First Word: June 2010


I wouldnt be the slightest bit surprised if an archeologist rooting around the middens of some ancient society unearthed, along with pottery shards and crude tools, a Bendix 1200 magneto, with the part number intact. Magnetos are what industrial historians sometimes call “persistent technology.”

Gee, ya think?

In this issue, were reporting on the demise of the Bendix dual mag, a cursed thing which represents one of evolutionary blind alleys that often dog industrial development. Its not that it was really that awful, its just that the idea of two mags in the same housing struck some people as like putting a screen door in a submarine.

But there’s also an opportunity here and a little company called E-Mag Ignitions is trying to seize it. E-Mag has developed a successful line of electronic magnetos for the experimental trade and theyd now like to leverage that into the certified market which, it seems to me, is now ripe for replacing these relics.

Of course, Unison thought the same thing when it developed the LASAR mag in 1995. This was a small baby step toward solid-state ignition which sought to provide some of the benefits without representing an impossible certification challenge. And it succeeded at both. However, the benefits were, should I say, subtle. The things didnt exactly fly off the shelves because they just didnt do that much. Fuel savings were elusive and quicker starting just wasnt that big a deal.

The E-Mag could potentially take electronic ignitions beyond the baby step and into something that actually has a real advantage for owners. They produce a sharper, hotter spark so theyll fire extreme lean mixtures more smoothly and this should also improve starting with richer mixtures. Better yet, they can be mapped to advance settings as much as 39 degrees BTDC. That has implications for fuel economy, too.

Sounds like a great idea, right? Except the FAA will do everything it can to keep it from happening. No, there’s no grand conspiracy at 800 Independence Ave. to thwart electronic ignition or advances of any kind, its just that the FAAs lower and middle bureaucracy is now staffed with people gripped by the “one-more-thing” syndrome. Im told that this is now worse than its ever been.

One more thing means that if youve collected 200 spin data points, some well-meaning FAA engineer will want 300. Or the FAA will concede a 150-hour test run is standard, but some well-meaning FAA staffer will propose 250 hours instead. This sort of thing nibbles away at the limited capital of a small outfit like E-Mag and all but stymies what should be real progress in the industry.

Interestingly, one of the proposals floating around the FAA is to remove certification work for airplanes under 6000 pounds from the FAA and place it under the ASTM process used for LSAs. I wrote about this in the May issue. But even some of the regulated don’t like that idea. Cirrus founder Alan Klapmeier told me his problem with this is that with no uniform oversight, the first crash would result in the entire process being called into question during litigation, something he thinks could tank the entire industry. (Hard to imagine it being deeper in the tank than it already is.)

So whats the solution? One might be to move some of the cert projects into ASTM-say appliances like magnetos, alternators, fuel pumps and so on. Run that for a few years and see how it works. Whatever happens, these smaller companies need to get FAA mid-level apparatchiks off their backs or, sure as hell, we’ll still be flying with magnetos at the turn of the next century.

-Paul Bertorelli

Paul Bertorelli
Paul Bertorelli is Aviation Consumer’s Editor at Large. In addition to his valued contributions to Aviation Consumer, his in-depth video productions on sister publication AVweb cover a wide variety of topics that greatly contribute to safety, operation and aircraft ownership. When Paul isn’t writing or filming, he’s out flying his J3 Cub.