Efficiency, the New Currency
We get e-mails occasionally from readers who are upset that new airplanes cost so much. Before I go further, I’d like to make one thing clear: It’s not my fault.
The fact is that I’d like as much as the next guy, probably more than the next guy, for there to be brand-new $50,000 four-seaters plying the airways at 200 knots with glass panels and enough payload to carry four and bags. It sounds like an amazing airplane. Unfortunately, it’s an impossible dream, a lesson that even the most optimistic malcontents among us must have learned from our shared LSA experiment. I knew going in that any reasonably capable, commercially viable LSA was going to cost well north of $100,000, and they all do. And this, remember, is for an airplane that carries no more than two occupants, goes no faster than 120 knots and is by regulation a very light airplane — a Cessna 150 is too much airplane to qualify as an LSA. It just costs a lot of money to develop, certify and produce an airplane, any airplane. And if the manufacturer wants to make a profit on that endeavor, it’s going to have to mark up the product accordingly.
While the battle for a truly inexpensive new airplane might be lost, at least until a new means of propulsion becomes a practical alternative, we stand to see real progress in terms of efficiency. The Pipistrel Virus SW that Peter Garrison discusses in his feature article (page 40) is the standard-bearer for that goal. At a true airspeed far faster than any LSA’s, it can deliver fuel economy of around 55 mpg, nearly four times better than that of a standard-issue sport utility vehicle.
While Pipistrel achieves this remarkable performance by making smart design choices, let’s face it: It’s not the first company to figure out the costs and compromises necessary to make airplanes that can go a long way on a tank of fuel. And it’s not the first company to use carbon fiber, Rotax engines or long slender wings. Unlike most of its competitors, however, it has exhibited a single-minded commitment to making the goal of efficiency a reality, a commitment that resulted in Pipistrel walking away with a $1.3 million prize in NASA’s Green Challenge.
Pipistrel’s winning entry in that contest was the electric-powered Taurus G4. With twin fuselages and seating compartments and a 75-foot sailplane wing, the G4 is about as commercially viable as a pet possum. The hope, though, is for Pipistrel to take the lessons learned on the airplane and translate them to airplanes that people might actually buy and fly; one might argue that airplane is the Virus.
An even better bet might be the in-the-works Panthera, a sexy four-seater that Pipistrel is developing as we speak. Another candidate for the real next generation of light airplanes is the explosively named Flight Design C4, an intriguing design that Flight Design claims will be able to carry four full-size adults and full fuel and cruise at around 160 knots for 1,200 no-wind miles.
Neither airplane will go out the door for $50,000, that’s for sure, though Flight Design has a promised price for the C4 of just $250,000. If it can really deliver a decent flying airplane that makes good on the performance numbers it’s shooting for, and at that price, it’ll sell a lot of airplanes while putting a lot of pressure on competitors old and new to dramatically boost the performance, utility and efficiency of their airplanes while at the same time aggressively cutting prices.
That’s the kind of change that could breathe new life into the new-airplane game.