Over the next couple of years you will hear a lot about the first century of flight. Historians will look back over the 100 years since the Wright brothers first coaxed the Flyer into controlled powered flight at 10:35 a.m. on that blustery morning of December 17, 1903. You'll undoubtedly see time lines of how aviation has progressed over the years. On those time lines will be milestone dates when various aviation events occurred.
Undoubtedly, among the noted general aviation aircraft will be the Piper Cub, which debuted in 1933 as the Taylor Cub and even to this day embodies general aviation in the minds of the nonflying public. The Beech Bonanza, introduced in 1947, was such a revolutionary aircraft design that it endures today as a benchmark to which other models aspire. The Cessna 172 in 1955 turned tricycle gear from a curiosity to a commodity and ultimately made "conventional" landing gear quite unconventional. Six years later, the Piper PA-28 Cherokee showed the world how economically all-metal airplanes could be manufactured and in the process spawned a plethora of models that are still being built. Shortly thereafter, the first Lear Jet took to the skies and went on to become as ubiquitous in the business jet world as the Cub is at the other end of the market.
Will October 23, 1998, be another of aviation's red-letter days? A hundred years from now when historians reflect on two centuries of flight, will that date be footnoted as the beginning of a whole new era for general aviation?
Could be, but the interesting thing about a historic event is that you can never be sure of its significance until it assumes its place in history — and that can only happen with the passage of time.
Regardless of whether it ends up on aviation's time line, the date is a historic one because on no other day have two all-new general aviation airplanes been awarded their FAA type certificates. Attendees at AOPA Expo '98 in Palm Springs, California, witnessed the moment when FAA Administrator Jane Garvey handed over the Lancair Columbia 300's TC to Lance Neibauer and the Cirrus SR20's TC to Dale and Alan Klapmeier. As near as I can tell (and I'm sure astute readers will quickly set me straight if I'm wrong), this is the first all-new mainstream four-seat aircraft that has been certified in the United States since the Rockwell Commander 112 in 1972. And even the 112 was a derivative of the Commander 111, which was a fixed-gear, 180-horsepower airplane certified but never put into production.
For both companies and their young, entrepreneurial owners, the event culminates half a decade of work and brings them to a new phase: production. Both Neibauer and the Klapmeiers admit that the next step — earning an FAA production certificate — is nearly as challenging as earning a type certificate. Without a production certificate, an FAA inspector must examine each step in the production process for each airplane. Without his signoff, no airplane can roll out the door. The production certificate assures the FAA that the company has instituted manufacturing processes and quality assurances guaranteeing that each production aircraft is equal to the one that was tested during type certification. With a production certificate in hand, a company can conduct its own signoffs, with only the occasional visit from the feds to assure that all is being done as outlined in the production plan.
In late September I visited Lancair just a few days after the company had received the signed type certificate from local FAA officials. The Expo event was the ceremonial presentation of the document. Neibauer, who founded the company, and his management team were understandably elated with the news. Their brand-new Bend, Oregon, factory is built and ready to accept the tooling, personnel, and equipment that it will take to complete their longtime dream of putting the Columbia 300 into production.
Neibauer began his aviation career with the founding of Neico Aviation, which manufactured kitbuilt aircraft. That company was the genesis of Lancair, which has a sister company located just up the road in Redmond, Oregon, that still turns out kitbuilt aircraft, including the popular Lancair IV, IV-P, and ES. Lancair aficionados will note the similarities between the ES and Columbia 300. They certainly look alike, but from materials to manufacturing processes there are many differences between the kitbuilt model and the production Columbia 300.
Like all of Neibauer's airplanes, the Columbia 300 is built to look good and go fast. There it succeeds in spades. Powered by a 300-hp Continental IO-550, the Columbia tears through the air at 190 knots while swaddling its passengers in a wide and comfortable cabin. With relatively heavy flight controls and a serious IFR avionics package, this is meant as a traveling machine.
Meanwhile, the Klapmeiers and their staff in Duluth, Minnesota, are also just now coming down from the high of earning their TC. For them, the Expo event was not just ceremonial. They received word literally the night before the presentation that the FAA had approved their design.
They too have a brand-spanking-new factory that is already poised to begin deliveries of the SR20. Four fuselages are together awaiting FAA signoffs before they can move to the next manufacturing stage — signoffs that won't be necessary once the production certificate is received in about February.
Like Neibauer, the brothers Klapmeier have their roots in the kitbuilt market. They penned the high-performance VK30 pusher kit in the 1980s and sent several dozen kits out the door before deciding in about 1993 that they would move ahead with their dream of building a family of new production general aviation aircraft. The SR20 is the first step in that process.
Powered by a 200-hp Continental IO-360-ES engine, the SR20 moves along at 160 knots — amazing, considering the fixed gear and the wide, comfortable cabin.
Both the SR20 and the Columbia are certified in a spin-resistant category. Officials at both companies believe that the better way to improve general aviation safety is to prevent pilots from getting into spins. Eliminating the disastrous "base-to-final spin" scenario alone would have a profound effect on safety. In that situation a pilot turning from base to final realizes that he has overshot final. He uses rudder to yaw the nose around, which increases the rate of turn. He counteracts with opposite aileron. The cross-controlled condition further slows the airplane, leading to a stall that quickly develops into a spin from low altitude — a usually fatal combination.
Making an airplane spin resistant often means that it can be difficult to recover from a spin, once entered. In approving the two new airplanes, the FAA obviously faced a dilemma. If someone gets one of them into a spin, it may well be unrecoverable. On the other hand, if the airplane can be made to be more forgiving of a pilot's mistake, more lives might be saved. The FAA should be commended for its willingness to give the new designs a chance. Decades of spin awareness have not eliminated the accident scenario cited above; pilots should not have to pay with their lives for a simple miscue during a critical phase of flight. Maybe this change will be the beginning of a new era of safety for general aviation.
The most significant trick to making the aircraft spin resistant is a simple leading edge cuff on the outboard portions of each wing. The intent is to provide a great deal of roll damping in the stall and to assure strong aileron control all the way through the stall. As a result, the pilot will be able to recover from a stall by simply pushing the nose over and rolling wings level with the ailerons. Since the certification, I have flown both the Columbia 300 and the SR20 through a variety of slow-speed maneuvers and stalls and was impressed with the docile characteristics and the ability to control each of them using only ailerons.
Cirrus adds one more weapon to its safety arsenal: a rocket-powered parachute. The SR20 is the first production aircraft certified with such a device. The pilot must see the parachute as a last-ditch effort to save his life in a loss-of-control situation. Once the parachute is fired, the pilot becomes a passenger because the chute cannot be cut away in flight. The airplane will hit the ground upright and be totaled, but the passengers should emerge with only minimal injuries.
As you can see, these two new aircraft — revolutionary in their safety designs and in the new levels of value and performance they deliver — promise a bright new future for general aviation. Only from the perspective of five, 10, 20, or 100 years will we know how the events of October 23, 1998, compare to those of December 17, 1903.