Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) Research Funded

WASHINGTON - Aeronautics Research Pays Big Dividends Taxpayer funding of basic aeronautical research is a good deal for both government and industry.
By David Collogan

Business & Commercial Aviation
Page 100
Copyright 2000 McGraw-Hill, Inc.

A funny thing happened in Washing-ton recently. Somebody actually came up with an idea to advance the science and art of aviation instead of a scheme to restrict flying.

Specifically, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin asked Congress to give the agency $69 million over the next five years to fund a research initiative called the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), an effort to inspire a combination of high-tech and low cost in a new generation of flying machines.

NASA , the White House and Congress have been justifiably criticized for whittling away at the aeronautics portion of NASA 's budget over the past decade.

But Goldin was singing a sweet song of increased spending this spring, aimed at ensuring continued U.S. leadership in aviation.

``Fully overcoming the barriers that face us will require a significantly increased investment over the next decade, a dramatically strengthened commitment and a much closer partnership between government and industry,'' he told the House aviation subcommittee.

It's almost laughable that the NASA administrator would have to come to Congress on bended knee looking for $14 million a year to help further aeronautic research because, in the grand scheme of things, it ain't that much money in Washington terms. (According to our calculations, $14 million is about the price of one midsize business jet.)

More importantly, every nickel or dime the government spends on aeronautic research comes back as $10 or $20 or $100 in jobs and new technology and tax revenues as the aviation industry multiplies that R&D spending into new products. Providing the seed money should be a no-brainer for government policy makers.

SATS is designed to build on two ongoing NASA /industry partnerships, the Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments (AGATE) and General Aviation Propulsion (GAP) program. Bruce Holmes, NASA 's general aviation program manager, said AGATE and GAP have led to a new generation of small aircraft ``with safety features and cost previously unimagined.''

It sometimes takes many years for research dollars to bear fruit in the form of useful products, but GAP is an outstanding example of the quick results that are possible when government R&D funding is coupled with industry initiative. At the end of 1996, Goldin announced that Williams International and a team of industry participants had been selected to receive $37 million for a turbine-engine development program. The object of that effort was to incorporate new manufacturing technologies in a lightweight engine that would be affordable enough to power small, GA-type aircraft.

Guess what? Later this month -- just three and one-half years after the GAP program was announced -- Williams International is scheduled to unveil a new lightweight turbofan engine at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis. At the same time, officials of Eclipse Aviation Corp. will provide performance specifications for the Eclipse 500, a six-place aircraft about the size of a piston twin but powered by two of Williams' new turbofans and priced at $775,000.

Eclipse officials say they plan to fly their new aircraft in 2002 and begin deliveries of a certificated model in 2003. The price and aggressive development schedule have generated lots of raised eyebrows and outright skepticism in the industry, not surprising since the track record for startup aircraft programs that come to market on time and on budget is not good.

Eclipse, however, is not the typical startup. The company formed a unique partnership with Williams International under which the engine maker will certificate both the new powerplants and the new aircraft. The engineering work on the program is being done at Williams headquarters in Walled Lake, Mich. Eclipse is taking advantage of Williams' existing infrastructure of accounting, engineering, product support and manufacturing expertise to save money and reduce the slope of the learning curve. When certification is achieved, Eclipse will be assembling the new aircraft at a factory in Albuquerque, N.M.

Vern Raburn, a graduate of the Micro-soft school of fast-moving technology, is president and CEO of Eclipse. A pilot who's been flying for years, Raburn sounds like a man with a plan, not just another dreamer who wants to build an airplane. Using Williams' new engines and new manufacturing techniques to sharply reduce the labor hours required to build the Eclipse 500, he believes his company can succeed where so many others have stumbled.

Part of the reason for his optimism is the potential paradigm shift in the market if he can deliver a new twin-turbofan for under $1 million. As Richard Santulli and other fractional aircraft ownership providers have demonstrated, finding a way to dramatically cut the price of a desirable commodity can result in tremendous market demand for your product.

The Eclipse is just one example of a new product flowing from a new propulsion system. If the new Williams engine is as reliable as its larger predecessors, other airframe manufacturers will find ways to use it in other new airplanes. That will represent an impressive return from the GAP's original $36 million investment in new technology and make a very strong case for the government to continue priming the pump by funding new aeronautics research and development technology through NASA .