John McGinnis walked into his father’s garage where he had set up his workshop over the past year. A quick glance inside reveals that the interior is predominantly occupied by an airplane with a sleek closed wing design that looks like it could have been taken out of a science fiction movie. But it’s not science fiction. It is reality and hopefully the future. Most people would never imagine having their own personal aircraft nor would they ever think they would find themselves inside the cockpit of one but that’s exactly what McGinnis and his team of engineers are trying to accomplish. “The objective” he says “is an affordable airplane that ordinary people can operate.”
When McGinnis, a 47-year-old composite manufacturer, had been doing refresher studies in advanced aerodynamics for more than 20 years as a hobby, he found himself perplexed by the seeming inefficiencies of modern day aircraft. Frustrated by a technological industry that he felt had utterly stagnated since the mid-20th century, McGinnis had been reading a NASA journal on aerodynamic drag equation when it clicked. “I came out of the girls’ bedroom ranting like a madman to my wife,” he says. “I just solved a problem I’ve been working on since I was a little kid.”
His answer was Synergy Aircraft, a project that combines the different concepts of advanced aerodynamics and drag resistance in order to build an energy efficient and electric powered plane he hopes will be accessible to the average income family. The technology already exists,” McGinnis says “waiting to go into the next generation of private aircraft.”
After having created a smaller ¼ scale model of the aircraft to test those concepts, McGinnis financed his project by launching a page on Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform dedicated to bringing creative projects to life. Opened between May 13th and June 4th 2012, Synergy Aircraft raised roughly $95,000 dollars beating its initial goal of $65,000. Currently, the project is still in its early stages, with McGinnis and his team working on finishing the first fully functional prototype aircraft.
Synergy aircraft promises an affordable and fuel efficient aircraft that offers far more luxury and comfort than the long rides of economy class flights. If successfully implemented, Synergy Aircraft could revolutionize the way we looked at regional air travel by allowing ordinary people to fly from their homes to destinations between 500 to 1500 miles away.
Synergy Aircraft is combining proven 20th century aerodynamic principles into a modern aviation aircraft that can be flown by everyday pilots. Its unique ‘double boxtail’ design features a large, laminar flow wing that sweeps up and flips over to form twin, box-shaped tails, for stability and control with less induced drag, while allowing slow take-off and landing speeds. Finally, instead of placing the propeller at the front, it places a quiet impeller fan behind the smooth aerodynamically shaped fuselage to provide thrust with high-speed drag reduction.
All this is being engineered inside his father’s garage based in Kalispell, Montana where McGinnis and a small team of family members along with a rotating line of volunteers are using CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines and custom molds to create each individual part of the prototype plane.
Hoping to finish a full-scale, five-person aircraft this year, McGinnis and his crew usually end up spending 90 hours a week on the project. “In any given week this last month we were sanding, prepping, laying up, and bagging various carbon fiber parts,” He said in an interview this month, “most having to do with the aft canopy slide operation, wing spars, instrument consoles, parachute integration, and the landing gear integration.” Of course, every step of progress brings new problems and challenges. In the last month alone, he had to replace the electrical control system for his CNC system to eliminate the gremlin that halted new part/mold production in July.
Recently, McGinnis has also begun the formal business development at meeting with different visitors and possible investors in order to plan and analyze business opportunities. “The hardest challenge we face,” he says “is the general lack of knowledge about business solution in a market that has been in a coma for the past 60 years.”
However, if Synergy Aircraft intends to make aviation more accessible to average Americans, McGinnis must also count on new technologies and innovations to make flying in the cockpit simpler and more convenient than it is today and that’s where things begin to look iffy. “Traveling and flying an airplane is to just sit there and make sure the engine doesn’t malfunction.” He says, “But making those kinds of decisions using obsolete methods of making the information is something that hasn’t had any attention.” And while McGinnis may be far too optimistic about the actual ease of flying a plane, both pilots and innovators agree that the technology to allow average income Americans the ability to interact with a pilot interface simply does not exist.
Commercial and corporate airline pilots respectively require a minimum of 200 and 1500 hours of flight experience in order to operate and fly large aircraft. Both of which are far above the required 10 hours car drivers must have to obtain their own licenses. Additionally, sharing the airspace with airliners makes it critically important that all pilots flying are operating with the same set of rules and skills.
“Learning to fly conventional airplanes requires more commitment than most people will be willing to make. There are significant academic requirements as well as practical requirements.” says Captain John Cox, a former Airline Pilot with U.S. Airways and CEO of his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems. “Even light sport aircraft requires practical skills well above that necessary to drive a car.”
Simply put, flying a plane requires a large amount of training that most people simply cannot afford. “Until the technology reduces the skills needed by a pilot having ‘average’ people flying is not likely” says Captain Cox. “and I do not see it being available in the near further. It is always difficult to predict technology’s evolution but this is far beyond anything available today.”
Though Synergy is unlikely to be “cheap” in consumer terms or accessible as McGinnis might hope for the foreseeable future there’s no way to know what impact it will have on the dying aviation industry. Even so, Synergy technologies will still likely be remembered as a giant step forward for practical aviation. Its scientific principles are sound and it is a more ambitious technological advancement than anything small aircraft manufacturers currently offer.
“The story,” McGinnis stressed “is about advanced technology used appropriately according to the things that consumers think are important.” And perhaps, that is the crux of the matter. As it is still in the early stages of invention, Synergy Aircraft faces many obstacles, both on the business and technical side of the project, before anyone can really judge how big of an impact Synergy Aircraft will have in the everyday lives of Americans.
Yet despite that, Synergy Aircraft is already receiving recognition for its work, being praised by NASA engineers and even winning the Popular Science 2013 Invention Awards. Elbert Chu, a journalist for the Popular Science Magazine who had written the article on Synergy Aircraft, praised the project for its part in the scientific process. Simply put, there is simply something to be admired about what Chu calls “the audacity of scientists willing to think big in order to propel and improve the human condition through innovation.”
Capacity: 4 passengers
Length: 21 ft (6.4 m)
Wingspan: 32 ft (9.8 m)
Wing area: 144.6 sq ft (13.43 m2)
Empty weight: 1,650 lb (748 kg)
Gross weight: 3,100 lb (1,406 kg)
Powerplant: 1 × DeltaHawk DH200 liquid-cooled V-4 two-stroke diesel engine, 200 hp (150 kW)
Range: 1,726 mi; 2,778 km (1,500 nmi) plus reserve
Wing loading: 23.2 lb/sq ft (113 kg/m2)