In several of my previous columns, I have proposed that part of the problem with general aviation is the lack of new technology in piston-powered aircraft.
The fact that the engines are based on 1930s and 1940s technology means that many of today’s future pilots do not relate to their operating systems.
I proposed that manufacturers adapt technology from the automotive world to new aviation engines. I have received a lot of responses. The two most common are “Do you know how much that will cost?” and “Pilots prefer the old tried and proven engines.”
This reminds me of when I was a boy growing up on a farm in the 1950s. A friend of my father worked for John Deere, so we had JD tractors. In the 1950s JD still produced just 2-cylinder tractors like it always had. But by the end of the decade, the company’s biggest tractor had a 470 cubic inch, 2-cylinder engine with 6.125-inch pistons that produced 70 hp.
Company officials knew they were at the limit for their design and that, in the future, farms would get bigger and farmers would demand more horsepower. So the company “bet the farm” on designing a completely new line of tractors and engines.
When the new tractors were introduced in 1960, many of the old farmers went out and bought up the remaining inventory of the old tractors because they felt the new tractors would not be as dependable as the old models. But within a short time, the new generation of tractors became industry leaders and John Deere went from a contender to the market leader.
Now I know that the ag industry is larger than the GA industry, but the principle is the same. When a company builds a better product, people will buy it if it offers significant improvements in performance, economy, and dependability.
Unfortunately, no one has offered an improved technology piston engine, at least not until now.
The concern over what it would cost to develop and certify a new technology engine is very real. But I think the bigger question is “what is the cost of not updating engine technology for GA piston engines?’
The other big question is “why are small companies like Rotax, Adept, EPS, Graflight, P2M, and Delta Hawk working on new technology engines and Lycoming and Continental are not working on them?”
I know that Continental is selling a diesel engine, but that was developed by another company, so it is just a rebrand.
On that point, a number of years ago, Continental received a large grant from the government to develop a Jet-A powered piston engine for GA aircraft. It built several prototypes of a 2-stroke opposed 4-cylinder diesel engine. It was expensive and had a few drawbacks and died when the government money went away.
Then a German company took an existing diesel engine, put a simple prop drive system on it, and got it certified. Now Continental is selling them.
The problems are not that hard. The thought process is where the problem is.
If you wanted to adapt an automotive spark ignition engine, a reduction gear system would be needed, but these are already available in the TIGO-540 and the TIARI engine.
Next, you would select a higher horsepower engine and de-rate it so that it would live at the higher load factor service needed in an aircraft. Since there is a gear reduction system, there would not be the prop load factor on the rear main bearing like that in a direct drive engine.
Additionally, the engine would be liquid cooled, which would greatly reduce wear and strain.
And the engine could use modern automotive oils, which would all but eliminate rusting and greatly increase the load carrying ability over aviation oils.
There are many more advantages to new technology in engines, such as better fuel economy, easier starting, no pre-heating, lower cost fuel, lower emissions, easier operation, quieter and smoother operation. I could go on, but I think we all understand the need for newer technology.
And us old guys will switch to the new designs once they become available and are proven.
I do not know exactly how many dollars it would cost to develop a new technology engine, but I do know that the cost of not updating is really costing general aviation many new pilots and possibly its future.