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On the cutting edge

This year I was once again fortunate enough to attend Aero Friedrichshafen, a convention/exhibit that’s held annually (COVID-19 nixed it in 2020 and 2021), right next to the Friedrichshafen, Germany, airport.

Photography by Jeff Tibbitts
Photography by Jeff Tibbitts

Because its focus is devoted entirely to general aviation, Aero is often called Europe’s Oshkosh, er, AirVenture. But the scale, scope, and ambiance at Aero are completely different. The manufacturers and other exhibitors are all indoors, in 11 huge structures that mimic hangars. There’s a static display, but it’s tiny by Oshkosh standards. However, there’s a very strong representation by emerging technologies and aircraft designs. Anyone wanting a look at GA’s future ought to pay a visit.

In many ways, Aero is at the cutting edge. Electrical, hydrogen, and even solar-powered designs are on display, along with drones, gliders, motorgliders, and the latest powerplant creations. In years past, I found some of these cutting-edge developments laughable. I’m thinking of the Volocopter, an 18-rotor eVTOL that debuted at Aero in 2012. Today, Volocopter is planning shuttle services in Singapore and other cities. The Lilium Jet, another then-fanciful design with 36 “electric-jet” engines at its trailing edges, is developing a regional transport system in Florida. These and other early forays have gone on to more mainstream status as they’ve attracted funding. That’s inspiring, but eVTOLs still face challenges to widespread adoption.

Conferences at Aero reflect primarily European concerns, of course. This year, issues such as the impact of Brexit, the war in Ukraine, and ultralight aviation were big topics. The European Commission, which has the daunting task of developing, standardizing, overseeing, and enforcing the trade and other laws of its 27 European Union member nations, has been called Europe’s FAA. But member nations sometimes grate against what they perceive as overreach. Several have argued that they should be able to develop their own certification rules concerning light GA designs—successfully. And that’s how nations like the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, and France have been able to build their own “ultralight” airplanes with retractable gear, constant-speed propellers, turbine engines, and top speeds of 160-plus knots—as long as their maximum takeoff weights are less than 600 kilograms/1,320 pounds, and their stall speeds under 45 knots. The ultralights have opted out of the EC’s original rules and given the GA world a fresh breath—no, a gale—of new, economical, eco-friendly designs. Is this development solely European? “No!” said Jan Fridrich, vice president of the Light Aircraft Association of the Czech Republic (LAA-CR). “This whole movement came about after your [The United States’] light sport aircraft (LSA) rules came out in 2008. It was an inspiration to us.” He pointed out that the European 1,320-pound weight limit for their ultralights is even the same as that for U.S.-certified LSAs.

Conventional GA aircraft also have a stage at Aero. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) has a European office, and it held a conference that emphasized common rules among all EU nations, pointed out supply-chain problems for European manufacturers (especially resins for composite materials), escalating aluminum prices, and shortages of skilled workers in the manufacturing sector.

GAMA-Europe also said there needed to be a roadmap for e-flight. It stressed that common operator certification rules for eVTOL pilots should come about by 2023, and that eVTOL “vertiports” and airspace design regulations should be adopted by 2024.

Like all pilots, Europeans gripe mightily about user fees. Complaints seem futile. But there was one big issue of existential impact for Americans that was only mentioned sotto voce among Aero attendees: the future use of leaded avgas. Not that pollution and high fuel prices aren’t low on Europeans’ priority list; they are leading the world in green technology, and can pay $8-plus per gallon for Jet A, $10-plus for avgas, and around $9 for auto fuel.

What if the worst were to happen, I asked a well-respected author who covers European GA news, and 100LL would be banned in the United States without a replacement fuel? “Europe would follow in an instant,” came the quick answer. If so, that’s one more way in which American and European futures are tied to each other.

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Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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