It might also be true in other areas, but it has always seemed to me that general aviation is littered with more broken dreams than any other field. As an observer for about 60 years, the length of the list of failed projects amazed me when I wrote down the ones that I remember.
I will use one project that I watched closely for a while to begin the discussion.
Back in the 1970s, I heard that there was a futuristic light twin in Mississippi that already had FAA Part 23 certification and that would soon be in production. That news surprised me because in the magazine business we usually learned of new airplanes as soon as they were drawn on a napkin in the bar.
The Burns BA-42 was a conventional mid-wing light twin. The only break with tradition was its t-tail. That had not yet become a rage in general aviation design.
The BA-42 had a pair of Continental engines similar to those that power the Cessna 337 Skymaster. I think they were rated for the same 210 horsepower as those in the 337.
Sam Burns had big dreams for the BA-42 and I spent quite a bit of time at his modest facility in Starkville, Mississippi, also home of Mississippi State University.
Sam had done the development and certification of the BA-42 on a shoestring though he never did divulge how much money was invested in the project through certification. He never said, but I always guessed he had informal help from Mississippi State’s legendary aeronautical engineering department.
The project was begun in the 1960s and lasted into the 1970s. Two airframes were built but I don’t remember that both were actually flying. One was, for sure, because Jack Olcott of FLYING flew it and gave a good report on its flying qualities.
The next step after certification is production and I think Sam Burns thought he could smell the roses at one point. Another town in Mississippi had floated revenue bonds to build a factory and I visited that factory. There was nothing in the plant other than one BA-42. No tooling. No nothing.
Sam and I drew numbers in the dust on the floor and the conclusion was that there was no way he could achieve a positive cash flow unless a lot of money was poured into the project. Sam did not have that kind of money and had failed to find a backer who was willing to gamble on the project. It would have been a gamble, too, because the light twin market was well-populated with products from existing manufacturers and his BA-42 did not offer any clear advantages.
The difficulty of certification has often been cited as the reason more new airplanes are not developed. This did not deter Sam and his small band of workers. What did was a lack of capital, something that has doomed many an airplane project. The best way to lose a sum of money on something like this is to start out with just a little less money than you need. In the end, it always seems to cost more, sometimes much more, than any original estimate. Maybe it is better to start with at least twice as much money as it is estimated to cost.
The Windecker Eagle was the first composite airplane certified. I flew it once and it was just okay. I learned quickly that being inside a composite airplane with a big engine out front was a lot like being in a bass drum while the band is playing. It seemed like there was no way for the sound to get out. The project died before it really got started. Perhaps they could have quieted the cabin if they had been able to continue.
The pressurized Mooney M30 flew but was not certified. It was a big airplane and when watching it first fly, I was struck by the apparent struggle it had getting off the ground. Mooney had previously certified the pressurized Mooney Mustang single but it didn’t find much market. I never flew that airplane but, by all accounts, it was quite a slug.
A recent piston airplane that didn’t make it was the composite Adam 500 push-pull twin. A proof-of-concept airplane was built by Scaled Composites and then a full-size 500 was built by Adam.
I flew the Adam 500 with my friend Glenn Maben and found it good but not exceptional. They were projecting certification at an early date but the airplane I flew wasn’t pressurized, didn’t have any heat in it, and entry was by a ladder after which the ground crew fitted the door in place and latched it. In other words, there was still a lot of work to be done. It also didn’t meet the cruise speed projections but Adam said they would be installing gear doors and that would fix the speed. I don’t know whether they ever did this but I doubt if the speed would have gotten up to what was projected.
This is a good place to look at factors that can doom new designs.
The Adam and the certified and produced Beech Starship had things in common. The Adam weighed well over 1,000 pounds more than its projected empty weight. The Starship weighed an extra ton or more.
In that both were composite airplanes, with proof of concept airframes built by Scaled Composites, the first conclusion might be that designers using this method of construction have extra sets of rose-colored glasses. There are successful composite airplanes, such as the Cirrus, but I have never seen a composite that weighs less than a like metal airplane and I have seen at least two that weigh a lot more.
The simple fact is that composites are not magic and in the best of cases have not offered either weight or cost advantages.
Another thing that makes it tough for new designs is competition. Is it a better airplane? Will it have equal or better reliability? Will the available service and support be as good as for other airplanes? Both the Adam 500 and the Starship fell short of being better airplanes.
There have been a lot of turbine airplane projects that barely got off the ground while some did.
In the early 1960s, Beech built a full-scale mockup of a Model 120 turboprop. It was to be a fairly large airplane, to take the place of the twin Beech, Model 18. The proposed powerplant was from Turbomeca in Europe and was to develop almost 1,000 shaft horsepower per side, compared with 450 for the Model 18.
It would have been an expensive project for Beech and Olive Ann Beech, and her nephew Frank Hedrick, were talented but fiscally conservative managers. For a less expensive airplane, they mated the Army U-21, an unpressurized turboprop Queen Air derivative with PT-6 engines, with the airframe of a piston-powered pressurized Queen Air Model 88, and, presto, an almost instant King Air, a design that will celebrate 50 years of production in 2014 and is the only turboprop twin left standing except, perhaps, for the Piaggio Avanti which shipped five airplanes in 2012.
The King Air is especially remarkable when you consider that it outlasted the Cheyenne family, two Cessna turboprop twins, the turboprop Commanders, the Mitsubishi MU-2, the Merlin twin turboprops, and the Starship, all of which were certified and produced and all of which have faded away.
The Avtek 400, Beech Lightning and OMAC-1 (later Laser 300) were turboprop designs that never made it to production. The Avtek was a twin, the other two were singles. The Avtek and OMAC were unusual in appearance, to say the least, and while the designers were probably proud of their handiwork, many observers looked at the airplanes, scratched their heads, and thought, “Why did they do that?”
Other turboprop singles are in the development stage and time will tell whether or not they work out.
Pure jets are the sexiest airplanes of all and there has been no shortage of new design proposals there, both single-engine and twin.
The Eclipse 500 twinjet was the vehicle for what has accurately been called the largest financial failure in the history of general aviation. Everybody — suppliers, customers, depositors, investors (including Bill Gates), got screwed, for lack of a better word. The down-the-drain total was close to a billion dollars. That is a lot of money to bleed out of a small (and, right now, struggling) activity. Worse, it provides an object lesson that will deter investment in aviation products for decades to come.
The Eclipse 500 was certified and produced with 259 airplanes delivered. Like everything else about the project, the certification was controversial. There were suggestions of FAA favoritism toward Eclipse, if you can believe that. The first airplanes delivered were short of what had been promised and in the end, the airplanes that were delivered were sold at a price far short of the actual cost of building those airplanes.
A charter operator, DayJet, had a business plan that was just as bad when it ordered 1,400 Eclipse 500s, or, over half the order book. That company folded after it took delivery of a handful of the jets and operated them for a short while.
The Eclipse promise was to deliver a lot of jets at a low price, even lower than the piston twin unpressurized Beech Baron. It was a false promise from day one and when investors decided to quit shoveling money into a bottomless pit, that was the end. A lot of us said from the beginning that the project could not work as planned but the true believers stayed loyal right up to the bankruptcy.
Another company bought the Eclipse assets and plans to put the airplane back into production in 2013 and to sell it for a realistic price. How that will go remains to be seen. Right now the entry-level jet market is so soft that Cessna has “paused” production of all its more basic jets.
The Swearingen SJ-30 twin jet made it through certification and into limited production though not much is going on there at present. It might be another case of a designer coming up with an airplane he thought people should have as opposed to an airplane that people might actually care to buy.
A lot of other twin jets have been proposed and a few have actually flown. The Spectrum S-33 Independence was in a flight test program when it was lost because the ailerons were hooked up backwards after some maintenance. The pilot I flew with in the Adam 500, Glen Maben, was lost in that accident.
There is a bright spot in the jet business. Embraer is a new entrant in the basic twinjet market with the Phenom 100 and that airplane has been successful and has an excellent reputation.
There are also the single-engine jets that have gotten publicity out of all proportion to their progress toward certification and production. I would imagine the one thing that deters investors from putting money into a single jet would be the minuscule market size that might exist for this product. To me, a total of 50 airplanes a year would be quite optimistic.
So, there have been a lot of broken dreams, one of which might constitute the end of such for a long time to come if people look at the history of the Eclipse before deciding to roll the dice on a project. It was, purely and simply, a travesty. We might also be learning that all-new airplanes are also risky for the folks who build airliners. Who knows what additional evils lurk in the shadows of the 787?
For over 50 years, pilots turned to Richard L. Collins for his unique perspective on the challenges and rewards of flying light aircraft. He started his career working with his father, Leighton Collins, at the original Air Facts magazine. He then went on to work for the leading aviation magazines, including as editor of both AOPA Pilot and Flying. With over 20,000 hours of real world experience, much of it in Cessna 172s and P210s, Collins wrote about safety, weather and air traffic control from first-hand experience. He was the author of numerous books, including Logbooks, published in 2016 by Sporty’s Pilot Shop. Collins passed away in April, 2018.