Aero Blog: Daher On A Roll And Are Electrics Real?

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By about the fifth day of the big U.S. air/trade shows—AirVenture and Sun ‘n Fun—a certain hollow-eyed exhaustion sets in. Vendors at the show can be heard to wonder if the thing will ever end and for us pixel-addled wretches covering the spectacle, we feel as run down as the batteries in our cameras and recorders. I’d have tried for a dried-up ink metaphor, but we don’t use pens anymore.

At Aero, it’s the reverse. It’s a four-day show—Wednesday to Saturday. This creates an odd kind of catch-up for both vendors and multi-day attendees. If you haven’t seen it all by Saturday mid-morning, you’d better get busy because at 3:45 p.m., the 15-minute warning sounds.

I didn’t see or do it all either and I went wall to wall for all four days. When I was shooting a video round-up on electric airplanes, I kept running into stuff I hadn’t seen. It will have to wait until next year because I’m pretty sure none of this stuff is gonna show at AirVenture or Sun ‘n Fun. If the mark of success for a show is to leave them wanting more, Aero is a smash hit.

The TBM March

Although they announced it at Sun ‘n Fun, Daher waited until Aero to show off the new TBM 940. Daher’s U.K. sales rep, David Fabry, kindly gave me a tour. Well, sure, I’m impressed with the airplane, the autothrottles, the new interior and the ice detection system. Who wouldn’t be?

But I’m more impressed with the clip Daher maintains in incremental introduction of new products, which I’ve always thought is the secret to business success in any field, but especially aviation. Too bad it’s not so easy as that. A clean-sheet Part 23 airplane costs multiple millions to develop and certify and no matter how slick and sophisticated it is, even us nimrods in the press can pull up the GAMA figures and predict how many units an airplane of a particular ilk might sell.

If you do the back-of-napkin math on a $25 million cert project—and that’s probably cheap—you’ll have to sell the hell out of it to return the investment, much less eke out profits. That’s why you see so few entirely new airframe introductions. And it’s also why Piper’s idea to essentially market on price with the new Pilot 100 trainer may seem uninspired. But if it meets demand and makes a few bucks, I’d take that over soaring eye candy that fails disastrously in the market and rattles the entire industry.

Mooney dodged that bullet when it shelved the M10 trainer project. It was a great idea, a good-looking airplane and was truly a fresh design. But it was never going to carve a market that didn’t already exist and would have simply competed with Piper and Cessna in the already cutthroat trainer business. Mooney’s smart decision wasn’t proposing the airplane in the first place, but killing it after the fact. That’s the airplane biz for ya.

By the way, people sometimes ask me what airplane I’d buy if money were no object. I believe they do this out of conversational curiosity for given my chosen profession, I clearly have questionable judgment at the least and a warped value system at worst. But good judgment and good taste aren’t the same thing. If you must know, I’d buy a TBM. It’s a thrill how that big-ass prop drags that thing through the air.

Are Electrics Finally Real?

Real compared to what? To a busy flight school relying on Skyhawks or Cherokees to train students eight to 10 hours a day? No. We haven’t turned that corner yet and even though Pipistrel will announce the second generation of its Alpha Electro and Bye Aerospace announced a 60-airplane order from a Norwegian flight training group, I’m not willing to step off the train in Valhalla, if I may coin a cheap Norse metaphor while simultaneously mixing transportation modes.

I have coming a video roundup of some of the electric airplanes on display at Aero and another video on the Bye Aerospace eFlyer. So what’s the problem? It’s not the certification basis. The revised CS23 and ASTM consensus standards are in place to certify these airplanes. The electric motors are there, the batteries are getting there—maybe.

What I want to see is actual flight and economic data from the schools proposing to use these airplanes in real training. For me personally, gauzy green intentions are laudable, but I want to see them working in the real world. Pipistrel got out there early with commercial sales of electric airplanes, but even it admits the 50 it has sold are mostly technology demonstrators.

Battery energy density is still iffy, in my view. I polled some of the experts on this at Aero by asking what they’re using for typical what-if scenarios. These ranged from 150 Wh/kg to a little under 200. George Bye told me the batteries in the eFlyer are about 250 Wh/kg effective, not cell level.

You can see why I’m noncommittal.

Is Unleaded Fuel Real?

Real compared to what? As in about to emerge fully market ready, heralding the bright, shiny environmental Valhalla (sorry) of the future. No.

I had a real Rolaids moment at the Aero fuels briefing when Lycoming’s Mike Kraft and Tim Shea of Shell conceded that regulatory forces are no longer driving the replacement of TEL in avgas. That’s because the current administration’s environmental policies are unlikely to encourage EPA to issue a finding of endangerment. No endangerment, no regulatory pressure.

Just to jolly things along here without pissing off either tribe too much, let’s assume the current administration remains in play until 2025. Let’s further pretend that a new president makes lead a hot campaign issue. It could easily be 2026 or even 2027 before this imaginary president gets anything done.

Meanwhile, the companies investing in this new fuel will … well, hell, I don’t know what they’ll do. That’s a long time to defer return on an investment. Kraft said the industry will have to sell pilots and owners on the benefits of unleaded fuel, but I’m not sure enough of them will resonate with that to justify refiners making the leap. And if they don’t do that somewhat in unison, the specter of a balkanized piston aviation fuel market becomes more than just a talking point.

I’m sure there are other industries who have suffered through such a comic opera. I just can’t think of any.