Adam Is for Real

Mac visits a startup airplane manufacturer and discovers that they're actually doing many things right.


I have had the opportunity to watch many, many start-up companies try to build their first aircraft, and the record of success is dismal. But I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Adam Aircraft's operation in Denver. I think this company has a good chance to make it.

The new airplane is named the CarbonAero because it is built from carbon fiber composite material. Adam Aircraft is named for founder Rick Adam, who made a fortune in the computer business. The CarbonAero is a push-pull pressurized piston twin powered by two Continental turbocharged 550s rated at 350 horsepower each and controlled by FADEC computers.

The primary reasons I'm bullish on Adam Aircraft is that it makes no irrational promises, and the company appears to have the money available to finish the project.

Most startup airplane companies promise the moon, but the laws of physics keep the moon in its place and the performance of light airplanes little changed. What Adam is offering is an alternative, not a miracle. For example, Adam predicts a maximum takeoff weight of 6,300 pounds. That is only 100 pounds more than what a pressurized Baron weighs, so meeting that goal requires no magic. Max cruise of the CarbonAero is pegged at 250 knots, with a high-speed cruise of 223 knots. The P-Baron cruises that fast with 325 horsepower a side, so Adam needs no miracles with 700 total horsepower available. And the CarbonAero's price is now at about $800,000, a little on the lower side versus other pressurized prop airplanes, but it won't take a walk on the water to achieve.

Adam isn't holding its progress hostage to new technology, either. For example, we all hope to be flying piston airplanes with advanced solid-state electronic attitude-heading reference systems (AHRS) showing all flight instrument information on a PFD soon, but no cost-appropriate units exist yet, so Adam is planning to certify with conventional vacuum-driven instruments. The company hasn't yet chosen an ice protection system, and there are some promising new systems, but Adam can always install conventional pneumatic boots if other technologies don't arrive in time.

Burt Rutan did the initial design work for Adam, but the company has removed many of the complications that Burt seems to include in all of his designs. For example, the original design of the proof of concept airplane that Rutan built for Adam requires the pilot and passenger to climb up onto the wing to enter the cabin. On the real airplane the wing has been repositioned to allow room for an airstair door for easy entry. The original wing design has increased dihedral outboard of the tail booms to form a sort of gull wing, but the final design has a much simpler-to-build constant dihedral angle for its entire span.

I also think the basic configuration of the CarbonAero is conservative both in terms of market appeal and certification issues. Many pilots want multiengine airplanes but are afraid of the extra training and proficiency required to handle a conventional twin on one engine. The CarbonAero eliminates asymmetric thrust control problems with its centerline engines. Insurance companies also feel more confident in the configuration, so pilots should be eligible for coverage with much less experience than in a conventional twin.

In terms of certification, the CarbonAero is immune from two huge hurdles-max stall speed and spin recovery. Because it is a multi it can stall faster than 61 knots at maximum takeoff weight, but singles can't. And all singles must recover from a one-turn spin in one additional turn or find some alternate means of spin recovery, such as the parachute on Cirrus airplanes.

And the CarbonAero doesn't really have any direct competition. There are no pressurized piston twins in production, and the turbines-even the singles-cost substantially more to buy, and a turbine is more costly to own and operate.

Adam Aircraft expects to fly the first conforming CarbonAero this summer and receive certification early in 2003. That schedule sounds optimistic to me, even though all the major components for the first airplane were finished when I visited the factory in March. It's been my observation that the big pieces go quickly, but details take longer than anybody can imagine.

I hope Adam succeeds. The gap between piston and turbine prices isn't going to close, and pressurized piston airplanes can offer good value, particularly with electronic control of the engines. Centerline thrust removes thorny issues for multiengine flying and gives many, many pilots the option to move into a multi that doesn't exist now. With the moon secure in its orbit, Adam is only promising a solid alternative to any airplane you can buy now. It's great to find a new airplane company that has its feet firmly on the ground, not up in the clouds.

Unusual Attitude A required part of all simulator training is recovery from an unusual attitude on instruments. For many years the drill was for the sim instructor to have you close or cover your eyes while he reached between the seats to maneuver the airplane into an extreme attitude. On command you looked up and recovered. Usually the trim was run to an extreme, too, to add to the fun.

A few years ago, many sim instructors would have the pilot in the right seat fly into a wild attitude while the left seat guy had his eyes closed. This worked OK, but I always thought I'd better not be too hard on my captain because his turn was coming to get even.

For my recurrent training this year in FlightSafety's excellent Level D Cessna CJ2 simulator, instructor Roy Rowhuff had a new twist. Roy announced it was time for unusual attitude recovery practice, to close my eyes, but to keep flying. Roy told me turn right, then left and in less than a minute said to look up and recover. I was in a very steep bank, nose way down and airspeed pegged.

I had thought that I could outsmart Roy by holding back pressure as I banked so the nose wouldn't drop. The problem is that I had no idea how steep a bank had developed, and once the bank angle goes much past 45 degrees or so pulling back steepens the bank and drives the nose down unless you can roll in opposite aileron as you pull. This phenomenon is called the over-banking tendency, and all airplanes have it. If you don't believe me go up on a nice day, roll into a steep bank and hold the wheel still while pulling back. The nose will drop, bank steepen, and you will be in the infamous graveyard spiral.

If you ever think you can really fly by the seat of your pants, try flying with your eyes closed. Roy's demonstration was actually an eyeopener and added new interest to what can become a routine simulator training maneuver.