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Fri, Jan 25, 2013

Is There A Perfect Airplane?

Here Are One Pilot's Criteria For Such A Bird

By David Juwel

All of my life I have heard that there is no perfect airplane. The reason why is because every aircraft has been designed for a specific niche in aviation. Perhaps that niche is cargo carrying, or commercial passenger travel, or bush flying, or float flying, or aerobatics, or distance, altitude and speed records. Perhaps the perfect airplane would be a plane that incorporated all of the above abilities. Maybe, to be the perfect airplane, you would need to carry 100 people and their entire luggage for 8,000 miles at Mach 2, above 60,000 feet, and be able to take-off and land vertically on both land and water. So far that airplane hasn't been invented yet, but at the speed aviation is going, that could occur within the next three generations.

But what about today, right now, is there an airplane that could be considered a perfect aircraft to fly? Obviously, as a general aviation pilot, my perfect airplane doesn’t need to adhere to the high speed, high gross weight, and high altitude standards of a corporate jet or commercial airliner. It doesn’t need to do aerobatics. I don’t want my senses (sight, sound, and smell) impeded or restricted by the aircraft either. It just needs to be a highly utilitarian aircraft that allows you to experience the full sensuality of flight. That’s my idea of the perfect airplane. So where can I find one?

Well, when I surveyed the industry, I found over 1,500 different models of aircraft for sale to the public today. Each one is designed to get you into the air and let you experience some mode of flight. So what should I choose? I can choose anything from a powered paraglider to a certified multi-engine jet aircraft, and everything in-between including hot air balloons, helicopters and sailplanes. But which mode of flight or model of aircraft might be the closest to being the perfect airborne vehicle for the general aviator?

In a quest to definitively answer that question, I decided to list what I felt the perfect aircraft should be able to accomplish. Let’s take a look, and perhaps you’ll agree. In my opinion, the perfect aircraft will have the following characteristics:

  1. Unobstructed open-cockpit or helicopter like visibility, both forward, up and down. This removes the risk of being unable to see other aircraft because a high wing, low wing, or engine obstructs your vision. It also allows you to more completely experience the visibly exotic realm of flight.
  2. The aircraft should be able to carry a minimum of two people. Nobody likes to fly alone. This not only allows you to share the joy of aviation with others, but the increased payload capability enables you to carry more fuel, camping gear, supplies, and general cargo when you’re flying solo.
  3. The aircraft should have a useful load that exceeds the weight of your passengers, baggage and full fuel. Many aircraft require you to minimize one or more of those three areas to stay within the load limit. In most aircraft, you have to limit the baggage or passengers to carry the fuel you need, or when carrying the baggage and passengers that you want, you have to plan on stopping more often because of the limited fuel you can carry.
  4. The aircraft should be able to safely fly at an exceptionally slow speed (40 mph or less) and still maintain stable control. This enables you to land in smaller places, with reduced energy. This could make a huge difference in your survivability and keep you injury free in the event of an unexpected landing in a remote area. Being able to slow the aircraft to this speed or less, before landing, might make the incident injury-free. 
  5. The aircraft should be able to cruise at better than highway speed in a 20 mph headwind. Cross-country flight isn’t practical unless you can beat ground transportation. To do this, you would need the ability to cruise at least 90 mph in a 20mph headwind. That way your ground speed (70 mph) would still exceed most of the posted speed limits. Add the fact that you’ll also be flying in a straight line while the cars are following curves, and going up and down hills, and you’ll beat traffic every time. You’ll succeed even more so if the headwind isn’t there, or you have a tailwind.
  6. The aircraft should be environmentally friendly with a minimal noise signature. Perhaps the ability to add a tuned exhaust and P-tips on the propeller might accomplish that. Having a higher horsepower engine that provides sufficient cruising thrust when operating at a reduced RPM, can also make your aircraft more environmentally friendly, and save on fuel too.
  7. The aircraft should have the ability to add a built-in emergency parachute system designed for the gross weight of the aircraft. Or at least enable everyone to easily bail out using personal parachutes. In the perfect aircraft, this would only be needed as a contingency for the most extreme emergency.
  8. The aircraft should be heavy enough to fly in moderate winds, turbulence and weather. A lot of the ultralight and microflight aircraft are limited to sunrise and sunset flights because they’re very uncomfortable to fly in moderate winds and turbulence. This reduces the practical value of the aircraft and the enjoyment of flight.
  9. The aircraft should have simplistic construction and be easy to maintain. Otherwise, it becomes cost prohibitive to own and operate.
  10. The aircraft should have a strong undercarriage with large tires for unprepared surfaces. This enables you to land and take-off from almost anywhere, which results in increased utility, enjoyment and safety.
  11. The aircraft should have fuselage or wing attach points for external fuel pods, baggage pods or other utility purposes. This further increases the utility and cross-country range of the aircraft.
  12. The aircraft should have removable or folding rear seats for additional cargo space (with internal cargo tie-downs). This provides increased utility, especially if you’re flying solo.
  13. The aircraft should have the ability to add amphibious floats for both land and water operations. Again, we have an increase in the maximum utility of the aircraft. Being able to land on water gives you thousands of more places to land in an emergency. Although every state has seaplanes bases within it, this is especially useful if you live in the Florida, Washington, Alaska, Minnesota or the New England States, because they have the most seaplane activity.
  14. The aircraft should have two engines with minimal asymmetrical thrust when one is shut down, and the ability to maintain cruise or climb at gross weight on a single engine. This is purely a safety factor. Why risk flying low and slow, if you don’t have redundancy in your engines? With two engines, you can fly low and slow anywhere, not just over the areas with clear ground. Many twin-engine aircraft wouldn’t fit in this category because they are more risky to fly in single engine mode than most single engine aircraft. This is because many of them don’t have the ability to maintain constant altitude and speed at gross weight on a single engine, and they’re harder to control because of the greater asymmetrical thrust.
  15. The aircraft would be able to be environmentally friendly by using noise abatement. This would be useful during take-off and landings, for surveillance, and for flight over environmentally sensitive areas.
  16. The aircraft should have the ability to get as high as 15,000 feet (with supplemental oxygen and clothing). This allows you to fly everywhere within the contiguous 48-states, and many foreign countries, without your route being blocked by impassable mountains.
  17. The aircraft can be either kit-built or manufactured, but it must not cost more to own and operate than a high-end Class C, or a low-end Class A, recreational vehicle (RV). The aircraft must have the ability to get you there more cheaply and more quickly than a fully equipped RV. While the RV gives you more comfort, and might take you to some of the same places, it doesn’t provide you with the exotic experience, the remote access, the speed, and the aerial view that an airplane affords. With sufficient useful load and baggage space, you can even bring some of the RV comforts with you.
  18. The aircraft should have sufficient fuel to fly cross-country distances without constantly having to land to refuel. The aircraft should be able to fly longer and further than the comfort zone of your bladder. This not only increases the utility of the aircraft but it also increases your safety because you have sufficient fuel reserves to get beyond places that may not have fuel available (mountain, forest, or desert areas), or when weather causes an unexpected detour.
  19. The aircraft must have the ability to land and take-off in less than 500 feet. This increases your safety, utility and convenience. The smaller the area you need to land and take-off in, the greater the utility and safety of the aircraft, and the more places you can stop at.
  20. The aircraft must be able to climb over 1,000 fpm for safe obstacle avoidance, and if it’s a twin-engine, be able to climb at gross weight on a single engine. This is a safety issue. It doesn’t do any good to have two engines if you can’t maintain or gain altitude on one engine. Just being able to slow your descent on one engine isn’t necessarily beneficial if you run out of altitude before you find a place to land.
  21. This aircraft must have the ability to attach photography, video and sound equipment to document the flying experience. This ability really expands the utility of the aircraft and the memory retention of each flight.
  22. This aircraft must have a heavy duty electrical and battery system. The last thing you want to do is be in a remote location and find that your battery has died because you left a switch on, or the system is two weak to operate everything you need.
  23. This aircraft must have the ability to add skies, floats, all terrain tires, and other accessories useful to survival and remote operation. This gives you the ability to expand the aircraft into an all-terrain, all-season aircraft.
  24. The aircraft must have the ability to function in the utility category and be rugged enough to be used in remote locations such as short grass runways, remote clearings, low-tide beaches, and gravel road areas.This adds to the all-terrain, all-season capabilities of the aircraft.
  25. The aircraft must have duel controls and instrumentation. This is useful for safety, for instruction, and to reduce the fatigue of individual piloting over long distances.

Those are the twenty-five ways that I would want my perfect airplane to perform or be equipped. If it didn't have all of the equipment, it ought to at least have the ability to switch to them (floats or skis for example) if the occasion warranted or the itch occurred.

With such an aircraft, I could carry at least one passenger, have great visibility, take great pictures, carry a sufficient amount of cargo for each of us, go a sufficient distance at better than land speed (or fly low and slow), and get over or through any mountainous area. But above all, I’ll have redundant safety features with the twin engines, the slow flight ability, and the touchdown anywhere landing gear. And even greater safety if I have a total aircraft parachute, personal parachutes or life jackets available.

In such an aircraft, I could carry folding chairs, hammocks, sleeping bags, a large tent, a small stove and utensils, extra clothing, survival equipment, maintenance equipment, oil and spare parts, computer equipment, a small generator, hunting & fishing equipment, portable lights, spare batteries, and an inflatable raft if I didn’t have floats.. With floats attached, I could carry a kayak, a mountain bike, or additional cargo on each float.

With such an airplane I could thoroughly enjoy and record the beauty of our geography, nature in the raw, the exotic experiences of aviation, and do it with complete safety, at a moderate expense. I could fly places that few people have ever been, and see things that few people have ever seen.

Does such an airplane exist? As I said earlier, I scoured over 1,500 different models of aircraft, including balloons, certified general aviation aircraft, gyroplanes, helicopters, microlights, paraplanes, and sailplanes to see if I could find just one aircraft that met my twenty-five aspects of a perfect airplane.

And I found only one, which I'll tell you about in Part II

FMI: Contact David Juwel at scoachm@clearwire.net

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