Awesome Out of Nowhere: Cobalt CO50 Valkyrie

A few days ago I came across an article announcing an awesome new aircraft that I expect will be selling like hotcakes in the very near future. Strangely, I found out about it in an article on Wired, and I'd never heard any mention of this plane before.

The Cobalt CO50 Valkyrie had me drooling the moment I saw it.

Seriously. Part of being a pilot is being a little vain. The average pilot at least tries to look cool, and having a cool-looking airplane is part of that. There are a lot of pretty aircraft on the market, but the CO50 Valkyrie just looks amazing.

Aiming squarely at the leaders in the high performance piston single market, the Cirrus SR22, and the Cessna TTx, the Valkyrie has a lot of matching specs. Composite construction, 350 hp turbocharged FADEC engine, seating for 5, airframe parachute, and modern avionics are all pretty standard for these aircraft. Unlike the Cirrus and Cessna models, the Valkyrie decided to go with retractable landing gear. That's pretty surprising - retractable gear adds a lot of moving parts, complexity and cost to an aircraft. However, they're claiming a top speed of 260 knots which would make it 18 knots faster than the 242 knot Mooney Acclaim. For someone willing to spend $699,000 - $1,000,000 on a piston single, that alone could be a deciding factor in which aircraft to buy.

As interesting as those factors are, what I like most about the Valkyrie is that it is yet another attempt to market a type of design pioneered by the legendary Burt Rutan. The Valkyrie has an aft-mounted swept wing and a canard up front. This type of design is so elegant and simple that I've been wondering for years why it hasn't been more widely accepted in aviation. (There are a lot of reasons, but as better companies get with composites, those reasons are slowly disappearing.)

The canard is mounted such that its angle of attack is always slightly higher than that of the main wing. As long as aircraft angle of attack isn't increasing too quickly, the canard should always stall well before the main wing. This loss of lift at the front of the airplane will automatically (aerodynamically) cause the nose to drop, decreasing the overall angle of attack, and preventing the aircraft from stalling or losing control. Burt Rutan has been building aircraft with this basic design concept for decades. If you want to see some cool pictorial histories of his work, check out these PDF copies of presentations about his VariViggen and Long-EZ.

Loss of control is a big deal right now in aviation. The EAA is hosting a contest called the EAA Founders Innovation Prize next year. They're offering $25,000 to the person or team who can come up with the best idea for preventing Loss of Control. Rutan himself is one of the judges and part of me is hesitant to even consider entering. It seems like "stick a canard on the front of airplanes" seems like one of the best, simplest solutions we could implement.

So, aside from all its other safety features, the CO50 Valkyrie is going to be very difficult to stall.

The Cobalt website is basic and unpolished. It's greatest value is probably as a photo gallery. It looks to me like they've been putting their energy into developing the airplane instead of advertising, and I'm just fine with that.

Icon Aircraft just started customer deliveries of the Icon A5. It's an outstanding airplane and I think it'll have a huge impact on aviation. It was a little frustrating to watch its development though. Icon was doing press releases, high-profile events, and bringing mock-ups to airshows for years before it was actually certified. The effort was a brilliant feat of marketing and it probably helped them get a lot of funding. They've mostly delivered on their promises so far, but they have over a thousand orders to fill and customers are going to be waiting years to get their aircraft. Also, the airplane's base price is now more than $60,000 higher than what was originally promised. (Don't get me wrong, I still want a pair of A5s...because that thing just begs to be flown in formation.)

I also think about the Eclipse 500 though. Vern Rayburn was also a marketing genius who raised millions of dollars. He cut corners and under delivered, and it's only thanks to a group of dedicated owners that the aircraft still exists.

I'm pleased to see that Cobalt waited until the fifth version of their aircraft to start talking about it. I hope the focus on development will pay off by getting it to market soon.

Interestingly, it appears that Cobalt is going to offer two versions of their airplane. One will be certified under Part 23 in the normal aircraft category. The other version will be...exactly the same, except it'll be offered as a factory-built experimental. This is outstanding news! The normal category plane will be mired in the red tape that has hindered aircraft development (things like using composite construction to put canards on aircraft) for decades, but it'll be great as a business aircraft. The experimental version won't be usable for commercial ventures, but it will grant the owner the option of rapid upgrades and complete customization as soon as the technology is available. (Not to mention that technology is almost always a lot cheaper for experiments.) Lancair has gone this route with their Evolution and it seems to be going well. They seem to have all kinds of money to put into advertising in aviation magazines, and their aircraft has been repeatedly featured on the covers of those publications. Owning an experimental category Valkyrie-X will be awesome!

Sadly, the $699,000 base price for this gorgeous machine means it won't be accessible to the average Joe Pilot for a while. The SR22 sells well enough though that I don't think Cobalt will have any problem finding customers for the Valkyrie, though, and I'm happy to see this kind of innovation coming to market. I can't wait to see these things in the air. Who knows, maybe someone will need a part-time pilot to fly one....