The Next Little Thing
Why 2006 is the year of the very light jet.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
American Honda Motor Co.
(Page 4 of 6)
“We invested about $30 million” to make the welding process applicable to the Eclipse, says Raburn. The company uses custom-made computer numeric control machines that automatically weld the aircraft structure from the inside out, creating an exterior skin just as smooth as composites, says Raburn. “The great and obvious payoff for us is the speed,” says Raburn. “We can weld an entire set of airplane parts in one shift in eight hours that replaces 1,700- to 1,900-man hours and multiple shifts to build the airplane.”
Another computer whiz bringing software sensibilities to the aviation industry is Adam Aircraft CEO George F. “Rick” Adam. Adam ran the Real-Time Computer Center at the Kennedy Space Center during the Apollo program before taking a string of tech jobs that culminated with the chief information officer slot at finance giant Goldman Sachs. He founded Adam Aircraft in 1998, initially to make new-generation piston aircraft, but in 2003 began development of the $2.25 million A700 very light jet. The company expects to have the A700 certified next year and currently has 310 orders for it.
“I was always struck by how little new technology was making its way into airplanes,” says Adam. “If you bought a general aviation airplane, it looked just like it did 40 years ago. That always struck me as really unnatural.”
Adam has a more modest production plan than Eclipse and still thinks composites are the way to go. Both the A700 and A500 piston aircraft are fashioned from carbon fiber composite, and Adam credits this construction with holding down costs as well as providing a lighter aircraft and a more voluminous cabin. (With composite construction, there is no need for ribs, stringers, or any of the other support structures that hold aluminum fuselages together.)
“It is much less expensive to design and tool an airplane in composites than it is in aluminum,” Adam says. “In aluminum, you have to go to a tool-and-die maker, and the typical turnaround is six to nine months.” (Raburn figures differently: It’s cheaper to tool a composite aircraft, but the material is more expensive than aluminum. Raburn is counting on an automatic production line for further savings.)
“We do all of our own tooling in-house,” says Adam, “and we can build a tool in a week. In software, we used to call this ‘rapid prototyping.’ If we make a mistake, we fix it in a couple of days. If a guy in aluminum tooling makes a mistake, it loops back through months and months and months. Time is money. By cutting down the elapsed time, we use less money.”
Adam calls the carbon fiber technology used in his aircraft “second-generation.” It is a composite pre-impregnated with resin and supported by sandwiched honeycomb, similar to that used on the Raytheon Premier and Hawker 4000 business jets and what will be used on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Adam claims it yields a weight savings of 10 to 15 percent over comparable aluminum aircraft.
Not everyone building a very light jet is an aviation outsider. Linden Blue has been a leader in the industry for 30 years, beginning with Gates Learjet in 1977, where he was executive vice president and general manager. He has been a composites champion for most of that time, and especially since his directorship at Raytheon, when he supported the doomed but dazzling Starship twin turboprop (see “Beached Starship,” Aug./Sep. 2004). Since 1986, he has served as co-chairman of General Atomics, the company that makes the famous Predator series of unmanned aerial vehicles for the military. The Predator can stay aloft for 40 hours without refueling, thanks in part to its lightweight composite construction. Over the last 20 years, Blue has also been funding composite research, and in 1998 he formed Spectrum Aeronautical to take advantage of the technology.