NBAA - Strong despite the Storm

Issue: 10-2009By LeRoy Cook, Orlando, Florida, USA

The National Business Aviation Association convention meets expectations despite initial apprehensions of a no-show under the ominous shadow of the economic downturn

Working From The Hypothesis that it could have been much worse, the 2009 convention and trade show of the National Business Aviation Associa┬Čtion (NBAA), held in Orlando, Florida in October was a successful event. Expectations of a lacklustre show had been prevalent during the months leading up to the event, due to the economic downturn. New aircraft manu-facturing had been severely curtailed in the past year, used aircraft prices were depressed across the board, many flight departments had been dissolved and utilisation of business aircraft was keeping pace with the sluggish economy. All in all, everyone was expecting a bleak show.

However, attendance was only off by about 25 per cent from the 2008 total and there were glimmers of hope that the world’s economy was reviving. Galvanised by a joint NBAA and General Aviation Manufacturers Association “No Plane, No Gain” advertising campaign, the industry’s corporate pilots, owners and flight department managers were eager to assemble, shop and share information.

A Large, Grand Affair

The huge Orange County Convention Center exhibit hall in Orlando had much unsold and unoccupied space signs of the distressed industry. Of the 1,075 exhibitors, who took 84 per cent of 2008’s hall space, 91 per cent were returnees, by NBAA reckoning. Still, some companies scaled back their exhibits, others opted to work from flight line displays and several regular exhibitors sat out the show entirely. The paucity of new product announcements merely reflected the overall mood.

Even with the curtailments, the 62nd annual NBAA meeting was a large, grand affair. A total of 22,920 registrants attended, down from 30,811 last year, and the static display was chock-a-block with nearly 100 aircraft as large as Boeing 737s. The Showalter Flying Service ramp at Orlando’s Executive airport was once again the static display venue. KORL is a well-run Class D general aviation facility that is free of airline traffic.

Activities at NBAA included seminars for operations and management, addressing specific issues common to companies that might not have occasion for contact during the rest of the year. Outfitting and maintenance firms were eager to discuss ways to keep an existing aircraft in service for the near term, avionics suppliers touted the worth of their wares, and modification purveyors offered the benefit of upgrading older planes instead of buying new ones.

Garmin Presses On

As we said, new announcements were few and far between, but Garmin International, always at the cutting edge of avionics and electronic instrumentation, literally “pressed on” by announcing its new glass cockpit for small turbine airplanes; the G3000 system replaces twisting knobs with touch screens to control its integrated functions. Much like the iPhone, mode and function selection is controlled by tapping and scrolling across handpads, using a proprietary infrared technology. So-called “soft keys” remain on the lower bezel of the displays to address needs for that particular screen, but primary control of the system is based on the GTC 570 central keypads.

The G3000 (a G2000 was evidently passed over) is designed for original equipment manufacture, not retrofitting, because its worth lies in the integration of all avionics and instrumentation in the aircraft. Bits of data are shared among navigation, autopilot, engine and flight path requirements. The first two launch customers jumping on the G3000 bandwagon at NBAA were Piper and Honda, who hope to enhance their in-development PiperJet and Honda Jet aircraft with the newest panel around.

PiperJet Update

Piper CEO Kevin J. Gould revealed plans to increase production for 2010 (considering 2009’s abysmal numbers, that won’t be difficult), extend the product line and continue development of the PiperJet single-engine light jet, for which first deliveries are anticipated in 2013. Gould once again raised an old spectre of product liability insurance costs, which he says have doubled in the past four years, not just for Piper but other companies as well. He vows “I intend to get to the bottom of it”, insisting that he sees no loss history or change in exposure to account for the premiums increase.

Company President John D. Becker brought us up to date on the PiperJet, which had made 160 flights totaling over 230 hours. Maximum speed attained thus far is 353 knots TAS, making the target of 360 knots easily within reach as soon as aerodynamic cleanup is done. The adjustable engine exhaust nozzle used to counter the asymmetric thrust line from the Williams fanjet above the fuselage has performed flawlessly, according to Becker. The EXACT (exhaust angle control technology) system was developed by Williams and Piper, obviating any need for an adjustable horizontal stabilizer. Piper also revealed some interior details for the PiperJet, which will feature a stylised instrument panel for the three GTC 570 Garmin G3000 displays.

Cessna Cuts Back

Like Piper, Cessna Aircraft did not display at the display hall, but concentrated its efforts on an expanded presence at the static display on Orlando Executive airport, a 30-minute drive from the indoor exhibits and seminars. All seven models of the Citation jet line were made available, including one of the first Citation Xs fitted with Winglet Technology elliptical winglets. Of the single-engine propeller line, only the turboprop Caravan and high-tech Corvalis were shown. A Citation CJ4 test aircraft was flown to the show to join the static display for one day; certification is expected by year’s end or early-2010. Jack Pelton, company President, said the CJ4’s performance figures are well above target.

As for the cancelled Columbus large-cabin jet programme, Pelton said he prefers to consider the aircraft “suspended” rather than entirely called off, leaving open the speculation that it might be revived in better times. However, to cope with the current sales drought, Cessna’s employment has been slashed in half and production lines halted or slowed to a crawl.

Static Display Covers the Spectrum

Beechcraft Hawker, likewise, limited its NBAA presence to the airport display, showing the King Air turboprop line, Premier 1A and Hawker jet series, with follow-on airplanes like the Hawker 450 (a re-engined Beechjet 400) and the Premier 2 being kept on hold pending economic recovery. Beechcraft also showed a “Missionator” multi-mission version of the 1900D twin turboprop, which could be configured for medical evacuation, charter, light cargo or other multi-role purposes.

At the other end of the convertible-EMS spectrum, Boeing Business Jet exhibited a BBJ-C, a 737-700 with a huge cargo door in the forward cabin to facilitate loading of medical, cargo and industrial paraphernalia. Airbus Corporate Jets showed a newly-completed Comlux A318 Elite corporate carrier.

Dornier showed its venerable SeaStar 12-passenger twin-turboprop composite-construction amphibian, which is targeted for developing countries in water-rich areas. Using the venerable Dornier push-pull overwing nacelle and sponson displacement, the flying boat is capable of handling 2.5-foot swells. Production is slated for a Canadian location, with company headquarters in Florida.

Embraer unveiled a new model of its already-flying Legacy 650 airliner-derived business jet. The new 650 will combine the ERJ135 fuselage with an ERJ145 wing, with a stronger glass windshield and increased fuel capacity. Meanwhile, the Phenom 100 and 300 light jets were also on display.

Outgrowths of composite-construction kit aircraft, the Farnborough F1 Kestrel and Comp Air 9 and 12 airplanes were in the static display. The Kestrel prototype was built under contract for Farnborough Aircraft Limited by the now-defunct Epic Aircraft, which had proposed a line of turboprop and jet kit planes, and will now seek certification with improvements as the Kestrel. The successful Comp Air line is well established in kit form, and certification plans for the Honeywell-TPE331-powered pressurised Comp Air 12 are pending.

Outgrowths of composite-construction kit aircraft, the Farnborough F1 Kestrel and Comp Air 9 and 12 airplanes were in the static display. The Kestrel prototype was built under contract for Farnborough Aircraft Limited by the now-defunct Epic Aircraft, which had proposed a line of turboprop and jet kit planes, and will now seek certification with improvements as the Kestrel. The successful Comp Air line is well established in kit form, and certification plans for the Honeywell-TPE331-powered pressurised Comp Air 12 are pending.

Piaggio Aero’s CEO Alberto Galassi reports that the P.180 Avanti II is enjoying continued success. The company is now one-third owned by the Tata Group, along with Italian and Abu Dhabi interests, with a healthy backlog of 70-plus orders. A new plant is scheduled to open in 2011 in Italy. Some 29 P.180s will be built in 2009, nearly matching 2008 production. When conditions are favourable, there will be a follow-on jet from Piaggio, to be partially built by Tata.