Innovation in Oshkosh

The town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin is not generally thought of as one of the innovative centers of America. Children's clothing, yes. Trucks? You betcha. But Oshkosh doesn't typically jump to mind as a powerful counter-argument to those who worry that the computerized, modern era has obliterated backyard tinkering, craftsmanship, and forward-thinking innovation.

Except for one week a year.

Each year, at the end of July, the Experimental Aircraft Association has its annual convention at the Wittman Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 12,000 airplanes and hundreds of thousands of people attend, making the airport, for that one week, the busiest airport in America. Lots of private and commercial pilots fly in to the convention in standard general aviation planes that range from the 1920s to the latest and most current models. There are graceful biplanes  that are as much works of art as machines of the air. There are WWI and WWII fighters, tiny little trainers, gliders, seaplanes, and huge military transports. But the show is also a hotbed of innovation and inventive craftsmanship; reassuring to anyone who wonders, or worries, whether we've lost that hands-on, Thomas Edison-like inventor's edge.

The "Experimental" Aircraft Association, after all, was founded to support those who wanted to design and build their own planes. Many of those innovators have gone on to produce and sell hundreds, or thousands, of standardized "kits" of their designs, which are then built by individual owners in their garages. Even in 2009. And the results are often far beyond what exists in "factory-built" airplanes. Some kitplanes go 200 miles an hour or more, on only a few gallons of gas per hour.

But really, the fun part; the remarkable part (and the most inspiring part), is seeing the vast array of new ideas made real in prototypes spanning a broad range of shapes, sizes and levels of complexity. To illustrate, here are just a few:

The ICON -- portable, light, amphibious sport fun


Park in your garage, take off from a runway, and land in the local lake for a morning of fishing--and look cool while you're doing it. ICON has high-tech design and looks, aimed at pilots who want a plane that's relatively simple but as modern-looking as their stereo systems. It's still in test flight, and the plane is limited to two passengers, and 120 mph. But it's clearly not your father's Oldsmobile.

Terrafugia--a high-tech flying car


One of the longstanding problems of using planes for transportation is that you arrive at a destination airport without a good way to get around on the ground. So ever since the early post-war era, designers have tried to figure out how to make a hybrid vehicle that would both fly and drive. Nobody so far has had a lot of success with the concept of a flying car (the requirements of the two types of transport are pretty different, after all), but a team of MIT engineers has entered the market with a high-tech design called the Terrafugia, which they call a "roadable aircraft." (Wings fold to drive on roads.) Will it work? Hard to say. It has flown, but it's had some problems in flight testing that the team is now struggling to work out. But it's a bold try at applying new technology to an old problem.

The Maverick -- a low-tech flying car


Innovation isn't purely the domain of high-techengineers, as evidenced by this bare-bones flying dune buggy. Designed by a missionary pilot named Steve Saint (author of End of the Spear), it's a grass-roots solution to a very common problem in remote third-world areas: washed out, impassable roads. As a dune buggy, it navigates rough dirt roads well. But if a driver encounters an impassable section of land or road, he or she can open a parafoil atop its long center pole, start the pusher propeller behind the buggy, get a 100-foot headstart, and literally "puddle-jump" the washed-out section. It flies 40 miles an hour (so it drives faster than it flies), and is simple enough to be easily repairable in the bush ... even by indigenous people with limited mechanical or pilot training.

The All-Electric Plane


The problems with an all-electric airplane are more complex than a hybrid or electric car, but there are several companies working on the concept. "It's the future," says Jeremy Monnett, whose Sonex company is working on the electric engine/aircraft pictured above. "It's not the near-term future, but it's definitely the long-term future. You know that Chinese saying about "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step? Well, this is our first step." Sonex, a kitplane manufacturer, is testing the 55 kw (75 hp) brushless DC cobalt motor on an existing Sonex kitplane, but Monnett envisions the engine being used eventually to extend the flight time of a motor-glider design or power a much lighter, purpose-designed airframe. (Sonex is also working to develop a single-engine kit jet (see below). When? Ah. Well, when they find a new engine manufacturer, because the original supplier went out of business.)



The Vision Jet


But while Sonex is years away from a flyable, single-engine kitplane jet, Alan Klapmeier has one already flying. Klapmeier is the founder and mastermind behind the Cirrus Design Company (whose Cirrus aircraft James Fallows has written about numerous times). But not content to rest on his laurels, he's designed, and is working to market, a very sleek but practical single-engine, five+2-seat, factory-produced personal jet for the speed-seeking traveler.

Some of the ideas on display are astoundingly simple; others rely on sophisticated computer design and control. And they may not all work or prove viable, of course. The history of aviation, like any field, is littered with ideas that proved better in concept than in reality. But the EAA show is a reminder, once a year, that that the "old" backyard, hands-on, bold spirit of invention is still alive and kicking, even in the video-game and digital age. And that alone is worth something. 

Note--offline: I'll be offline for the next week. Returning August 6th.