The Extra 500 Now Has a Chance

The bankruptcy of Extra could actually spell success for the single-engine turboprop.


In the mercilessly cruel financial world of small airplane companies, and the new companies that plan to build airplanes, bankruptcy may offer the only chance of success. Nobody can, you see, sell enough airplanes quickly enough to recover the development costs of starting a company and designing and certifying an airplane. That means somebody needs to lose millions of dollars along the way to give the infant airplane a chance to make it.

That's what has happened to the Extra aircraft company and its Extra 500 single-engine turboprop. Millions are gone following the bankruptcy of Extra, but that loss now gives the new company at least a chance for success.

These financial truths about the airplane manufacturing business have been obvious to many of us for decades, but the founders of new airplane companies can't seem to grasp them. Their company, they apparently believe, will be different because, well, because these are people who have been successful in life and can't imagine failure.

But Ken Keith, CEO and the main man behind the new Extra Aircraft, LLC, which has picked up the pieces of the German company founded by aerobatic champion and aerodynamic engineer Walter Extra, is different. He really grasps the harsh realities of airplane manufacturing.

"You can't ever make enough money building and selling airplanes to pay for the development cost," Ken Keith told me. Yes, I said, stunned to finally meet an airplane entrepreneur who understood the problem.

Ken had just finished ticking off the number of millions that had already gone into development of the Extra 500 and without so much as resorting to the back of an envelope calculated that you could never sell enough of the turboprops quickly enough to get those millions back. But, because he got all of that value for pennies on the dollar, he just might be able to make back the millions yet to be spent before the Extra 500 begins delivering in the middle of 2004, if all goes as planned.

Like all the other investors in new airplane companies, Ken made his money in other businesses and is following his passion for flying into the Extra project. In fact, the only individual that I can think of who actually has made money founding and operating an aircraft manufacturing company is Frank Robinson of helicopter fame.

Extra, too, is eyeing a niche that isn't served by any of the established companies. The 500 is the only single-engine turboprop in production, or development, that I can think of that doesn't use the Pratt & Whitney PT-6 engine. Extra has opted for the lower powered, more fuel efficient Rolls/Allison 250 engine, which costs less to purchase and operate, and provides more range than its nearest competitors.

The Allison 250 series engine has been around for decades, and thousands have powered the most popular turbine helicopters, including the Bell 206 JetRanger and the Hughes 500, among many more. The engine is tiny, measuring about 45 inches long, 19 inches across, and weighing in at just under 200 pounds. Despite its immense popularity in helicopters, the Allison 250 engine hasn't enjoyed the same success in airplanes, primarily because its maximum power output is 450 shp or less. That's not usually enough power, unless the airplane has been carefully designed for the engine, and the Extra 500 has been.

Another characteristic of the Allison 250 is that it has a fairly high lapse rate, meaning that its power output drops quickly with altitude above sea level and air temperature above standard. The engine will produce its maximum rated cruise power to about 16,000 feet, lower if air temperature is above standard, or higher on a colder day aloft. That means the Extra 500 won't be joining the other turboprop singles at FL 290, but will instead have a certified ceiling of 25,000 feet. Typical cruise altitudes, unless you're going downwind, will be in the mid teens. With a tailwind, a climb to FL 250, where true airspeeds are lower along with low fuel flows, would be very nice. Headed upwind, you can afford to fly the Allison at much lower altitude than the PT-6 without suffering the same fuel penalty and loss of range.

The choices Extra has made are not unlike those of the designers of small sport sedans. Instead of the brute power solution, Extra is developing a lighter, lower drag airplane to suit the power potential of the lightweight engine.

Make no mistake, the Extra 500 is an unusual airplane. It is really the airframe of the Extra 400, which is powered by a liquid-cooled turbocharged Continental 550 piston engine. About 25 of the 400s were built before the bankruptcy, but the marriage between the piston engine and exotic carbon fiber airframe has not been a happy one. Walter Extra says he had always planned to use turbine power but couldn't afford the added development cost when he was certifying the 400.

My first question for Walter was "Why did you put the wing on top?" Walter is quick to acknowledge that a high-wing design makes landing gear design and placement more difficult, but all other tradeoffs are positive for a single-engine airplane, he says. Among the benefits are no wing spar in the cabin to deal with, gravity to aid in fuel delivery from the tanks and a greater ability to optimize airflow around the wing-fuselage intersection. Most new high-performance jets, whether they be an Airbus or Citation X, have very complex fairings on the belly where the wing and fuselage meet. Walter believes that in his design the actual fuselage behaves like a fairing because the fuselage is very narrow at the wing root and the air can be gradually accelerated around the intersection.

Though there are valid aerodynamic reasons for a high wing, the Extra 500's shape still takes some getting used to. And the landing gear, which tucks up tightly in the belly, uses unique scissors articulation to absorb shock. The gear looks complicated, but Walter claims it has been trouble free, including hundreds of early test flights on and off a turf runway.

The Extra 500 wing airfoil is also unique, with a natural laminar flow (NLF) shape that Walter claims achieves laminar flow over 70 percent of the chord. NLF wings-which have performed well on the Citation CJ series of jets-have flat upper and lower surfaces and a cusp on the trailing edge. The cusp on the Extra wing is very pronounced, curving up into the flaps and ailerons. The cusp is critical to adjust the velocity of the high pressure air under the wing to more closely match the air flowing over the wing so less drag is created when the two streams rejoin aft of the trailing edge.

One of the most unusual features of the wing is that Extra has been able to hide the Fowler flap tracks entirely within the profile of the flap. There is nothing sticking out below the wing even though the flaps track far aft, creating a slot to enhance performance. Another feature of the wing is that it has just a little dihedral while your eye tricks you into thinking it actually bends down with anhedral. I don't know exactly what causes this visual illusion, but it is powerful.

Like the Extra 400, the 500 is built from composite materials, mostly carbon fiber. The workmanship on the prototype is excellent, both inside and out. At this point in time I don't think it matters one way or another what an airplane is made from, so long as it is made well, and the Extra appears to be.

The current price of the Extra 500 is $1,495,000, and for that you get a turboprop single, if all goes as expected, that can cruise at 220 knots true at 15,000 feet burning 207 pounds per hour, which equals about 31 gallons of jet-A. Climb to the ceiling of 25,000 feet and the speed rolls back to about 210 knots, but fuel flow plummets to 134 pounds per hour, or about 21 gallons. With 1,179 pound maximum fuel capacity (176 gallons), that means you could cruise for seven hours or a little more under IFR.

Full-fuel payload is expected to be around 470 pounds, but with the fuel efficiency of the Allison 250 you could leave out several hundred pounds of fuel and still fly trips of 600 nm and more. The Extra 500 cabin is on par with the other six-seat turboprops in terms of room, but you wouldn't want to have every seat filled for a maximum range trip, so the range versus payload tradeoffs would probably work out pretty well.

With many millions already sacrificed as tribute to the forces that keep new airplane companies from succeeding, I think that the Extra 500 has a chance to make it into production, and to be attractive to a number of pilots. It is a less complex airplane in some respects than its competitors, particularly by remaining at or below 25,000 feet, and that should help attract new pilots and make it easier for pilots of any experience to be insured. It also costs less than any available turboprop single, and operating costs will be lower thanks to lower fuel flows and engine renewal costs. Walter Extra is an innovative designer, and Ken Keith sure does not have stars in his eyes on the financial side, and that is the kind of team that just might make it.

We Lost a 182 It was pouring down rain on Sunday morning when Stancie and I were headed for Kansas City. I hate loading up and taking off in the rain, even though this was just plain old rain with no chance of convection. As I waited for the guys from Panorama Flight Service to tug us out of our hangar-what a nice service to load up in your hangar, climb in and be pulled out-I noticed a Skylane firing up out on the tiedown. Somebody else in a little airplane was not afraid of the rain, I thought.

The Skylane taxied out ahead of us, and I didn't give it much thought. By the time we reached Runway 16 we were behind a regional jet that had been cleared into position and hold. But that's when all of us on tower frequency sat up real straight and were quiet, because the tower controller began repeatedly, and with increasing urgency, calling the Skylane that had been handed off to departure minutes earlier.

There was no response from the Skylane pilot, and the tower directed the regional jet off the runway to make room for another jet, which had been far out on final, to land. "We've lost a Cessna 182 out there someplace," was the chilling word from the tower controller to all of us on the frequency, and he then continued calling for the Skylane.

Perhaps 10 minutes passed, and Stancie and I were certainly not the only ones filled with dread for those in the 182. But, as quickly as it all began, it was over with no word about the Skylane's fate, only a takeoff clearance for the regional jet, and shortly after, for us.

The first hint I had that the Skylane had not crashed came when I was cleared to 10,000 feet instead of the 8,000-foot level that is absolutely always the way out of the New York area to the west. When I asked why, the controller said I was going to 10 to avoid a Skylane up ahead climbing to 8,000. The Skylane was never on our frequency, so I couldn't hear any conversations, but they apparently diverted, because before I could reach 10 we were cleared back down to eight and on our way. I don't know exactly what transpired with that Skylane, but it sure gave us all a scare listening in.

It's easy for me to imagine something going terribly wrong on departure from Runway 16 at Westchester County in low IFR weather because of the departure procedure which calls for a right turn all the way around to 320 degrees beginning while only 400 feet above the ground. There is nothing more disorienting in instrument flying than punching into the clouds right after takeoff and then beginning a turn while the airplane is still accelerating and climbing. The sensations play hob with your balance mechanism with the climb and acceleration making it feel as though you are climbing and accelerating much more than you are. Throw in the immediate turn, with a level off at 3,000 feet, and it is a very tough way to start an instrument flight.

Our instrument training and practice is focused almost exclusively on approaches and holding, with very little devoted to takeoff issues. I think it would be time well spent for any IFR pilot, with an instructor or safety pilot, of course, to take off, immediately slap on a hood, and in a few seconds begin a turn and continue the climb. It's harder than you think, and not something any IFR pilot does very often, if ever, unless he bases at an airport like Westchester with lots of bad weather and an unusual departure procedure. I'm glad they "found" that Skylane.