Commentary: What Does Affordable Flying Mean to You?

EAA's AirVenture 2008 offers much to all who are interested in aviation; however, after a few days of wandering the grounds, I began to get a sense of what might be missing, and it is significant.

Although EAA has made a laudable effort during these financially challenging times to demonstrate that the point of entry for purchasing and building an airplane can be as low as buying a car, the organization seems to be missing the point that most people know that the first check, the one to buy the aircraft, is probably the smallest check they'll ever write for an aviation purchase. It is the cost of maintaining and actually flying their craft that adds up.

Take my RV-10. Sure, its build has been a drain on the checkbook in a steady, significant way over the past four years, but until that engine fired up and the aircraft took to the air those costs were predictable. Then we got the first fuel bills. And had to replace the electrical components that did not work. And a tire. And...well, you know where I am going with this.

Forums that have anything to do with engine and/or aircraft efficiency or longevity are packed at this show, which means the people here are definitely interested in learning more about how to build, modify and fly their aircraft for less money. It is just too bad that there are not more displays by EAA and manufacturers here that can offer these folks some solutions.

I'm a little worried that this key issue isn't being addressed. As pilot numbers shrink, manufacturers make fewer aircraft, oil companies refine less avgas, and the cost must go up. We in the industry must demonstrate both to these folks, who are clearly trying to keep flying their aircraft even as costs go up, but also to those who are considering learning to fly, that general aviation is an affordable pastime by coming up with solutions to make our aircraft and engines more efficient and less dependent on traditional fuels and materials.

SMA Diesel Engines Available for Experimentals

SMA, part of the SAFRAN Group, announced today that its diesel-burning engines are currently available in the new Maule M9, as well as for the Experimental Pulsar S300. The company is selling the engine to individual owners of other certified and non-certified aircraft (including the Piper Dakota and Cessna 182 and 206).

The SR 305-230 engine, with 230 horsepower, has proved itself in the Cessna 182 over nearly 12 years of operation as a more fuel-efficient alternative than the OEM Continental O-470. Its FADEC system and ability to burn Jet-A or diesel fuel make it particularly attractive to kit aircraft builders who are beginning to experience difficulty finding avgas, and especially for those who live in parts of the world where avgas has become unaffordable.

The SR 305-230 engine is not an inexpensive proposition for a kit builder, with price estimates for the engine running somewhere in the $75,000 range, according to SMA, but it is ready to ship today. Its performance, burning just 7.9 gph at 65% power, and long TBO (3000 hours), as well as the fact that it contains 70% fewer parts than the typical avgas-burning engine, are all attractive to builders. SMA is hoping that 12 years of developing its engine as an alternative fuel burner is about to pay off.

Amy's RV-10: Cutting Costs Without Cutting Corners

If there is anything I've learned this year, it is this: The aviation stuff we do can be a little pricey. We've been breaking in an engine on a new airplane this past spring, and the fuel bill just arrived the other day. I sat down to read it. Good thing, because the number inside had me swoon. During an engine break-in period it is important that you run the engine hard and fast, and to counter the effect of all that combustion you have to leave the fuel full on, pushing lots and lots of avgas through the engine to burn and carry away the heat.

The good news is that this tried and true technique quickly seats the rings in the pistons and reduces oil consumption, and before you know it you have a fine, strong engine to fly behind for years to come. Well, if you can afford it.

Affordability is the very reason that my husband, with a little help from me, built this new airplane. We even built up the engine with low-compression cylinders that will allow us to switch to car gas if avgas becomes scarce, or far too expensive to burn. So far, though, car gas is keeping pretty good pace with avgas in its unprecedented inflation.

The RV-10, painstakingly riveted and sanded and carefully assembled with as much new, clean technology as we could afford over nearly four years, will help us continue to afford to fly for the next 20 years, we hope. It doesn't have an electric engine, and it's not a glider, but it is a fast, fairly heavy-lifting long-hauler for our family. And it will cost less to fly, eventually.

So what's my advice for cutting your costs in aviation without cutting corners? Upgrade to leaner and greener flying machines, of course. If you fly a weight-shift Light Sport Aircraft, consider the possibility of using an electric engine. Randall Fishman won Grand Champion at AirVenture 2007 with his flying design, and he promises to be back with an electrically driven motorglider this year. Sonex has also promised a true electric engine in a motorglider. And IndUS Aviation recently unveiled its Thorpedo, flying with a WAM turbocharged diesel engine, which puts out 120 hp on a measly 3 gph of jet A fuel.

Consider this, too. Collaborate and use your networking skills as a catalyst for developing new ideas about how to green up your aviation habit. Meet at events such as AirVenture or AOPA's Expo and, of course, at your local airport events. Talk about how your business is recycling, ride-sharing, and/or tuning its equipment for maximum efficiency. Are you using new technologies? Is there someone who can teach you how to do so? Group events are great opportunities for creative learning that can be individually applied. Besides, fly-in get-togethers are always great fun, too.

Catch up with me at EAA AirVenture, and we'll brainstorm about what we've learned there. I'll see you 'round the patch soon!