“Remember, Ted Smith originally designed this airplane as a jet,” said Ken Bacon, executive director of the Aerostar owners Association. We were standing in front of one unique Aerostar – with a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) PW615A turbofans slung beneath its wings replacing its piston engines. A little later on, we were joined by James Christy, vice president of Aerostar Aircraft, which owns the type certificate for the hot-rod twin.
He said the exact same thing. Steve Speer, chief engineer for Aerostar Aircraft nodded in agreement. Then a few minutes later, Luc Landry, a senior manager of product development at Pratt & Whitney Canada, stopped by the Aerostar Aircraft display. He’s been working with Aerostar Aircraft on the re-engining project, and I asked for his assessment of the viability of the program from the point of view of P&WC. He said the company is impressed with the project, and then added, “You know, Ted Smith originally designed this airplane as a jet.”
I was starting to get the message.
Back in1986, Christy and Speer first started getting serious about creating a turbofan-powered Aerostar. They met with Dr. Sam Williams of Williams International, who told them that 20 years earlier (circa 1966) “a young man by the name of Ted Smith” had approached him about building small jet engines for an airplane he was designing – the Aerostar. (They ultimately chose Pratt & Whitney over Williams for reasons of availability.)
Aerostar Aircraft now holds the paperwork, and coordinates hand-in-glove with the owners’ association. There are currently some 700 Aerostars still active worldwide, and the Aerostar Owners Association includes 300 members.
Bacon said, “The typical Aerostar owner flies alone most of the time, with a briefcase. Maybe sometimes for pleasure with the family, but these airplanes are mainly flown by businessmen – who want to get there fast.”
On the flight to Oshkosh from Aerostar Aircraft headquarters in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Christy said he was cruising in the jet Aerostar at 400 knots at 27,000 feet and burned 115 gallons over three hours’ flying time. This visit to AirVenture is the first time the airplane has left the Coeur d’Alene area, where it’s flown about 200 hours of development testing to date.
The breadth of detail involved in swapping the original pistons for wing-mounted turbofans is complex in some ways, and surprisingly simple in others. As far as stress, Speer again harks back to what the whole human race seems to agree was Smith’s original intent. “The airplane is greatly overbuilt. For example, it has a Mach .70 wing.” The jet has a beefed up wing leading edge to accommodate the nacelle mount.
One obvious question with underslung engines on a small aircraft concerns foreign object damage (FOD)–rocks, gravel or runway trash sucked into the fan blades. Speer said their research and testing have shown that there ought to be no issue with the Aerostar jet.
In the time I stood chatting at the Aerostar Aviation display near Hangar B off of ConocoPhillips Plaza, a steady procession of EAAers stopped to ogle the jet Aerostar. No fewer than half a dozen had that unmistakable expression on their face that said, “How much?” (It’s about $1 million to retrofit an existing Aerostar.) And “How can I crunch my budget numbers to justify owning one of these?”
Christy said he intends to start slowly with rebuilding existing airframes. Eventually, he said the airplane could go into production, though that would take an estimated $50 million to set up the tooling, establish a factory, start a parts production supply chain, and set up a service organization. A new production Aerostar jet stretched by 32 to 44 inches, would sell for somewhere north of $2 million a copy.
The greatest challenge in flying the jet Aerostar is readjusting flight planning for the higher speeds. “Things happen a lot more quickly,” said Christy. Indeed, flying a jet is a new experience for any pilot used to slower speeds. But Aerostar pilots are used to the high landing speeds of their airplanes (120 knots on approach, said Christy) and they are acutely aware that this is not an airplane you can allow to get too slow.
Sounds like the ideal candidate for adding jet power.