Electric Airplane Symposium 2008

The electric airplane: What’s the future hold, and how do we make it happen? That was the theme of the 2008 Electric Aircraft Symposium held on April 23 near the San Francisco Airport. KITPLANES was honored to be among the 60 participants from MIT, Stanford, NASA Langley, Boeing Phantom Works and as far away as Slovenia. The importance of the event was recognized by the presence of several TV stations as well as the the British Broadcasting Company. The CAFE Foundation of Santa Rosa, California, led by Brien Seeley, both sponsored the meeting and led off with the announcement of “The General Aviation Technology Challenge” with prizes totaling $300,000 for aircraft excelling in categories ranging from minimum impact on the environment to low-noise. There's more information and rules about the GAT challenge at the CAFE Foundation.

But with a room full of scientists, the real excitement was generated by the discussions of advances in technology that make non-gasoline engines a strongly viable prospect for the near future. Indeed, Pipistrel of Slovenia announced its battery-powered, self-launching motorglider. Imagine climbing to 6000 feet in a side-by-side seating, two-place aircraft on only 70 cents worth of electricity, soaring at a 40:1 glide ratio, and then recharging in less than 2 hours.

That was followed by a discussion of lithium-ion batteries built not of solid material, but of microfibers. This would allow energy densities two to three times what we currently have. Apply that to the new Pipistrel, and you have an aircraft with a 6-hour range at 90 knots. The presenter, Dr. Yi Cui of Stanford, stated that this is not more than two to three years from commercialization. What uses that power was also under development. Forget those heavy, iron-frame motors on the workbench. Alan Cocconi showed a zero-iron motor that looks more like a carbon-fiber bicycle wheel and operates at 99% efficiency.

Greg Cole of Lancair showed the Goshawk, an under-development aircraft that should cruise at 115 knots on 21 horsepower.

Also shown were lightweight, bio-diesel engines that turn at 7000 rpm, wing flaps of only 1% of the wing chord, wingtip props that absorb the energy lost in vortices, wings with internal bladders to alter the shape of the wing for different flight regimes, radically different propeller shapes, hydrogen fuel cells, hybrid power systems akin to those used in autos, and what looked like a jet engine that runs off the turbulence left in the wake of the fuselage.

For the mechanically minded, this: an engine with two propellers and one double-ended piston as its only moving parts (top photo). Talk about a gee-whiz display.

The flight testing of these technologies has been limited to LSA platforms because of the simplicity and cost of the aircraft. There was significant discussion, though, on the ability of technologies, such as higher L/D wings to be used in flight with automated wing configuration changes for low-speed landings. This would allow an aircraft to exceed the LSA limit of 120 knots cruise, land within the 45 knots stall speed requirement, and do it economically.

If such were available, it would not increase the pilot workload, thereby staying within the spirit of the LSA mandate. Getting the rules changed is an entirely different matter, of course. For this to come about, the FAA would have to alter the LSA definition, but with increasing pressure to come up with low-environmental-impact transportation, this might not be difficult.

Seminars discussing the cutting edge are usually fascinating, but rarely relevant to the near future. This time, though, the increasingly popular automotive technology of hybridization is making this all the nearer to reality. It was shown that propeller aircraft using a combination of electricity for quiet takeoff and bio-fuels for cruise speed are possible right now. And with predictions of automotive fuel costs of $7 per gallon within the next four years—see the story here—this will be not just a green alternative, but perhaps the only alternative.

The message was clear: If we’re to keep flying, how we do so will radically change in the next few years. A full report with photos of all these new technologies will be in an upcoming issue of KITPLANES.

Nationwide Sectionals—Free!

Dave Parsons, one of our readers, wrote to compliment the aviation weather web site review in the May 2008 issue of KITPLANES. We left out his “personal favorite” so I thought I’d go check it out. Runway Finder is worth a look.

Instead of being just another map, this is the entire USA displayed as sectionals. It also shows satellite photos, terrain charts and road maps. But it’s the sectional that’s most interesting in that TFRs are displayed. Be aware that it’s not a “legal” source of information on the subject, so whether or not you see one, you should still check other sources.

To use Runway Finder, go to the vertical slider in the upper left corner, move the slider to the mid-point; now go to the lower right corner and put your cursor in the little blue inset square. Hold a left-click and move the blue square. Note that if you are not within the blue square when you do the click/drag you'll be moving the map, not the square. It makes no difference to the end-result, though.

In the lower left corner you’ll see a search-the-map box. Type in the airport identifier, hit return, and the map jumps there, displaying a balloon with a hyperlink if you go to a major or well-known airport.

If, on the other hand, you type in the identifier for PuddleJumper International, the map will still jump there but the search box will also provide a listing of results from a simultaneous Google search.

What’s unique here is that you get a virtual data-dump of information about those tiny airports. It's no longer hard to find them or information about them.

But wait! There’s more!

Go to the Settings pull-down and salivate over the choices. Here you can cause it to display navaids, fixes and several other default values including being able to center on your home field at startup.

Now, look to the extreme right and there are two tabs: Ads and Legend. Click Legend and you’ll get a series of balloons with symbols including High Wind, Rain and a most intriguing Future TFR.

For the final topping on the cake, at the very top right of the chart you can put in your route identifiers. This puts a line on the map so you can read those balloons along your route.

For those of us who go out for the $100 hamburger, the only drawback is that it doesn't show which way the storm is going. But using Runway Finder along with www.weather.gov/forecasts/graphical/sectors/ is a great way to make sure that lunch doesn't include a hotel for the night.

This is a definite must-bookmark site for pilots. Thanks, Dave!

Amy's RV-10: Checking Out a Newborn Engine Before Flight

That Lycoming IO-540 on our nascent Van's RV-10 is about 10 minutes old now, and still a sweetheart. Each engine start tested another function, checking the mags, the propeller, calibrating the rpm, and adjusting the mixture control.

The Airflow Performance Experimental fuel injection system seems a little rough, but overall acceptable during the idle runs, and it produces startlingly balanced fuel flow across the six cylinders on the high speed and takeoff runups, considering no effort has been made yet to balance the fuel flow by adjusting the nozzles using the unique "restrictor" system provided by the company.

The Grand Rapids Technology EIS was used for checking everything (we haven't yet plugged in the bigger EFIS screens), and it performed with the same aplomb as the one in our Kitfox 4 has done for seven years. I like the simplicity of this box. Hit the master and it is on, flashing for you to acknowledge each probe attachment. Once that is done it sets up ready to reel off all the information you need to get a basic read on your engine health. Magneto checks showed both the rpm drops, as well as the exhaust gas temperature rises across the cylinders. The constant-speed propeller checks showed the rpm drop and subsequent rises as well.

We had to wait until after nightfall (who decided that it would be a good idea to have daylight savings time in March?) to view the propeller through a fluorescent light bulb to see if the tachometer matched the actual rpm. Really, this works as a poor-man's tach sync. Here's why: The lightbulb pulses at a fixed rate, 60 positive and 60 negative pulses per second in the U.S. or anywhere using 120 volt household electricity to power the bulbs. When you illuminate a spinning propeller with a fluorescent bulb, it will appear to stop at certain rpm. This is where the frequency of the pulsing light matches the frequency of the spinning prop. For two-blade props such as our Hartzell, we can calibrate certain key rpm, 720, 1200, 1440 and 1800 this way.

What was fun about this task was that for once on this project, I got to be at the controls. There's nothing quite like starting your new airplane for the first time. Of course, I bungled it. The RV-10 has an extra knob in it, labeled primer (but not the traditional kind) controlling fuel to the fuel controller on top of the engine. So the checklist is: fuel selector on, mixture rich, primer in, master on, fuel pump on 3 seconds, off, throttle cracked, magnetos to both, then start. Somewhere in there I got it turning, but pulled the throttle back too quickly and it quit. The second start I flooded it. Now my husband is cranky. He goes to reach around me and start it himself and, of course, it kicks over fine. You've got to love those special moments in a relationship.

Once the big fan out there is spinning in the dark you must use extreme care, because it'll bite. All movement should be around the wingtips, out front and then in, and not too close. Our airplane was tied down and chocked, and I was holding the brakes even still. My husband snapped on the fluorescent bulb and I adjusted the throttle (slowly) to match the requested rpm. We did it twice (and I managed to perform a flawless hot-start on my first try) before concluding that our tachometer pickup was within 2%. That ought to work.

There is still some assembly and checking out to be done (not to mention an inspection to complete) before this bird can fly. But the engine should pull her as advertised.

News: Superior Says "All OK"

We have received a note from Superior Air Parts saying, in effect, pay no attention to the troubles with Thielert Aircraft Engines, which has filed for insolvency in the aftermath of falling share prices. Company founder Frank Thielert and the firm's CEO were ousted earlier this month amid allegations of illegal accounting practices. Speculation was that Superior, a sister company of Thielert Engines, would be affected.

No so, says the company. "Superior Air Parts is continuing normal operations. Superior...is owned by Thielert AG and is not directly involved with these procedings."

In Austria, according to Thielert, "The insolvency plan shall be presented to the court and all creditors by the new appointed executive board and the interim insolvency administrator until the opening of the insolvency proceeding. A successful continuation of business in the insolvency plan proceeding is required."

Amy's RV-10: And You Built This Why?

Airshows and fly-ins--I love 'em. People who love aircraft, live, breathe, eat, sleep and dream about aircraft, indoctrinate their children, even their helpless pets into the world of aviation, all gathering together to honor, ogle at, and argue about the performance of all man-made objects that fly. It’s fun.

If you are like me, a member of the press with a little notoriety and known to have aircraft builder tendencies, you’re going to get a lot of questions. Really. People want to know.

They ask, why are you building a Van’s RV-10? Why not a Lancair, a Velocity or even (yes, I really did get this one) a gyroplane (after all, I do hold that rating on my certificate). They want to know how my husband and I are doing in the building process (not just how long it is taking), and they want to know where we are building. More sophisticated questioners always circle back to, “Why do it that way?”

Sure, I like the questions, and as long as they aren’t inquisitions I’m happy to answer. We chose the RV-10 after two years of researching kits that might help us carry the same or similar loads as our Cessna 182, but go 15 knots faster. We looked at the composite aircraft very carefully, and shied away for a couple of reasons. For one, my husband abhors working with any form of fiberglass or products that require layups and lots of resins, then curing and sanding and repeating. Our shop is set up pretty well for metalworking, and that naturally drew us more toward the Van’s products. We thought that the 260-hp RV-10 would be a good hauler (nothing can compare to the Cessna 182 baggage area, but the useful load was close). And we had a Marine test-pilot friend who had flown the first RV-10 and told us that it was a sweet-handling machine that would make a solid instrument flying platform. So, mostly-metal airplane with adequate useful load and docile flying characteristics from a company that has been in the kit business for a long time, with a solid track record (did I tell you the last kit we built the company went out of business?), and we were sold on the RV-10.

Nearly four years later, and almost done, I can look back and safely say that it was a good decision. We were never waiting too long on parts, and there were always ample vendors from which to obtain them. Pricing was always competitive, and sometimes you could fabricate what you needed or fabricate something even better than what the factory suggested. As the kit’s popularity grew, so did the mods, of which we’ve availed ourselves. Our airplane has upgraded door latch systems and a Safety-Trim elevator trim system, as well as electric rudder trim enhancements. It also has a Sam James Holy Cowl and plenum system, as well as Sam James wheelpants. So there’s more than just a custom panel and paint job to make this baby really our own.

And that’s the beauty of a kit that you actually build yourself. You can make these changes as you go along and discover what you think are better ways to build your craft. It’s the “education” side of the amateur-built rule explanation. It’s not the only reason we build, but it’s a good reason to consider undertaking a project of this scope. We’re 2300 hours into ours, and are about to go fly. We’re feeling pretty smart.

Chelton Flight Systems, S-TEC to Become Roomies

Cobham's Avionics and Surveillance Division announced today that it was going to merge operations of its two subsidiaries, Chelton Flight Systems and S-TEC, at the latter's Mineral Wells, Texas, facility. According to a press release just received, "The capabilites of CFS and S-TEC are highly complementary, with products from both businesses certified together on more than 500 aircraft types. The move is part of Cobham's drive to develop a fully integrated cockpit and improve its customer focus." Chelton owner Cobham had acquired S-TEC from Meggitt at the beginning of the year. The merged operations will take up residence in the 57,000-square-foot facility currently used by S-TEC.

It's not clear what impact this will have on the Experimental market long term. Chelton, once a frontrunner in high-end EFIS equipment for homebuilts has lost ground to the up-and-coming middle-market EFIS manufacturers (Advanced Flight, Dynon and Grand Rapids, for example) and is being threatened by Garmin's G900X Experimental-class system. Chelton also lost momentum after the controversial closure of Direct-To Avionics, once the sole conduit for systems to the Experimental market.