The State of General Aviation

Engine Market: Improving Engine Technologies

June 1, 2005

Diesels, electronic advancements waiting in the wings

"Not yet" may well be the best summary of the state of the piston-engine world. Has there been a full recovery from the sales slip over the past few years? No, but things are better. Jet-fuel-burning piston engines? Those built in Europe are not in this country yet, and U.S. manufacturers are not yet ready to commit to them. Electronic improvements to aircraft engines? Owners don't fully trust the technology or accept its cost yet.

From a sales standpoint, the state of the general aviation engine market is improving. Textron's Lycoming and Teledyne's Continental Motors have seen revenues recover since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, according to their annual reports. Lycoming, the sole provider of piston engines for Textron's Cessna Aircraft Company, saw an upturn in new-engine sales in 2004 after two years of decline. It was aided through troubled times by strong sales to Robinson Helicopter Company and additional airframe companies, said Dennis Racine, director of marketing and customer leadership. He expects not only a strong 2005, but good news in 2006 and 2007 as well. Continental Motors was undoubtedly aided through the downturn by its link to Cirrus Design. The engine companies do not discuss numbers of engines delivered, and also do not provide such figures to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, a GAMA statistician said.

Overhaul sales at Lycoming were down, but for another reason: the need to repair crankshafts under warranty starting in 2002. That took nearly 1,700 engines out of the regular overhaul cycle and will now affect future profits. Lycoming is appealing a $96 million court ruling claiming poor design by Lycoming, rather than poor work by the now-bankrupt crankshaft manufacturer, was to blame for crankshaft difficulties.

Crankshaft problems are not unique to Lycoming: Continental has faced crankshaft problems in the past, most notably in 2000.

Continental, like Lycoming, is also looking at internal nonelectronic improvements. For example, in addressing concerns from Cirrus SR22 owners in January about parts wear in their Continental IO-550 engines, Continental said it is testing new lifter technology that will provide corrosion resistance and material toughness.

Car manufacturers sell in such volume that price increases needed to pay for advanced technology are nearly invisible, known in the business as "cost neutral," says Zou Abdelnour, Unison product engineer.

You'll hear announcements from Lycoming this year, too, concerning reduction of internal wear. One of those technological improvements is riding under the?cowling of the AOPA sweepstakes Rockwell Commander 112A: roller tappets from the automotive world that should improve the durability of aircraft engines but won't increase the price. Cars already have them. You'll see other Lycoming improvements this year in cylinder heads and fuel systems, first as new parts in the aftermarket overhauls and finally in new engines.

Electronics seek acceptance

Price seems to be the key to the introduction of new technology in aircraft engines. For more than 20 years aircraft owners have asked, "Why can't aircraft engines be more like car engines?" It turns out they can, but aircraft owners don't want to pay for it.

Unison Industries offers two products that make an airplane engine perform more like your car — SlickStart is a magneto start booster, and LASAR, a limited-spark advance regulator that acts as an electronic engine control system. The latter is $3,000 but the former is only $300. Owners don't seem to want to pay either price, although they would happily drop $3,000 to speed up their home computer. Car manufacturers sell in such volume that price increases needed to pay for advanced technology are nearly invisible, known in the business as "cost neutral," said Unison product engineer Zou Abdelnour. However, aircraft owners who balk at changes under the cowling will often spend well more than $10,000 for moving-map or other panel displays because they look neat — something to show their passengers, Abdelnour said.

Tim Archer, senior vice president of Superior Air Parts, said that while customers have demanded FADEC (full authority digital engine control) for 25 years, it is a much more important requirement from the manufacturers' viewpoint. It improves engine maintenance because its operation can be monitored by computer, and its use allows engines to last longer. "Customers need it as long as it comes at an economical price, and manufacturers need it so they can start bringing new technology to the marketplace," Archer said. He added that Thielert makes a roller lifter for piston engines, and has also developed a FADEC system. Thielert and Superior Air Parts will cooperate on a FADEC system for a Superior engine and make it available for certain Lancair kit aircraft by the end of 2005.

FADEC has thus far been the subject of wariness in the market. The system is offered or in development by several companies, including Continental Motors, but some potential buyers are afraid of the new technology and worry that both computers will fail (that is unlikely, but even if it happens a backup battery keeps the engine running). The Continental FADEC has two computers for redundancy, and either can take over if necessary. FADEC is also available for Continental IO-550 engines and is flying on some kitbuilt Lancair aircraft. The system is expected to be available for models from Cirrus (by the time you read this), Raytheon Aircraft, and Cessna.

There are other new technologies in progress, most notably by Honda in conjunction with Continental. The liquid-cooled, 225-horsepower engine, capable of running on automotive or 100LL gas, has been displayed at EAA AirVenture. Continental got $2.5 million last year for market research on Honda's piston aircraft engine, and will get $5 million this year with another $2.5 million promised in 2006. Bryan L. Lewis, Continental's president, said additional design work is in progress but that details are "closely held" by the two companies.

Where are the diesels?

Diesel engines burn less expensive jet fuel and do it in miserly fashion, yet they haven't caught on in the United States. Cirrus Design sent its diesel-powered aircraft back to SMA Engines in France more than a year ago, where it remains in search of solutions to technological problems. Dale Klapmeier, co-founder of Cirrus, didn't want to raise false hopes when asked when the engine will be ready. "There is a plan in place, and a path identified, to hope-fully find a solution," he said. At the Cirrus plant in Duluth, Minnesota, the engine would run well in a 70-degree Fahrenheit hangar, but not when it was rolled into the cruel 30-below weather outside. At Maule Air, another aircraft manufacturer once hoping to be the first to certify the SMA engine, the test aircraft sits in a back hangar gathering dust while engineering proceeds. The reason given is that more engineering drawings are needed, but the engineering department is short of personnel.

The engine remains limited to a ceiling of 12,500 feet. When regulatory authorities gain more confidence about the ability of compression-ignition engines to easily restart in thin air, the limit could be raised at first to 15,000 and later 18,000 feet.

In this country, Lycoming will very quietly continue its diesel research throughout 2005 and may affiliate with possible launch partners. Continental continues to evaluate diesel engines and thinks one between 300 and 450 horsepower would have market potential but is evaluating the interest from airframe manufacturers. The company is looking at the prospect of an investment partner.

Lycoming also recently announced it was opening an advanced technology center in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. According to Lycoming Engines President and General Manager Ian Walsh, the new facility will centralize some of the company's research and development energies, particularly as may relate to alternative fuels and electronic controls.

In Europe the diesel engine's future is brighter because the savings from using jet fuel are greater than in the United States. SMA ships its fully certified engines to several continents for use on Cessna 182s, but not to the United States where a supplemental type certificate still awaits FAA approval that is dependent on additional lightning testing.

The Centurion 1.7 Thielert diesel made in Germany is shipping in quantity — more than 400 are expected to ship this year and more than 200 shipped in 2004, said Sebastian Wentzler of Thielert Aircraft Engines in Lichtenstein. Sixty percent of those went on new Diamond DA40 aircraft in Europe. While it is certified in the United States for use on older Cessna 172s, Thielert is hunting for a fleet customer and wants to set up a service center and do training before launching the product. There isn't one on a customer's 172 in the United States yet. The dealer for it will be Superior Air Parts, which has also developed a gasoline engine of its own, the 180-horsepower Vantage engine.

In a recent survey, 55 percent of AOPA members surveyed said they would prefer to pay for a one-time aircraft modification instead of increased fuel prices if 100 low-lead aviation fuel is replaced with high-octane unleaded fuel.

Archer, of Superior Air Parts, said the diesel is more accepted in Europe because customers have more experience with diesel technology because there are more diesel-powered cars there. "I think it is a matter of economics and performance. The customer base is looking for a low-cost alternative [to aviation gasoline] but also performance, and whatever meets that criteria is where they are going. That is one of the reasons we certified the Vantage engine on auto fuel." The launch customer for the Vantage is the American Champion Explorer because it will allow Superior to start slow with low-volume sales and gain experience before the engine enters wider use.

Other new technologies

Rotax, a Bombardier subsidiary located in Austria, has had less success certifying its 220-horsepower V-6 computer-controlled, gasoline-powered engine. It will be certified on a manufacturer's new aircraft, not as a supplemental type certificate on an older aircraft, but certification has been delayed until 2006, said Luc de Gaspé Beaubien, director of operations for the Bombardier subsidiary Aircraft Engine Services. (The company may change its name again soon and for the fourth time.) The reason given for the delay is the need for more cold-weather testing, and that means waiting for winter to happen again in Europe. Despite the apparent delays for the engine, estimated by market observers to sell for $55,000, the company is setting up permanent headquarters in Titusville, Florida. The New Piper Aircraft had its chance to be an early customer for the engine more than two years ago, but did not proceed. Money was the issue but stories differ over the details.

Also in research is the Mistral rotary engine based on the Mazda engine block that a Swiss company hopes to offer to the aviation market. The company insists that the engine wasn't given a full chance by American industry in past research efforts.


Senior Editor Alton K. Marsh became a pilot in 1970 while an aerospace reporter covering Apollo moon missions for Florida Today and first covered commercial and military aviation while a congressional editor for Aviation Week and Space Technology. He holds an ATP certificate and is a tailwheel and aerobatic pilot.