“You just saved my life!” It’s not often anyone, even a medical doctor, hears those words. Back in the ’90s I was sometimes on the receiving end of a call when a pilot phoned BRS to report a “save,” a sparing of a life by the use of a parachute. It is a humbling experience to have someone exclaim that you (and your fellow workers) are the reason they are alive. A few days ago, it happened again, for the 400th time. BRS Aerospace documented the 400th and 401st lives saved, a worthy milestone in aviation safety. “This milestone and all of the lives saved are a testament to Boris Popov, who conceived the idea and whose vision for the company he founded overcame initial resistance to the very idea of aircraft parachutes from some naysayers,” said BRS President and Director, Enrique Dillon. “The concept’s legacy are the pilots and passengers who survived to continue to live fruitful lives and the thousands of families who have enjoyed added peace of mind when their loved ones fly.” The system is designed to be a last resort for pilots and passengers when all other attempts to recover the airplane in case of emergency or pilot incapacitation have failed.
LSA are getting more power, to wit, Rotax’s new 915iS with 135-horsepower and the Continental Titan line with 180 horsepower. I do not think this is the end of the horsepower boosts …plus LSA speed and/or weight changes could conceivably follow in the USA but are currently not limitations in other countries that accept the ASTM standards as a basis for approval or certification.
I'd like to talk about power. With LSA restricted to 120 KIAS, it seems unlikely we'll get much engine development to increase power unless regulations change to either allow an increase in speed or gross weight.
What would be the point of more powerful engines on LSA?
Well, that topic could take us down quite a lengthy path. Let me offer a somewhat shorter reply. You are right about many tech developments — and on that I point you to an article published recently in General Aviation News' "The Pulse of Aviation." Two thoughts: (1) I believe the LSA sector has reached an interesting level of maturity. The pace of major innovations may have slowed but the most important developments are now common on most LSA (and light kits). This situation is not so different than smartphones that totally upended mobile a decade ago with the introduction of the iPhone. In a similar time period, that industry has also matured and development has lost its torrid pace. (2) The funny thing about innovation is you often don’t know how or when it might emerge. Electric propulsion is one possibility and then we are seeing the first glimmer of a new class of aircraft with a collection of spinning blades or rotating wings. Who can guess where precisely that is headed? Whatever the coming changes, they will work first on lighter aircraft. My article referenced above tries to speculate a bit.
There's already a lot of technology in LSA thanks to the need to save weight, which has me wondering where the sector is going. Can you provide me with some thoughts?
One definition of composite is "made of various materials." In the past "composite" implied fiberglass. LSA already rely on fiberglass, aluminum, and steel but add high-tech materials such as Kevlar, carbon fiber, and titanium. Today, the most advanced designs have significantly carbon fiber airframes, partly for weight but also strength as well as aerodynamic efficiency and design beauty.
Composite versus metal. Is there something else? What type of composites are in common use and what types are under development? What drives composite development? Does metal still have a future in LSA? Is mix-and-match of both the way to go?
That's one beauty of fiberglass and carbon. You can have beautiful shapes and strength with weigh savings. Assembly ease is a factor, too. Those materials will surely persist for those reasons and for future production efficiencies. However, since nearly all airplanes are low-production — essentially hand-built with modest use of robotics, even at the Boeing or Airbus level — prospects for genuine mass production seem distant.
What are the major construction methods? Is there room for the construction method to contribute to the aircraft performance in terms of weight saving? Aircraft like the Ekolot Topaz have fuselages formed in two halves then adhered together like a Revell P-51 model. Is this the way of the future? Is there room for mass production?
Avionics development has seen technology cascade down from GA, but there is some that has been designed from scratch for the LSA sector, such as AoA Indicators. Which way will the technology flow in the future? Is EFIS going to become standard for LSAs or do the traditional clocks still have a place? Have we reached a pinnacle in LSA simply because the sector can operate without technology such as HUDs?
Perhaps we are pushing some boundaries if new ideas and materials are not forthcoming. However, they are forthcoming. I’m not too worried about it. For example, crush zone technology in cars did not add weight — in fact removed it compared to other methods — and this greatly added to safety.
Weight-saving is always an issue for manufacturers. In Australia a land-based LSA can lift no more than 600 kg (1,320 pounds), so what can manufacturers do to increase their useful load? Are we reaching a dangerous situation where the aircraft are getting too light or are too heavy to include some desirable safety features, such as parachutes?
Are regulations stifling LSAs? Should LSAs be able to fly at up to 750 kg MTOW (1,650 pounds gross) to give manufacturers more design freedom? Is there anything that has to change to enable more technology to be used in LSA, and if so, what is it?
You are right that LSA is leading the innovation charge in many ways. Where can the industry go from here? We (LAMA) have spoken to FAA a lot in the last three years as we seek new opportunities within the present regulatory framework. It is perfectly clear that LSA were a significant reason why FAA went ahead with the Part 23 rewrite and use of industry consensus standards. To answer the future question, I again refer you to this recent article. The freshest new tech in aviation may come from outside aviation but I would never discount the passionate, imaginative, and motivated designers and developers operating in light aviation today.
There's a lot there, but there's also a lot to think about. Until the rewrite of FAR23, the LSA sector led general aviation in technology, especially in the use of composites. The new FAR23 is sort of like catch-up regulation for GA, but where does the technology leader, LSA, go to from here?
Recently I had an exchange with Australian Flying magazine editor, Steve Hitchen. He asked some great questions and after giving my responses I realized some of his question were common ones I hear being discussed. So why not share our give-and-take? Steve’s questions are in blue. I’d like to talk about power. With LSA restricted to 120 KIAS, it seems unlikely we’ll get much engine development to increase power unless regulations change to either allow an increase in speed or gross weight. LSA are getting more power, to wit, Rotax’s new 915iS with 135-horsepower and the Continental Titan line with 180 horsepower. I do not think this is the end of the horsepower boosts …plus LSA speed and/or weight changes could conceivably follow in the USA but are currently not limitations in other countries that accept the ASTM standards as a basis for approval or certification.
Battle of the GiantsProgress toward new aviation frontiers continues. Airbus has generated media attention for several out-of-the-box projects they are supporting. Pursuing new directions may lead to an electric propulsion airliner of the future. Only time knows how that may turn out, but meanwhile companies from our sector of aviation are making some inroads to these new developments. One of these businesses is BRS Aerospace. The South St. Paul. Minnesota company "recently completed the installation of a ballistic whole aircraft parachute into the Perlan 2 experimental space glider as part of preparations for the 2018 season of Airbus Perlan Mission II." The words "space" and "glider" are not commonly used together. In September 2017, the Perlan 2 sailplane accomplished a record-setting powerless flight to 52,000 feet over the Andes. "Later this year, the Airbus Perlan Mission II all-volunteer team will be attempting to soar the aircraft to over 90,000 feet to set a new world record for winged aircraft in sustained flight," reported BRS. "Perlan 2 has a drogue parachute to slow and stabilize the aircraft in case of high altitude emergency, and a ballistic BRS whole aircraft parachute system for lower altitude recovery and landing," said Ed Warnock, CEO of The Perlan Project. "This gives chief pilot Jim Payne and pilot/project manager Morgan Sandercock, as well as our whole team of pilots and their families, additional peace of mind on these very high altitude missions." Since the 1980s, BRS reports delivering more than 35,000 airframe parachutes to LSA, experimentals, ultralights, unmanned vehicles, military aircraft, and general aviation aircraft. The company has documented 376 lives saved through the use of these systems. Not to be left out by their European rival, this week Boeing HorizonX Ventures' dove more deeply into battery development as the aerospace giant announced this week its first investment in an energy storage company, Berkeley, California-based Cuberg. Although batteries can power an ultralight today with reasonable success, a major stumbling block in the development of larger electric-propelled aircraft is battery technology, which is currently delayed by energy sources that weigh too much and produce too little power. "Cuberg's battery technology has some of the highest energy density we've seen in the marketplace, and its unique chemistries could prove to be a safe, stable solution for future electric air transportation," said Steve Nordlund, vice president of Boeing HorizonX, which previously announced an investment in another startup, Zunum Aero, a company developing "hybrid to electric aircraft."
Is your aviation horizon is getting confused by quadcopters, electric aircraft, and airliners? What’s going on, anyway? Airbus supporting a glider? BRS building emergency parachutes for an aircraft hoping to fly to 90,000 feet, on the edge of space? Boeing investing in a battery start-up? What will flying become in the future? This is impossible to know but here’s something to think about: If “Beam-me-up, Scotty” technology ever arrives, airlines may disappear quickly. Sport aircraft, however, should survive because they are flown to experience joy aloft, not for transport. Meanwhile… Battle of the Giants Progress toward new aviation frontiers continues. Airbus has generated media attention for several out-of-the-box projects they are supporting. Pursuing new directions may lead to an electric propulsion airliner of the future. Only time knows how that may turn out, but meanwhile companies from our sector of aviation are making some inroads to these new developments.