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:: January 2008 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Turbine Aficionados,

As we enter the new year, let’s reflect on a supremely successful, world altering technology. It continues to transform aviation markets. Airlines love it for lowering their fuel bills. Private pilots love its value for money and handling characteristics. Believers in “disruptive” technology could call it that. If you were that allegorical conformist from The Graduate, you’d say: “Just one word…Propellers.”

That’s right. Propellers. They’re as old as the Wright Flyer, proving that older technology can enjoy a renaissance. Business planes have led the way in restoring propellers to a prominent position. 2007: Year of the Very Light Jet? Hardly. More like 2007: Year of the Turboprop Business Aircraft. While Eclipse and Cessna delivered fewer than 150 VLJs, Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft, Pilatus, Piaggio, and Socata delivered almost three times as many turboprops—a record for the last 25 years. VLJ production is headed up, but so is prop production. And if you assume, as I do, that Eclipse implodes like a hollowed out termite hill in 2008, the Prop:VLJ production ratio will be similar to this year’s. Props provide a better cabin with low operating costs. They can be almost as fast as a VLJ, which means total trip time is insignificant.

Meanwhile, turboprop regional aircraft enjoyed their best sales in over ten years. Remember the 1990s, when the “RJ Revolution” made those quaint old props “obsolete?” ATR and Bombardier’s Dash 8Q programs now have over 300 planes on backlog, also a 10 year record. Bombardier’s Dash 8 backlog is fast catching up to its RJ backlog. In 2007, Continental became the first US carrier to surrender to reality, abandoning its dubious all-jet fleet mantra and bringing Q400s to its Newark hub. ATR and Bombardier are now planning growth versions of their current props, and perhaps all new prop families too.

As an aside, the return of props offers a chance for government ministers to realize they’re chasing their own tails. Back in the mid 1990s, several governments planned national prop planes. That market collapsed, and some began planning 30/50-seat RJs. When those collapsed, the governments began looking at larger RJs. Today, China, Japan, and Russia are all funding larger RJs—just as that market is plateauing and props are growing again. Who says governments aren’t agile when it comes to responding to market needs? They’re great at responding to yesterday’s market needs.

Unlike airlines, militaries are usually on the cutting edge, sacrificing economics for performance and newer technology. But in a few years the only military transports will have propellers—C-130J, A400M, C-27J/JCA, and C-295. C-17 production will end by 2012, if not before. As Loren Thompson recently pointed out, the C-130 has been around as long as the B-52, but while the BUFF has been out of production for over 40 years, the C-130 is still going strong. It’s the aviation equivalent of the coelacanth.

Do you believe a blended wing body, ion-drive saucer, or jet-powered trapezoid design will produce the perfect military lifter? DoD would need $15-20 billion to develop one of these. Since a cash-strapped Air Force is bickering over how many $60 million C-130Js it can afford, it’s safe to say that turboprop military lifters will remain unthreatened by jet-powered alternatives for another ten years.

Much of this prop re-revolution (retrolution?) is driven by high fuel prices. Propellers use a reduction gearbox, which saves gas. Perhaps the word isn’t propellers. Perhaps it’s gearboxes. In 2007 the geared fan may well have arrived.

Despite a few stumbles, Pratt & Whitney has led the way with large geared fans, but the idea has been with us for decades. Honeywell has built thousands of TFE731 geared fans for business jets. Pratt is doing very well with gearboxes (and all those propellers), but just because it trademarked “Geared TurbofanTM” doesn’t mean it can trademark the design concept. In 2008, GE could look at a geared approach. Rolls-Royce could decide that its IAE alliance with Pratt is worth maintaining for a GTF.

As for applications, GTF might make a Japanese jet actually happen after 30 years of stalling. GTF also helped transform the CSeries from a craptacular design to a good one (if only Bombardier would fund it). Most of all, GTF could precipitate an earlier than expected A320-X/B737-X launch.

With gearboxes and props, old technologies helped define aviation in 2007. I’m drawn again to one of the finest books published in 2007, David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. Edgerton illustrates the irrational exuberance often associated with dramatic new technologies, such as VLJs or high-tech airframes. He also pointed out that past technologies play an important recurring role, both because they are still competitive (business aircraft) or because they help solve new problems like expensive fuel (transports). Technology is seldom disruptive. Most of the time, it’s merely a useful tool.

I’m reminded of my recent tour of a B-52 at Boeing Wichita. I walked around on the wing, checkered with patches and rivets. The crew compartment was a fascinating mix of high and low technology—digital displays, worn metal toggle switches, exposed wiring bundles, new electronic warfare boxes. It was a lot like the new, re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. New technologies were used to transform an old platform. Few doubt that this aging beast will be quite useful until it’s 70 years old, at least. Again, technology is a means to an end—in this case, strategic bombing.

Or, as a pager-toting Alec Baldwin said on 30 Rock, “Technology is cyclical.” Thermal fax machines, pagers, and Beta videocassettes could come back too. Well, maybe not, but you never know what’s salvageable from our aeronautical past.

This month’s Aircraft Binder supplement includes updates of the US 101/VH-71, MiG-29, ERJ 145, S-92 E-6, and C-212. A new report covers Russia’s Superjet. Have a great holiday season and New Year.

Yours, Until That Robot From Lost In Space Takes My Job,
Richard Aboulafia

 

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