Frugal Flyer: Elegant frugality

Elegance and frugality may seem mutually exclusive, but not in aviation

February 1, 2010

Elegance and frugality may seem mutually exclusive, but not in aviation. A sleek, aerodynamically efficient airfoil, for example, is an elegant piece of engineering that can increase aircraft speed and range while reducing fuel consumption. The performance increases are elegant. The efficiency gains are frugal. And the two virtues are inseparable.

Klaus Savier, founder of LightSpeed Engineering, is a German-born pilot and inventor who has pushed aircraft speed and efficiency to extremes that would be hard to believe if they weren’t so meticulously and independently quantified.

Savier won the 2009 FuelVenture competition at Arizona’s Copper State Fly-in for the second year in a row by flying his more-than-20-year-old, Rutan-designed VariEze over a 400-mile course (with a 400-pound non-fuel payload) at an average speed of 207 miles an hour. That’s pretty fast considering the race began from a standing start and ended at the conclusion of the landing roll. But the astonishing part was Savier’s fuel efficiency at that speed: 45 miles per gallon. He flew the entire race on less than nine gallons of avgas.

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“Aircraft speed and efficiency, for me, have always gone hand in hand,” said Savier, who is based at Santa Paula Airport in California.

“You can always go faster by burning more fuel and making more noise, but that’s inelegant from an engineering standpoint. The trick is to improve overall efficiency so you get better performance and better economy at the same time.”

Savier built his airplane in the early 1980s, and he’s extensively modified the airframe and Continental O-200 engine over the years. He designed and built new wings, a canard, and control surfaces with a different air-foil. He also installed his own propeller and wheel fairings, heavier pistons, an electronic ignition system with variable timing to replace the original magnetos, and a sequenced, high-pressure fuel injection system to replace the carburetor.

Savier has flown his airplane more than 4,500 total hours, including a nonstop trip from Santa Paula to Panama City, Florida (1,703 nm), that consumed just 26 gallons of avgas. (That’s 65.5 nm per gallon, aided by a strong tailwind.)

I recently got to fly as a passenger in Savier’s aircraft, known affectionately as the “Delaminator.”

The Spartan interior is devoid of everything but the bare essentials.

“It won’t win any beauty contests,” Savier said. “It’s meant to be light. No compromises.”

Taking off from Santa Paula’s 2,400-foot runway, the acceleration was gradual at first. But after the airplane lifted off and its fixed-pitch prop dug in above 2,200 rpm, the acceleration became more brisk.

I used a handheld GPS (and Savier’s panel-mounted fuel computer) to monitor the aircraft’s performance. At an altitude of 4,000 feet and full throttle, the Delaminator maxed out at 216 KTAS while burning 7 gph. At 9,000 feet with the mixture well lean of peak, the speed dropped to 187 KTAS and fuel consumption fell to just 4.3 gph.

Savier performed steep turns and stalls to demonstrate the airplane’s responsiveness and stability.

When flying for maximum range at density altitudes up to 20,000 feet, Savier said he’s seen fuel economy approach 100 miles per gallon.

Savier says that although the horizontally opposed, air-cooled engines used in general aviation aircraft fleet were mostly designed in the 1940s and 1950s, they can be made to run efficiently.

“The engines themselves are pretty good from an efficiency standpoint,” he said. “But the accessories are terrible.”

Fixed-timing magnetos are the biggest culprits, he said, and carburetors are a close second.

Savier’s products have been used broadly in Experimental aircraft (and a few Standard-category aircraft in other countries). And Savier says that they point the way to possible future improvements in FAA certified products.

“There’s tremendous potential to increase the performance and the efficiency of general aviation aircraft,” he said. “The improvements aren’t just theoretical. They’ve been proven in many thousands of hours of real-world operation. Flight efficiency reduces the hourly cost of flying, and greater speed, range, and efficiency also make aircraft more useful and more fun.”

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.