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Going Direct: Aviation Claims—Truth, Spin and Deception (And How to Tell The Difference)

Anyone can make a claim about anything, but when it's about airplanes, lives and livelihoods are at risk. So here are some of the filters we use to separate the truth from the spin.

Going Direct Snake Oil
Wikipedia Commons
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Here’s a fact. Companies working on new aircraft will make claims about their planes that defy common sense, at least aviation common sense. Sadly, even aviation types are taken in by those claims. 

You can measure that gullibility in deposits, which are the bread and butter of aviation entrepreneurs (apply whatever interpretation of “entrepreneur” there that you see fit), because they allow a company to stay in business, or at least keep the scheme going for another month or two. Take the case of the Bede BD-10, pitchman Jim Bede’s supposedly supersonic homebuilt jet. How many deposits for this should there have been? Let me help you: The answer is zero. I mean, come on. A garage-built supersonic anything spells disaster. And that’s precisely what happened with the BD-10. Out of three flying examples, all three broke up in flight, killing the three solo pilots in the process. And by the way, it never came anywhere near being supersonic. 

Regardless, buyer beware, right? The three pilots killed in the three crashes were all fully grown humans, able to take whatever risks they chose. True, but it’s hard not to think that Bede’s jet design, which he abandoned work on around two years after he introduced it, was much more than a way for him to get deposits rather than delivery on an actual homebuilt jet. Oh, and far as deposits: 63 people put down $10,000 apiece to get in on the game. Those who didn’t take delivery—Bede folded that company in ’97—were the lucky ones.

Here’s my rule of thumb in figuring out if a program is for real. The closer that the company spokesman is to sounding like a late-night infomercial, the more likely it is that the claims are bunk. If you never got the chance, you missed seeing Jim Bede in action. Admittedly a talented designer (who later in life brought questionable designs to market), Bede was a genius when it came to promoting his planes. He was so convincing and so enthusiastic, he actually sold airplanes at his news conferences. Well, sold positions for airplanes. Over the years there might have been as many customers who made deposits and never got a kit as there were ones who got the goods they paid for. 

First, a little context. Airplanes, thank goodness, are bound by the laws of physics, while marketing slogans aren’t. You can only push a tin can through the air so fast before the laws of matter and energy put out their big stop hands and say, “That’s far enough.” They’re reliable gatekeepers, too, old Isaac Newton’s invisible fences of gravity, drag and weight. No matter how optimistic we are, they never fail to define our envelopes for us. Which is why much of our work of aircraft designers has already been done for them. When it comes to improving the state of the art, it’s almost entirely smoothing out areas that have been gone over with 1,000-grit sandpaper a thousand times before. Wild claims exist in this physics-based world. 

That’s not to say there aren’t revolutionary advances. There are! But name the last one. As far as large-scale impacts are concerned, you probably have to go back to the development of the turbofan, which blended jet and fan technology so sweetly it made our world quieter, plenty powerful and way more fuel efficient. Maybe area rule design, too, which made jets faster making their fuselages a lot less draggy.

Short of game-changers, though, there have been and will continue to be significant advances. Composites (which aren’t as new as you might think), whole-airplane parachutes, turbodiesel engines and electric propulsion (hopefully) are all big deals. Is any of it revolutionary on a large scale? They’re not, with the possible exception of lithium ion battery technology, which has made electric everything better in most ways, though its benefit to aviation has been more in our phones and tablets than in our powerplants, and its storage abilities pale in comparison to that of fossil fuel. Again, change is largely evolutionary, though a new type of battery, and some are in the works, with far greater energy density, would be revolutionary.

All of this is to say that extraordinary claims are suspect at inception. And this is not only to do with the specs of the aircraft they either haven’t yet built or are in the process of “expanding the envelope” on, as they scratch their heads to figure out why they weren’t getting 250 knots out of a fixed-gear canard with a 100-horse engine. I exaggerate, but not by much. If the claim is that the plane will be faster than comparably powered planes of the same general horsepower rating, you need to ask yourself, or even better, them, what the secret is. Because if Mooney is getting 230 knots true out of 315 hp on its slicked-out, long-proven M-20, the new guy’s 250 knots on the same power is dubious. How did they do that? A smaller wing works. All you’re giving up is safety in several different regards— runway performance, stall speed, stall recovery, spin recovery and handling characteristics require a good-sized wing. The Lancair IV is a case in point. If you’ve got one and love it, cheers to you, but the plane as originally offered in kit form flies really badly, with poor stability in all three axes, a really high stall speed and terrible stall behavior. What you get in return is a really, really fast piston (or turboprop) single. And at least Lancair actually delivered kits.

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And when it comes to would-be Part 23 airplanes, it’s way worse. For every 10 new airplane companies I’ve seen show up at OSH over the past 25-plus years, maybe one out of 10 has gotten even close to certifying an airplane.

You might be thinking about Eclipse, the company that said it was going to make a sub-6,000-pound jet that could do 370 knots and go for better than 1,250 nautical miles, and that they could do it for less than a million bucks. Well, they did indeed create that airplane that hit its targets after much work (or close to them, anyways). For Eclipse, it was the business model that was the snake oil. The whole premise behind the mass production that would be required to make a sub-million-dollar airplane was that a new kind of on-demand charter model would rise up in reaction to the existence of the new jet.

It didn’t happen. Eclipse went belly up in spectacular fashion after 260 planes were built, leaving thousands of customers and suppliers out of luck and a lot of money, to the tune of around a billion dollars.

And all you had to do was listen to the spectacular claims at the outset to know that was going to happen. Pretty much exactly as it did.

And Eclipse, to its credit, did build planes, certify them and sell a bunch, something that many others never get around to doing.

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So when you see the spectacular claims, about price or about performance, know that if something has never happened before, it’s very unlikely to happen this time, and that extraordinary claims about performance can be one of two things, false or because some big tradeoffs to safety were made in getting there.

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