Monday, November 28, 2011

Cessna Feels The Pinch...and Pinches Back

In a recent piece on AvWeb, Paul Bertorelli takes a good look at Cessna's decision to bump the price of the Skycatcher by a cool $35K - yes, that's 35 thousand.  Okay, it's not every day we see a 31+% price hike in a retail price of anything, especially in this economy.
Yet Cessna's move should come as no surprise to anyone who knows, as Bertorelli points out, that the price of aircraft has grown faster than the rate of inflation for decades.  Thirty years or so ago, a new Cessna Skyhawk could be had for around $30,000.  Today it's 10 times that number, or more than $300,000, whereas inflation applied to that original $30K number would put the figure just north of $100,000...about three times higher.
The Sky's no greenbacks.
Meanwhile, the aviation giant has up until now done its best to keep the price close to it's original near-$100,000 level.  Most recent raise was from $112,000 to around $114,000.  
Originally announced in 2007, more than 1,000 orders were racked up in short order.  
Then came more than two years of delays - first deliveries were made last year and 150 or so Skycatchers have been delivered this year.
All along, Cessna tried mightily to hold the line on price increases even in the face of production cost increases: it of course wanted to hold onto that $75 million in orders; wholesale decimation of the Skycatcher order book would have been a heavy hit, even for Big C.
The company pressed on through at least one major tailfeather redesign to keep the program viable, and keep original placeholders on board with a gradually-climbing price that stayed close to the original ticket of just under $110,000.  
Now the scrappy Skycatcher has climbed the U.S. delivery numbers to its recent, current position of #2.  Only longtime leader board-topper Flight Design has registered more LSA in this country.  Hey, isn't that a John Cougar Mellenkamp song?: "S-L-S-A in the U-S-A!".
In this day of bait-and-switch psychology, where the bottom line justifies any financial means, I think customer service props (and recognition for savvy business acumen) go to Cessna.  Look at the price of equivalent-quality S-LSA out there: you're looking at a typical sticker-shock number of $125-150K.  Big C is only raising its product to market parity, and to help support production costs, after having worked hard at it's "holding the line" image.  Also factored in: many of the instrument options are now standard, so the price increase isn't baldly wholesale: some perks are factored in.
Still, those options are re no longer voluntary.
I wonder how deep in the red Cessna went with the delays in production, increased design and retesting costs - the company has proudly, and deservedly, boasted that it took Skycatcher through a program more rigorous than the ASTM standard, including spin testing...that's how the original design flaw was uncovered in the first place. 
Bertorelli goes on to reflect on the marketing and psychological effect of the price jump, and whether it will cause a bailout of significant numbers of remaining production number holders.  He also has some interesting insights on how Cessna has always been good at maintaining its profit margin, even if it meant raising prices and accepting the lower sales numbers that resulted.  That's how companies survive, after all
It's a good read, check it out for an insight into how big aviation business cope these days.
He concludes with a compelling question that deserves more thought and some comment: if Cessna, with it's offshore Chinese production, can't produce a relatively "low cost" S-LSA, does that put the kibosh on the notion entirely?
I have my own thoughts, viewed from a slightly different angle: look at my recent post on the Pipistrel Alpha Trainer that was just introduced around $80,000, and that's not a stripped model either.  I read an online forum thread a couple days ago in which several posters flat out decried the $80K price point.  "Impossible!" they cried.
Yet here is a lean, mean, well-oiled design/production house in Slovenia that is showing us the way of the future, perhaps.  The company just sold 200 of Alphas to India...and the production prototype is being debuted in April.
I believe the company President, Ivo Boscarol, when he says he will produce the airplane at that price: his vision all along has been that if you do things in a very targeted, innovative and efficient manner, you can produce affordable, quality aircraft that will sell, even with the Euro/Dollar exchange rate, in the $80K range in America.
Take another look at what we complain about as a "high cost" light aircraft: adjusted backwards to the before-inflation rate (1975, roughly), we're looking at $8,000!
Before we cry in our $7 microbeers, we should lament the destruction of our currency by the craziness of world economics for the last 70 or so years.  That is the real culprit. An ounce of gold still buys approximately the same goods it bought in 1950...1920...1900.  It's not that things are more expensive.  It's our currency, no longer backed by gold or silver, that's taken the hit.
Why do you think China among other national governments is buying gold like it was on fire sale?  Because it is.
Aviation companies like every other enterprise must find ever-more-efficient ways of surviving, let alone thriving, by continuing to discover how to do the impossible, even if they have to grapple with perceived realities, such as this misplaced notion that there are no cheap light aircraft.
Put another way, I'll buy an $8,000, all-composite, well-equipped, good-performing aircraft for $8K any day of the week...even if I have to find a few partners to help me out with the purchase, since my salary also buys 10% of what it did a generation ago.  But that's another, and unfolding, story.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Major New Trainer Debuts

The company I’ve been writing a lot about lately keeps finding more things for me to talk about. When I was in Slovenia last month, Pipistrel's movers and shakers told me on the QT to be ready for a major announcement soon. 
And here it is: just officially announced this morning, introducing the Alpha Trainer, a purpose-built version of the company's winning Virus SW (Short Wing) cruiser.  Designed for the flight school market, it carries an introductory price that should raise a few eyebrows: $83,000 just about everything, including delivery, shipping to the US, FAA fees etc.
Yep, I'd call that news.
Rand Vollmer of SALSA Aviation, a U.S. Pipistrel dealer, tipped me off this morning about the official release.
A Rotax 80HP engine brings strong climb and 108-knot cruise
Pipistrel makes elegant, fun-flying, functional aircraft and the Alpha (200 were recently ordered by the Indian government) should prove to be no exception.
It’s targeted at LSA Flying Schools wherever ASTM or FAA-LSA regulations hold sway.
In its release, the company states:
“With the economy the way it is most aircraft have been priced (out of) the marketplace for the average person or flight school.”
Key design features include:
<> Economies of purchase, operation, maintenance and repair.
<> Durable, with docile flight and stall characteristics for beginning students.
<> UV-resistant acrylic paint finish for outdoor storage and day-long flight operations in heat well above 100°F (composites are often knocked for not standing up to mid-day heat and sun)
<> Quiet, easy-access, roomy cockpit (43"-plus), good cabin ventilation and heating, approved strobes and lighting.
<> Quick access to reliable spare parts to keep aircraft flying
<> Reasonable cross-country training range, easy refueling, strong hydraulic brakes, adjustable dual flight controls, tricycle gear with steerable nosewheel
<> GRS Ballistic parachute system standard
A big part of Pipistrel's success: sleek, efficient aerodynamics.  all images courtesy Pipistrel

Pipistrel has built more than 1000 aircraft since it began with Ivo Boscarol’s trike design 25 years ago.  The company has won several European air games events and the prestigious NASA CAFE efficiency challenge three times in a row (including this year's stunning electric Taurus G4 that averaged 400 passenger miles per gallon at 100 mph and took the top prize of $1.35 million).
As I’ve said, this outfit is not fooling around: they are well on their way to becoming a major presence in the light sport aircraft market.  They haven’t broken out in the U.S. just yet...the Alpha may have a major impact on that.
The release isn’t even up on the website yet, so here are a few more details of this pending (April 2012 delivery) debut:
Beefed up composite undercarriage supports full fuel and an additional 500 lbs. of payload.

New nose gear strut is 2" inches shorter than the Virus, which lowers the nose and improves taxi viz...prop clearance is not compromised: the Alpha uses a smaller 63” diameter fixed pitch prop.
The 15 gallon fuel tank has a large fill opening to accommodate fast-flow avgas pumps, although ethanol-free auto avgas is still the recommended fuel for Rotax engines.
That fuel capacity still gives Alpha “at least 400 miles range with reserves” at a normal cruise just under 110 knots.
In training mode, even doing multiple pattern flights only burns around 2.5 gph max for five hours endurance.  This is no marketing hype: the Virus I flew, on which the Alpha is based, is so aerodynamically clean it gets right up to altitude with a strong 1000'-plus climb rate and a 110-115 knot speed regime...on the same 80hp the Alpha will carry.
The Alpha is propped to give a slower cruise of 108 knots to meet the LSA category without sacrificing that super climb rate.
Alpha’s airframe is built of carbon fiber, kevlar and fiberglass and was brought in 100 lbs. lighter than the SW...impressive.
Interior appointments include heavy-duty seat fabric, no wheel spats to minimize repair issues from  student “prangs”, and two-minute wheel swaps for flat tires.  Everything about this airplane is geared to the high demand training market.
The modified wing design includes flaperons with 25° of travel (two stops) and no airbrakes (standard on the Sinus and Virus motorgliders).  There's inflight elevator trim too.
Even the prop is designed and produced by Pipistrel on the monster 8-axis CNC-machining robot I saw at the factory which precision-carves the wooden pieces.  Then they're wrapped in a composite covering, the leading edges get added protection and it's painted.

A luggage rack behind the seats helps out with incidental storage needs like tie downs, water bottles and such.  Two large pockets on the sides of the panel allow inflight access.
Basic instrumentation is conventional steam gauges including tach, hobbs meter, oil pressure and temp, CHT, EGT, fuel quantity. 
Also included are a GPS Garmin Aera 500 with AirGizmo docking station, ICOM IC A210 radio with intercom, aerial and two headsets (!), Garmin GTX 327 altitude encoding transponder and Kannad 406 AF ELT.
And still more: the 34' 6" wing-span will snug nicely into most T-hangars. 
The airframe is painted in white UV-resistant acrylic.
Price for all this training goodness: €61,500, around $83,600 US at today’s exchange rate. 
But wait: there’s more!  Introductory rate for schools and individuals wanting to commit now with a $15K US deposit can lock in a price of €58,000, around $78,900.  Add on shipping, delivery and FAA fees and you’re looking at $83,000 US.  That’s a compelling price for a fully-equipped, purpose-built, new trainer.
There’s more to discuss re how well all-composite trainers can stand up to the rigors of life in a flight school.  I’ll talk with the Pipistrel folks more about how they address composite repairs, which typically are more challenging than their aluminum counterparts.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Unintentional Holiday part Deux

(Note to my readers: the first part of this tome is just below)

So here I was in Slovenia, unable to fly and three more days before I could return to my wife in Hamburg, unless I wanted to pay another $200 to change the flight.  Modern air travel, what a concept.
Undaunted and determined to enjoy my first visit to this lovely country  after two days in bed with a virus (the physical kind, not the airplane), I crawled back into the light and joined up with Rand for a thoroughly enjoyable factory tour, courtesy of Ivo's daughter Taya (she's also a partner in the firm), who speaks very good English indeed and gave us a very informative and enjoyable peek at how the company does it's day-to-day.
Yours Truly scaring the crap out of hisself
And what a factory!  High tech geothermal heat, solar power (enough to run the entire factory year round, and sell excess back to the grid) and open, sunny, airy spaces all make for a wonderful working environment.
Then Ivo invited Rand and me to join him and the entire Pipistrel crew for a "team building" weekend trip.  We followed the bus jammed full of Pipistrelians east for a couple hours and found ourselves in the middle of one of those ropes course-like facilities meant to scare the bejeezus out of people.  It's a fair-weather season facility that lives atop a ski area in eastern Slovenia.
Now remember, I was just out of a sick bed and still pretty wobbly.  And when I saw that the first task my teammates and I would have to perform was climbing up a 10 meter wooden pole (that's 33 feet, folks), lumberjack style (albeit safely belayed by ropes carabinered to a body harness), and then stand up on top of said pole, I got a tad wobblier.
The flat top of that pole was about as big around as a medium-sized pancake, maybe 9" in diameter, 10" at the most.
Are you kidding me?
After attaining that precarious perch (and not everybody did), to get max points for the team, we then had to gingerly pussyfoot our feet around on top of the pole until facing in the opposite direction.  Then we could take a leap of faith into space, expecting/trusting/hoping like hell we'd be safely arrested and lowered to the ground by our teammates who held the lifeline ropes.
Let me tell you right now: a 33-foot tall pole is an excellent harmonic device for magnifying the timid, overcorrecting uncertainties of your thigh muscle/knee joint mechanisms.
Let me say it another way: the more you shake, the more that damn pole gyrates at the top, like a plate spinner gyrating a plate atop a long stick...and you the plate!
So brother, you haven't lived until you've stood on top of an oscillating  pole, willing your legs (unsuccessfully) to stop quavering and unsuccessfully trying to convince your body to believe what your mind knows: that you're safely backed up by the rope harness...and that your teammates are paying attention.
SALSA's Rand Vollmer and the components for his soon to be built Sinus motorglider...
Looking down from almost forty feet (bugged-out eyeball elevation) to see your big boots completely eclipsing that pancake-sized pole top and, in the vast distance beyond those boots, the foreshortened bodies of people's little white heads as they look up at you to shout encouragement (in Slovenian), is one of those "WTF am I doing here?" moments in life that shouldn't be missed.
The purpose of the weekend trip of course was to give people who work so diligently together a chance to share some bonhomie away from the factory, which no one seemed to have any problem with at all.  The Pips  are a very friendly crew indeed.
...which will look like this!
Traveling out of country is great...even when you don't get to fly a single minute.  And spending that day with the crew, facing some other fun team challenges together, knocking back more than one glass of blueberry schnapps, sharing meals and tasting wine, feeling the warmth, good cheer and open amiability of all, watching groups at different tables at an ancient Slovenian winery dinner burst into song, made me wish for a spirit of nationality and camaraderie that seems missing on the American scene these days.
Anyway, no, I don't yet have a single Pipistrel flight story to share (other than the Virus I wrote up after Oshkosh which should be out in the mag very soon.)
But I do plan on getting my Private Pilot motorglider rating this winter, and escape the New England snows in the process: Rand and I hope to enlist Jim Lee of Phoenix Air USA, who impressed everyone with the Phoenix motorglider's 47 mpg performance at the GFC on conventional fuel power, to take us through the training down in Florida.
Taurus self-launching motorglider; also comes electric powered!
We'll fly Rand's 50-foot Sinus Touring Motorglider and I for one, shoveling the wet snow from our upstate New York Halloween porch just a few days ago, muttering "disgusting" to myself the entire time, can hardly wait to head south and strap on that sleek, beautiful airplane.
Meanwhile, keep your eyes on Pipistrel.  They've got a lot of excitement coming down the taxiway.
En route, I'll be looking at the virtues of getting your private pilot glider rating down the road too, since it automatically removes a lot of the Sport Pilot restrictions (10,000 altitude max for instance) with very little additional effort...and you don't need a medical to fly a glider either...even a motorized glider with retractable gear.  Not a lot of pilots are fully aware of that, so we'll be kicking it around once I start my training. 
Meanwhile here's Jim Lee's treatise on how to fly a glider without a medical certificate...or even a driver's license!  Of course as always, and as Jim notes, we want to be sure we self-certify that we are indeed fit to fly.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Unintentional Holiday

"I know that we are spending half a life at work and half a life where we sleep," says Ivo Boscarol, founder and the dynamo behind Pipistrel Aircraft, in his strong Slovenian accent.
"So it is important that the lifestyle during work hours is good, so I organize my factory the way that I feel good and my workers feel good.  They like to come to work, because actually this is quite serious business.  If something is not made well, everybody has trouble: me, my test pilots, my customers.  So we don’t put any pressure on the workers."
Ivo is tall, lean, direct and exuberantly intense, a true and tireless larger-than-life kind of guy.
Head honcho Ivo Boscarol and $1.35 million
My congenial traveling pal Rand Vollmer, head of San Antonio Light Sport Aviation (SALSA), a major dealer for Pipistrel in the states, calls Ivo a "rock star".  Indeed, after his company's Taurus Electro G4 won the recent CAFE Green Flight Challenge (and a cool $1.35 million) in impressive fashion, Ivo's not only lionized wherever he goes in Slovenia (including being feted by the President of Slovenia), but he's increasingly well-known globally.
"After our victory in Green Flight Challenge, we are invited all over the world to show the airplane. So," he says with a big grin, "we must go."
Such uncomplicated directness is just one part of what makes Ivo both likable and worthy of respect.  He's a guy you can talk with, but who knows how to get things done.
Equally magnetizing is his straight-ahead approach to aircraft design.  His approach is elemental, like fire: he gets a wild idea for a new aircraft, calls in his design team, and says "Let's build this."
At first, eyes may go wide and mouths drop open at what seems implausible, impractical or downright impossible.  But swept along by his relentless vision, enthusiasm and total confidence in their abilities, they find a way.
The breathtaking Panthera 4-seat cruiser will have Lycoming, hybrid or electric power!
A good case in point is the upcoming Panthera four-seat, all composite, Ferrari-like cruiser that is planned for debut at next spring's Aero show in Friedrichshafen, Germany.  The truly gorgeous airplane will be built in three power configurations: traditional Lycoming power, hybrid generator/electric power...and pure electric.
Some teaser specs:
Cruise: 202 kts. (Lycoming), 142 kts. (hybrid), 118 kts. (all-electric)
Range at Cruise: 1025 nm/660 nm/ 215 nm.
Expect to read a lot more about this stunning, revolutionary design in the months to come.  Meanwhile, here's a pic: don't be embarassed.  Go ahead, drool, I did when I saw the components being assembled in the factory.
In the time I spent at Pipistrel's beautiful, ultra-modern, super green factory in the small town of AjdovÅ¡cina, just 90 minutes drive east from Venice, Italy, Ivo Boscarol candidly shared the philosophies and vision that has made the company one of the top European light aircraft makers.  I'll have much more in my next column for Plane & Pilot, as well as flight reports on their aircraft (including the Virus which I flew at Oshkosh).
Ivo's first production aircraft 24 years ago was a very successful trike (500 sold) that was flown in the waning light of dusk to avoid problems with the aviation-repressive government of Yugoslovia, of which Slovenia was once a part before the country split up.
See, in the dim light the locals thought the trike looked like a giant bat.  Ivo conscripted the notion and named his company Pipistrel, which means bat.
The Taurus Electro G4 and Pipistrel factory
Anyway, excited about visiting the factory where the prize-winning Taurus Electro G4 was created, along with several other LSA aircraft (the Sinus motorglider, Virus, Virus SW and Taurus motorglider are all recently ASTM certified and available in the U.S. as S-LSA), I booked a five-day visit to Slovenia in mid-October.
Reality check: the factory is built in a beautiful valley below a long mountain ridge that rises 3,000 foot directly above the town of AjdovÅ¡cina.  That ridge has spun off 7 hour-plus soaring flights and is enough to make any soaring pilot happily weak in the knees.
But when the burja winds blow, the valley below that ridge acts like a perfect venturi.  Translation: they've reached hurricane strength velocity (120 mph) and can blow for days and days.  Ivo says the burja blows about 100 days a year.  Now you know why Pipistrel is building another facility in nearby Italy.
Anyway, you'll never guess what happened during my trip...yes, the burja blew so strong, there was no flying activity the entire five days I was there.  I never even saw an airplane outside of a hangar.
What?  Me worry?  Hell, let's go climb a pole.
(You'll have to check back in tomorrow to see what I mean...this post is getting too long.)