I observed the mid-century Super Cub getting her close-ups from a couple of hundred yards away, just out of the photographic frames. My perch was a very twenty-first-century airplane, a Van’s RV–12. Its Dynon displays showed me on a large moving map exactly where we were over the terrain, pointed out the nearby traffic, and kept me informed about the health of the efficient Rotax 912 engine, which was loafing as we poked along awaiting our turn for the close-ups.
As we observed, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the two airplanes, designed more than six decades apart. The tube-and-fabric Super Cub with its strutted wings, tailwheel, and 150-horsepower Lycoming engine is an excellent backcountry airplane and warms the heart of any pilot. It is rugged and reliable and highly repairable. But despite its narrow cockpit and tandem seating, it still struggles to hit 95 knots or so while burning 8 or more gallons per hour.
The RV–12 with its spindly (although surprisingly sturdy) tricycle gear is no backcountry airplane and, with its oddball narrow nose, does not evoke the nostalgia of the Super Cub. But its wider cockpit and glass canopy make it a delight to sit in. Its aluminum skin is durable and smooth. With wheel pants on, the 100-horsepower Rotax will pull it along at near 120 knots while sipping less than 4 gph.
Will late twenty-first century pilots look aghast at the RV–12’s fossil-fuel-burning engine, as efficient as it may be, and wonder, what were they thinking?Both airplanes have their missions and do them well. The Super Cub design may be beyond retirement age, but it is copied left and right by newer “cubalikes.” The efficient RV–12 is making a place for itself as a new-century replacement for the Cessna 150/152—a highly capable trainer.
The Super Cub breaks away and heads back to the barn, and I hear a radio call urging me into its place next to the 170. As I maneuver into Rose’s viewfinder, I wonder what the next 60 years will bring in aircraft design—and especially propulsion. Will the Super Cub still be a working airplane, or a scrap-heap relic? Will late twenty-first-century pilots look aghast at the RV–12’s fossil-fuel-burning engine, as efficient as it may be, and wonder, What were they thinking?
Electric propulsion is finding its footing in ground transportation, but issues with batteries—energy capacity, weight, recharge times, and environmental impact—have yet to be solved for aviation. As recently as 18 months ago, big companies were betting heavily on battery-powered electric aircraft, especially for urban air mobility vehicles. However, today the reality seems to be setting in that hybrid solutions—maybe not even involving batteries—are the likely solution for the near- to mid-term future. The combinations abound—perhaps battery powered for small, short-range aircraft; maybe an internal combustion engine (ICE) and a battery-powered motor working in tandem for longer-range and larger aircraft; an ICE generating electricity to drive efficient electric motors; even hydrogen fuel cells seem to be gaining more and more respect as a possible source of airborne electricity. Hydrogen-powered test flights are underway.
Historically, engine design has driven airframe design. But today we see designers stuffing electric motors and batteries or fuel cells in Cessna Caravans and Skymasters, Piper Malibus, and de Havilland Beavers, among others; some are even already in commercial trials. Conventional airframe designs are surely a compromise for engineers working on new propulsion concepts, but what a cost-effective way to gather data and test market acceptance.
It’s been said that Orville and Wilbur Wright used up 80 percent of the magic of flight back in 1903 and—from Super Cub to RV–12 to some quadcopter—we continue to tinker with the balance. Seeing the versatility of our legacy airframes suggests there’s some truth to that.
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