April 1, 1998
Those who thought the day of the turboprop had passed were apparently wrong. The venerable Beech King Air continues its reign of the turboprop twin market, maintaining a commanding market position. Meanwhile, a passel of new single-engine turboprop models and the ability to fly single-engine IFR commercial missions have opened untapped markets. One of the newest contenders is a company that has received probably the least publicity: Advanced Aerodynamics & Structures, Incorporated. As the company name implies, AASI is using advanced aerodynamics to design a new single-engine turboprop with some impressive performance claims.
Powered by a Pratt & Whitney 1,250-shaft-horsepower engine flat-rated to 850 shp in a pusher configuration, the Jetcruzer 500 is projected to achieve cruise speeds of some 320 knots and to fly as high as 30,000 feet. That's an impressive cruise speed for a single-engine airplane, particularly when you consider that the Jetcruzer will have a comfortable-size cabin that seats four, plus the two seats in the cockpit. The cabin is more than 15 feet long, 50 inches wide, and 51 inches tall. An internal baggage area behind the aft seats and an external nose compartment will handle the luggage.
AASI plans an ambitious flight schedule for the model. First flight of a conforming aircraft — Serial Number 2 — occurred in early February. Certification is scheduled to be complete in mid-summer, and deliveries are to begin this fall. This would be an impossible schedule if it weren't for the fact that the company already has a type certificate for the Jetcruzer 450, a smaller, nonpressurized airplane. The 450 was certificated in June 1994 but was never put into production. The Model 500, which is larger and pressurized, is being certificated under an amendment to the 450's type certificate, which should speed up the process considerably. Still, the company has much to do during the next few months if it is to meet that schedule.
One of its biggest challenges will be the construction of a factory. Currently, AASI operates from a small office and hangar complex on the Long Beach (California) Airport. It received an $8.5 million low-interest industrial development bond from the State of California last year to build the factory and production tooling. About $7 million from the bond will be used to build a 200,000-square-foot office and manufacturing facility at Long Beach. Ground was broken last fall and construction was begun in February.
Raising funds — at least of late — has not been a problem for the company. With more than 117 airplanes ordered and secured with $10,000 nonrefundable deposits, AASI has a backlog worth some $140 million. In late 1996 it completed an initial public offering (IPO) that garnered more than $32 million.
The certification of the Model 450 was key to the success of the IPO, according to Gene Comfort, AASI's executive vice president. And, in fact, the new funding came at a critical time for the company, which prior to that had been nearly stagnant for a number of months.
The company was formed in 1990 by Carl Chen, Ph.D., an aerospace engineer. Chen, born in China but raised in the United States and now a U.S. citizen, spent 15 years at Hughes' Spacecraft Division. Chen actually bought an aircraft design similar to the Jetcruzer from another company. He then set about modifying it into what he believed would be a salable product. In the early 1990s, the California aerospace market was in a depression, so Chen had no trouble finding well-qualified engineers and manufacturing talent. In fact, many at AASI have worked for McDonnell Douglas, Hughes, and Lockheed on such well-known projects as the SR-71, B-2 stealth bomber, F-117A stealth fighter, U-2, and L-1011 airliner.
To get things rolling, Chen raised $25 million in start-up funds from contacts in Taiwan. Much of that cash was depleted in developing the Jetcruzer 450.
Facing a funding shortage, the company rushed the model through the certification process, achieving the first "spin resistant" certification ever issued by the FAA. The 450 was powered by a 620-shp engine driving a three-blade propeller. It was also about six feet shorter in length than the 500 and, as noted earlier, had no pressurization. With the smaller cabin and no pressurization, the aircraft was unlikely to be a sales success, but the company was confident that it could certificate a larger airplane simply by amending the 450's type certificate. With the type certificate in hand, the executives went to Wall Street and hit pay dirt. Since then, the FAA has indeed said that an amendment to the certificate is all that is needed for the Jetcruzer 500.
Besides the six-foot fuselage stretch and upgraded powerplant, the Model 500 differs from the 450 in a number of ways. The cabin is about three feet longer, allowing a club-seating configuration and the option of an aft lavatory. The three-blade prop has been replaced by a five-blade, 85-inch aluminum Hartzell. In fact, the engine and prop combination is virtually identical to the ones on the Piaggio Avanti P180, a twin pusher turboprop certificated in the early 1990s. Also new on the 500 is a mid-fuselage airstair door on the right side. In addition, there is a forward left door for the pilot. The windows have been made smaller to better accommodate the pressurization, but there are also two additional windows, for a total of 12. The pressurization system will maintain a differential of 5.8 psi at 30,000 feet. Gross weight was upped from 4,500 pounds to 5,500 pounds, and fuel capacity increased by 30 gallons to 250 gallons.
At its high-speed cruise of 320 knots, the 500 is projected to fly 1,330 nautical miles with VFR reserves; at a "normal cruise" setting, range stretches to 1,420 nm. Useful load is projected to be 2,300 pounds; full-fuel payload should then be about 700 pounds.
For the base price of $1.4 million, the customer gets a panel of Bendix/King avionics and mechanical instrumentation, known-icing certification, air conditioning, and a leather interior. EFIS and weather radar will be extra. One system yet to be finalized is deicing. Boots on the wings would probably send large chunks of ice into the propeller and engine inlets. Comfort predicts that TKS fluid anti-icing will be the solution.
AASI appears to be using composite materials where they make the most sense — in the fuselage. The fuselage is made of graphite carbon fiber that is cured under pressure and in nitrogen in the company's own autoclave. An aluminum wire wrapping in the outer layer of the composite structure provides lightning-strike protection. The wing and canard are aluminum. Flight controls — also aluminum — are actuated by torque tubes and push rods. Unlike the Avanti, which has three lifting surfaces — the canard, main wing, and tail — the Jetcruzer has two lifting surfaces, the canard and the main wing. As a result of the canard, the main wing can be placed farther aft and behind the passenger cabin. Therefore, the main spars do not protrude into the cabin. The pusher configuration also provides for a very low-drag fuselage, undoubtedly part of the reason for the high cruise speed.
Like the 450, the 500 will wear the "spin-resistant" badge. In the 450, AASI test pilots and FAA certification pilots attempted several hundred spins. All they got was a gentle level descent or a shallow spiral.
Another unusual characteristic is the lack of wing flaps. Forgoing the flaps reduces pilot work load, saves weight, and lowers manufacturing costs. The penalty comes in stall speed, which is projected to come in at 65 to 67 kt. Because it will not meet the FAR Part 23 single-engine requirement for a 61-kt stall speed, the Jetcruzer must meet higher crashworthiness standards, including 26-G seats.
Chen believes that pilots will appreciate the Jetcruzer's new approach to aerodynamics. He predicts that the new factory will be turning out four airplanes a month by the end of the year. Eight a month is the goal for early 1999. Ultimately, he believes that the Jetcruzer will capture 30 to 40 percent of the turboprop market, or about 70 to 80 airplanes a year.
By then, Chen will be at work on the company's next project, the Stratocruzer — a 3,000-nm, 425-kt business jet powered by a pair of Williams/Rolls FJ44-2 engines. An agreement under the IPO frees up additional capital for the Stratocruzer once the Jetcruzer meets certain parameters. Chen expects the additional funds early next year. Within five years, he says, AASI will be a $500-million company with 1,000 employees and two models.
California is called "the land of opportunities." Chen believes in making his own.
For more information, contact Advanced Aerodynamics & Structures at 3501 Lakewood Boulevard, Long Beach Airport, California, 90808; telephone 562/938-8618, fax 562/938-8620; or visit the Web ( www.aasiaircraft.com).
Links to all Web sites referenced in this issue can be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links9804.shtml).
E-mail the author at [email protected].
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