Saturday, March 1, 2008
Fast-forward in the Piaggio P.180 Avanti II
Cleveland Center, ciao! Avanti 180PA checking in, flight level 280.” It’s almost too easy to call the Italian Avanti II the Ferrari of the skies, and from the moment I floored the Avanti this morning on a wintry runway in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, I was plastered into my seat like I was in a Ferrari 430 Spider with the top down, stiff breeze mussing what’s left of my hair, pealing away from a red light that lasted a few seconds too long. The only thing missing was the squeal of Pirelli tires and the smell of a heated clutch and scorched rubber." />
The P.180 Avanti II says ci vediamo, or see you later, to all VLJs, besting the Eclipse by a touch above 30 knots and the Citation Mustang by about 60 knots. It leaves the Citation CJ1+ behind by 13 knots and trails Cessna’s CJ2+ by only about 15 knots—and it does that with a larger cabin than all of them. Fly the fastest King Air, the 350, at its optimum altitude and lightest weight, and the Avanti II still dusts it by more than 85 knots.
A lot has happened with the “green” movement since my sortie in the skies over Portofino, just south of Piaggio Aero’s headquarters in coastal Genoa. As I sit to write this, representatives from over 189 countries have recently wrapped a huge global-warming conference in Bali, Indonesia. At that conference, fuel efficiency was one of the top issues. On that front, the Avanti doesn’t disappoint. So while the high-achieving, sophisticated and discerning operator of an Avanti will find the plane compelling in performance and striking in ramp appeal, his or her accountant will be impressed by significantly lower fuel bills.
A snapshot comparison of fuel flows to a Citation CJ1+ shows considerable fuel savings at similar speeds. At FL370 under standard, ISA conditions, the Citation, at midcruise weight and normal cruise power, scoots along at 385 knots burning 787 pounds of fuel per hour. Conditions and altitude being equal, to see the same number as the CJ1+, push the Avanti to maximum continuous power, and the P.180 will clock 380 knots, just five knots slower than the Citation, but burn only 598 pounds of Jet A per hour to do it—an hourly savings of 189 pounds.
I’d expect nothing less from the artisans and alchemists of Piaggio. Perhaps because I lived in Italy for two years, it comes as no surprise that to the Italians—who gave us drool-worthy autos from marques like Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Alfa Romeo; the achingly elegant Wally Yachts; and the cute little Fiat Cinquecento (500), recently updated and reintroduced—producing a boring and ordinary aircraft would be assolutamente impossibile. If anything, I’ve never known the Italians to do anything in a boring way—at their own pace, yes, but never boringly. That would be like the Swiss running their trains at their leisure and tourists finding only delicious food in London.
If the sky were an ocean, and in reality it is, an ocean of air, and since air is a fluid, then the organic and almost aquatic shape of the Avanti contributes significantly to its efficiency. Though the Avanti reminds some of a catfish, I like to think of it more as a hammerhead shark. Those unfamiliar with the P.180 might think at first glance that the Avanti is a canard aircraft constructed of composite materials, not unlike the Beech Starship, a Burt Rutan design that was literally scrapped not long ago.
On the contrary, the Piaggio is about 90% aluminum, with composite and titanium comprising the balance, and that front flight surface—it’s called the front wing. When I sat down in Genoa with Enrico Sgarbi, head of media relations at Piaggio Aero, and a few company test pilots, I learned that the Avanti was designed as a three-lifting-surface aircraft. Therefore, the front wing isn’t a canard, because it has flaps only and is otherwise a fixed surface.
In another departure, the P.180’s conventional horizontal stabilizer provides positive lift, as opposed to negative lift in conventional aircraft. Sporting laminar-flow airfoils developed using NASA-proprietary methodology in a collaboration with Dr. Gerald Gregorek of Ohio State University, this three-lifting-surface design allows the P.180’s main wing surface area to be 34% smaller proportionally than in a conventional aircraft, thereby increasing efficiency, reducing drag and offering a high-wing loading, similar, I’m told, to that of a Boeing jet.
Piaggio Aero also broke new ground in how the Avanti is constructed—essentially from the outside in, where the outer skin is held fast in a vacuum-powered jig as interior structure is installed. Tolerances are thusly very tight, the external skin is composite-like in smoothness and contour, and fit and finish is what one would expect in an aircraft of this price point.
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