The last twenty years or so aviation training has seen aircraft used that, well, worked. They haven’t been ideal. We have used old airplanes, airplanes that cost a lot, airplanes that are too big, and in some cases aircraft that are too complicated. But we have had to use what we have.
These old airplanes such as Cessna 150s and 152s, old Cessna 172s, Piper Warriors, and a number of others are wearing out. They are getting old and they aren’t going to last for another generation. Which means we need to come up with some aircraft that will meet these needs.
In my last couple of posts I have poked at the problems, and I believe if you are going to poke a problem, you should propose a solution or shut up. I propose that we develop an airplane that will meet the needs of the training industry (not just in the United States, but around the world) and give us the equipment that will allow us to train the next generation of pilots.
No one has recently really taken the time to really think critically about what the perfect training airplane for the next generation would be, so let’s start talking about it.
I have a few things that I think should be included in the design.
The reality is that we are probably best served by a two-seat aircraft. For training there is no real need to carry more than the pilot (trainee) and an instructor. The two seats need to be bigger than in a classically built two seat aircraft such as a Cessna 150/152 or Piper Tomahawk because, well, as people, we are bigger than we were when our legacy aircraft were designed. So the cabin should be a little wider, a little longer, and have a little more headroom than the old airplanes had.
Along with being two-seat, it has to accommodate a reasonable weight capacity. For the same reason above. I expect that we should make a plane that will haul two 250 lb people, a full load of fuel (that allows the plane to fly for 4 hours), and another 100 lbs of random baggage. I doubt a 100hp engine isn’t going to make that work, so we are probably looking at something more like the 150 hp mark to make the weight and balance work and give reasonable performance.
While we are talking about engines, I think the aircraft needs to run on Jet A, also commonly referred to as diesel. Jet A is typically cheaper per gallon, the infrastructure for delivery already exists, and I doubt that we are in jeopardy of it going away anytime soon. This engine should run so the aircraft doesn’t burn more than 8 gallons per hour (in cruise), although 6 would be even better. Lower cost gas and less gallons per hour would drastically reduce the cost per hour of flight training. Well, at least it won’t increase it anymore. There is no engineering reason why a country full of smart people can’t make this work. We put people on the moon darn it, we can make a diesel engine for an airplane that works.
The aircraft avionics don’t need to be overly complex to accomplish most initial training. A primary WAAS capable GPS/Nav/Com with a good second nav/com capable of receiving VOR, ILS, and localizer frequencies is probably all we need. This gives us the ability to teach IFR GPS approaches and all other regularly used ground based navigation systems. It gives us redundant coms coupled with a standard six-pack style panel (I don’t think it matters from a training standpoint much for primary training if those instruments are glass, digitally run or traditional instruments – although I bet digital instruments will be cheaper to maintain over the life of the aircraft) with CDI indicators for the navigation systems is enough. We don’t need autopilot, we don’t need HUD displays, we don’t need EVS systems, etc. for primary training. We need to have the ability to have aircraft systems that are easily maintainable, replaced, and are reliable for training basics. A system setup like this could train the fundamentals while also making sure the pilots trained on them have sharp aircraft stick and rudder skills.
It doesn’t have to be sexy or fast, it needs to be effective. We don’t need to fly 150 knots to get to the practice area or to travel between practice approaches. We have effectively trained pilots in airplanes for many years with cruise speeds that didn’t top 110 knots and trying to learn to manage instrument approaches over 90 knots just makes it harder.
While it is nice to fly an airplane that looks cool, it isn’t needed. Designing an airplane that has good aerodynamic characteristics that is durable and gets the job done is more important. It should have good stall characteristics that allow us to train safely the envelopes of flight.
We need to think about an aircraft that is highly maintainable. This means redundant parts. Why can’t we design an airplane that has interchangeable control surfaces? The ailerons, the rudder, the elevators, the flaps; can’t they all be interchangeable if we build it right? I know it might not be ideal, but could it be functional? What about main gears that just turn around and have the brakes put on the opposite side? Why would we bother with wheel pants at all? Could we even make wings that could be used on either side with the only change being different wing tips on each end? Think how much easier it would be for a flight school to have a couple extra parts around to keep an aircraft flying if they had multiple parts that were interchangeable? I’m just spitballing here, but if we are thinking about ideals, can’t we do that? The more interchangeable parts and the fewest number of total parts we need to make a functional airplane, the easier it is going to be to maintain, fix, build at the outset, and in the end (think about economies of scale in the manufacturing process) produce in large and economically viable numbers. It is also going to make an airplane easier to keep in service for the demanding flight training environment that will always use up regular wear items (and break a few other parts periodically also). If a flight training operation has to keep less parts around that fit more needs, it means when something breaks, it is going to be faster and easier to put the aircraft back on the line. On the line, means making money.
Ok, so these are just a few thoughts. What do we do from here? I think we keep talking. I don’t have all the answers. No one person does. But as an industry together I think we do. In fact, I challenge us as an industry to start this discussion and come together to come up with the right mix. As an industry we could come up with a consensus of characteristics that could be put into an RFP for builders to work with.
If we come up with a design as an industry, maybe it becomes an open source effort that would allow any manufacturer to build the aircraft? The builder who does it most cost effectively would have an advantage on other producers. Let’s think outside the box here. Maybe the winner of the RFP gets the rights to sell the design to a manufacturer, or perhaps a manufacturer who best meets the RFP gets the rights to production?
Perhaps someone out there could sponsor a challenge with a nice price that universities and colleges with aeronautical engineering programs could get their students to design toward. Who will take that challenge and step up for this?
Let’s get this discussion moving and start thinking about the future aircraft training needs more than just two, five, or ten years in the future. It’s time to design and build the aircraft that will serve us for the next 25 or 50 years. Who’s with me, who wants to help move this discussion forward, and who wants to help us all find the solution to our current and future aircraft needs for flight training?
With only two days until Christmas morning, I hope that my best chance for this isn’t Santa Claus.