Flying the Adam A500

I freely admit it. From the time Burt Rutan, at the behest of George “Rick” Adam, designed and built the Carbon Aero M-309, which later evolved into the Adam A500, I always had an interest in flying the plane, particularly after seeing it featured in the recent movie “Miami Vice” where it aggressively pursued the bad guys.

It’s been almost 10 years since the A500 was born and the road to certification hasn’t been easy. Adam Aircraft, unlike Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft, Piper and Embraer, did not have the luxury of decades of engineering and manufacturing experience, FAA certification liaison and a bevy of reliable vendors to count upon. Witness how Cessna’s Mustang beat the Eclipse 500 to certification after starting almost at the back of the VLJ pack of entrepreneurs.

But Rick Adam had other arrows in his quiver. A pilot since 1992, he employed a number of different aircraft, including a Citation, to move himself around as the owner of a software company, but always with an eye to starting his own aviation enterprise. His years of experience with Goldman Sachs skilled him in money matters — particularly how to raise it. Regardless of how scrumptious a product looks, there’s a lot more to it than bending metal. You have to have the funds to see it through. Witness the demise of Safire Jet and Maverick Jet (the latter since reincarnated). In this, Adam might be characterized as a modern day financial Houdini. After selling his software company in 2000, he injected $26 million of his own money into the enterprise, then came Goldman Sachs with an additional $75 million. Most recently Adam attracted an additional $93 million from Doll Capital Management.

So how does a start-up company play catch-up as regards experience with program management, production, engineering, manufacturing and financial? Simple. You hire it. From Raytheon/Fairchild Dornier/Lockheed and Bombardier, meet Duncan Koerbel, now Adam Aircraft’s president, who imported extensive experience with engineering, production and program management. From Bombardier and Sino-Swearingen came Tom Bisges as vice president-engineering. From McDonnell Douglas and Fairchild Dornier came John Wolf, who is lead board director and board liaison. Next came Chris Naro as CFO, Rob Penrod as VP-manufacturing and Craig Johnson as COO, all with impressive backgrounds. It’s paying off.

Not only did Adam Aircraft receive type certification for the A500 in May 2005 (with certain limitations, all of which have since been satisfied except for flight into known icing, which is expected momentarily), but the real accolade came with the issuance of an FAA production certificate in September 2006. This means Adam can certify its own aircraft without the FAA inspecting each and every plane off the production line. As of January 2007, the company, based in Englewood, Colo., with satellite operations in Pueblo, Colo., and Ogden, Utah, had an order backlog exceeding $850 million. Projections are to garner $1 billion in sales by 2010.

WHY THIS PLANE?

But why a pressurized, reciprocating-engined twin? There hasn’t been one certified in 20 years so there had to be a reason. It can be argued that the pressurized Commander, the Queen Air 88, the Duke, the Piper Mojave and the various 300/400 series Cessnas were maintenance hogs, probably even more so today, as they are 20 years or more long in the tooth. Spare parts are getting harder to find and expensive. Compared to a turboprop or VLJ, Adam saw a price niche where he could provide the same or better level of cabin class comfort with excellent performance and the latest in avionics and composites. An airplane, in other words, that would be attractive to a large fleet of C421 and Duke owners who are frustrated with the maintenance delays and high costs incumbent with their current stables, but need something comparable and modern to move into at a fair price.

From the beginning, Adam’s prime concern has always been safety. And it’s no secret that in the certification process, the FAA has a tendency to look more sharply at a design from a start-up company than it does with a long-established manufacturer, as well it should. From the beginning, Adam bought into the push-pull engine concept, having flown the Cessna 337 extensively. It’s an old saw that when you have an engine failure on a twin, the only assistance provided by the good engine is to convey you to the scene of the accident. And the statistics bear it out. Because of asymmetric thrust, identifying the failed engine, trimming for engine-out, feathering and the generally poor climb power performance of most prop twins on one engine — even under ISA conditions — more injuries and fatalities result from one-engine-out crashes than single-engine (only) failures. Adam rightly decided that little of the foregoing was a problem with a tractor/pusher inline design. It was safer and a quicker path to certification.

There’s another spin-off benefit. If you’ve seen a picture of the next generation Adam product, the A700 jet (now in certification flight tests) you’ll notice its similarity to the A500: same twin boom tail design with two rudders and connecting horizontal stabilizer/elevator, same wing with winglets, same landing gear. In fact, 65% of the A500 hardware is applicable to the A700, which means less development cost and a quicker path to the sales floor. It’s estimated that certification of the A700 jet will be about half that of its stable mate. The A500 needed the twin boom design because of the rear whirly stick. The jet doesn’t with its side-mounted engines, but to keep the parts commonality Adam elected not to change the configuration. Besides, it’s sexy.

A500

On the technical side, the A500 is an all-composite structure, except for the aluminum control surfaces. The ailerons are activated by push rods, giving an impressive roll rate. The elevators and rudders are cable-controlled. Powered by turbocharged, intercooled Teledyne Continental TSIO-550E engines (1,600 hrs TBO) that deliver 350 hp each, and aided by Hartzell scimitar three-bladed props, the A500 can scoot upwards at 1,368 fpm initial ROC to a service ceiling of 25,000 feet, where a true airspeed of 230 knots can be expected at 75% power. And you’ll be sitting in a sumptuously large cabin at 5.5 psi pressurization differential, giving an 8,000 foot cabin altitude (or a sea level cabin up to 12,500 feet.).

To alleviate the problem of high cylinder head temperatures on the rear engine suffered by the Cessna 337, two flat air scoops are mounted on either side of the rear fuselage that dump so much air into the engine that the rear head temperatures are kept well below limits. Twin ventral fins under the rear fuselage contribute to stability and enhanced stall characteristics.

READY TO FLY

My chance to fly the A500 came during this year’s Sun ‘n Fun. Because of the hectic air traffic at Florida’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, Adam Aircraft elected to do its demo flights out of Bartow, Fla.

Meeting up with Matthew Miraz, Adam’s demo pilot, we launched straight into the walkaround inspection. We were going to fly serial number 05, the first customer delivery, which Adam has leased back for demo flights. We started at the left wing and winglets, which increase effective span and aspect ratio. Imbedded in the wing leading edge are a number of triangular objects called flow transition devices. The outboard portion of the wing consists of a cuff that, together with vortex generators, ensures excellent low speed flight and stall behavior.

I was pleased to see a beefy, trailing link landing gear with a spread of about 15 feet between gear legs, which translates into soft landings and not much grief with crosswind landings (up to 25 kts). Landing and taxi lights are located on the main gear legs, which fold backwards into the booms upon retraction, while the nose wheel retracts rearwards into a tunnel below the crew compartment. Under the nose, just aft of the firewall, is a stainless steel plate to deflect exhaust gases away from the composite skin.

Entering the passenger cabin, one is struck by how roomy it seems. Three large oval windows on each side provide excellent visibility. The all-leather cabin seats, stressed for 26 “Gs” with four point harnesses, are multi-adjustable. All seats can face forward, while two can face aft in a club arrangement. By removing the left rear seat an optional, curtained biffy can be installed. This is not belted, however, so it is not a legal seat. Baggage is stored behind the copilot seat.

Access to the cockpit seats is easy. The first thing one notices is there are no control yokes, leaving the view of the glass panels (Avidyne Entegra PDFs, MFD and Vision Microsystems LED engine instruments) completely unobstructed. Instead, left and right side-stick controllers are used. With Meraz courageously inviting me to take the left seat, he began one of the most thorough cockpit briefings I’ve ever had. One important thing to remember is that the left throttle, prop lever and mixture control are for the front engine, the right-side assembly for the rear. A valuable feature of the center-line thrust configuration is that should an engine fail, one has plenty of time to figure out which one it is.

Following a conventional engine start — and while waiting for the turbos to warm up — Meraz explained some of the performance numbers. “We’re certified for 25,000 feet,” he said, “and with full fuel of 220 gallons on board we can go an NBAA IFR range of 1,050 nm at 22,000 feet at 230 kts. Single engine ceiling is 16,000 feet, which will put us above any mountain in the lower 48.”

Taxiing to the runway, steering is accomplished by differential braking. It takes some getting used to as there is a strong temptation to use either left or right throttle to assist a turn, when all you’re really doing is increasing taxi speed. At the holding point, we exercised the props at 2,200 RPMs, checked the mags at 1,700 RPMs, feathered each prop, and when the cylinder head temperature reached 240° C, we were good to go. Applying full throttle we were soon at 85 kts. I raised the nose and we were off and cruise climbing at 120 kts for good over-the-nose visibility and clocking about 900 fpm ROC in the hot, humid air. Arriving at 10,500 feet, we set up 70% cruise power (2,300 RPM, 31″ MP) which gave us a TAS of about 195 kts, so the advertised cruise speed of 230 kts seemed reasonable at double the altitude. Fuel consumption was about 39 gph.

Trimmed for level flight, I then pushed the plane into a 300 foot dive and released the controls. It returned to stabilized flight in about three and a half vertical oscillations. Then, pushing the rudder hard into an aggravated yaw, it stopped fish-tailing after about one and a half oscillations. Most impressive. Next came slow flight, a few knots above clean stall (85 KCAS). Not a problem, with excellent roll rate.

“Before we go downstairs, let’s do an engine out,” said Meraz. “Just pull an engine back and I’ll set up zero thrust on that engine so we don’t thermal shock it.”

I pulled the rear engine on which we set up 2,000 RPMs and 14″ MP. “Now try a climb,” he instructed. No yawing and we started to climb at about 200 fpm, which is pretty close to the sea level values.

Then it was back to Bartow for a landing. “Hold about 120 kts on downwind, 110 on crosswind, 100 on approach and flare at 90,” advised Meraz. Beautiful. Hardly any trim changes with gear and flap lowering, lots of low speed elevator authority. We touched down with a satisfying kiss. While we waited for the mandatory five minute cool-down on the turbos before switching off, Meraz explained that current backlog for the A500 is in the mid-70s, for the A700 jet in the high 300s (because of large air taxi fleet orders). Total dollar backlog about $800 million. A $100,000 non-refundable deposit is required with a signed purchase order. Two progress payments are needed at 12 and six months before delivery, with the balance on transfer of title. Current pricing for the standard aircraft is $1.15 million or $1.2 million, depending on whether you opt for the Avidyne Entegra two-screen or three-screen avionics set-up. Pilot and mechanic training (one of each) is included in the price, but available for extra pilots/mechanics at an additional sum.

MAINTENANCE

Now that you’ve decided on an A500, who’s going to fix it? Rest easy. Adam Aircraft has appointed 16 service centers from the left to the right coast and instituted a program called AdamCare where customers can get assistance on the Internet or by phone regarding such subjects as technical assistance, problem reporting, warranty issues, spare parts, even downloading technical manuals.

For more information: 866-232-6247

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