The Long And Cautious Road To The Sky

There is an old saying that if you wish to make a small fortune in aviation, start with a large one. Aviation is littered with dreams that have turned into expensive and demoralizing nightmares. Many of the concepts made sense aerodynamically while others would have filled a market need and yet still did not succeed. This axiom holds true even for the current electric air taxi push. Even with the immense amounts of money being poured into this venture, that is no guarantee that it will flourish. With so many new variables at play, a conservative approach to goals will serve to help reduce the risk of failure. Here are a few aviation ventures that suffered delays, redesigns, bankruptcies and buyouts despite optimism, sound designs and in some cases, very high valuations.

Skycar

Dr. Paul Moller has worked on perfecting a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle named the Skycar for five decades. Intended to lift off from ones driveway, it was expected to be able to fly in excess of 300mph at altitudes above 30,000 feet using renewable ethanol as fuel. In 2003 it finally achieved tethered hovering flight.

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Moller Skycar in a tethered hover.

To date his company has spent in excess of $100,000,000 and despite many studies, patents and tests, the design has not progressed to even a pre-production phase. Part of this is due to the amount of capital required to move to the next stage of development. Despite the design’s fit with the current air taxi craze, future investments are unlikely due to the company’s long string of excessive delays and lack of progress.

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Dr. Paul Moller and aircraft he designed, (left to right) Neuera 200, Skycar M400 and Skycar M400X.

 

 

Eclipse 500/550

Eclipse Aviation was founded by former Symantec CEO Vern Raburn. His vision was a major part of a larger movement to create low-cost private jets that thousands of people would be able own and operate.

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Eclipse 500 aircraft in the colors of the defunct DayJet air taxi service.

The company touted several radical new construction techniques and features that would reduce the production cost of their Eclipse 500. Development was initially rapid until a significant problem with the new engines came to light. Without these specific engines, the aircraft would not meet its performance guarantees. Other issues with contractors, controversy surrounding FAA certification and financial issues led to bankruptcy in 2008, less than a year after delivering their first aircraft. It is the biggest financial failure in the entire history of general aviation. The company’s assets have since been acquired by several successive organizations that continue to construct and support the improved Eclipse 550 aircraft.

AW609 Tiltrotor

 

The Bell/Agusta (now AgustaWestland) 609 is a civilian answer to the military V-22 aircraft. As a tiltrotor, it featured the vertical takeoff and landing capability of a helicopter while retaining the speed of a conventional airplane. With the program beginning in 1996, testing and development proceeded at a cautious rate leading to a first flight in 2003.

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AW609 demonstrating its vertical takeoff and landing capability.

In the interim, the prototypes have continued flight testing and building the flight hours necessary to achieve FAA certification. Due to the craft’s unique nature, FAA certification categories had to be modified and in some cases rewritten, adding to the delays. An additional setback was the inflight disintegration of the second prototype resulting in the loss of both test pilots in 2015. The accident was attributed to the flight control software amplifying pilot control inputs beyond safe limits during a high-speed test dive.

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AW609 in horizontal flight mode.

 

Icon A5

Icon Aircraft was founded in 2006 with the intent of building light-sport aircraft that would appeal to the general public.

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Icon A5 in flight.

Two years after its founding, the company had a prototype recreational amphibian in the air. However, the realities of production and certification delayed the rollout of the first production model until 2014. The first delivery to a customer was in 2015 followed by an extensive pause while they redesigned their production facilities and methods.

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New Icon production facility in Vacaville, CA.

They are currently building aircraft at a rate less than a quarter of what was anticipated.

 

Optimism And Aerodynamics

I could list dozens of other civilian projects including the VisionAire Vantage, Adam 700, Piper Altaire, Diamond D-Jet, Aerion SBJ, LearFan, QSST, and Carter PAV. But that would amount to belaboring the obvious. By now, we were supposed to have access to supersonic business jets, personal air vehicles that fly themselves and private jets that cost a tenth of what some current models do. But despite very intelligent people working on the problem and literally billions of dollars invested, none of that has panned out as planned. There is nothing wrong with optimism, but history has shown aviation startups that hope and motivation must be balanced with data and demand.

All flying vehicles consume fuel and money, sometimes not in that order. The very nature of being suspended delicately in the third dimension demand a level of redundancy and safety that is not required while traveling on the ground. If your car has a problem you can simply coast to the side the road and wait for assistance. If your aircraft has a problem you have no choice but to get back on the ground. How soon and in what condition depends on the nature of the emergency. Designers must proceed with this sobering fact in mind at all times.

When a company announces its plans for a new product, there are significant differences between software and hardware. Rushing an application or software to market has never directly been responsible for someone’s death. In aviation, a rush to market can and has killed people with amazing predictability. In the tech world, three years is an eternity. For a flying vehicle that features several unproven methods, that same three year span is nearly childlike in its optimism.

Testing For Safety

Anyone who knows anything about science understands that you should only change one variable at a time and measure the effect. Smart aircraft designers similarly never test a new type of engine with a new type of airplane at the same time. In this situation, it appears that the designer is attempting to not only combine a new airframe and powerplant, but a new control system and new airspace integration/automation. Any single one of these challenges would be enough for a company to tackle. All of them combined may prove to be a minefield of delays. For a look at what has to be done from a purely operational standpoint, not considering any business model issues, one must consider all the constituent components of the vehicle.

This new vehicle will have a major hurdle in its hybrid electric propulsion system. While hybrid rotor systems have been proven on aircraft as far back as 1959 with the Fairey Rotodyne and more recently with the Airbus X3, electric helicopters and eVTOL vehicles are still in their infancy. This means that it will take more time and money to validate and certify an airworthy configuration since there are so many unknowns. The good news is that future aircraft that use the same type of propulsion system will not have to rewrite the rule book.

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Fairey Rotodyne

Flight controls are very important for the obvious reasons. So far, all illustrations of the most talked about air taxi concepts show no conventional flight control surfaces such as elevators and ailerons. Considering that during cruise flight the vertical lift rotors will be stowed and cannot be used for attitude control, it will be interesting to see exactly how they plan to control the vehicle. Again, seeing that whatever method they take will be unconventional, prepare for extended test periods while all of the proper redundancy is built into it.

The airframe itself may seem like the easiest component to build, but there are plenty of hurdles to clear with this piece of the puzzle as well. Vibration and flutter testing, occupant safety, crashworthiness and dynamic stability are all things that must be tested before certification is issued. In addition, the retractable vertical lift rotors will most likely be considered as separate systems. Therefore, the designer must prove that a failure of any unit to retract or deploy will not cause loss of the vehicle. 

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Lightning strike testing on a mockup.

It is very clear even from this relatively short list of design issues that assuming a short gestation period is not prudent. Throwing more money at a problem doesn’t always solve them. A history of being able to rapidly scale in other industries does not translate to building hundreds of flying vehicles in a few years, especially when the company has no prior experience in aviation. This is worthwhile technology that deserves the time and attention required to properly test it before rolling it out to the public.

Conclusion

Perhaps a lot of details are purposely being kept from the public. Maybe the propulsion systems, automation systems, flight control laws, and vehicle aerodynamics are all being tested concurrently. Maybe there’s more than what the media and general public has been shown in articles and press releases. Maybe there’s a secret squadron of prototype air taxis flying out of Edwards Air Force Base. Maybe there are special certification processes in the works that will allow fast-tracking of an entirely new class and category of aircraft. If this is the case, then all the words I have written mean absolutely nothing. If not, then we are all in for a longer wait than expected.

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Patience and precision is required at every stage of design and testing.

Perhaps the reason I’m so preoccupied with caution is because I don’t want an avoidable incident to occur where the public loses faith. Investors tend to be apprehensive about putting money into a venture when one of its test vehicles is on the news at the bottom of a smoking hole. Accidents may happen even with every precaution observed and meticulous planning. But to entice them by through optimistic blindness is inexcusable. There is no critical rush to get flying cars operational. We as humans have existed on this planet for a very long time without them. Adding a few years of development to ensure that they are released in a responsible and useful manner makes all the sense in the world.

 

 

About Christopher Williams
Co-Founder of Whelan & Williams Industries Inc. Sole proprietor of Liftlazy. Photographer, musician, writer, pilot and all around good guy to know.

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