Editor's note: due to the holidays, this week we'll be offering up posts in 2009 from the Business Aviation Now blog. Today's post, by BCA's Fred George, was originally written on June 21, right after the Paris Air Show. Enjoy!
Alexandre Couvelaire, a well-known leader in France’s aviation avante garde, talked about what big challenge he next wants to tackle during a recent visit to his office in St. Germaine des Pres in Paris. His past accomplishments are impressive and he’s quite a fixture in Paris’ social and political circles, including those involving France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Couvelaire has been somewhat of an aerospace maverick for almost a half century. In 1962, he founded Euralair, a small charter company at Le Bourget that grew into an FBO, MRO, air-charter and scheduled air carrier operating out of De Gaulle. At Euralair, he pioneered two-crew Boeing 737 operations in France, much to the consternation of the powerful pilots’ union at Air France that insisted on three crew members. He placed the first order for a Boeing 777, two days ahead of United Air Lines. He formed the first fractional ownership cooperate in France.
He also dreamed of building the world’s first VLJ. That idea started when Couvelaire flew Morane-Saulnier MS-760 Paris Jets in the French Air Force. He liked the airplane so much, that years after he left the military, he bought the only six-seat MS-760C Paris Jet III ever built. It was the world’s first VLJ-like airplane. Couvelaire flew it for ten years despite its having short range because of its fuel guzzling Turbomeca Marbore jet engines.
His dream was to create the world’s first mass-produced VLJ based on the Paris Jet III design, but that was critically dependent upon the availability of small, fuel-efficient, affordable turbofan engines. But, the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW600 and Williams FJ33 fanjets still were years away.
“Everything in aviation is paced by engine development,” Couvelaire said.
Along the way, ailing Mooney Aircraft, then owned by Republic Steel, attracted Couvelaire’s attention. He liked Mooney’s low-drag designs, especially their laminar flow wings. He believed they might spawn derivatives. But, he thought that Teledyne-Continental and Lycoming were lax in embracing new technology. As a result, he teamed with Porsche to fit a 217-hp, 3.2-liter flat six, based on the engine that powered the 911 of the early 1980s, to a stretched version of the Mooney 201. The resulting Mooney PFM [short for Porsche Flug-Motoren] was very smooth and its single power lever control made it easy to fly.
But, the engine didn’t hold up well in service, so the model was quickly discontinued. Mooney went back to old engines for its aging model line.
All the time, Couvelaire still dreamt of building a VLJ. With no suitable light turbofan engines available, he joint-ventured with SOCATA to create the VLJ-sized TBM700, the world’s first single-engine turboprop. SOCATA Tarbes [TB] was responsible for most of the design and manufacturing. To keep down production costs, Mooney [M] was responsible for assembly and completion. The 700 number indicated the shp rating of the well-proven PT6A engine. Perennially-poor Mooney eventually had drop out of the program because of insufficient funds, but the name stuck.
That didn’t discourage the indomitable Couvelaire. Almost immediately, he started design work on a twin-jet derivative of the TBM700. His goal was to build a 400+ knot, 1,600 nm range, twin-engine VLJ, one that could cross fly coast to coast across the US with one fuel stop at nearly the speed of a jetliner. He was insistent on fitting the airplane with two engines.
“The PT6A was and is a very good engine. I realize it’s extremely reliable and there’s less than ‘one in a million’ chances of its failing. But, I don’t want to be that ‘one’ when I’m flying IFR over the Alps some night. I want a fighting chance and I need two engines for that.”
Couvelaire placed his hand atop a thick folder on his desk. “In here, is my master plan for a ‘white paper’ [clean sheet] twin-engine VLJ,” he smiled. He’s keeping most of the details under wraps. But, he did say his design is dependent on competitive development of more than one, preferably several, light turbofans in the 2,000 lb thrust class. He mentioned GE-Honda and Price Induction DGEN as competitors to Williams and PWC. He envisions a time when light turbine engine manufacturers will have to compete head to head for general aviation contracts, offering VLJ buyers the multiple choices, much the same as big airlines can chose Pratt, GE or Rolls, CFM or IAE, among others, for their jetliners.
He said that he hasn’t abandoned his 1,600 nm range and 400 knot cruise performance targets for his new airplane. In addition, the airplane must have the docile handling manners and intuitive cockpit design of the Paris Jet III. Couvelaire very much likes the Garmin G1000 avionics package and it’s now a well-proven, high-value package.
Will Couvelaire’s new VLJ look like the TBM NXT, a Paris Jet III or a “white paper” design? We’ll have to wait until Couvelaire opens that folder on his desk top.