New Turboprops

 - October 1, 2008, 7:19 AM

Nothing re-ignites interest in new turboprops faster than a good old-fashioned “fuel crisis.”

While no one thinks that the market will top the peak year for business and utility turboprops–1981, when 800 were sold–we are also far away from the 1996 trough of 100 aircraft. For the first six months of this year, turboprop deliveries were up 19.4 percent compared with the same period one year ago, according to the tracking report of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA). This push also has affected the prices of used turboprops, up 15 to 20 percent since 2004, according to aircraft valuation company Vref. Some individual models, such as the King Air B200, did significantly better, gaining 44 percent in value between 2004 and the first quarter of this year. And while the overall used aircraft market has slipped recently, used turboprops are down the least of any segment this year, declining only 1.2 percent, according to Vref.Turboprop manufacturers are building the airplanes as fast as they can. New production of single-engine turboprops at Pilatus and Socata is basically sold out for the next three years; both companies are operating at a fixed capacity, with no plans to expand it. Due to EADS Socata’s trickle rate of TBM production–450 over the last 18 years–the airplane has enjoyed steady demand and dealers generally sell the airplanes before they even arrive on their ramps. Socata stepped up TBM 850 production to 52 last year.This “capped production” strategy leaves dealers and customers clamoring while adroitly preserving resale value, and the makers of twin turboprops are using the same plan. Hawker Beechcraft delivered 79 King Airs during the first half of the year, and not even the recently concluded five-week strike by company machinists should put much of a dent in deliveries or demand. The company is looking at significantly boosting King Air production next year. Overall among all manufacturers, new deliveries could easily top 500 this year.Upgrades of classic modelsEven as fuel prices retreat from their summer highs, no one thinks that jet-A will dip much below $5 a gallon, a fact that has left turboprop manufacturers unabashedly enthusiastic. So much so that existing models have been refreshed with uprated engines, improved glass-panel avionics and new interiors, even though their production numbers are low compared with those of business jets. Over the last two years, Hawker Beechcraft, Piaggio, Pilatus and Socata have all introduced “refreshed” models.Piaggio introduced a new interior on the Avanti II pusher twin earlier this year. It gives the cabin a smoother and more modern appearance. There is more room for storage and all the pieces go together more quickly. Cabin lighting was also updated. All upwash, downwash and aisle lighting has been modernized with LED. The PSUs are integrated for a cleaner look. A new acoustic insulation package reduces cabin noise. The lavatory cabinets and lavatory packet door were redesigned to provide more storage and better clearances. Piaggio also updated the in-flight entertainment options, which include the Rosen combination CD, DVD, moving map and MP3 unit. None of this refreshing comes cheap, but buyers do not seem to mind. New single- engine TBM 850s and Pilatus PC-12s fetch $2.9 million and $4.2 million, respectively, while new twins such as the King Air 350 and Piaggio Avanti are more than $6 million each, butting up against, and in some cases exceeding, the prices of new light jets. Increased demand has not created a mad rush to develop a truly new “clean sheet of paper” business/utility turboprop, although a handful are in development.


Vulcanair A-Viator
The one turboprop certified since last year’s new turboprops report was the Vulcanair A-Viator. The Italian company bought the type certificate for the Partenavia AP68-TP600 Viator in the 1980s and now has put an updated version of it back into limited production. The first $1.9 million A-Viator twin-engine turboprop was delivered this summer, one of only three Vulcanair plans to produce this year. The aircraft has been updated with Rolls-Royce 250-B17C engines and glass cockpit displays. The cabin can be configured for commuter, cargo, combi, medevac and parachute jumping operations.

In Flight Test

Comp Air Model 12
Merritt Island, Fla.-base Comp Air is developing an all-composite, pressurized single-engine turboprop, the Model 12. CEO Ron Lueck estimates that it will cost $150 million to get the airplane certified. Lueck has been designing homebuilt/kit aircraft since the 1980s, but the Model 12 will require a separate corporate structure and production facility to meet FAA standards.

Lueck said that the company would build a new facility in Melbourne, Fla., that Comp Air already has secured all the necessary funds for the aircraft’s development and serial production ramp-up, and that the company is taking refundable $100,000 customer deposits on the $2.95 million airplane. It had about two dozen deposits in hand at the end of August and plans to make the move to Melbourne by January 1.

Rather than significantly expanding his small company during the Model 12’s design and certification phases, Lueck has hired two outside engineering firms as well as Auburn University’s aeronautical engineering department to handle those chores under the leadership of Dr. Gil Crouse Jr. Crouse is an associate professor of aerospace engineering at Auburn and the founder of DaVinci Technologies, the developer of AirplanePDQ aircraft design software.

The cooperative program with Auburn will bring as many as 60 aeronautical and mechanical engineers from the university onto the Model 12 project. “Most are masters students and some are Ph.D. candidates,” said Lueck. “These guys are right on the cutting edge of everything.”

A preliminary prototype of the Model 12 first flew last year and Comp Air has accumulated approximately 200 hours on it; however, the production model will undergo significant changes, including a 42-inch fuselage stretch and a four-inches-larger fuselage diameter. The latter will provide a six-foot stand-up cabin. Plans are to offer three basic cabin layouts aft of the cockpit: a luxury executive configuration with six seats, a double-club layout with eight seats and a high-density design with 10 forward-facing seats. The cruciform tail on the prototype will be dropped in favor of a conventional design. The main door might also be enlarged, but not on the order of the massive cargo door on the Pilatus PC-12.

Power will come from a 9,000-hour TBO, 1,650-shp Honeywell TPE331-14GR. Honeywell will also provide its Apex avionics suite and the pressurization system for the aircraft. Comp Air and Honeywell are expected to sign an agreement on the avionics at this year’s NBAA Convention.

Comp Air is planning to fly the larger Model 12 by next July and hopes to have the aircraft at next year’s EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis.

The eventual market for the Model 12 is 50 to 100 airplanes annually, according to Lueck, who bases his estimate on the fact that Pilatus’s production cap on the PC-12 limits the Swiss company to building about 100 airplanes per year. “They sell all the PC-12s they can make and we want the overrun,” he said. “We will cost $1 million less and be faster and more fuel efficient.” He said the Honeywell engine in the larger Model 12 will be 18 percent more efficient than a comparable Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6.

Lueck predicts that the Model 12 will be certified by the end of 2010 and said he needs to sell only 50 per year for the program to turn a profit. But he thinks the market for the airplane is even larger. That is why the company will set up the Melbourne production line to handle up to 100 airplanes per year.

He believes that “most of the market is overseas.” He explained, “There’s lots of pent-up demand from people who couldn’t own airplanes before in places like China, India and Russia.”

Epic Dynasty

Bend, Ore.-based Epic Aircraft is also looking to foreign markets, although initially more as a source of capital as it continues to pursue certification of its $1.2 million single-engine owner-built kitplane, the LT, re-badged in certified form as the $1.95 million Dynasty. Epic CEO Rick Schrameck said the company had orders for fewer than 100 copies of the Dynasty as of last month.

The kit-to-certified airplane strategy has ensnared other OEMs in the past, but Epic plans to continue building the LT in Bend while pursuing certification, and eventual serial production, of the Dynasty in Canada. Just how far the Dynasty has proceeded down the certification path is the topic of some conjecture. At last year’s NBAA Convention Epic announced a $200 million financing deal with Indian billionaire Dr. Vijay Mallya, CEO of Kingfisher Airlines. Kingfisher has ordered a number of Airbuses from EADS and was believed to be using those transactions to attempt to leverage technical and other assistance from EADS to Epic. While Schrameck insists that deal is not dead, the check is not in the mail, either, and Epic’s goal of certifying the Dynasty by the end of next year might be overly optimistic as a result.

Mallya’s investment was apparently contingent upon the appeasement of EADS’s Socata unit, whose TBM 850 is seen as a direct competitor to the Dynasty. However, EADS has rather publicly hung a “for sale” sign on Socata as it refocuses its core businesses and is likely in no rush to diminish the market value of its subsidiary by providing technical assistance to any company viewed as a competitor.

Meanwhile Epic has delivered 22 kitbuilt LTs and claims 50 more are on order. Critics within the amateur-built aircraft industry assert that Epic’s LT “production line,” where owners construct their portion of the airplane, violates the spirit–if not the letter–of the FAA regulation that requires that the individual owner build at least 51 percent of the aircraft. At this year’s EAA AirVenture, acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell promised an agency crackdown on companies skirting the “51-percent Rule.”

“It has come to our attention that some companies are not following the letter of the law,” Sturgell said. “We cannot allow that.”

Sturgell declined to mention any companies by name. However, the FAA’s ongoing difficulty in enforcing the 51-percent requirement has prompted the agency to propose changing the rules for amateur-built aircraft to require that at least 20 percent be “fabricated” by the owner-builder. How this would affect Epic is unclear, as the actual rule is still being drafted.

The company did not exhibit at AirVenture, but Schrameck cautioned against reading too much into Epic’s absence, pointing out that Epic planned a major announcement regarding the Dynasty program at this year’s NBAA Convention. “The funding may be from a different source [from other than Mallya],” Schrameck said. Through June an “aerodynamically conforming” Dynasty had been used in flight test and was being modified with longer-range fuel tanks and de-icing boots.

However, Epic’s absence at the largest gathering of its core customer market fueled speculation that the company was in distress and perhaps prompted it to issue a press release in August announcing “Business Is Booming.” The release said little about the progress of the Dynasty’s certification program.

Schrameck said that “within the next six months” Epic would unveil a “vision of the next ten years of turboprops.” He also said the company is taking a “hard look” at the new Rolls-Royce RR500 turboprop engine, but declined to say whether Epic was developing a new aircraft that would use the engine. The 350- to 450-shp RR500 is based on the smaller turboshaft RR300 core, with a higher mass flow compressor and matching turbine.

Epic Escape
Schrameck said that Epic is currently building six copies of a 92-percent scale version of the LT called the Escape. For now, it will also be an amateur-built aircraft. Epic calls the 365-knot Escape a “turboprop VLJ.”

If the Escape looks curiously similar to Farnborough Aircraft’s 352-knot F1 Kestrel, there’s a good reason for it: Epic’s parent company built the prototype. The entire arrangement ended in messy litigation. Farnborough eventually gained possession of its prototype and has now flown it several hundred hours.

The company has now partnered with the Gulf Aircraft Maintenance Company (Gamco) to build the aircraft at Gamco’s Abu Dhabi facilities, and it will be marketed by the two companies’ joint venture, the Gulf Aircraft Partnership. However, the prototype will have to be substantially redesigned, according Farnborough’s commercial director, Richard Blain. The company is aiming for customer deliveries in 2010.

In Development

Viking Twin Otter 400
A less risky and less expensive alternative to building a clean-sheet design is to purchase the moribund type certificate of an out-of-production aircraft that remains market-relevant. One company to choose that route is Viking, with its Twin Otter.

The Twin Otter was a staple of regional airlines during the 1960s and more than 800 were built between 1965 and 1988. An estimated 600 remain in service. British Columbia-based Viking Air acquired the type certificate and production rights to the de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter from Bombardier in 2006 and could start deliveries by next year. Viking already owns the TCs for seven other de Havilland Canada aircraft, including the DHC-3 Otter and the four-engine DHC-7 Dash 7.

To date, the company has received orders from a diverse list of global customers for 40 copies of the $3.9 million “Viking 400,” according to Rob Mauracher, Viking vice president of business development. Power on the 400 will come from a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-34s. Honeywell Apex avionics will be standard. Four-blade propellers, wing de-ice, floats and amphibious landing gear will be offered as aftermarket options, as will a variety of interiors that will add anywhere from $150,000 to $500,000 to the price. These include “plush” executive and VIP configurations with club seating, an “RV-style” interior, and commuter seating, said Mauracher. He also sees a role for the airplane as a search-and-rescue, maritime patrol, para-drop and reconnaissance platform.

“The aircraft is so special and versatile that you can equip it to do pretty much anything you want to do,” Mauracher said.

Development on the 400 is proceeding well, according to Mauracher, who said that ground-testing with “power on” should have occurred by the end of last month. Viking has no plans to alter the 400’s original certification or flight envelope, but Mauracher said that there could be “cut-ins” later. Viking plans a gradual production ramp-up, with five aircraft to be delivered next year, 12 in 2010 and 18
annually thereafter.

Gippsland Nomad
Australia’s unpressurized twin-turboprop workhorse, the Nomad, is set for resurrection soon, although specific details remain sketchy. The Nomad carries 12 to 13 passengers in commuter configuration, has a range of 600 nm and cruises at 168 knots.

On June 16, Australia’s Gippsland Aeronautics acquired the type certificate for the Nomad from Boeing Australia and plans to launch an updated version of the aircraft. The sale included technical and spares sales support.

Australia’s Government Aircraft Factories, later renamed Aerospace Technologies of Australia (ASTA), designed the Rolls-Royce 250-powered Nomad in 1965. The first prototype flew in 1971 and production ended in 1984. Fifty-four Nomads remain in service. Boeing acquired the Nomad’s TC in 1996 when it purchased Rockwell’s aviation assets, including ASTA.

Gippsland currently employs 120 in Morwell, Victoria, and manufactures piston-powered utility aircraft, including the GA-8 Airvan and the GA-200 light agricultural aircraft. The company builds Airvans at a rate of two per month and more than 130 are in service.

A research study commissioned for Gippsland concluded that there is likely limited though sturdy demand for 200 Nomads over the next 10 years. Gippsland already claims to have letters of intent in hand for the Nomad from two Australian operators–Curry-Kenny Aviation and Airfreight Solutions.

Sidelined Projects

There are various other new turboprop programs in differing states of inertia or arrested development.

Evektor’s EV-55 Outback seems to be hung up by funding issues. The high-wing twin is slated to be built in the Czech Republic, but the first prototype is not flying.
German company Extra, which had slid into bankruptcy, has emerged with new ownership and is pushing its $1.345 million, 225-knot EA-500 turboprop single, but only in Europe. While EASA VFR certification was granted in 2004, to date Extra has produced only two prototypes.

Grob’s G160 Ranger single was a short-lived priority, displaced by the SPn utility jet program. With the company’s recent insolvency, the question mark for the Ranger remains.

The single-engine Ibis Ae270B also appears to be fading, even though the aircraft received FAA certification in 2006. Since then, little has happened with the project. Ibis is a joint venture between Aero Vodochody and Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AIDC). About the time the Ibis was certified, its parent companies were facing financial difficulties and work on the project was effectively halted.

India’s National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) is well into its second decade developing the Saras, a turboprop twin pusher designed with input from Russia’s Myasishchev, which later pulled out of the project. The first prototype flew in 2004, the second flew last year and a third is scheduled to join the test fleet next year. However, the program’s $30 million development budget and tortuous timetable suggest that the Saras is little more than an expensive aerodynamics research project.

Another solution to buying a new “classic” turboprop is having an existing one remanufactured. Various companies have tried this over the years and several MRO shops will still essentially remanufacture a Cheyenne, Commander, Conquest or King Air to order.

Tulsa-based Intercontinental Jet Service, a Mitsubishi subsidiary, is offering remanufactured MU-2s for between $1.1 and $1.2 million. The MU-2 LTD package includes pilot training; updated engines with warranty; overhauled propellers; new paint and interior; and new cockpit avionics, including Garmin radios, TCAS and Sagem glass-panel displays.

While it is unlikely that new turboprop sales will return to the heady days of the late 1970s, the airplanes’ popularity is increasing. “Would we ever sell 1,000 of our airplanes a year?” asks Comp Air’s Ron Lueck. “No. But 200? Maybe.”