It is no surprise to anyone that aviation has become expensive. Some four-seat, single-engine airplanes retail for nearly $1 million! Those airplanes are fast, comfortable, and superbly equipped, but at those prices few pilots have a large enough budget to allow for purchase of a new aircraft.
The great news is that not all airplanes are so costly. While you may not cruise at 200 mph, an entire field of airplanes is available from $15,000 to $200,000. Yes, $15,000 for a ready-to-fly three-axis aircraft, with hundreds operating successfully. In the $65,000 to $150,000 Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) space, many handsome choices are available.
Is an LSA still too pricey for you? Or, are you wary about an airplane that costs only $15,000? Well, how about something entirely new?
Chip Erwin is a name previously linked to the highly successful SportCruiser LSA. Hundreds are flying and that LSA has been copied very closely several times.
A restless entrepreneur, Chip has been working behind the curtain for several years. He emerged with the Zigolo ultralight and is now proposing a fresh name for a segment that seems to have genuine energy behind it.
I’ve reported on England’s new Single Seat Deregulated class, Germany’s 120-kilogram Class, and I have observed the rejuvenation of American Part 103 vehicles.
On a recent trip to China, I visited at length with Chip to see what he has in mind.
PSA: Personal Sport Aircraft
“Is ‘affordable aircraft’ an oxymoron?” Chip wonders. “For most people, probably yes. One answer could be a class of aircraft I like to refer to as a PSA, or Personal Sport Aircraft.”
Chip believes the term Personal Sport Aircraft offers potential for renewed interest in single place aircraft. He believes these can be priced far less than LSA, yet are not confined by the limitations of Part 103 ultralights.
What attributes does Chip use to describe a PSA?
- Retail prices between $32,000 and $45,000;
- 4-stroke aircraft engine or electric propulsion;
- Can be flown with a Sport Pilot license without a medical
- Fully enclosed with conventional aircraft style and construction
- Good performance and handling: Cruise about 100 mph, slow stall;
- Responsive handling;
- Intended for day VFR operation; and
- Appealing appearance.
At $30,000-$45,000 Chip observes a PSA may not cost much more than a Harley-Davidson or Honda Goldwing motorcycle, products that prove affordable for many.
“I should point out that a PSA, by my definition and by cost constraints, is necessarily a single-seat aircraft,” said Chip. “Making a PSA a two-seat aircraft would put us right back into LSA, where the engine alone costs $20,000, contributing to higher finished aircraft cost.”
Several of us discussing this subject believe a vast majority of non-transportation flights last around 45 minutes or an hour and are commonly flown solo.
“So maybe having only one seat is not a bad trade-off to save six figures,” Chip notes.
Additionally, “Many ‘significant others’ may be silently relieved that they would not be able to go flying in their spouses’ new toy.”
Seem unlikely? Consider Mooney’s Mite.
In the middle of the 20th Century, the Mite was designed by Al Mooney and was intended as a personal airplane marketed to fighter pilots returning from World War II. However, it was priced 20% higher than most of the two-seat competitors at the time.
Some experts think that had it been priced significantly lower than the two seaters it may have been a greater success. Nonetheless, Mite enjoyed a production run of 283 units, very respectable in today’s market.
“A few aircraft might presently fit a new PSA class, but they fail in some criteria,” said Chip.
He reports that many of the lightest aircraft must depend on two-stroke engines or are unattractive to many pilots. Some are still too expensive. Truly affordable aircraft can be found in Part 103 ultralights but, fine as some of these are, their appeal is also limited. For example, most are open cockpit designs.
A void in the availability of a dependable 40-60 horsepower four-stroke aircraft engine may be one reason we see few single seaters or PSA.
“Some development of new four-stroke engines is occurring,” Chip reports, “but the ones I’ve examined are heavier and provide less power than popular two-stroke engines.”
So How About Electric Power?
What works with electric propulsion today are low drag, lightweight aircraft that do not require much power to fly.
“A PSA is nearly perfect in definition,” stated Chip. “Heavier two-seat aircraft cannot offer the endurance, instilling ‘range anxiety,’ and are still too expensive. Until battery energy capacity increases significantly, electric power may be limited to PSA.”
Chip believes that new PSA designs must be able to carry enough battery to fly for an hour. “This is hard to do while meeting Part 103,” he noted.
Ideally, the motor should provide enough power at low RPM so as to reduce prop noise closer to electric motor noise. Since the field is new, designers must assure the entire system can be designed and integrated for safe operation.
“I have been researching electric power, a technology with huge potential, and I believe a PSA is the perfect place to start,” Chip said. “A new electric motor I am developing is designed specifically for aircraft use, meaning it has high torque, low RPM, light weight, and high reliability.”
“Concurrently a new battery system I am creating has one of the highest Lithium Polymer (LiPo) power densities commercially available and is integrated with the motor, controller, and battery management system to provide safe, reliable operation.”
Electric power can work well using a PSA with today’s technology. If properly designed, it should provide an endurance of more than one hour.
“Those who want to fly farther and faster could couple the electric motor with a small four-stroke aircraft engine for a viable hybrid,” he said.
As we’ve seen from fresh projects in Italy and Spain, plus media frenzy over Airbus’ eFan and related projects, hybrid may be a coming way to bridge the gap between gas-powered engines and pure electric.
The FAA may be pondering a new regulatory approach to electric propulsion, but Experimental Amateur Built (EAB) rules allow customers to build whatever they want.
“With a simple design and modern construction methods of matched-hole and jig-less assembly, build time can be measured in weeks, not years,” observed Chip.
Two aircraft projects Chip is developing function within Britain’s CAA proposed Single-Seat Deregulated (SSDR) rule that allows the sale of a finished single seat aircraft up to 315 kilograms (693 pounds) gross weight when equipped with an airframe parachute and a reasonable maximum stall speed of 35 knots (40 mph).
Currently, the USA has no electric-propulsion airworthiness other than EAB, but agencies see and often copy each other ideas, stimulating Chip to say, “UK’s SSDR plan makes a perfect PSA rule which I hope will spread to other countries.”
Increasingly it appears certain that the future will reward the development of viable electric, perhaps with hybrid four-stroke power systems. Single seat airframes with modern construction and ramp appeal could be among the first success stories.
Let’s call them Personal Sport Aircraft.