EAA Air Venture 2005: Oshkosh show highlights aviation's innovative spirit

 - October 2, 2006, 8:10 AM

If giant airshows such as Paris, Farnborough, Asian Aerospace and Dubai–even NBAA– represent business aviation’s economic engine, then EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., (July 25 to July 31) measures the pulse of flying’s human side.

Honda R&D chief engineer Michimasa Fujino put it eloquently. Standing before his one-of-a-kind (for now) creation, the HondaJet, he addressed several hundred AirVenture attendees, pressing to hear him explain why Honda chose Oshkosh for the light jet’s first public display. Fujino said, “When I came to the U.S., I was shocked–shocked–to learn that American people built airplanes in their own garages.” The crowd roared its appreciation.

He continued, “I studied aerospace engineering at college in Japan, but I had never touched an airplane before I came over here. Just look at Oshkosh! This is the spirit of aviation.”

Making a connection between the Wright brothers and early computer pioneers, Fujino said, “Every airplane–just as every computer–got its start in a garage. Oshkosh is the home of aviation innovation.”

The HondaJet was on the ground at Wittman Regional Airport for a mere four hours, making it one of the show’s top attractions along with Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne and its carrier aircraft, White Knight; Steve Fossett’s Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer; Glacier Girl, a World War II-vintage Lockheed P-38 Lightning retrieved from deep below Greenland’s ice cap; and 2,923 other show aircraft.

The final official list included 1,267 homebuilts, 924 vintage airplanes, 386 warbirds, 196 ultralights, 130 seaplanes and 24 rotorcraft. The marquee toppers, including the HondaJet, parked in the massive central ramp–Aeroshell Square. Other showplanes were on display at their manufacturers’ tents, the Midwest equivalent of Paris’s chalets. And countless lesser-known “show” airplanes parked in row after row of grass with no more fanfare than a cardboard placard on the propeller listing their basic specs.

As happens every year, when the airplanes left Wittman Field at the end of the week, they left behind thousands of ghost images; airplane-shaped patches of green grass surrounded by acres of brown, downtrodden turf, trampled under hundreds of thousands of EAAers’ “sensible shoes.” Among the vital statistics: if one were simply to walk past every row of parked aircraft on the show site–not up and down–the route would cover some five-and-a-half miles.

The organizers claimed that, in total, more than 10,000 aircraft flew to Wittman Field and its surrounding relievers for the annual show. EAA estimated total “attendance” at 700,000 throughout the seven days, a 7-percent increase over last year. (That figure does not mean 700,000 different people attended. EAA figures account for each “turnstile click” per day and add the seven-day total at the end for a final tally. So a single attendee on site for all seven days would count as seven toward the total attendance number for the week.)

Registered international visitors numbered 1,813 from 65 different countries. More than 900 journalists (up from 711 last year) hailing from five continents reported on the show to readers, viewers or listeners back home.

Summing up his view of sport aviation’s greatest annual event, warbird and Reno Air Races pace pilot Steve Hinton stood musing between SpaceShipOne and Microsoft executive Paul Allen’s newly restored World War II-vintage P-51 Mustang. The unpolished, bare-aluminum fighter is a recently completed project that has upped the ante for historical accuracy by using only hardware and production materials correct for the time.

Hinton, who flew the Mustang in the show earlier that day, said, “No place else in the world can you see this kind of history in the flesh [the Mustang] and,” nodding at the world’s first civilian spacecraft, “history in the making.”

And the show is also about people. Have dinner on the veranda at the Hilton Hotel adjacent to Wittman Field and you’re likely to spot Chuck Yeager over your shoulder at the next table, and astronaut “Hoot” Gibson over your other shoulder. Wander into the bar, and you’ll find yourself standing next to actor, avid pilot and EAA Young Eagles program chairman Harrison Ford. Wander out to the warbird staging area and Nascar icon Jack Roush will be wearing his signature straw hat standing nearby his stable of two P-51s.

There are other lesser-known, but no less remarkable people on the field. Clyde East flew photo-recon Mustangs during World War II, and warbird restorer Butch Schroeder picked East’s markings when he refurbished one of the rare Mustangs–complete with the fuselage-mounted camera. East attended AirVenture 2005, and, standing next to Schroeder’s pride and joy, said his wife, Margaret, never cared much for his flying career. That is, until she first saw Butch’s airplane a few years ago. The name painted on the cowling? “Li’l Margaret” accurately depicted just like East’s wartime ship, named for his then-sweetheart. She never knew about it, until she saw Schroeder’s Mustang. “Now, she thinks airplanes are just fine,” said East.

At the close of the show, EAA president Tom Poberezny said, “Every day there was something new–a new announcement, an unveiling–and it makes me proud to know that the industry looks upon Oshkosh as the place to be to make announcements, to unveil innovations. It’s truly become aviation’s premier event, and EAA AirVenture Oshkosh mirrors us as an organization. It represents what the organization is.”

Cessna Citation Mustang

For those with a vested interest in unfolding history on the very light jet front, AirVenture provided an opportunity to assess progress on all the major contenders. Cessna flew its Mustang– the 21st-century turbofan version– to Oshkosh and drew crowds of curious onlookers. They saw a well finished, shiny test article, but with its working innards stuffed with the usual racks of orange flight-test and telemetry instrumentation. A more comfortable cabin mockup was also on display for visitors to sample.

In the press briefing tent, many of the company’s top brass, including chairman, CEO and president Jack Pelton and chairman emeritus Russ Meyer Jr., were on hand to answer questions. But when the company spokesman at the microphone introduced “Mustang program manager Russ Meyer,” the chairman emeritus remained seated and Russ Meyer III took the podium. He clicked through the Mustang program status notes as though he were reciting the checklist for the F-16s he used to fly.

The fleet of flight-test aircraft will include five airframes (three Mustangs, a CJ1 and a CJ2), starting with the current Mustang prototype being used for aerodynamics, performance, stalls, stability and aircraft systems testing and certification. The first two production Mustangs will be used primarily for avionics certification and function-and-reliability testing, respectively. One CJ1 has been flying as a testbed for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615F engines, having accumulated 230 hours in 119 flights by AirVenture. A CJ2 is being used for testing the Garmin G1000 suite and to help develop the autopilot.

In addition to the flight-test airplanes, Cessna has dedicated two airframes to structural testing, six to landing-gear test articles and nine to systems tests.

The company announced that production unit 0001 is scheduled to fly by next month: its wing was mated June 2, its electrical system powered up on July 6, its engines were to be installed by the end of AirVenture and systems installations were 90 percent complete. Production article 0002 was scheduled to fly in the first quarter next year.

Citation project engineer Jon Carr took the stage later and ticked off the prototype’s flight accomplishments to date, including 80 flights and more than 150 hours, near 100-percent dispatch reliability, FAA certification envelope expansion to FL410 and maximum-velocity and maximum-Mach dive speeds.

Ground tests accomplished included static tests to ultimate load, one-third of all fail-safe certification tests, more than one-third of main landing gear test cycles (and 1,750 of a required 75,000 nosegear cycles), assembly of the airframe cyclic article (destined to endure 75,000 hours of fatigue cycles) and completion of main- and nosegear drop testing.

Engine certification tests were about half completed, including those for icing, overspeed, cold starting and bird shot. Certification target is December. Similarly, the avionics program for the Garmin system was well on its way at AirVenture time, with 47 percent of line replaceable units having received their FAA TSOs. The FADEC and pressurization systems have been interfaced successfully with the airframe; and the G1000 autopilot development program is under way and performing well on the prototype, according to Meyer.

Cessna even included a test for reporters in its briefing package. Between the time the press kit was prepared and the news conference began, the company re-evaluated plans to build wings at its facility in Columbus, Ga., and decided to build the empennage there instead.

The tooling for Mustang production was set to begin the move from Wichita to Cessna’s Independence, Kan. facility even as Meyer spoke at AirVenture, with the first customer Mustang to begin the production cycle this fall. To accommodate its role for the Mustang, Cessna’s Independence facility is in the process of a 112,000-sq-ft expansion (due for completion in December), including the addition of a new production-flight-test building, a new sand-and-fill building and an expansion of the current customer-delivery facility.

Cessna reports orders for 240 Mustangs, with development costs on track to meet pricing targets. The company also reported that weight targets were “on track” for the Mustang, though there are challenges. In a DVD of the prototype’s first flight that went out as part of the briefing, Pelton addressed Cessna workers, saying that others have called the Mustang a validation of someone else’s concept. He rebutted that assertion and exhorted his colleagues to “get this certified and knock the competition on their heels.”

Eclipse 500

Perhaps no other VLJ prospect incorporates the EAA spirit as completely as Eclipse Aviation. Company CEO and president Vern Raburn is a long-time EAA member and sits on the organization’s governing board. A lifelong aviation enthusiast, Raburn has aligned his fortunes with the association’s reputation for innovation and “can-do” attitude and for the past several years has hosted a mammoth tent display at the annual EAA event.

From the beginning, Raburn hasn’t backed down from challenging the status quo. At his AirVenture 2005 briefing, he led off with a few I-told-you-so points. He began by chiding past skeptics, saying the VLJ is now universally accepted as “real.”

Raburn cited the replacement market for high-performance piston aircraft, freight operators, training providers and air-taxi operators as viable customers for his product. He said, “The vast majority understands that the very light jet will truly change this industry like it has not been changed in three decades.”

He continued, “Last year, people were saying, ‘Yeah, they’ll build airplanes. But no one can get insurance. Well, we’ve been working on that for three years and there is insurance available, with no new-aircraft premium. AIG has said if a buyer passes the type course, he will get insurance.”

Raburn reported that he himself has gone through the initial pilot evaluation with training partner United Airlines. He said, “We’re going to create great pilots. Parts 91 and 135 can learn a lot from Part 121 when it comes to training.” Raburn said he’s flown the airplane, and he had high praise for its handling qualities. “With the large flaps and trailing-link gear, you can’t make a bad landing, no matter how bad the approach.”

Addressing a price increase earlier this year, Raburn blamed the rising cost of aluminum but admitted, “We screwed up. And those responsible are no longer with the company.” Still, he said, Eclipse is on track to deliver 160 aircraft at less than $1 million per copy.

Also, Raburn introduced the company’s proprietary fire-suppression product, PhostrEx, a lighter, maintenance-free and environmentally friendly replacement for Halon.

Finally, Raburn introduced Eclipse’s JetComplete program, which he described as a one-stop customer care product for operational support as well as maintenance guarantees. For fixed prices, customers will receive an entire menu of services, said to save up to 30 percent on the overall cost of operating an Eclipse jet.

Raburn also introduced the company’s newest executive, COO Peg Billson, a 20-year industry veteran most recently v-p and general manager of Honeywell International’s aircraft frame systems division. She had previously served as v-p and general manager of Honeywell’s aircraft landing systems division.

Adam A700

Adam Aircraft also traces its roots to the homebuilt movement and provided an update on the progress it has made on its A700 jet since last year’s AirVenture. The past 12 months’ milestones include adding second-generation interior, primary- and multifunction displays, a fuel belly pod, a new power-control pedestal, rudder and aileron trim, an autopilot, pressurization, FADEC, nose baggage doors and landing-gear doors.

Current testing on the A700 includes work on the pressurization system, wing structural load and dynamic gear-drop tests. Design work now under way includes the powerplant installation, systems maintainability and the fuel system. Adam counts heavily on commonality with its A500 in the certification process, citing the following as the primary changes: replacing two piston engines with Williams FJ33s reduces empty weight by approximately 1,000 pounds and shifts the center of gravity aft.

Stretching the fuselage 29 inches and moving it forward 42 inches corrects the c.g. shift, adding room for a full lavatory or two additional seats. Adam maintains that the changes involve simple tooling changes and that all critical systems–wing, tail, landing gear, controls, instrument panel, doors and windows–remain the same.

In the air-limo role, Adam cites its advantage in cabin volume (240 cu ft) and its nose baggage compartment (30 cu ft). At its projected selling price of $2.1 million, the A700 is expected to cruise at 340 knots and have a range of 1,100 nm. Adam projects the direct operating costs to be $386 per hour.

The company is also offering its A700 step-up program, designed as a low-cost method of transitioning to a jet with assurances of qualifying for insurance. The customer places concurrent orders for an A500 and an A700, meets the minimum experience requirements (private certificate, instrument and multi-engine ratings; 1,000 hours total time, 500 hours multi and 200 hours in the A500) before delivery of the A700. Adam then guarantees the customer will qualify for insurance or it will return the deposit on the A700. The company has developed a detailed pilot-training curriculum to be completed before delivery of either an A500 or A700.

Epic/Tam-Air Jet

Among the aircraft unveiled at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh was the Epic Jet, a seven-seat carbon-fiber VLJ with an expected maximum cruise speed of 420 knots, 1,400-nm range (1,650 nm at economy cruise speed of 389 knots) and a max payload of 1,642 pounds with full fuel. The Epic’s U.S. marketing arm, Aviation Investor Resources (AIR), is partnering with Tbilisi Aviation Machine (TAM) of the Republic of Georgia to form Tam-Air, which will market the jet in Europe and Asia as the Tam-Air Jet, and in the Western Hemisphere as the Epic Jet. Power comes from a pair of Williams FJ33As.

AIR president and CEO Rick Schrameck said at AirVenture that he hopes to fly the prototype Epic Jet to the NBAA Convention in New Orleans in November. He also hopes to have an aircraft at the Dubai airshow, also in November. He said two customers had committed to purchaseEpic Jets before the mockup was unveiled at Oshkosh.

A King Air with More Juice

Amid all the talk about VLJs, Raytheon Aircraft released plans to upgrade its tried-and-true King Air 90 with Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-135 engines. Referring to the newly designated King Air C90GT as the “anti-VLJ,” Beechcraft president Randy Groom told AIN, “This is the first time we’ve undertaken a powerplant change on a current model. The -135 engines will be derated to 550 shaft horsepower from 750, but they’ll be able to maintain that rating at a much higher altitude. Time-to-climb is also expected to be much improved.”

The result is projected to be an increase in cruise speed to 270 knots from about 240 knots for the C90B with its PT6A-21s. Groom hopes the speed difference will be enough to sway some VLJ buyers in favor of the King Air, which is expected to sell for $2.95 million, up from $2.75 million for the C90B. Pending FAA certification, deliveries are expected to begin in December, and production is sold out for the first 12 months.

Raytheon also hopes to take a nibble out of the single-engine turboprop market with the new model, citing comparable acquisition costs and lower insurance rates. Groom said, “We feel that for a serious business airplane, you need two engines,” adding that King Air operators find that their operating costs are typically not double those for singles.

Groom said the key words in Raytheon Aircraft’s strategy are: comfort (with a cabin 30-percent larger than that of the largest VLJ and offering a private lavatory); practicality (moving up to a VLJ could be “problematic” for a piston-aircraft owner-operator, and 70 to 80 percent of King Air C90s are owner-flown); and insurance (Beech has a logical progression within its line from Bonanza, to Baron and then up to the C90GT, and the insurance companies take notice of the product commonality).

Groom concluded by saying, “The King Air is not ‘very light.’ It’s rugged and tough, sort of like a luxury SUV. We believe that, with the added speed, we can attract market share.”

There was other news at Oshkosh regarding airplanes that burn jet-A:

• Socata announced its TBM 700 program is advancing at a pleasing clip. The company delivered 35 TBMs last year and had a backlog of 23 at year-end, an improvement over the previous year’s deliveries. The next two years, 2006 and 2007, look even better, according to company CEO Stephane Mayer. Socata announced the appointment of Elliott Aviation as the regional sales agent for the upper Midwest region, including Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Socata is looking for a distributor in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, training partner SimCom is now offering TBM training in Scottsdale, Ariz., as well as Orlando, Fla.

• Innodyn, based in Osceola Mills, Pa., was at AirVenture on the front line of the homebuilt area with its light turbine engine. Mounted on a Piper Super Cub look-alike airframe, the engine attracted a swarm of EAA innovators, tempted by turbine power in the lower ranges. Innodyn is taking orders for four models–for experimental use only–including the 165-shp 165TE ($26,500), the 185-shp 185TE ($28,000), the 205-shp 205TE ($29,500) and the 255-shp 255TE ($34,500). Company pilot Jon Molek told AIN a certification program is in the works.

• Quest Aircraft of Sandpoint, Idaho, brought its $1.11 million Kodiak (S/N 1) to Oshkosh for its AirVenture debut. The massive PT6A-34-powered turboprop single is designed for wheels or floats and is aimed at the de Havilland Beaver/Otter market, rather than Cessna Caravan buyers, despite its appearance. It is designed to be able to lift off at mtow after a ground run of 700 feet. With two-and-a-half hours of fuel and one pilot, it can carry three times as much as a Cessna 206, or about 400 pounds less than a Caravan.

Turbine Cirrus Is a Definite Maybe

Cirrus Design president Alan Klapmeier began his press briefing telling reporters about the most recent deployment of the Cirrus’s ballistic parachute–an incident he feels strongly vindicates his commitment to the whole-airplane recovery system. It involved a pilot who blacked out because of an undetected (but benign) brain tumor.

The pilot pulled the chute handle after he regained semi-consciousness in a steep dive over the Hudson River, near West Point. He survived and would have been at AirVenture had he not been scheduled for surgery to remove the tumor. Klapmeier said, “We’ve been told by skeptics that the chute is unnecessary because pilots should be trained better; we should build the airplanes better; and they should be maintained better.” But this time, Klapmeier said, there was no argument that the parachute saved a life that would otherwise have been lost due to fate.

The stunning success of Cirrus Design has led to much speculation about the company’s expanding to include a turbine product. Klapmeier told AIN at AirVenture that a range of airplanes has always been the plan. “We’re definitely looking at new aircraft for the future. Pistons, diesels and turbines are all in the picture. Any new aircraft will definitely be larger, but still designed as personal transport.”

Asked if it would be a single or a twin, Klapmeier said it would probably be a single. “The number of engines has more to do with economy than safety–unless the second engine is there to power an MRI to check the pilot for brain tumors as part of the preflight,” he said, tongue in cheek.

Small-turbine-engine builder Dr. Sam Williams has stipulated that he would not allow his engines to be used on a single-engine production airplane that did not have a ballistic parachute installed. Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS), the company that designed and manufactures the Cirrus system, recently completed the initial phase of a research program to design a parachute that would be suitable for light jets.

A BRS official told AIN that the company would pursue further research should an OEM demonstrate interest. Asked about that possibility, Klapmeier told AIN, “An OEM has demonstrated interest.”

When Paul Poberezny founded the organization in his basement in Hales Corners, Wis., in 1952 he was looking for a way to unite a few kindred spirits–those who loved to fly and had the innovative spirit to design and build their own machines.

In the intervening half century, EAA has expanded to include kit manufacturers and builders, restorers of antiques and those dedicated to keeping alive historical military aircraft flying.

In addition, anyone and everyone who supports sport aviation with products, services and, yes, a few frivolous accessories has joined the party. The result is an industry unto itself–one that has supported and inspired innovation far beyond the garages of its first participants.

If you haven’t gone to Oshkosh, you should. If you have gone, tell someone you know who should.