AirVenture: Big Numbers In The Spreadsheet

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For this week’s AirVenture coverage, we’ve been running daily AirVenture look backs reprising what we reported on in previous shows. When I was writing the 20-year installment—1998—I was struck by how many products and ideas were floated at AirVenture that just never potentiated. I left out a few because it was getting depressing and I don’t want readers reaching for the Seconal and bourbon on the first day. Look, we need all the clicks we can get, uninterupted for stomach pumping.

This is why reporting on shows like AirVenture is a conundrum for journalists. Off camera or off the record, we often say one thing but report another under the guise of fair journalism untainted by opinion, or at least too much opinion. After the show, I’m often asked what I really think of something I saw here and lately, I try to say what I think in this blog space so my public opinion is the same as my private view.

I’m sure I’ll be asked about the Opener BlackFly, which got lots of airtime and ink in the daily press recently, deservedly so. (Here’s  AVweb’s video on it.) In short, this is a flight-stabilized multi-rotor capable of carrying a single pilot. Flight stabilized means it flies similarly to small multi-rotor drones, although the Opener people discourage the comparison. I’m not sure why. Drone auto flight has revolutionized remote piloting and it will eventually revolutionize or certainly fundamentally impact manned flight for small vehicles first and, eventually, for everything. Opener and other companies should stop running away from that.

I said in a previous blog that I think the BlackFly is a terrific idea and I’m betting the concept itself has legs, whether Opener’s version fails to gain a market or not. The BlackFly will be pitched as an ultralight and although it faces some regulatory hurdles related to ultralight limitations, I think these can be overcome, allowing Opener—or whoever pursues this technology—to open up a new world of flight requiring less skill and training than what we’re doing now.

Opener brought a VR-based simulator of their aircraft to Oshkosh and although the waiting line was too long for me to fly it, I watched a few people give it a go. Just as I thought it would be, it appears easy to master, with a single stick for pitch and lateral translation and a button for throttle control. Because it’s auto-stabilized, releasing the control causes it to enter a stable hover, just like a remotely flown multi-rotor drone does.

Opener was cagey about the details of the BlackFly. They wouldn’t let us look inside the vehicle, wouldn’t answer detailed technical questions and when we asked about price, Opener’s Marcus Leng told me “the same as an SUV.” Ok. What SUV? He wouldn’t say, which leads me to believe Opener hasn’t figured out price yet. Fair enough. It’s early in their game and they have a long developmental road ahead before selling these things. But when I asked Leng to conceptually frame for me the cost/value relationship, what he said stunned me. “We don’t have to worry about that. We have a ridiculous amount of interest in this,” he said.

In one woozy swoop, I was back to 1998 pondering all those can’t-fail projects that did. Stipulating that you have to be slightly daft to be in the aviation business in the first place, it’s still dispiriting to hear people who hope to make a go of a good product commit the same overreaches that everyone else has. Over optimism about potential high volume is a weird sort of pathology in general aviation and hype aside, businesses that plug the big numbers into their spreadsheets are almost certain to fail, and not just in aviation.

Aviation startups invariably underestimate the difficulty of modest serial production, never mind high-volume manufacturing or the complexities of dealing with production type certificates. Future aviation manufacturers—and Opener may become one of those—will have it a little easier on the regulatory side because the FAA has sustained a genuine trend toward simpler certification and the light sport industry—such as it is—has enjoyed less onerous manufacturing oversight.

All good. But the production economics remain relentless and unforgiving. Just ask Icon or Eclipse. More than one aviation company has stumbled on that daunting step between a fat order book and a profitable, sustainable business. A good idea and a good product is fundamental, but it’s actually a minor piece of a puzzle with a million pieces.

Cool New Instruments

One must-do visit at AirVenture is the Innovation Center. This year it’s chock-a-block with interesting stuff, including some cool new multi-purpose EFIS instruments from a startup called AeroVonics. These are approvable under the FAA’s NORSEE protocol and demonstrate once again that the FAA has found religion in allowing inexpensive, capable safety equipment into the cockpit without strangling it with a paper trail. Here's a video.

AeroVonics’ instruments also represent a milestone in another trend: highly capable instrumentation driven by the high-volume automotive and cellphone market for small, inexpensive electronic gyros and accelerometers. And the operative word is inexpensive. The AV-20 AeroVonics was showing fits in a 2-inch instrument hole and for $800, it’s a combination EFIS, AoA indicator, electrical system monitor and basic flight computer. AeroVonics has another larger version that’s capable of displaying not just the familiar blue-over-brown electronic AI, but also a conventional AI or an HSI display. The display’s resolution is simply gorgeous. Somehow, I found that old-school depiction of a conventional AI a refreshing change from the dreary sameness glass panels all seem to share.