S-Tec putting final touches on new digital autopilot line

 - November 1, 2006, 9:20 AM

If company marketing executives have their way, expect a flurry of announcements from autopilot maker Meggitt/S-Tec in the coming months. Representatives from the Mineral Wells, Texas company’s engineering, marketing and production departments met last month to put the final touches on plans for a new line of digital automatic flight control systems targeted at the lower echelons of business aviation. Assuming senior executives give the products the green light, a launch could come by mid-summer, according to company spokespeople.

Flight testing of the autopilot hardware is planned to start by the end of the year, with TSO certification and initial STCs to follow early next year. Speaking last month from the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Sun ’n’ Fun fly-in in Lakeland, Fla., company engineering vice president Terry Flaishans said the avionics and autopilot maker has been holding discussions with airframe OEMs about upcoming STC flight testing and is preparing for proof-of-concept testing in Mineral Wells.

“We have laid out the form factor, and the complete conceptual design will be finished in the next few months,” Flaishans said. Proof-of-concept hardware will undergo a series of shakedown flights in a Meggitt/S-Tec-owned Cessna 182 toward the end of the year, he added, saying the company is holding talks with two OEMs now about the autopilot. “If we can’t come to an agreement with either we may find our own airplane to do the STC, but most likely we’ll be involved with an OEM,” he said.

The new-generation digital autopilots from Meggitt/S-Tec will be VNAV-capable, giving them the features of full business jet automatic flight control systems but at lower prices, according to Flaishans. The autopilots will integrate with a number of manufacturers’ panel-mount multifunction displays for control input as an alternative to using a traditional display controller, he said, and take their guidance cues from GPS WAAS receivers.

Avio Avionics for Eclipse

The new autopilot line from Meggitt/S-Tec began life as the design concept that convinced Eclipse Aviation founder Vern Raburn to select the system for his company’s in-development Eclipse 500 very light jet. According to both companies, the integrated three-axis guidance system for the airplane is based on “modern technology” incorporating “smart brushless motor servos” for better reliability, increased functionality and lower weight.

The Eclipse autopilot originally was expected to receive its TSO by the middle of this year, but that target date appears to have slipped somewhat. Eclipse recently announced a series of manufacturing milestones that the company claims marks its continued progress toward certification next March.

The test aircraft fleet, which consists of seven Eclipse 500s, is nearing completion, according to a company statement. Five test aircraft are now in final assembly positions and Eclipse has completed all the vertical fins and horizontal stabilizers for the flight test fleet, including instrumentation and strain gauges, the company said.

The upper and lower cabin assemblies for the test aircraft, N505EA and N506EA, were recently joined, while aircraft N502EA and N504EA are receiving their Avio cockpits. These test aircraft will join N503EA, which entered flight testing on December 31 after a hiatus following an engine supplier change from Williams International to Pratt & Whitney Canada. Eclipse will use five aircraft for flight testing and two for static and fatigue testing.

News that Meggitt/S-Tec plans to revamp its autopilot lines comes after the successful rollout three years ago of the Magic 2100 digital autopilot, a three-axis, attitude-based flight control system that S-Tec claims brings jet functionality to the turboprop market. The package sold by Meggitt/S-Tec and certified in a number of turboprop twins comes with the autopilot, four servos controlling pitch, yaw, roll and trim; an Arinc 429-compatible air data/attitude heading reference system (ADAHRS); and all harnesses and switches.

The Magic 2100 system incorporates cockpit voice annunciation, altitude pre-selector, IAS hold function and GPS roll steering, as well as flight director and yaw damper as a standard part of the package.

When Meggitt/S-Tec introduced the Magic 2100 autopilot in 2002, the company said a second autopilot, to be called the Magic 2500, would follow shortly. That plan apparently never got off the ground, however.

Late last year a new management team took over at the company, which is now led by Michael McMillan, a 30-year industry veteran who has held senior executive positions with Raytheon and Piaggio America. McMillan took the helm at Meggitt/S-Tec in December and is driving the current product-line overhaul, Flaishans said.