It is an interesting question. I invested no less than ten years towards the conversion of Subaru engines for aircraft use and have followed the movement closely for about fifteen years. In my opinion, I was successful – more on this later. Why are we not seeing Subaru Aircraft Engines at fly-ins and magazines? Where have they gone? Why are there not several companies offering their own conversion packages and making gobs of money while pulling aviation into the modern era with better, cleaner, more efficient, less expensive engines?
In my opinion… hey! This my blog – I don’t have to say that do I?!?! There are a bunch of factors at work.
There is no evangelist for Subaru Aircraft Engines or the conversions of them. Nobody is standing up and preaching to the masses about the benefits of the Subaru engine. There have been a few that some would label as such (but I disagree). Jan Eggenfellner comes to mind. He was a stake holder and evangelist. He drove the Subaru conversion world, he marketed, he preached, he convinced people. Sadly, he didn’t test, validate, or evolve his products – he simply walked away with hundreds of “believers” holding ten of thousands of dollars of “junk” (arguably) when he realized what a huge mess he had created and that fixing it would take a massive pile of money. He did aviation and specifically the Subaru world a terrible disservice. He was not the first nor will he be the last. His former customers have been unbelievably kind in not tearing him apart in court and in the press – amazing to me. To those that are “Viking Aircraft Engine” customers – don’t start crying when the same thing happens to you. There is plenty of history there for you to have made a better and different choice. I guess the saying is true: “We learn from experience that man does not learn from experience.”
Very few people want to actually “construct” something in the sense necessary to convert an auto engine for use on an aircraft. Many like to assemble parts assuming it requires as little thinking and labor as possible. Look at the numbers of people “constructing” a Van’s RV versus the number currently constructing Long-EZ’s or similar. Is a Long-EZ a “poor” airplane? Of course not. It simply requires a great deal of work to construct (compared to an RV). The amount of “construction” (design, effort, head scratching, build a prototype part, throw it away, build another, etc…) that is required when creating an automotive engine conversion is massive when compared to what is required to bolt on an firewall forward package. It is worth noting that I have nothing against RV’s – I fly one and love it. I believe the success of Van’s has been good for all of experimental aviation (sport aviation, if you must).
Very few people want to spend big bucks on something “experimental.” Buying a Lycoming, Continental, or Rotax (912-style) is a relatively known quantity. You may be forking out $25,000 – $50,000 but you know what you are getting and know that it works because of their documented track record. Thanks to businessmen such as those mentioned above and the non-existent track record of any “new” package – laying out this kind of cash is pretty tough for most everyone. Anyone that has been around experimental aviation for any length of time has seen the snake oil salesmen come and go taking the money of the young, unsuspecting, gullible, hopeful, and/or stupid with them.
With any unknown, getting insurance for it can be rather difficult and/or expensive. Some folks don’t care about this. Some do. I’ve personally watched ten years of hard labor burn to the ground in front of the builders eyes in a matter of five minutes – no insurance – a total loss – nothing but pictures to show for the many, many hours and thousands of dollars. No, a check does not replace the blood, sweat, and tears but it does help.
The emphasis of most general aviation aircraft is on lightness. A “properly” converted Soob is not light. It may not be any heavier than a Lycoming or Continental but that should not be confused with light.
The Subaru presents a couple of challenges that are very difficult, if not impossible, for a small company to overcome.
- It is a small displacement, high revving engine so it requires a Propeller Speed Reduction Unit (PSRU, gearbox, reduction drive, etc…). This requires engineering, precision manufacturing, loads of hours to prove in the test cell, and then many hours/years of flight time to create a track record that customers believe and can trust. To date, those who have tried have failed. There are a few PSRU manufacturers around but not many and finding people with thousands of hours behind the units is very near rare/difficult. If you do find one, find out how much he has had to work on/modify the PSRU – I’ll bet it’s a lot.
- The uneducated believe that the automotive fuel injection and ignition control will work in an aircraft. This is a nice thought but proven to be wrong. With the early units, it was possible. Time has proven that this is a bad plan and current EFI systems are becoming more and more complex making them less and less appropriate for aviation use. However; there are a couple of very good aftermarket EFI units available. Some believe that strapping a carburetor on is the “smart” approach. If running normally aspirated and one doesn’t care about any of the advantages of EFI, a carb works. It is far from a good solution though if one is trying to truly take advantage of all that a Subaru engine offers. Ya, people fight about this all the time – people once that horses were superior to automobiles for transportation. For those in this camp; get over it and join the modern era – do some research and try to learn something.
- The more recent engines are adding much complexity that is simply not desired in an aircraft engine. Variable valve timing is an example. Eliminating these types of things is no simple task and may (probably) significantly alter the highly reliable nature of the engine.
- It is well understood that one can get these engines to produce a great deal of torque and/or work well for us at altitude with a turbocharger. Yes, indeed. However; most people do not understand how to properly size a turbocharger for aircraft use nor do they understand that an intercooler is mandatory or that electronic fuel injection and timing control is also required for reliability. Once you get past all that, you must have an in-flight adjustable propeller to properly use the power that is now available to you at altitude. Guess how much all of this cost you? Not just in terms of dollars but also complexity, reliability, weight, and maintenance.
Why are there no companies offering Subaru Aircraft Engines and conversion kits? Because no market exists. Without a market they cannot sell enough products to make money. Without money they cannot stay in business. Yes, this makes me sad but it is the free enterprise system that I support and defend even though it is largely lost at this point.
So, we are left with dozens of one off installations. That is, every installation is a hand built package that is different than every other. One cannot compare cost, output, reliability nor any other factors because they are all different. The new guys comes along and wants instructions, instead they receive a thousand different ideas. They are confused, frustrated, and annoyed. They return to the Van’s catalog engine page and select the firewall forward package that is fully documented and proven. They write a check, turn a couple of bolts, and go flying.
Back to my comment about being successful. To measure success, one must know the goal. My goal was to fly inexpensively with as little financial investment as possible. To me, this meant that I needed to buy an engine, convert it for aircraft use, and install it for little money. After installed, it needed to be affordable to feed and maintain. I flew two Subaru engines in my Quickie Q2. Neither of them cost much money (relative to other engines used in general aviation). Both of them burnt a relatively small amount of fuel and were inexpensive to maintain. Without getting into exact dollars, I judge the experience a success. Piles of information about these conversions is documented here. I flew these engines something around six hundred hours (from memory, I’m not going to go dig out the information). I spent VOLUMES of time converting and getting these engines to work. I enjoyed this “building” time, for the most part – I’m not sure my family enjoyed it though. I’d ask but none of them are around any longer.