Saturday, May 19, 2012

Pipistrel Comes Through Again

Just a few short months ago I posted an announcement from Pipistrel about its upcoming, mid-$80K ALPHA Trainer, targeted for flight schools and already bought in significant quantities by the Indian Air Force as a military primary trainer.
ALPHA was promised for April, and Pipistrel nailed it – how often do we see that in manufacturing?
Pipistrel's ALPHA Trainer. all photos courtesy Pipistrel
Pipistrel is the same progressive Slovenian company that won the CAFE electric flight competition last year with the Taurus Electro G4 and has gained a growing reputation in the sport aviation industry for innovative, high-performing, highly efficient aircraft such as the Virus and Sinus S-LSA.
Beefed up gear, lower nose angle, shorter prop to minimize prop strikes.
After keeping its promise to debut the ALPHA in April at the European AERO show, word comes from Ivo Boscarol and company of the successful conclusion of flight testing.  The ALPHA is now in production.
The original concept was to create a do-it-all trainer that would garner substantial orders, enabling mass production economies of scale that would keep costs affordable for everyone.
Due to the wide variance in regulations country to country, Pipistrel realized that goal was not feasible and instead offers two versions of the ALPHA.
For countries in support of FAA-LSA (or ASTM-certified) standards, the company offers a 1212 lb. (550 kg) MTOW version.
Three-point belts, headrest, durable fabric upholstery.
In places where the UL LTF standard is adopted, the European Ultralight/Microlight model, with a MTOW of  1047 lb. (472.5 kg), takes center stage.
Even though the price is dramatically lower than comparable composite LSA, the ALPHA Trainer is no stripped-down, bare bones bird.
Some of many appealing features for this latest in a line of low-drag, light-weight LSA:
<> Strong and easy to fly for entry-level students
<> Ballistic parachute system
<> Benign stall and overall handling
<> Affordable and easy to operate, maintain and repair
<> Built for endurance (takeoff/landing circuits) and extremes of weather: good ventilation and cabin heating
<> Approved strobes and lighting
<> Quiet cockpit for easy communication between instructor and student
<> Readily available access to spare parts for quick repair turnaround – vital for flight schools
Flaperon handle actuates 25° of travel
<> Good cross-country training range (390 nm)
<> Easy daily service and refueling,
<> Durable finish for outdoor storage
<> Good brakes for ground handling emergencies
<> Dual flight controls with quick/easy adjustment for a variety of body types
<> Long operating life
<> Tricycle configuration with steerable nose wheel
<> Easy cockpit ingress, even for older students
<> Affordable and cost-effective to operate
Some other features: robust composite undercarriage, including a shorter, stronger nose strut which improves visibility during taxi.
The 15-gallon, easy-fill fuel tank is fuselage mounted and gives 5 hours endurance.  And that fuel burn estimate factors in multiple takeoff/landing circuits too.
High-leverage center console handle for hydraulic brakes
Pipistrel is known for its superbly clean aerodynamics: though power comes from the tried-and-true Rotax 912, 80 hp engine, the ALPHA is no performance slouch with a cruise speed of 108 knots (same as a Cessna 172), “very short” take-off distance and a climb rate listed at more than 1000 fpm.
The ALPHA Trainer uses the basic fuselage shape from its other successful designs but the wing, from the Pipistrel Virus SW (Short Wing), is significantly redesigned to eliminate air brakes (wing top spoilers) and incorporates redesigned flaperons with 25° of flap travel.
Also new is a wooden propeller, designed and CNC-carved in house, then covered with a durable coating.
Lots more to appreciate here and congratulations to Pipistrel for another dramatic entry into the field.
My big question is, will the market recognize this as the breakthrough design I believe it to be and order in sufficient quantities to make it another Pipistrel success story?  We’ll see.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Roadable Airplane, Meet Mainstream Media

Somebody at the L.A. Times has got a sweet tooth for the flying car, specifically the Terrafugia Transition SLSA-legal “roadable” airplane.  No less than six feature articles about flying cars have appeared in the prestigious newspaper’s online edition in the last month alone, in departments as diverse as Business, U.S., Nation Now, Tech Now and Automobiles, penned by a variety of journalists.
All this attention also signifies somebody at Terrafugia is really doing a superb job at getting the word out, which has in fact been evident from the beginning: I’ve seen notices of hundreds of articles in all kinds of publications since the program was first announced some years ago.
Screen capture from LA Times online
Clearly the idea of a Jetsons-style flying car continues to tickle the cultural subconscious.
That the Transition is wildly unaffordable for most 99 percenters hardly matters: it’s kind of a kick, isn’t it, to imagine being able to fly your car anywhere, then drive around once you get there?
Of course, it seems vastly more logical, and certainly more cost effective, to simply fly where you want in an airplane, and carry more than two people by the way, then rent a nice big comfortable car once you get there, but hey, let’s not stomp on romantic notions, alright?
Still, I can’t help but wonder, after returning from 2+ weeks driving through the breathtaking Utah, Arizona and Colorado canyon country, how practical a flying car will ever be.
Take the Transition: those vertical folded wing panels  might not cope too well with the kind of hellacious sand/dust storms I experienced more than once driving through high desert landscapes.  I was tense at times just driving our rental car!
To be fair, it seems likely anyone who buys one of these come-to-life fantasies would be prudent to practice the same kind of weather-checking safety acumen required of any pilot before he/she climbs into an aircraft, lest they find, after a vicious gust on the highway, that the flying mission of the car was no longer possible because the wings were cartwheeling downwind all by themselves at 50 mph.
Photo courtesy L.A. Times
I don’t mean to poke fun at the Transition or any other promising flying road vehicle, such as the Maverick (which uses a dune buggy “fuselage”, a large paraglider-type airfoil and costs $94,000 and is being marketed as a kit to avoid a mountain of regulatory hassles) and the  PAL-V roadable gyrocopter, I guess you’d call it, which is indeed a cool, spacey-looking vehicle.  They're marvels of engineering and deserve our respect just for that.
The Dutch company that produces the PAL-V, for Personal Air and Land Vehicle, just flew it’s Proof of Concept model and projects its cost at $300,000 when it hits the market in 2014.
At 1,500 lbs., though, it won’t qualify as an LSA.
Flying car dreams are nothing new.  There have been many, many designs that actually flew but most never came to market over the decades since civilian flight began.
Photo courtesy Moller International
And let's not overlook Moller International which has somehow gone through tens of millions of dollars of investor money without, so far as I’ve been able to discover, ever marketing a flying production vehicle through more than 40 years of trying.
That doesn’t prevent the company from also showing up in the news on a regular basis, typically with yet another new design (there have been several).
Kind of amazing how Dr. Moller's managed to levitate through the years amidst prevalent and recurring bankruptcy rumors without ever producing a single vehicle...and it's probably a good thing, since when these designs lose just one engine, they are heading straight for the ground.  Engine technology may someday approach complete immunity from mechanical breakdown, but not in our lifetimes for sure.
Nonetheless, last month the Transition drew admiring crowds at the New York Auto show even though it’s now pegged to cost $279,000 once it’s in production, perhaps next year.
Enthusiasm for flying cars shows no signs of waning, not if Terrafugia’s PR people and news organs like the LA Times have anything to say about it.