In the late 1970s, general aviation (GA) in the United States was experiencing its heyday. In 1978, as many as 18,000 GA aircraft were produced. But only 15 years later, the industry was on the verge of collapse, with fewer than 1,000 aircraft produced in 1993.
One of the reasons for this decline was the lack of technological development that exposed the industry to safety and efficiency concerns. NASA, however, saw great potential within the GA industry to revolutionize the U.S. transportation system. With congestion growing both on the roads and in the skies, the Agency envisioned a Small Aircraft Aviation System, or SATS, in which improved GA aircraft would serve as an efficient travel option for round-trip distances too long to comfortably drive but too short to be practical for regular commercial airline service. Making use of the Nation’s 19,000 airports (of which 14,000 are privately operated), SATS would provide an alternative to crowded highways and the overburdened hub-and-spoke airline system.
In order to facilitate the creation of SATS, GA aircraft needed to become cheaper to produce, quieter and more fuel efficient, and easier and safer to fly. In 1994, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) joined with private industry, academia, and nonprofits to form the Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments (AGATE) consortium. Consisting of about 70 members and led by NASA’s Langley Research Center, AGATE sought to revitalize the GA industry and help drive the technological innovation needed to make SATS viable. Among the technologies AGATE focused on were safety and crashworthiness improvements, guidance systems, aerodynamically efficient airfoils, and manufacturing processes.
While AGATE ended in 2001, NASA continues to inspire the GA industry through efforts like the upcoming 2011 Green Flight Challenge, which seeks to demonstrate personal aircraft featuring maximized fuel efficiency, improved safety, and reduced noise. In the meantime, innovations with origins in the AGATE program continue to shape general aviation today.
Among the primary tools AGATE employed to stimulate innovation and technology transfer were the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. Companies that received Phase II SBIR or STTR contracts were invited to join the AGATE consortium, further encouraging collaboration among government, academic, and industry partners.
One such company was Cirrus Design Corporation, based in Duluth, Minnesota. Founded in 1984, Cirrus’ first product was an experimental aircraft, the VK-30. The company was keen on improving personal aircraft performance by making use of natural laminar flow; vehicles that take advantage of this property experience significantly less drag and thus fly faster and with better fuel efficiency. The VK-30 featured a natural laminar flow airfoil (the NLF-414F) designed by Langley engineer Jeff Viken. The problem with manufacturing the airfoil, however, was that production methods that used aluminum to craft the wing ultimately destroyed the laminar flow properties of the airfoil.
Through SBIR contracts with Langley, Cirrus worked on developing low-cost manufacturing methods using composite materials, which would provide a strong, lightweight aluminum alternative that preserved natural laminar flow. At the time, composites were used either for boats or for high-end military aircraft, says Cirrus chief engineer, Paul Johnston.
“We needed the composites to be aerospace quality but more in line cost-wise with what it would take to make a boat,” he says. Cirrus’ SBIR work resulted in significant composite manufacturing expertise and a pre-impregnated composite that could be readily mass-produced.
Additional SBIR work with Glenn Research Center explored electroexpulsive deicing systems to help ensure safe operation in dangerous icing conditions. While this technology ultimately proved commercially impractical for Cirrus, the company developed a method under the SBIR for mating the system to aircraft wings without disrupting their natural laminar flow. Cirrus later applied the same method to install glycol “weeping wing” systems, providing chemical icing protection without sacrificing performance.