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EAA AirVenture Today is published by the Experimental Aircraft Association for EAA AirVenture from July 27 - August 3. It is distributed free on the convention grounds as well as other locations in Oshkosh and surrounding communities. Stories and photos are copyrighted 2008 by EAA AirVenture Today and EAA. Reproduction by any means is prohibited without written consent.

  

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The official daily newspaper of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh


Volume 9, Number 7 August 2, 2008     

Big Aviation checks out AirVenture
By Peter S. Lert

They 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."

Of 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."

While the 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.

Some categories were, inevitably, identical for all the groups. "Largest Airplane" was, of course, the Boeing Dreamlifter.

Where 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 relatively conventional.

Where the 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.

Electric 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 HondaJet.

The bulk 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 necessary.

The "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.

In terms 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.

Finally, 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.

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