looked like anyone else wandering the showplane lines and vendor
displays at AirVenture this year: shorts, T-shirts, camcorders, sunburn.
But they weren’t "just visitors"—they were a team of
engineers from General Electric and Airbus Industries, on what they
themselves described as a "treasure hunt for innovation."
course, engineers visiting AirVenture is nothing new. Indeed, it
probably isn’t the first time an engineer has managed to figure out a
way to come to Oshkosh at company expense. This group, however —
including members from both firms and from Europe as well as the United
States — came with a very specific objective in mind, and with a
highly detailed plan in place for achieving it.
The objective was simple:
"Stimulate the GE and AI teams on themes of innovation for the
aerospace industry." The methodology was refined: three separate
teams would patrol AirVenture, armed with a template of nine topics to
be determined and detailed: Oldest Airplane, Least Likely To Fly,
Largest Airplane, Most Unusual, Most Innovative, and four categories of
Most Inspiring: Aerodynamics, Propulsion, Avionics, and Acoustics
(meaning a quiet aircraft). Each team was given a further objective:
"Get inspired by meeting or learning about real innovators who
developed their own aircraft concepts."
rest of us relaxed (or recovered) at the end of the day, the members of
each of the three groups of engineers not only compared and discussed
what they’d learned, but also prepared sophisticated reports, complete
with PowerPoint presentations and multimedia content. Thursday, they
gathered in a hotel conference room in Appleton to share information.
There, senior engineers and managers would compare and judge the three
teams’ presentations, make note of what had been discovered, and
present the leading team with an (unspecified) prize.
categories were, inevitably, identical for all the groups. "Largest
Airplane" was, of course, the Boeing Dreamlifter.
perceptions diverged interestingly and productively was in the
"Most Inspiring" and "Most Innovative" categories.
Choices for "Most Innovative Aerodynamics" included the
Piaggio P.180 Avanti, with its pusher propellers and three-surface
layout; the Dyke Delta; and, at the other end of the aspect ratio
spectrum, the Stemme S-10 motorglider—as one of the European
aerodynamicists put it, "Ultimately, if you’re striving for
efficiency, span is king." Interestingly, some of the most exotic-appearing
airframes—such as V-tailed single-engine jets—were perceived as
single-engine jets scored big, on the other hand, was in the "Most
Innovative Acoustics" category, with the noise of their
already-quiet high-bypass turbofans directed away from the ground by
their tail surfaces. Here, too, there was a very contrasting choice:
Sonex’s Xenos motorglider.
aircraft, in fact, blurred the distinction between the
"Acoustic" and "Propulsion" categories for
innovation, with one group choosing Randall Fishman’s ElectraFlyer.
Another group chose the Honda-GE engine currently powering the
of interest in the "Most Inspiring Avionics" category appeared
to fall on the various integrated glass-cockpit systems. Here, too, were
interesting exceptions, with an engineer responsible for the development
of next-generation Airbus cockpit displays impressed with a graphic
"E-Sky" primary flight display, while another group was very
interested in Avidyne’s concept of a "digital parachute:"
when things get difficult, push a button on your panel similar to the
OnStar system in current cars, and an expert on the ground can not only
see your instruments and GPS display, but also offer assistance as
"Most Innovative" category provided results as diverse as the
engineers and managers making the choices. One group chose the Icon
amphibian, on the basis not only of its system concept, but also on its
integration into a novel business plan. Another group’s choice was
surprising, but entirely justified: the F4U Corsair: its famous
gull wing was an extremely innovative way to meet the issues of high
carrier-landing sink rates and a huge propeller while still allowing a
short, rugged landing gear.
of inspirational pioneers, one group chose John Monnett; another chose
Eben Mocke Sr., who produces and markets the RAF gyroplane kits; and the
third chose Canadian "Fern" Villeneuve, who started flying as
a civilian after WWII, joined the RCAF, and led its first jet formation
aerobatic team. He was also instrumental in the air cadet program after
retirement…and flew a Tiger Moth to Oshkosh this year at age 81.
there was one area in which all the engineers and managers agreed
completely: as impressive as the various innovations were, they were
overshadowed by the people and the culture that had enabled and produced
them. I heard words and phrases like "imagination,"
"personal zeal," "love of aviation,"
"continuing in the face of adversity," "not sitting on
your laurels," "renaissance man," and "the spirit
that anyone can do anything." That’s certainly the spirit of
AirVenture, and that’s the message that the engineers are taking back
to GE and Airbus.