An 'Innovation Plateau' Hits GA For 2006
By nearly all accounts, 2006 will go down as a banner year
for general aviation. Sales of GA planes remain healthy, with a
varied selection of capable aircraft. You likely won't find many
new plane owners complaining they couldn't find just what they were
looking for (whether it was available at the price they were
looking for, though, is a different matter.)
Furthermore, the wide selection of new planes available also
serves to drive down prices on existing airframes. Whereas news
planes can still be considered a seller's market... if a buyer is
considering a used plane, they would seem to have the upper
Even in the face of ever-climbing fuel prices, buyers don't seem
to be put off too much by sticker shock, if GAMA's year-to-date
numbers for 2006 are an indication. People are buying, planes have
little chance to collect dust on dealer lots... manufacturers are
Not all is well, though. Several issues that could tank -- I'll
say it again, TANK -- the latest GA boom are just over the horizon.
Most visible is the impending FAA funding battle... but there are
very real concerns also about attracting new pilots to the fold,
and insuring they are properly trained. As the baby boomer
generation has aged, so has the pilot community... and we're not
bringing in new bodies anywhere quickly enough. Yet.
The issue of pilot safety also looms large. The GA community was
hit this year with several high-profile accidents... and now more
than ever, the "general" media is paying close attention to any and
all incidents and mishaps. All one needs to do is set up a news
alert for "plane crash"... your inbox will be flooded with reports.
All day. Every day.
There is also the question of new technologies. The dawning of
the 21st century brought with it a plethora of new and innovative
products for the general aviation pilot. Glass cockpits, GPS, TAWS,
TCAS, ballistic parachutes... the list goes on. Perhaps it is to be
expected that 2006 saw relatively little true innovation in the GA
segment, after such a virtual flood of revolutionary new
If there's one thing history shows us, though, it's that if the
GA market doesn't innovate... it WILL stagnate, and sales will
plummet as a result.
Over the next several days, Aero-News will consider the key
areas that impacted general aviation in 2006. We will also examine
how GA is working to bring new pilots into the fold... and whether
those efforts are having an impact.
Today, we'll examine the seeming lack of new and innovative
technology available to the GA segment in 2006.
I'll admit it -- I had to think awhile for the a notable (truly)
new technology to hit the general aviation market this year.
I finally arrived at, "You can now get a Cirrus in an actual
color, not just white."
Of course, there WERE a few other achievements for 2006.
Columbia certified and started installations of their all-electric
EVADE anti-icing system. And speaking of Cirrus, the Duluth-based
planemaker unveiled its speedier Cirrus Turbo (shown above) at
Oshkosh. That's noteworthy not only because, hey, it's a speedier
Cirrus -- but also due to the company's agreement with Tornado
Alley Turbo (which holds the STC) to supply the turbonormalizing
On the opposite side of the fuel spectrum, diesel powerplants
continue to make inroads on the US marketplace, a charge led almost
entirely (and quite capably) by Diamond's DA42 Twin Star. (The mere
fact we're talking about a new multiengine trainer is an
accomplishment in itself.)
Van Bortel Aircraft in Arlington, TX also announced it would
install the same Thielert Centurion 1.7-liter engine that powers
the Twin Star on new Cessna 172s. Furthermore, they will do so with
Cessna's blessing, and support. So while progress on making diesel
powerplants more widely available has been excrutiatingly slow...
there HAS been progress. We'll call that a win.
2006 was also a BIG year for light jets -- with the
certifications and first deliveries of Cessna's Mustang and the
Eclipse 500. Adam Aircraft continues to make deliberate progress
with its A700, as well. A subsegment of the VLJ market -- the
single-engine jet -- also appears to be coming into its own, with
the first flight of Diamond's D-Jet on the smaller end, and the
unveiling of the grande-sized PiperJet at NBAA.
There were several advancements on the avionics front. Garmin
unveiled its GMX200 multifunction display in April; it followed
that with the introduction of the mega-cool GPSMAP 496 at Oshkosh.
Forget "everything but the kitchen sink" -- we're pretty sure the
496 includes the sink, too.
Glass panels technology continued its march of
domination of GA cockpits, with Avidyne's Entegra system
finally making it onto the Piper Seminole twin. Garmin announced a
retrofit option for its G1000 system for King Airs.
On the homebuilder side, Garmin unveiled its G900X glass panel
for the Experimental market. It's a beautiful setup... with a
Monet-level pricetag of $66,795, less installation. (Information
that led one reader to ask -- in three different emails --
These are all notable achievements, to be sure... but they all
represent new applications of existing technology, versus true
innovation. 2006 began with great hopes for new engine technology,
in particular... hopes that, alas, failed to reach fruition.
Where's My FADEC?
If you were hoping 2006
would finally bring Full Authority Digital Electronics
Control to your small piston cockpit... well, there's always
next year. Or the year after that, etc. While development
continues to bring FADEC to the current generation
of piston powerplants... it's moving at a glacial pace. (ANN has
heard one manufacturer express 'disgust' over waiting
years to offer FADEC in its planes... only to be told by the
enginemaker to wait just a bit longer.)
To date, only one general aviation piston aircraft -- the
supposedly-in-production Liberty XL2 -- offers FADEC controls, on
its 125-horsepower Continental IOF-240. That's not enough, not by a
Promising Engine Tech In Limbo
And speaking of FADEC... 2006 saw the shakeup of the promising
BRP-Rotax V6 engine program. The Austrian enginemaker told
Aero-News in November it still intended to complete certification
tests of the all-aluminum, liquid-cooled, FADEC-controlled V6
aircraft engine by December '06, in the hopes another company would
pick up the program. No word yet on whether the company met that
So, for now, pilots will continue to fly even the most advanced
piston aircraft... powered by essentially the same engines that
powered their grandfather's V35 Bonanza. That's not progress.
Will 2007 Herald The 'Next Big Thing' For GA?
After the blitz of new technologies that hit GA in the past
several years -- glass cockpits, TCAS, composites, etc. -- perhaps
it's only natural 2006 didn't see much in the way of truly new
Nevertheless, we hope 2007 will show us something new...
something that will REALLY knock our socks off. We're not asking
for much... a sub-$40K light sport aircraft that can achieve
low-earth orbit would do it (grin.)
On the more realistic side of the spectrum, by this time
next year we may be looking at the dawning of an entirely new
segment: the personal jet. The aforementioned D-Jet is but the
first entry into this exciting field... which may finally bring the
Jetson's-esque concept of the "family jet" into reality. Cirrus
Design's clandestine "The Jet" is another intriguing potential
entry here... and there are vague rumors of other
companies looking at this field, as well.
Let's face it: short of the Moller flying car concept
FINALLY taking off -- we're not holding our breath -- personal jets
may very well mark the kind of innovation that could breathe
new life into general aviation.
But one thing is clear, at least to us. If a GA planemaker
or engine manufacturer has something truly new to show us,
now is the time to do so, while sales are hot; if the segment
waits much longer, even the most promising new gadget, panel,
engine, or aircraft could falter in the marketplace... not
because of lack of innovation, but lack of interest.
Coming Thursday: The Political Battle Facing