JOSH BERNOFF, FORRESTER RESEARCH: Well interactive TV is highly dependent on the moves of these cable and satellite operators, but even with this move, IÃ€say that the satellite companies are moving a whole lot more aggressively here than the cable companies are.
FRANCIS: Which ones in particular?
BERNOFF: Both EchoStar (URL: http://www.echostar.com) and DIRECTV. EchoStar has a product available that they built with WebTV. You can do interactive TV right now with that, and the Dish Network is also available with interactivity from OpenTV (URL: http://www.opentv.com/) .
Last July, Alan Klapmeier, president and CEO of Cirrus Design, presented a customer with the keys to the first production model of the new Cirrus SR20, a four-seat airplane that sells for $179,400. With 500 orders in the bank, you might think Klapmeier and his co-workers at the Duluth, Minnesota, company would be resting on their laurels.
Nothing could be further from the truth. “If we’re still building this aircraft in 40 years,” says Klapmeier, “we’ll have made ourselves a whole bunch of money, but I’ll consider us to have been failures.”
Klapmeier believes that within a few years, Cirrus and other companies will be building entry-level private aircraft that are considerably quieter, cheaper, safer, and easier to fly than the new SR20. Wealthier customers will be flying 450-mph jets that cost a quarter as much as any jet today. And the new aircraft will be built not in the hundreds, but in the thousands each year, predicts Klapmeier.
The U.S. light-plane industry has turned out aircraft by the thousands before. In 1978, the industry delivered 18,000 private aircraft, including 14,400 single-propeller planes. Then the market imploded. In 1987, the industry shipped a mere 600 single-engine airplanes.
Klapmeier thinks he knows why the industry collapsed, and NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin agrees with him. Goldin was new to NASA when he first visited the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual convention Â— a showcase for small planes Â— in 1992. The scale of the industry’s slump “blew me away,” Goldin said later. Then he started looking under engine cowlings. “When I took a look at the engines that we were putting in those planes, it was like going back to the 1950s,” Goldin recalls. Sometimes, it does take a rocket scientist to identify a problem: Goldin realized that U.S. light airplanes are obsolete.
Cirrus SR20: This airplane’s most unusual feature is a parachute that can be deployed in emergencies to lower the entire plane to the ground.
Time between overhauls: 2,000 hours
Cruise speed: 160 knots (184 mph)
Maximum range: 800 nautical miles
Base price: $179,400
Today a private airplane costs as much as a top-of-the-line Mercedes, but unlike automobiles, personal planes haven’t changed much in the past few decades. They’re noisy, cramped, and dangerous. “People get in a small airplane for the first time, and it’s horrible,” says Klapmeier.
He hopes to change that. So does Lance Neibauer, the founder of Lancair International, a kit airplane company based in Redmond, Oregon. A spin-off company, the Lancair Company, delivered its first factory-built, single-engine four-seater in February. Called the Columbia 300, it cruises at a sizzling 219 mph and sells for a base price of $285,500. Sales of this more powerful, faster, and more expensive aircraft are trailing those of the Cirrus, with more than 100 firm orders. The company plans to deliver 15 to 20 aircraft this year and 90 in 2001.
Cirrus President Alan Klapmeier in the SR20: Gull-wing doors provide easy access. (John B. Carnett)
The Columbia 300 and the SR20 represent a bridge between what the private airplane used to be and what it will become. Both of the new planes have PC-based displays, GPS navigation, airframes made from composite materials, and aerodynamic refinements made possible by cutting-edge computer programs that calculate airflow. The SR20, for example, has a tapered shape Â— giving passengers more room in the cabin Â— that would have been considered risky in the days before computer-aided design.
The next step is to fit these sleek composite airplanes with new engines and electronics. This year, two revolutionary engines are scheduled to fly, and the Lancair Columbia 300 will demonstrate a computer-based cockpit intended to make flying easier and safer.
Much of this work has been carried out under a project called AGATE (Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiment), launched by Goldin in 1994, which teams NASA with some 70 companies. The goal of the experiment is to make an airplane that costs no more to own than a luxury car. NASA wants to see 10,000 private aircraft built in 2010, and twice as many in 2020. The agency also wants to cut the private-airplane accident rate by a factor of five in 10 years, and by a factor of 10 in 20 years. And NASA plans to halve airplane noise, so that communities will stop trying to close small airports.
New engines are crucial. Today’s light-aircraft engines are costly to maintain, and they burn expensive 100-octane aviation gasoline. For airplanes like the Cirrus and Lancair, NASA and Teledyne Continental have teamed to develop the CSD 283, a 200-hp supercharged two-stroke diesel that burns jet fuel. It uses 25 percent less fuel than today’s engines for the same power, and will run 3,000 hours between overhauls. Prototypes should fly this year on a Cirrus, a Lancair, and a twin-engine Piper.
Highway in the Sky: This is NASA’s long-term vision for a light aircraft’s cockpit. The easy-to-read displays include a “highway in the sky” system that helps the pilot find his way home by following symbols projected in front of the aircraft. Other flat-screen displays provide information about weather, terrain, traffic, and mechanical systems. (Michael Speigner)
NASA is also sponsoring a project to develop a new jet engine, the Williams FJX-2 turbofan. Today’s jet engines are too expensive for private aircraft, with price tags well into six figures. But if the FJX-2 makes its price goal Â— between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on how many are sold Â— the aircraft that replaces today’s best piston-engine plane is likely to be a jet at around the same price. The FJX-2 made its first ground runs late last year and is due to fly this year on Williams’ V-Jet 2 test aircraft.
But even with better engines, the new airplanes won’t sell unless the accident rate comes down. Accident rates for airliners have declined with the introduction of more modern, automated aircraft. But the accident rates for private flying haven’t changed, and are currently around 10 times higher than for airlines.
Many private-plane accidents are associated with bad weather. The scenario in which a pilot becomes disoriented and loses control of the aircraft is all too common.
A jetliner cruises at 35,000 feet, far above most bad weather. Its two pilots fly more hours in a year than a private pilot flies in a decade, and train on realistic simulators. Airliners have sophisticated autopilots; big, bright electronic cockpit displays; and computers that constantly monitor mechanical systems.
Five miles below, the lone pilot of a private aircraft is bouncing through the clouds using instrument flight rules (IFR). The pilot, who flies only 100 hours a year, has to monitor several small instruments Â— including an artificial horizon, an altimeter, and a gyro-compassÃ£in order to know where the airplane is and whether it is right-side up. At the same time, the pilot must scan the instruments for signs of incipient failure.
“Most of us aren’t smart enough to fly in IFR,” confesses Klapmeier. “I can’t do it safely. We want a system that is so simple that I can do it, and if I can do it then people will go out and fly airplanes.” The answer, he says, is a new device called a Primary Flight Display, or PFD, which he calls “the single most important technology that will grow this industry.”
The prototype PFD developed as part of the AGATE program is a laptop-like screen that displays a stylized picture of what’s ahead of the airplane. Its horizon display is four times wider than today’s instrument: If the wings are not level, it’s hard to overlook that fact. The prototype PFD includes a “highway in the sky” display Â— a moving set of symbols that show where the aircraft will go if it continues on its present flight path. On landing, the pilot can check an approach by making sure that the highway on his display points to the end of the airport runway.
A NASA consortium plans to install this “glass” cockpit, in which computer-based displays replace dials, in Lancair’s Columbia 300 next year. (Mike Houska/ Dogleg Studios)
Next to the PFD is a moving-map display that shows the position of other aircraft. These positions are broadcast via radio, along with weather information that can be superimposed on the map. A GPS receiver provides the airplane’s position, and an onboard database calculates the height of the ground around the airplane, warning the pilot if he gets too close.
If airports are added to the database, the PFD becomes an all-weather landing aid. “Differential” GPS, using an extra transmitter on the ground, locates the aircraft with an accuracy of a few feet, and a perspective view of the airport appears on the screen.
The technology needed for PFDs has already been developed by small companies supplying the kit-built aircraft industry. “I can develop a prototype for less than it costs a major manufacturer to hold a meeting,” quips Mary Nolan, president of AvroTec, one of the companies in an AGATE-sponsored consortium that plans to fly a Columbia 300 with a PFD cockpit this year. A highway-in-the-sky display could be on the market by late 2001.
The new engines, new avionics, and the new aircraft that use them could all be on the market around 2005. How many people will they tempt into the air? Nobody is certain. Each year, however, Americans buy around a million $40,000-plus cars. While that money will not buy an airplane outright, it will buy a share of one.
Carmakers are even thinking about getting into the act. In 1998, discreet advertisements turned up in local papers as far apart as Duluth and Los Angeles, seeking engineers to develop a new low-cost light aircraft. The advertiser: none other than Toyota, which has formed an engineering team in California to design and build a prototype.
The development of new aircraft is not without cost. Both Cirrus and Lancair have lost test pilots in fatal accidents Â— tragedies that were keenly felt in these small and close-knit companies. But neither team has lost sight of its goal, which is to make flying safer for all.
Airports may never turn into shopping malls, as aircraft designer Burt Rutan predicts. But the director of NASA’s AGATE program, Bruce Holmes, believes that the revolution in private aviation is not only desirable, but also necessary: Without it, he says, the airline system will become more congested and airfares will rise, while smaller towns without good air service will decline.