First Word: May 2012

The Airplane of My Dreams

During the summer of 1968—and I’ll date myself here a little—I was putting the finishing touches on my first car. It was a 1956 Chevy rodded up with a 283, fuel-injection pistons, a Duntov cam, a 411 rear—the works. I could never get the fueling right and as was the custom in those days, I kept throwing carburetors at the problem until in a fit of supreme pathetic excess, I borrowed a friend’s Edelbrock manifold mounted with three two-barrel Holly carbs. That did it. It also yielded gas mileage of about 8 MPG which, even in the days of 28-cent-a-gallon gas, was unsustainable on my summer-job salary. My next car was a Volkswagen. An economist would call this price elasticity response, but I called it sanity.

Ever since, I’ve had a taste for economy and efficiency which is why I felt right at home at Pipistrel’s factory in Slovenia, where we visited in March.There, when we walked into one of the factory bays, I saw the airplane of my dreams: The Pipistrel Panthera. You’ll be able to see it, too, at Aero in April. This comes close to my ideal airplane not because it’s sleek—although it is that—or fast—it’s that, too—but because it’s efficient without giving up performance. At least on paper. The airplane is still in the prototype stage, so I can only judge it based on Ivo Boscarol’s estimates. Pipistrel, which is known as a manufacturer of ultralights and light sports, plans to certify this airplane as a full-up Part 23 four-place aircraft, its first such product.

In developing this airplane, Pipistrel is doing something I wish more airplane companies would do but that most have steadfastly resisted. They’re putting efficiency and economy as the lead bullet point on the design brief. Not cheap, not fast, not a plush interior, but the most knots for the least gas. In the U.S., we have somehow accepted that to go 200 knots, you have to burn 17 to 20 GPH and a lot more than that if you want to take along a second engine. Diamond challenged this notion with the diesel-powered DA42 and made significant inroads. It’s still working the problem. (See page 20.)

If Pipistrel’s numbers pan out—they’re expecting around 200 knots on 9 GPH from a Lycoming IO-390—they will have raised the bar incrementally, if not by an order of magnitude. It’s more of a leap in fuel economy, from 11.6 MPG in the Cirrus to a projected 22 MPG in the Panthera.  Pipistrel plans a hybrid and pure electric version, too, but I’ll be surprised to see either very soon.

Now anyone in the established certified aircraft industry will say, well, we could have done this, but buyers would never go for such a scrunchy little cabin. This raises several questions which I cannot answer. Given the world demand for oil and its price hardness, will airplane buyers finally resonate with the idea of a high-performance airplane optimized for efficiency? Will they be willing to give up something to realize that goal? The give up, as I see it, is cabin size. To achieve these kinds of numbers, you can’t haul around a Cirrus-sized cabin and you won’t be able to fit a grand piano in the baggage space, although you could carry your smithing anvil, because the airplane will have good useful load (about 1145 pounds).

Further, the seating position is likely to be reclined to keep the frontal area small to reduce drag. These would be give-ups I wouldn’t even think twice about trading for fast cruise speed on lower fuel burns. But given the taste for Escalades and Yukons in the U.S., I can’t answer for other buyers. Neither can Pipistrel.

As we were departing Slovenia for the Austrian border, I found myself fantasizing about owning an airplane with that kind of efficient performance and also wondering if you could stuff three Holleys onto a O-390.

—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.