Rising Stars: 5 Planes That Will Change Aviation

It might be a Madison Avenue cliché, but the notion that “new and improved” sells is certainly in aviation, whether you’re talking about big airplanes or small ones. Buyers want more of everything, speed, range, payload, safety, comfort and efficiency, and if airplane builders can deliver on those commodities, they will sell airplanes, sometimes a lot of them.

In our look at some of the most ­exciting emerging models in aviation, we include a light-sport amphibian, a rugged midsize jet from a legendary turboprop maker, a slick retractable-gear, four-place carbon fiber speedster, a utilitarian people hauler with range and comfort, and a supersonic dream ship so ambitious that it might very well remain a dream forever.

The common denominator here is that these models boast capabilities that their existing competitors lack. The other commonality is the fact that nothing is carved in stone, though some of the models featured here are far better bets than others. Still, until the FAA signs off on the production certificates, these are all emerging models, and they’re exciting to watch as they emerge, taking their special place in the story of aviation.

Icon A5

A light-sport amphibian with no assumptions.

With its two-seat amphibious A5 light-sport model, manufacturing start-up Icon Aircraft has created a new way of looking at how airplanes are built and marketed.

The airplane in question, the A5, is a beautiful, all-composite two-seat flying boat powered by the 100-horsepower Rotax 912 iS spinning a pusher prop. With wings that fold for storage and easy transportation, the A5 is intended for easy portability. Icon also offers a customized towing trailer as an option, one that many customers will surely order. An owner could conceivably keep the A5 in the garage and tow it to a local waterway and just go flying.

Icon Aircraft’s intensely passionate founder and CEO is Kirk Hawkins, a former F-16 and Boeing 767 pilot who believes that airplanes need to be safer by design so that new pilots can transition into the cockpit with a lower degree of risk than with legacy designs. Since Icon attempts to appeal to those who have not already achieved a pilot’s license, the company has incorporated additional safety features into the A5 design. The company claims the airframe is spin-resistant, and a parachute can be added as an option. Icon is also an early adapter of the angle-of-attack indicator, an extremely useful instrument that indicates whether the wings are flying within the safe flight envelope, or whether they are approaching or in a stalled condition.

Icon has also gone beyond the regular avenues of aircraft marketing, targeting not existing pilots so much as young adventure seekers by marketing the little amphib as an adventure product, much like a personal watercraft or sport bike. The company’s airshow displays and fast-paced marketing videos are always exciting, innovative experiences that stand out from the crowd of other airplane manufacturers. The strategy has worked. Icon has taken about 1,000 deposits for the A5.

The A5’s cockpit layout is reminiscent of the panel of a luxury automobile, and, unlike most airplanes, it includes an MP3 port, multiple storage compartments and removable side windows.

The development of the Icon A5 has taken place in Tehachapi, California. While Icon has flown test models, the first production prototype has yet to fly. Delays have been caused not only by the usual need for more funding (a problem Icon addressed with a $60 million cash infusion in 2013), but also by Icon’s desire to improve the design, continually tweaking the wing to improve stall characteristics, and to increase the A5’s gross weight by FAA exemption beyond the 1,430-pound limit for amphibious LSAs.

Much progress has been made since the weight increase was approved. Production tooling has been finalized, and the first conforming prototype is expected to fly this summer. Duluth, Minnesota-­based Cirrus Aircraft will manufacture the composite parts for the LSA’s fuselage. Icon also selected a location for its permanent headquarters, which will be situated in a 140,000-square-foot facility in Vaca­ville, California, where manufacturing, delivery, training and service will start taking place after the company moves in at the beginning of next year. The first few airplanes will, however, be produced at the Tehachapi location. First deliveries are expected in early 2015.

With its unique features and price point beyond that of most LSAs, the A5 has nearly created a segment of its own. Two competing products, the Searey and SeaMax, which have both achieved S-LSA approval, are priced significantly lower than the Icon. While they share some similarities with the A5, they lack some of the sex appeal and versatility, which many customers may be willing to pay extra money for.

Icon A5 Specs
Scheduled Certification:2015
Price (approximate): $189,000
Max Takeoff Weight: 1,510 pounds
Certification Standard: S-LSA
Takeoff Distance: 750 feet
Landing Distance: 750 feet
Max Climb Rate: Not Available
Max Cruise Speed: 105 KTAS
Seats: 2
Construction: Carbon Fiber

 

Pilatus PC-24

The most versatile business jet ever.

The words private jet and rough, unimproved airstrip don’t normally go together — that is, unless you’re Swiss-based Pilatus, the manufacturer that brought us the rugged PC-12 turboprop single and the even more rugged PC-6 Porter.

Who in their right mind would operate a multimillion-dollar business jet on a dirt runway? Many of the buyers who have lined up with deposit money for the $9 million, 10-passenger Pilatus PC-24 ­twinjet, that’s who. A high percentage of them are current owners of the versatile PC-12 who already hold a deep appreciation for what the Swiss Army knife of turboprops can do.

The PC-24’s cavernous cabin is as roomy as those of jets costing twice as much. Plus it features a huge, pallet-size rear cargo door allowing loading of just about anything that will fit inside the passenger compartment. The seats are on tracks that allow each to be easily removed in minutes.

Pilatus is offering a variety of interior configurations, including six- or eight-seat executive arrangements, a 10-seat commuter version and combination layouts for operators who want to turn the jet into a cargo transport or air ambulance.

The PC-24 can also take off and land on some impressively short runways. Published takeoff distance is just 2,690 feet. Landing over a 50-foot obstacle requires 2,525 feet, meaning there are around 21,000 airports around the world, with and without paved runways, where the twinjet will do just fine.

Key to its short-field capability is its beefy landing gear and low-drag, modestly swept wing with large fowler flaps and ground spoilers. Stall speed is just 81 knots indicated at max landing weight. Pilatus notes that a special gravel kit will be fitted to the nosewheel to deflect debris away from the engine inlets, and the wing flaps will be armored for protection from debris thrown back by the main gear.

The PC-24 will feature the latest version of the Honeywell Primus Apex cockpit, blended with components from the Primus Epic system that is the backbone of a number of high-end business jets, including the Gulfstream G650 and Dassault Falcon 7X. Called ACE, the PC-24’s four-display cockpit was designed from the circuit boards up for single-pilot operation, with a full complement of safety enhancements including synthetic vision, WAAS and RNP (required navigation performance) 0.3 capability.

Power in the PC-24 will come from a pair of fadec-controlled Williams FJ44-4A turbofans producing 3,400 pounds of takeoff thrust per side and giving the jet a max cruise speed of 425 ktas at FL 300. Pilatus says the PC-24 will be able to climb directly to FL 450 in 30 minutes. Max takeoff weight is listed as 17,650 pounds with a published max payload of 2,500 pounds.

That’s quite a list of attributes from an airplane with the versatility of a turboprop, the cabin size of a midsize jet and the performance of a light jet. In fact, the PC-24 doesn’t really seem to fit into any of the established bizjet categories. Pilatus has come up with a classification of its own, calling the airplane the industry’s first SVJ, or super versatile jet. Given all that the PC-24 offers, we’d agree.

Pilatus PC-24 Specs
Scheduled Certification:2017
Price: $9 million (2017 $)
Max Takeoff Weight: 17,650 pounds
Certification Standard: Part 23 Commuter Category
Takeoff Distance: 2,690 feet
Landing Distance: 2,525 feet
Max Climb Rate: 4,075 fpm
Max Cruise Speed:425 ktas
Seats: 2+6-10
Construction: Aluminum

 

Pipistrel Panthera

Speed and economy come together in a sleek package.

Many of the most exciting things about the coming certification standards are embodied in the Pipistrel Panthera, a four-seat carbon-fiber transportation airplane that its developers aim to make into the ultimate airplane in its lightweight segment, combining economy, speed, roominess and range into a package that gives a lot of utility along with a lot of zip.

It’s a tall order, and the truth be told, that formula has been successfully employed in the past. The Mooney 201 fits the description of the ultimate transportation plane for those of us who reside in the world of 100LL. It’s a remarkable parallel.

Pipistrel aims to take that concept into the new millennium with better range and speed by applying technology in innovative ways, in much the same way Cirrus did with its SR22, which became the leading premium four-seat single by doing just about nothing the same way that it had been done before and, by so doing, changing the value proposition in a way that made it hard for legacy birds to compete.

Pipistrel is a remarkable company. Even though it has been in existence since 1987, founded by current company head Ivo Boscarol, the Slovenia-based manufacturer has only in recent years burst onto the scene in the United States behind the emergence of a couple of truly remarkable very light aircraft, the Sinus and Virus, names that only a mother (or pediatrician) could love. We flew the latter for a flight test/cover story in the December 2011 issue of Flying and were impressed by the airplane’s smart and minimalist designs, which successfully put the spirit of a superlight powered sailplane into the body of a powered light-sport aircraft to create an airplane that can fly for a long time on very little (auto) fuel.

The more conventionally nicknamed Panthera seeks to take some of these same approaches and apply them to a different market, still doing things differently. The idea is to make a fast, economical cruiser that can go a long way.

There’s no free lunch in airplane design, so the Pipistrel design team made certain design decisions to help it arrive at an airplane it hopes will meet those goals. The shape of the airframe, as you can see, is very sleek with cozy seating inside. To keep weight to a minimum, the structure is largely carbon fiber and the gear is titanium, both expensive material choices that help drive the price to 400,000 euros, which equates to around $550,000.

The Panthera program received an unpleasant surprise last year when Pipistrel said that Lycoming announced abruptly that it would not produce a mogas-capable version of the IO-390 engine, around which the Panthera had been designed. The need to move to a new engine, the heavier and less fuel efficient Lycoming IO-540, set the program back and forced the company to revise some of its goals for the program. The Panthera will be around 200 pounds heavier (though with no loss of payload, as Pipistrel upped the max weight of the model by 210 pounds).

Even though the IO-540 burns more fuel at the same percentage of power as the IO-390, Pipistrel says it can be operated at a very low percentage of power — just 55 percent — to give it the same 200-knot performance as the IO-390-powered version with the additional ability to fly even faster at higher fuel flows, though it has not yet projected what that faster speed will be.

Pipistrel plans to introduce hybrid gas/electric and all-electric models at some point in the future as well and will sell the Panthera in kit form (with the IO-390 as an option) as it gears up for certification and serial production.

Pipistrel Panthera Specs
Scheduled Certification: 2015
Price (approximate): $550,000 (2012 $)
Max Takeoff Weight: 2,640 pounds
Certification Standard: Part 23
Takeoff Distance: 1,200 feet
Landing Distance: 1,900 feet (50-foot obstacle)
Max Climb Rate: 1,200 fpm
Typical Cruise Speed: 202 KTAS (at 55 percent power)
Seats: 4
Construction: Carbon Fiber/Titanium

 

FlightDesign C4

Compromise defeated.

When the engineers at FlightDesign realized that, in order to make their LSA legally slow enough, they’d have to put the prop in a climb pitch lest it accelerate out to 135 knots, it must have piqued their interest that perhaps their design could grow beyond the severe restrictions of the Light Sport category into a new segment. The airplane that resulted from that journey, the C4, is a remarkable end point, an airplane that in many ways takes the lessons of Part 23 and builds upon them, resulting in an airplane that is quite fast, roomy, economical to operate, utilitarian and, hopefully, fun to fly to boot.

The C4 is an interesting counter­point to the Panthera, which takes a no-compromises approach to the need for speed. Whereas the Pipistrel makes use of an extreme aerodynamic form, the C4 is a conventionally shaped high-wing airplane with a spacious cockpit, high windows for impressive visibility and a roomy panel.

If the Panthera is economical, the C4 is that times two. Outfitted with the low-compression, 180 hp, six-cylinder Continental IO-360-AF (for “alternative fuel”), the German four-seater is quick, with typical cruise of 155 knots, on relatively little power. At 65 percent power, the C4 will burn around 8.5 gph truing around 145 knots, giving it a no-wind range of around 1,200 nm with reserves. At a higher power setting, it will burn around 10 gph, giving it 155 knots true, an endurance of around seven hours and a no-wind range of just over 1,000 nm with reserves.

If that range/speed matrix sounds good, even better is the useful load of 1,320 pounds, giving it the ability to carry four nearly 200-pound occupants and 130 pounds of bags with 66 gallons of fuel (out of a capacity of 70 gallons) for six hours at 155 knots. Most trips, for obvious reasons, will be of shorter endurance than that.

Performance and utility are great, but FlightDesign prides itself on safety too. The C4 will stall at around 50 knots, thanks to its light weight (2,640 pounds max) and big slotted flaps. The fixed gear adds to the safety (and insurability) value proposition, and a whole-airplane-recovery parachute system will be standard. The C4 is a launch platform for the Garmin G3X Touch touch-screen flat-panel avionics system. It will feature twin displays, an integrated ­autopilot, a Garmin GTN 750 and a number of standard safety utilities for a very capable IFR panel.

FlightDesign will build the C4 in Germany with final assembly to be completed at a plant already under construction in Vermont. First flight is expected this summer with Part 23 certification expected a year later. The anticipated price of the C4, $250,000, would surely hit a soft spot in the market if it can come in even close to that figure. Look for a full flight report in these pages as soon as we get the chance to fly the C4.

FlightDesign C4 Specs

Scheduled Certification: 2015
Price (approximate): $250,000
Max Takeoff Weight: 2,640 pounds
Certification Standard: Part 23
Takeoff Distance: 1,300 feet
Landing Distance: Not Available
Max Climb Rate: 980 fpm
Typical Cruise Speed: 155 KTAS (at 75 percent power)
Seats: 4
Construction: Carbon Fiber

 

 

Aerion AS2

It’s about time.

The Aerion supersonic business jet under development for the last decade-plus by a small team of aerodynamicists backed by billionaire investor Robert Bass was never really intended to be an airplane customers could go out and buy. Rather, the sleek, Mach 1.6 jet was meant to entice an established manufacturer that was interested in Aerion’s proprietary technology, namely its supersonic natural laminar flow wing, which reduces friction drag by 90 percent compared with a conventional wing, making supersonic flight as economical as subsonic operations.

At least that’s the claim. For many years, the Aerion team has tried to convince the powers that be at Gulfstream, Dassault, Embraer and other companies that its approach to super­sonic luxury travel is a low-risk, high-reward pathway to a segment of the market with untapped potential. The airplane that emerged from any partnership likely wouldn’t carry the Aerion name, instead blending Aerion’s patented technology with a final design and configuration ­largely of the OEM’s choosing.

But none of the established manufacturers has yet bought into Aerion’s high-flying ideas. Gulfstream, for one, has stated publicly that it believes a supersonic business jet will be viable only when designers can find a way to eliminate such an airplane’s sonic boom, allowing for prolonged flights over populated landmasses well above the speed of sound. An SSBJ based on the Aerion concept would cruise at supersonic speeds over the oceans and unpopulated regions but would be forced to slow down to subsonic speeds everywhere else.

The lack of support for its design has led Aerion to rethink its original concept. The result is the newly launched Aerion AS2, a radically forward-thinking SSBJ that would be fitted with not two but three low-bypass turbofan engines. The original Aerion jet would have flown with two Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines, but the company now concedes that this power plant, first operated on the Boeing 727 and MD-80 jetliners, isn’t quiet or environmentally friendly enough to make it a viable choice for a future supersonic bizjet.

The engine choice is still very much a guessing game, although Aerion says it has held talks with several engine manufacturers and thinks an existing turbofan engine, with modifications, can be adapted for use on the AS2. Combined with a wider cabin and a reshaped fuselage, Aerion says the trijet configuration offers a number of benefits, including shorter takeoff roll, lower overall noise and longer range, up to 5,000 nm. What we do know is that the new engines for the Aerion concept would be in the range of 15,000 pounds of thrust apiece.

While it would be easy to dismiss the Aerion concept as wishful thinking on the part of its designers and financial backers, there is no doubt that the well-heeled want such an airplane — and they’ll pay dearly for the convenience of being able to shave hours from their travel schedules. A recent market survey conducted by the Reno, Nevada-based company determined the market for an SSBJ could be 600 units over 20 years. Aerion says it will continue to chase its supersonic dream as long as the OEMs it talks to continue to express an interest in such aircraft.

Aerion AS2 Specs
Scheduled Certification: 2021 (est.)
Price: $100 Million plus (est.)
Max Takeoff Weight: 115,000 pounds
Certification Standard: Undetermined
Takeoff Distance: 6,000 feet
Landing Distance: 6,000 feet
Max Climb Rate: N/A
Max Cruise Speed: Mach 1.6
Seats: 2+11
Construction: Carbon-Fiber Composite

 

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