13 April 2008

The price of Avgas - What to do?

The price of Avgas - What to do?

The data definitely shows that more Canadians now own private aircraft than ever before. At the end of March 2008 there were 25,244 private aircraft registered in Canada. During 2007 there were 659 private aircraft added to the Canadian fleet.

So more people are flying more airplanes, right? Maybe.

The numbers on "hours being flown" are harder to come by, as Transport Canada don't publish what they get from the AAIR reports. One thing that we do suspect from talking to fuel dealers is that over the last few years they area't pumping as much Avgas as they used to.

So what is going on? More aircraft being purchased, built and imported but flying fewer hours?

It is possible, because of two facts.

First, right now aircraft are quite cheap. The plummeting US dollar since 2004 has made most used aircraft very cheap in the past three or four years. If you are building your own aircraft then the plunging US dollar has made aircraft building supplies and US kits cheap. Aluminium, engines, fabric, instruments are all far cheaper than they were in 2000.

Second, gas is expensive and it is going up. Everyone watches the price of car gas and in the last year it has gone from a national average of 92 cents to $1.19 this past week, which is a 30% increase. BMO Nesbitt Burns analyst Randy Ollenberger is predicting pump prices of $1.50 within a few months and that it won't come back down, due to high demand around the world.

Avgas hasn't gone up in price as quickly in the last year, but some northern locations are already selling at over $2.00 per litre and prices getting near $1.75 aren't uncommon in southern Canada this spring. Given the normal price differences between car gas and aviation fuel Avgas will likely end up close to $2.00 per litre across most of southern Canada this summer.

So "airplanes cheap, gas expensive" adds up to more people owning more airplanes and flying them less. It isn't a good trend, but with strong and increasing global demand for oil, while world oil production is flat or even declining, what is the future for personal flying?

At least one company thinks it is electric aircraft. They have taken the concept beyond the experimental stage and are selling production electric aircraft today.

In fact Electric Aircraft Corporation has been selling their ElectraFlyer since last year. It is a single seat US FAR 103 legal weight-shift trike, with a Northwing Stratus hang glider-style wing. It is powered by an 18 hp electric motor that weighs just 26 lbs. Instead of filling up the gas tank you recharge the 5.6 kWh Lithium Ion battery pack. The battery weighs 78 lbs. A charge should take about four hours and would cost under 50 cents at the 8 cents per kWh we pay here. That charge will give you a take-off and a flight of 1.5 hours at an average of 5 hp used. It is able to fly on this low horsepower because of light weight and a big wing area with relatively low drag. The trike weighs 247 lbs and can be purchased complete today for USD$16,885.00 ready to fly.

There is more, though. Not only can you fly for pennies an hour, but there is no gas to buy, no oil to buy and the electric motor is maintenance-free. The aircraft is also quiet. With a geared prop that turns slowly it is so quiet that you don't need hearing protection. Your neighbours will love this aircraft, because they won't know it is there. No more calling ahead for gas either - if your destination has AC power then you can get a "fill".

The company says that it is "The closest thing to a magic carpet ride ever attained." They may be right.

Okay I can hear the grumbling already, "Sure, great if you want to fly some open air ultralight at 25 mph, but am I going to be able to run my SR-22 on a battery?"

Let's see: A 310 horsepower Cirrus is 231 kW. Assuming 15 minutes at full power and four hours at 75% power cruise, you would need a battery pack with a capacity of 750 kWh or about 134 times that of the ElectraFlyer trike. Using Lithium Ion batteries that would bring the weight of the battery pack to about 10,000 lbs. Maybe not.

I don't think battery powered aircraft are going to be practical above the ultralight level, at least unless some amazing things are done with battery technology.

There are some promising things being done with hyper-capacitors. They work like batteries storing a charge, but do it through banks of capacitors, rather than chemical means like batteries. Zenn Motors of Toronto are planning to bring out a new car soon that will be powered by an EEStor ceramic hyper-capacitor that will produce 70 hp and drive the car at 100 km/hr for four hours, giving it a range of 400 km with an electrical storage unit that weighs 300 lbs. The best part is that hyper-capacitors can be charged in a few minutes from special high voltage/high amp charging stations. This has promise for aviation applications.

One thing is clear: the private aircraft of the future will look different from the aircraft of today, they won't be 1950s airplanes with new engines. They will need to be able to fly on less horsepower and that means greater span and lower wing loading than we see today. It is not an accident that Boeing's fuel cell test plane was a Dimona motor glider.

The good news is that innovative things are being done and, thanks to companies like Electric Aircraft Corporation, you could be flying silently and free of high gas prices today, if you want to.

07 April 2008

The Cessna 162 SkyCatcher in Canada

My last blog entry outlined some interesting controversies about the Cessna 162. These are global issues for the aircraft type, but there are also some issues that affect this aircraft only in Canada.

I should start by pointing out that these issues have been known for quite a while, but they have no current solutions. I talked to Transport Canada this past week to confirm that this information is still current.

The primary question is - as a Canadian can you buy and fly a Cessna 162?.

The answer is "yes, sort of, maybe, depends."

If you are planning on buying a C-162 for private use then the answer is "probably". If you want to use it in a flight school operation then the answer is more complex and closer to "no".

The whole issue hinges on the status of the C-162. It is a fully manufactured aircraft with a gross weight of 1320 lbs that meets the ASTM rules for a US Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). It is not a FAR 23 certified aircraft.

In Canada the C-162 does not qualify to be a CAR 523 or CAR 523 VLA certified aircraft. It is too heavy to be an Advanced Ultra-light Aeroplane (AULA) or Basic Ultra-light Aeroplane (BULA), as they are limited to 1232 and 1200 lbs respectively. It only fits into one category in Canada - the Limited Class.

The Limited Class was really developed to allow old out of production non-certified aircraft to be flown in Canada, such as warbirds and non-certified experimental gliders. Even though the C-162 fits this class, putting brand-new, mass-produced Cessnas in it wasn't TC's intention and in talking to them recently they are still a bit uncomfortable with the notion.

If a private owner were to put a C-162 into the Limited Class then it could be flown like any other light aircraft. The only restriction would be that maintenance releases would have to be signed by an AME, not by the owner as in the US LSA class.

Aircraft in the Limited Class can be used for commercial use, but only for CAR 702 Aerial Work operations. This means banner towing, aerial photography, crop spraying, etc. It can't be used for flight training. To be honest there aren't too many aerial work applications for this small, 100 hp aircraft.

So what do you do if you want to use C-162s in your school? Well you could try applying for an exemption to the CARs, but don't count on it being approved.

The next question most people would ask is "So what is going to happen?"

There is some good news here. The CARAC Recreational Aviation Working Group which I chaired in 2005-06 actually addressed this exact issue. It recommended that the LSA category be established as an additional category in Canada, among other recommendations. That report was accepted by CARAC in 2007 and moved on towards the TC risk assessment and NPA drafting processes.

In talking with TC officials this past week I confirmed that the recommendations are still on the way to becoming rules, but that the massive reorganization that TC is currently going through have brought work to a stop on this and many other projects.

So when will the LSA be a category in Canada, allowing private ownership of C-162s with owner-maintenance and their use in flight schools?

The soonest I would look for this is in about ten years. Due to TC priorities (i.e. not small aircraft) and shortage of manpower at TCHQ, I think "never" is a better bet.

Free advice:

If you are thinking of buying a C-162, or any other LSA that doesn't qualify to be an AULA or BULA in Canada, for private use then contact TC Airworthiness before putting any money down. Find out if they will issue a Special Certificate of Airworthiness - Limited for it. Be prepared to have the maintenance signed off by an AME.

If you are thinking of buying a C-162, or any other LSA that doesn't qualify to be an AULA or BULA in Canada, for flight school use then contact your TC principal inspector before putting any money down. Find out if there is any chance of an exemption to operate the aircraft in school use. If not, it may be possible to put it in the Limited Class as a private aircraft and use it for rental only, as that use is not under your operating certificate.

03 April 2008

The New Cessna 162 SkyCatcher - Three Controversies for the Price of One!

Cessna's new two seater, the Model 162 is a remarkable aircraft for a number of reasons.

It is the first two-seater Cessna has produced since C-152 production ended in 1985. It is the lightest aircraft Cessna has produced with an LSA gross weight of 1320 lbs. It has control sticks, instead of the ubiquitous Cessna "ram's horn" wheels. It even has swing-up doors, unique in the Cessna line-up.

Overall, though the Model 162 is remarkable, it is not that innovative. It is made of sheet metal, like all the other Cessnas have been, although the up-and-coming NGP may break that rule as do the Cessna 350 and 400, although Cessna bought those designs already flying. It has a Continental O-200 engine, just like its Cessna 150 predecessor of 1959. Despite its lighter weight it will have a performance very close to the 150 or 152 as well.

Where the 162 does stand out is that it has proven so controversial. In fact there are three controversies involving the SkyCatcher, not including the choice of name, which most pilots seem to dislike.

The aircraft's name is pretty minor compared to the biggest controversy - building the C-162 in China. Cessna announced on 27 November 2007 that the 162 would be built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, which is a subsidiary of China Aviation Industry Corporation I (AVIC I), a Chinese government-owned consortium.

This decision resulted in a blog article by Cessna spokesman Tom Aniello on the aircraft's website www.skycatcher.com. Don't bother looking for that website - it doesn't exist any more and that is part of the story, although you can read an archived copy of the page here.

Aniello's blog was an attempt to put forward the logical business case for building the aircraft in China. His best two arguments were that the aircraft would have cost $71,000 more to produce in the US and that Cessna was out of plant capacity in the USA anyway.

Aniello also pointed out that Shenyang is a long standing producer of airliners and fighters and that they build parts today for Boeing's airliners. They are a reliable source.

The blog was just like this one, an article with a chance for readers to post their thoughts. And they did - thousands of them. I read them all. About 10% were positive about the decision and expressed understanding. The remaining 90% were very negative. They cited shoddy Chinese products being subject to recall in the USA, Chinese products being painted with lead-based paint, China's human rights record, exporting of US jobs and China's less-than-friendly relations with the west and the USA in particular. Many posts were from people who claimed to have either been considering buying a 162 and now wouldn't, or from people who had ordered one and canceled their order. The outpourings were sometimes ill-thought out and sometimes very eloquent and well written.

Cessna's response was also ill-thought out. On January 25, 2008 they deleted the whole website and issued a new statement.

It says:

"First off, we would like to personally thank everyone who has joined the conversation about our new Cessna SkyCatcher. Your comments and opinions surrounding this bold new venture are extremely valuable to us and especially as first flight gets closer."

"As the excitement builds, our site has also evolved. We’ve implemented new methods and editorial protocols to better facilitate communication. At the same time, we’ve added a new site feature that will include all of the very latest SkyCatcher product updates. This section is called e-Briefs."

"Here’s how the site works: we now invite you to submit your comment to our site editors for consideration of on-line posting, much like traditional publishing. This will give us a better opportunity to respond with our own comments on a more regular basis. You can rest assured that views representative of all sides of an issue will be chosen for display on the site by our editorial staff."

Naturally most people have understood this to mean: "to serve you better, we are ending all debate." Other aviation blogs have taken up the cause, but at least Cessna isn't hosting their own criticisms anymore. Obviously Cessna' mistake was to host a debate in the first place. They completely underestimated the results. Someone in Wichita got debriefed over this one.

Incidentally despite their new invitation to submit comments it looks like no negative ones have been posted. Big surprise. Lots of people are still unhappy over the decision to produce the aircraft in China and also that Cessna invited and then cut off debate.

There are two other controversies that the 162 has produced, but these are talked about less often, overshadowed by the Chinese out-sourcing issue.

The first is the cost. Cessna is now offering the 162 for USD$111,500, having sold the first 1000 orders at $109,500. Cessna's statements indicate that the price, if it were built in the USA would have been $182,500. This seems like a far-fetched claim. The current price of the bare-bones C-172R is currently $234,500. Given that, $182,500 doesn't sound out of line for a smaller two-seater. The odd thing is that other companies are building LSAs in the USA and are making money selling them for a lot less. A good example is AMD who sell the Chris Heintz designed Zodiac XL for USD$99,900.00.

Why would it cost Cessna twice as much as a small company to make an airplane in the USA? The size of Cessna and its experience should make aircraft cheaper, not more expensive, one would think. They must be making a lot of money building them for $111,500 in China, or perhaps the profits are eaten up by shipping the made-in-USA engines, avionics, etc to China and then back again?

The last and least-mentioned controversy about the 162 is its full fuel payload. With a gross weight of 1320 and a full fuel load of 26 US gallons (144 lbs) the aircraft has just 346 lbs remaining for occupants and baggage. That means that it won't even carry one standard TC weight man (200 lbs summer) and one standard weight woman (165 lbs summer) without draining an hour's worth of gas out. Don't ask about baggage.

Of course many will argue that with an LSA-imposed gross weight of only 1320 lbs how can the plane have any payload? Here is what the competition offers for full fuel payload:

AMD Zodiac XL - 370 lb and that is with 30 gallons of gas. With the SkyCatcher's 24 gallons it would lift 394 lbs

Flight Design CT - 476 lbs and that is with 34 US gallons on board. With the SkyCatcher's 24 gallons it would lift 536 lbs.

So why is the SkyCatcher so heavy, compared to other designs in its class? I don't have an answer to that question.

For me the most interesting controversy involving the 162 is its sales figures. Cessna claims to have over 1000 firm orders for the aircraft. If so that would mean that once these orders are filled almost half the LSAs in the USA will be Cessna 162s. Given the higher price and the poor load carrying capabilities, not to mention the huge backlash against the Chinese outsourcing, why is it selling so well?

Perhaps the answer there is the same answer as why brand-name Tylenol outsells the identical and much cheaper generics by ten to one: the power of brand names and advertising.

The Cessna 162 is a fascinating story to follow, more controversial than any other aircraft that Cessna has ever built. I am sure that as production starts and C-162s are delivered to customers we will hear a lot more about it!

Further recommended reading