positioning System satellites,” said NASA spokesman Keith Henry.
“You would be able to ask your on-board computer to give you the weather anywhere in the United States, and it would be displayed on a screen in the cockpit. If any weather problems were developing, the computer would suggest an alternate route. The pilot could accept or reject that route.”
NASA engineers said the technologies will evolve to the point where nonpilots could climb into the cockpit, tell the computer a destination, and select the degree of automation desired – from flying part of the way manually to a completely automated flight.
“With the Highway in the Sky (completely automated flight), all you would have to do is have the skills to operate a video game,” Henry said.
Lancair’s Schrader believes he’ll see the day.
“Knowledge is doubling every six years,” he said. “We’ve come too far to say it’s impossible.”