Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Space Flight For Sale

How Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites are rewriting the rules of space travel

While most little children around the world were being read to sleep with soothing fairy tales, Lina Borozdina was getting tucked in for the night with stories of space travel. Her father would sit next to her bed and conjure up wild tales of how his daughter would stow away in a rocket bound for space, only to be discovered when zero gravity betrayed her and caused her to float out into the cabin. Each night, his stories would take Lina on different adventures into the far reaches of space. In doing so, he planted the seeds of a dream.
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Not Your Grandfather’s Airplanes
Advances in space technology are propelling GA in new directions

spaceBurt Rutan and his team aren’t the only innovative designers experiencing success with composites and groundbreaking designs. Many of the current developments and intriguing aerospace designs are also impacting general aviation. Carbon composites, more efficient engines and alternative fuel sources are causing the GA market to respond with enthusiasm.

Epic Aircraft is a shining example of finding success at the leading edge. The Bend, Ore., aircraft manufacturer is reporting record-breaking sales despite the aviation industry’s overall slowdown. The company offers five carbon-composite aircraft: two certified models, including the “Elite” VLJ, and three experimental models that include the Victory VLJ.

Epic has found its niche in giving the GA public what it wants and more. Epic CEO Rick Schrameck has definite ideas of how to build airplanes and what it will take to bring GA into the 21st century. “I believe for a GA company to go into the next decade, it needs to see new building practices, new cost models and new designs,” he says. “The market is saying they want to see new stuff.” Though Schrameck acknowledges Rutan’s accomplishments, he says his inspiration comes more from someone like Bill Lear, founder of Learjet, now Bombardier Aerospace. “What he did by taking off-the-shelf technology and repackaging it for a unique market was impressive,” he says. “Where we differ from Rutan is that we use off-the-shelf components to create production aircraft.”

Carbon composites and new manufacturing practices will, as Schrameck said, change the way aircraft are built, marketed and sold. One example is Epic’s method of creating low-parts-count aircraft. “I’m talking about a 120-part airframe as opposed to a 120,000-part airframe,” notes Schrameck. By embracing new building models, companies like Epic can offer unheard of turnaround in manufacturing. “From zero to full tooling in six months,” Schrameck says.

Kirk Hawkins, CEO of Icon Aircraft, maker of the new A5 amphibian LSA, is creating what he calls “aesthetically inspirational” designs. His company embraces composite materials and uses aerospace engineers and industrial and automotive designers to create its classically beautiful 120-knot airplane. Epic isn’t shy about embracing automotive design, and Hawkins is a devoted motor sports enthusiast. One need not look far for Icon’s inspiration: Members of the company’s engineering team came from Scaled Composites.

The Cirrus Vision SJ50 VLJ takes another page from space-influenced design. The Cirrus design philosophy is part of its initiative to “grow and enhance the entire aviation industry.” Cirrus has been an innovator with the early use of composites, standardized instrument panels and airframe parachute systems. With its VLJ, Cirrus acted on its notion to build a composite aircraft around a highly reliable and efficient powerplant rather than fitting an engine to an existing design. Cirrus also thought to design the interior of the aircraft around the idea of a “sphere” instead of a tube. The company applied automotive design flair for a stunning aircraft. The results, thus far, have been impressive.

On the other side of GA is the idea of using carbon composites in the industrial and commercial use of space. An example is launching large, passenger-carrying spacecraft into near orbit to escape both the pull of gravity and atmospheric resistance (drag). This would result in low fuel consumption and unheard of travel times for long trips like Los Angeles to Tokyo or London.

It’s an exciting time in aviation. The promise of space travel, new construction materials, “green” powerplants and safer aircraft is unlike anything we’ve seen in decades. Innovations in space are finding their way to GA airplanes, and the future couldn’t be brighter.

Here Comes The Sun
A Swiss psychiatrist unveils his globetrotting solar airplane

Can an aircraft be built that will fly around the world on nothing but solar power? Swiss aeronaut, psychiatrist and adventurer Bertrand Piccard thinks so.

Piccard and his partner, Swiss engineer André Borschberg, unveiled their solar-aircraft design at the Beijing Olympics in hopes of raising money for the project. If the odd contraption can complete the 23,000-mile voyage, it will be a technical accomplishment. Keeping an aircraft airborne through a full night of darkness hasn’t yet been done.

The aircraft will need to harvest solar energy efficiently and will do that through 2,690 square feet of monocrystalline-silicon solar cells. The stored energy will power twin Swiss-built DC motors at 40 hp and turn the custom 12-foot propellers at 500 rpm. Energy for night flight will be stored in 880 pounds of extreme-density lithium-ion batteries.

The airplane will be built to exact tolerances and use technologies not even available when Piccard conceived the idea. The airplane has a wingspan of about 200 feet and must weigh less than 3,500 pounds. It will fly at about 30,000 feet during the day and descend to 6,500 feet at night to conserve batteries. It will fly with the rotation of the Earth to maximize sunlight.

Piccard hopes the craft will become a symbol of renewable energy and an ambassador of sorts for solar power. The craft is in development at a former military base in Switzerland. If all goes according to plan, Piccard will launch across the globe in 2010. Visit



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