Certifying an airplane is a little like building a skyscraper—it’s complicated, it involves a lot of moving parts, and it requires a lot of planning, time and money. I’ve become aware of that fact because my airplane lives in a hangar within walking distance of an airplane factory where they’re quietly working on certifying an airplane, and every once in a while, they invite me in behind the curtain to see what’s going on.
Epic Aircraft is located in Bend, Ore., at the Bend Municipal Airport, home to numerous well-known aviation companies including Electronics International, Stratos Aircraft, Windward Performance, X-Air and Precise Flight. For many years, Epic produced the LT, a seriously capable single-engine turboprop kit plane, and it’s no secret that they’ve been working on converting that kit design into a fully certified airplane.
Since I drive by the factory almost every day, I’ve been gauging the level of their activity by how many cars are in the parking lot. Epic long ago overflowed its original factory space into the former Cessna/Columbia campus at the far south end of the airport, and it has gotten to the point where parked cars are spilling out of the lot and onto the surrounding roads and taxiways, so I figured that it’s just about time to pay a visit to see what all those folks are up to.
The six-place interior is spacious, open and bright with jet-like comfort.
Roots In The Kit World
The history of Epic goes back many years, starting with the establishment of the company in 2004. It started with an aviation visionary named Rick Schrameck who developed an exceptional design but failed financially and ethically when it came to running the company and dealing with the FAA. In March of this year, Mr. Schrameck was arrested on charges of fraud and money laundering, and he has been jailed while awaiting trial.
Fortunately, all of that unpleasantness is behind the current company, which is now called Epic Aircraft. Doug King, who originally headed a group of builders that worked a deal to rescue the company from bankruptcy, now serves as its CEO, and he’s working hard to write a new chapter in the history of the company. It was a tough job securing financing, rebuilding supply chains, hiring folks and rebuilding trust, but he pulled it off. In 2012, Engineering LLC, a prominent Russian aviation maintenance and overhaul company, became the new owner of Epic, and it has fully committed to funding the certification of the new Epic E1000 aircraft. As a part of the plan, the company has wound down the kit business to focus solely on the certified product. The last kits were sold in 2013, and a few are still working their way through completion while certification work goes on around them. Today, of the roughly 180 total Epic employees, about 150 people are currently working on the certification program.
Certification requires cycle testing and ultimate failure tests of critical components like the wing and horizontal stabilizer.
The New E1000
The new Epic E1000 has deep roots in the original Epic LT kit, but the design is significantly refined to produce class-busting performance, feature and price. As an all-composite aircraft, the aerodynamics can be optimized, weight minimized, and the part count significantly reduced compared to an “equivalent” metal aircraft. The E1000 will have a spacious, six-seat cabin with a projected maximum cruise speed of at least 325 KTAS. The 1,200 hp P&WC PT6A-67A will produce an initial climb rate of more than 4,000 fpm with full fuel and a payload of 1,120-plus pounds. That’s right: This is an airplane that can actually carry six adults with baggage even with a full fuel load. With a fuel capacity of 288 gallons, the maximum range will stretch to 1,650 nm at the 265 KTAS economy cruise speed, and it will only take about 15 minutes for the E1000 to climb from sea level to its certified ceiling of FL340. With a 6.6 psi pressurization system, the cabin will remain below 10,000 feet at the maximum ceiling. Takeoff distance will be 1,600 feet over a 50-foot obstacle, and the landing distance will be 1,840 feet over the same obstacle.
Those are impressive numbers that might raise some eyebrows—if this were a “paper” airplane. But, it’s not a paper airplane—most of those numbers come straight from the kit fleet. Keep in mind that there are over 40 airplanes already in the fleet, so these performance projections aren’t a guess. They come from real-world experience. I’ve flown the LT (Plane & Pilot, December 2012), and it’s indeed a rocket ship. Of course, the rules that govern kit planes are different than the rules that govern certified aircraft, and it’s not uncommon for a new design to gain weight as it develops, and weight plays a big role in final performance numbers. The folks at Epic are certainly aware of this issue, and even though they’re starting with a pretty wide tolerance on the weight, they’re working hard to minimize any increase.
The E1000 cockpit features a three-screen G1000 avionics suite, easy-to-reach CB panels, ergonomic layout and a modern, high-tech look.
What About Features?
In the early days of the program, some of the key items Epic targeted for improvement were pilot ergonomics and cabin comfort. Right up front, they brought in an expert in automotive design to reconfigure the whole cockpit and interior. Aircraft designers have tried for years to incorporate automotive design principles into aircraft with limited success. Recognizing that what works in a car isn’t always good in an airplane, the folks at Epic have worked hard to incorporate the best of both worlds. They paid attention to ergonomics and built clay models to refine a final, full-size cockpit mockup, and the result is stunning. Not only does it look good, but also, everything is well-thought-out and logically placed. One clever feature that might seem minor is the way the cockpit seats move. The seat adjustment mechanism is angled so that the seat is always well positioned for just about any pilot height as the seat is moved fore and aft. To accommodate the seat movement, even the armrests are cleverly angled so that your arm always falls into a comfortable position—no matter where you put the seat. The cockpit can easily accommodate pilots up to 6’5″. Below the armrests, there’s plenty of storage space for small items and electronics, as well as a large cup holder at the forward end. The fit and appearance of the new cockpit are among the best I’ve seen anywhere. The rest of the cabin is just as nice, and it’s finished at a level comparable to most light business jets. Beyond the looks, the goal is to produce an exceptionally quiet and comfortable cabin. They’re working with 3M to incorporate the latest soundproofing and thermal insulation system, which will add about 100 pounds of extra weight. An emergency
exit door has also been added in the rear cabin as required by certification rules.
The E1000 also will incorporate a new torque limiter on the engine to simplify power settings during takeoff. No more setting torque by the gauges as you start to roll—just run the throttle up to the stop and hang on. The big PT6 isn’t as heavily de-rated as in other single-engine turbo props (SETPs), so it will start losing power as the aircraft climbs somewhere through the mid-teens, and at some point it will become temperature limited, but that’s generally easy to manage during flight.
The design of the cockpit involved extensive ergonomic studies to ensure good visibility and to make sure that vital controls fall within easy reach.
Certification rules require a number of new features that were mostly lacking in the kit fleet. An inertial separator is being added for engine ice protection. In this case, P&WC dictates the parameters of the design, which is done using 3D CAD. The CAD models are then used to machine a high-density foam model using a precision, five-axis CNC router. That “positive” part is then used to make the “negative” mold for the carbon-fiber layup. The whole process from start to part is much faster than for an equivalent metal part.
Deice boots have also been added as a part of the FIKI certification program. The boots fit in a recessed area on the leading edges so that airflow is the same as on the unbooted wings. Epic will be flying a full test program to demonstrate anti-ice and deice capability. One interesting aspect of the Epic is that the windshield is raked at an angle that appears to preclude serious ice buildup. Still, a bleed air-deicing system will be included to keep the windshield clear. The FAA also requires that the airframe be able to handle more than a normal lightning strike. The aircraft has to handle the worst possible strike, and that requires some additional changes and testing to show that the aircraft can dissipate the worst-case electrical discharge.
The long list of improvements also includes an angle-of-attack (AOA) system with a stick shaker and pusher for stall protection. The electrical system will include a backup alternator and auto fuel tank switching to simplify fuel management. An emergency single-lever gear blow-down system will also be included. The entire environmental system is being upgraded, and the gear retraction system is being improved for higher speed operation. As a certified aircraft, the E1000 will be eligible for Part 135 operations, and it will be approved for RVSM operations above FL280.
The Certification Process
Aircraft certification isn’t cheap, and it isn’t easy, and not very many companies have successfully certified a kit-based design. Columbia Aircraft, which grew out of Lancair, did it many years ago, and that airplane still lives on as the Cessna TTx. Word on the street is that it cost Columbia around $30 million to complete the process, but everyone admits that it would probably cost considerably more today. Anyone with experience in the certification process will tell you that the cost to certify a turbine aircraft from scratch in the class of the Epic might cost somewhat north of $200 million; however, starting with a refined kit design can offset some of that cost. In the case of Epic, it had the advantage of trying a lot of different tweaks to the design as customers requested changes and as new ideas came along. With over 40 airplanes in the fleet, the voice of the customer has played an important role in stabilizing the design. Furthermore, since owners built the LT kits in-house, Epic was able to develop and refine a fairly stable production process.
It’s important to understand that as a manufacturer, Epic has to certify both the design of the aircraft and their whole manufacturing process. The aircraft type certificate, which certifies the design, is issued through the FAA aircraft certification office and its designated engineering representatives (DERs). The production certificate is issued through the FAA manufacturing inspection district offices (MIDO) and its designated airworthiness representatives (DARs). Typically, the production certificate is awarded after the type certificate, but Epic is proactively working to build a certifiable system right from the start.
Clay models were developed to perfect the final layout, the shape of the control yokes and the appearance of the whole cockpit.
The target performance of the E1000 will place it among the fastest single-engine turboprops in the world.
A complication for an aircraft made of composites is that the manufacturer has to certify both the design of the aircraft and the materials. It’s all about making sure that every airplane that’s built will comply with the certified testing or analysis both in the way it’s made and in the material used. The easiest path to make that happen is to control everything much more tightly than in the kit world where every airplane is allowed to be slightly different. That means that every batch of material has to be tracked with regard to anything and everything that happens to it, and by everyone who touches it. To solve that problem, Epic has installed a sophisticated, factory-wide computerized tracking system for every single part—from the smallest washer to the largest component. It’s all bar-code driven, time stamped, and anyone who touches a part has to swipe an ID card through the system to record a process step. A tremendous amount of data is recorded for every single part to ensure total traceability. Even temperature and humidity are recorded throughout the factory, and that data is included as a part of every record.
Major parts now have integral alignment fiducials that are verified with laser tracking systems to allow precision positioning within layup and assembly jigs. Core parts are now cut with large CNC cutting machines for exact reproducibility. One key goal is to reduce the width of the bond gaps between parts. In the kit world, it’s easy to fill a larger-than-expected gap with a little extra adhesive, but the performance of widely varying bond gaps is variable and would require a huge amount of work to test each possible variation. So in the certified airplane, Epic is working to reduce the gaps to a single known value that can be easily tested and verified one time. To that end, they’ve made a huge investment in jigs, machine tools and metrology to ensure that they can make the same thing over and over to a very tight tolerance.
Even the resin-mixing machines are computer controlled. The Epic is unique in the composite world because it incorporates a fully bonded (not bolted together) pressure vessel, and bonding those parts requires a lot of adhesive with a limited handling time. It requires four computer-controlled adhesive-mixing machines that cost at over $30,000 each to accomplish the procedure within the required handling time. Nothing is easy!
One bonus of the certification process is that more detailed structural analysis of the components and assemblies has enabled improved manufacturing techniques. Joints that had not been fully analyzed in the kits tended to be over-strengthened with additional bolts and/or thicker layups than what turned out to be necessary. Doing the full engineering analysis on many of these components has revealed a design that was much stronger than realized, which has created room for simplified construction methods while allowing for some loss in weight. The result is a structure that’s tremendously strong and yet even lighter than before.
Even though composites are becoming more common, the FAA quality assurance teams still require special tests and verification procedures that aren’t done with more traditional metal airplanes. Individual parts have to be qualified and in production, batch samples have to be tested on an ongoing basis. As a part of the final engineering verification program, two fully assembled aircraft will be cycle tested and pulled to failure to qualify fatigue resistance and ultimate strength.
Special fixtures have been developed to install the finished panel into the cockpit in one piece. Other fixtures help align other airframe components to produce a very tight fit and finish to the final result.
Finally, I’ve been through the Epic factory many times, and it’s impressive to see how they’ve thought through the manufacturing process and upgraded the facility. The floor space has been reorganized to handle product flow starting from the doors where raw material is delivered through each step as that material is converted into a finished airplane. They’ve configured the factory to be able to handle a production rate of about one airplane per week. The floors are painted white, the whole environment is bright, and it looks like a factory of the future. It’s a truly astonishing transformation.
Epic is targeting the end of the year for type certification, but it admits that a more realistic date is by mid-February 2016. The projected price of the E1000 is $2.95 million, and at that price, it’s going to shake up the high-performance SETP market. I look forward to flying an early conforming aircraft to see how well it hit its performance targets. None of this is easy and there are a lot of naysayers, but it looks to me like they just might pull it off. They’re certainly doing all the right things, so there’s a chance that one of these days, that proverbial skyscraper just might be high enough to be visible from as far away as say…France. It should be interesting.
|Engine Make & Model:||Pratt & Whitney PT6-67A|
|Fuel Type:||Jet A|
|Standard Empty Weight:||4400|
|Max Ramp Weight (lbs.):||NA|
|Max T/O Weight (lbs.):||7500|
|Max Landing Weight (lbs.):||NA|
|Max Zero Fuel Weight (lbs.):||NA|
|Useable Fuel (gals.):||288|
|Full Fuel Payload (lbs.):||1120|
|Avionics:||Garmin 3-Screen G1000|
|Overall Length (ft.):||35.8|
|Wing Area (ft.):||203.0|
|Cabin Length (ft.):||15.0|
|Seating Capacity as Tested:||6.00|
|Cabin Width (in.):||55|
|Cabin Height (in.):||59|
|Baggage Capacity (lbs.):||NA|
|Baggage Volume (cu. ft.):||NA|
|Max Cruise Speed (kts.):||325|
|Maximum Operating Vmo (KCAS)/Mmo:||NA|
|IFR Max Cruise Range w/ 45-min. reserve (nm):||1385|
|IFR Max Range w/45 min reserve (nm):||1650|
|Max Operating Altitude (ft.):||34,000|
|Max Cabin Differential (psi):||6.60|
|Cabin Altitude At FL340 (ft): :|
|Field Length For SL MTW Takeoff:||1600|
|Runway Length For SL MLW Landing:||1840|