Aviation Startup Cobalt’s Sleek New Plane Stars a Canard
Flying your own plane is an awesome way to travel, but it’s not as safe as riding in an airliner—hundreds of people are killed in general aviation accidents every year.
That’s why aviation startup Cobalt is developing a new plane that aims to radically improve safety by eliminating a leading cause of those fatal accidents: the aerodynamic stall. Simply put, a stall is the loss of lift, and is usually the result of the way the pilot has maneuvered the airplane. Once stalled, the airplane starts to fall, and unless the pilot reacts quickly to correct the situation, it crashes.
Cobalt says it’s solved that problem. Tonight in San Francisco, the company will officially unveil its first plane, the Co50 Valkyrie. It’s a stylish five-seater whose most notable feature is the second, smaller wing near the nose. Called a canard, the extra wing creates a new, added source of lift, which makes it harder to stall the airplane—or at least delays the dangerous loss of lift.
The idea of the canard has been around since the Wright Brothers used one on their first successful plane. The feature’s been used on handful of military aircraft, including the a JAS 39 Gripen fighter and XB-70 Valkyrie experimental bomber. It was popularized in part by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who used it in a series of small airplanes designed for do-it-yourself builders, especially in the 1970s and 80s. But it adds to the complexity of the design, and overall, it’s considered to be less efficient than a mid-wing and rear horizontal stabilizer setup. It’s never been widely adopted in certified, factory-built airplanes.
David Loury, the CEO and chief designer at Cobalt, hopes to change that with the Valkyrie. Loury, who studied aviation at the Georgia Institute of Technology before working at Airbus for several years, has been tweaking the design for more than 10 years. Now, he says, it’s ready to go into production. “We really want to make things happen and not just be dreamers,” he says. “We want to offer better designs that enhance your safety.”
The canard’s not the only way to keep small planes safe: Icon’s A5 can stall, but uses a combination of elements, like wing cuffs and a bit of a twist in the contour of the wing to avoid spinning when it does.
The Cobalt Valkyrie is a beauty, with an extra-wide glass canopy enclosing the cockpit and cabin. The canard is tucked beneath the nose, and the engine and propeller are in the back, so there’s nothing up front to obscure the pilot’s view. Turned-up winglets at the end of each wing provide extra lift, and canted twin tail surfaces enhance the sleek lines.
The Valkyrie’s turbocharged, 350-horsepower off-the-shelf Continental engine is good for a top speed of about 300 mph and a range of about 1,200 miles. The cockpit is designed to be ultra-simple and user-friendly, with a glass-panel Garmin 3X flight display system. If Loury attains his dream of getting the airplane fully certified by federal regulators—a daunting and expensive process for a small company, costing millions and taking years—the Valkyrie would be unique in its class.
Loury built the first prototype of the design in France, and in 2010, he brought it to EAA AirVenture, in Wisconsin, the world’s biggest general aviation show. “We had an overwhelming response, which we weren’t expecting,” he says. “We were a very small company.” Dealing with all the attention was distracting, so Cobalt’s kept a low profile since, focusing on developing the airplane. Loury moved the company to California, where it has test-flown four different tweaked versions of the design, and worked on developing its construction processes.
The airplane unveiled this week is Cobalt’s fifth prototype. It hasn’t yet flown—as of earlier this week, it didn’t even have the engine installed—but Loury says it will enter flight testing next spring. “This is the final aircraft,” he says. It’s positioned to compete with similarly sized planes from the likes of Cirrus and Cessna.
Getting to the next step, a fully-certified version that can be sold ready-to-fly for $699,000, will require lots of new investment. Cobalt says they hope to get there within a couple of years, and hopefully show that pilots won’t be able to stall the plane.
There’s a saying in aviation that if it looks good, chances are it will fly good. Valkyrie’s design definitely looks good, but the proof will be in the air.