Saturday, March 1, 2008
Fast-forward in the Piaggio P.180 Avanti II
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.
Sgarbi told me that Piaggio has been ramping up and streamlining production to make more of a dent in their 100-plus aircraft back order. This adjustment to lean manufacturing, for which they were consulted by Porsche, is being incorporated into Piaggio Aero's new, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, set to come online this year in Villanova d'Albenga, outside of Genoa, where final assembly will remain. About 70% of production heads for America with fractional-operator Avantair, Piaggio Aero's biggest customer. In 2008, according to Eric Hinson, Piaggio America's CEO, from a total production of 37 aircraft, 22 will be delivered Stateside.
Somewhere over western New York and making a serious beeline toward a pit stop in Bowling Green, Ky., Hauprich mentions that Piaggio spent five years on the design of the P.180, which first flew in 1986. Two decades later, the future is finally catching up with the Avanti II. Besides bolting new, deeper-breathing PT6A-66B engines into the lightweight titanium engine mounts, the incorporation of the Collins Pro Line 21 electronic-flight instrument system (EFIS) brings the Avanti II squarely into the 21st century.
While I have considerable time on integrated flat-panel displays, the Collins system was new to me. Excepting the alphanumeric flight-management computer, the Pro Line 21 system is intuitive and easy to use. It only took a few hours for me to get mostly up to speed on its knobology and find my way around the flight deck. The Avanti's Pro Line system comes standard with what pilots expect—L-3 TAWS terrain avoidance and TCAS I active traffic systems, Collins turbulence-detection radar, and options for XM Satellite Weather, enhanced map overlays and electronic charts for the MFD. Mix in the Avanti's fine flying qualities and some time studying the P.180 at FlightSafety, and a pilot stepping up from, for example, a Socata TBM 850, where I have the lion's share of my turbine time, should have no problem. The Avanti II isn't a low-workload airplane, but it's easily single-pilot.
After an ILS to runway 03 at Bowling Green and a quick refueling through the P.180's single-point pressure fueling system, Hauprich and I say "ciao" to the friendly folks of BWG and taxi for takeoff. The Avanti II has two stearing modes, Taxi and T/O, which are controlled by a switch on the pilot's control wheel and annunciated on the pilot's PFD. With carbon brakes (interestingly, ABS isn't available) that can be touchy but work better when heated, and steering-by-wire that's rather sensitive in Taxi mode, the P.180 takes a deft touch on the ground. Lining up for takeoff from BWG and cleared to go, I throttle up to ballpark about 90% or 95% torque and click off the T/O steering mode at 60 knots, relying on aerodynamic steering for the rest of the dash to rotation speed, 106 knots. With ram air bringing our power up to 100% torque, I smartly tug the control wheel to about seven degrees and then relax pressure a bit to keep from over-rotating, and we accelerate to our best climb speed of 160 knots indicated and 2,500 fpm through FL150. Our climb rate decayed to 1,600 fpm through FL280. Had I rotated to 13 degrees alpha, we would have been on the express elevator to the flight levels at 3,300 fpm, at the cost of much forward visibility. As it was, we were level and accelerating to cruise speed about 12 minutes after departure. I was limited on my flights to FL280 and below because P.180s flying over from the factory for completion in the States aren't yet RVSM capable; they get that in Denton.
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