The Avanti EVO twin pusher turboprop VIP aircraft from Piaggio has finally come to fruition, with initial deliveries to key agents in Europe and the Middle East. P1 looks at the troubled path for this potential gamechanger – a turboprop fast and sleek enough to take on the VLJs.
It is fair to say that this is a day that many aviation aficionados thought we would never see – deliveries of the first Piaggio Avanti EVO turboprops. So why the doubts? The distinctive business aircraft was launched just two years ago, at the same time as Dassault Aviation’s Falcon 8X (at EBACE in May 2014), but whereas testing and certification of the latter was as smooth as a fine French wine, the Italian EVO was beset by all sorts of problems.
At times, it seemed like this potentially important business aircraft might never see active service. Piaggio Aero Industries fell silent, while changes in the company ownership and senior management meant the Piaggio programme was on constantly shifting sands.
Let’s step back to a time before the EVO. Abu-Dhabi-based investment and development company Mubadala, which had been a shareholder since 2006, had taken a 98% stake in Piaggio as part of restructuring that saw India’s Tata Industries move aside. Carlo Logli, the former CEO of SuperJet International, was brought in to shake things up and transform production as part of a “rescue and relaunch plan”.
Just a month after the announcement of the EVO, Logli seemed to be fire-fighting.
“Our engineers have a lot on their plate right now,” said Logli. “The market is not ready but things may be very different in a couple of years. We will see.”
Logli also admitted that Mubadala and Tata had different visions for Piaggio, which had hampered the company’s progress.
“We suffered twice during the economic downturn,” said Logli. “Both in terms of [conflicting shareholder] strategies and the weak business aircraft market.
“Now Mubadala has taken control of Piaggio [with a 98% stake], we have a clear and solid strategy for the company, which continues to concentrate on the military and business aircraft sectors. Innovation is alive and well at Piaggio.”
When the Avanti EVO was unveiled at EBACE it represented an important first milestone under the new majority shareholder ownership of Mubadala.
Mubadala currently has operations in more than 20 countries, and a portfolio valued at US$63.5 billion. Sectors include aerospace, oil & gas, healthcare, renewables and utilities – among others.
When Mubadala took control of Piaggio Aero, the plan was to develop the product portfolio and invest in a new state-of-the-art production facility at Villanova d’Albenga, Savona, Italy – and the EVO was a key component of that ambition.
As well as overseeing the launch of the EVO, Logli was also tasked with developing the unmanned P1HH HammerHead and the Maritime Patrol Aircraft – both for military use. With EVO certification stumbling due to the undercarriage issues, and interest in unmanned aircraft peaking, there were whispers in aviation circles that the US$7.5 million business aircraft may never make it to market.
Development of the new Avanti EVO should have been as straightforward as things get in aviation, as it was built on the tried-and-tested Avanti P.180 platform.
The EVO boasted a number of improvements and laid claim to being the fastest turboprop in the world – 402KTAS making it even faster than some jets – while having a significant fuel efficiency and emissions profile.
The distinctive fuselage of the P.180 had also been tweaked, with the twin pusher EVO including winglets, redesigned nacelles, and a reshaped front wing to boost efficiency and cut emissions by 3%.
New five-blade Hartzell scimitar propellers helped reduce external noise by 68%. System upgrades including anti-skid braking, new digital steering, LED lighting, and design and manufacturing advances to improve performance and cut maintenance requirements.
An Increased Range Configuration option boosted max range from 1470nm to 1720nm.
Inside, the EVO was even more impressive. Newly designed VIP seats were developed by design specialists Iacobucci HF, and finished by luxury outfitters Poltrona Frau. New cabin air conditioning and lighting systems gave passengers greater control over cabin comfort.
“The new Avanti EVO represents excellence, everything business aviation requires in the new world of increasing demands on time, improving performance and delivering more for our customers but with even greater efficiencies combined with our unbeatable Italian style,” said Alberto Galassi, Chairman of Piaggio Aero S.p.A at the launch of the EVO at EBACE.
Logli added: “The Avanti design has become an icon for safe, efficient, and comfortable travel, that combined all the strengths of a turboprop with the speed of a light jet. It is with great pride that I see the next stage in its contribution to business aviation, in the shape of the Avanti EVO.
“As Piaggio Aero embarks on a new chapter in its growth and future development, thanks to the support of our shareholders, the new aircraft is a perfect starting point that underpins future growth.”
It all started so well. By December 2014, the EVO had received initial European approval, with certification from the FAA and Indian authorities expected to swiftly follow. The first two aircraft were due to be delivered to separate Indian customers before the end of that month – the first of 16 confirmed orders for the EVO.
However, there was a significant bump in the runway, in the shape (ironically) of the new, low-maintenance landing gear. Problems with the landing gear would persist until October 2015 when the system obtained both EASA and FAA certification.
The new certification concerned the installation of the new Main Landing Gear System, the new Nose Landing Gear System and the Nose Wheel Steering System (NWSS), parts of the new Magnaghi landing gear that improves performance, reliability and cuts maintenance costs. Piaggio said the new landing gear would now be installed as standard on all future Avanti EVO deliveries.
And so we waited. And waited.
The EVO was certified but there was no clarity or transparency over production and deliveries for months. We waited for news in a state of limbo. And then we arrived at July 2016 and everything seemed to happen all at once.
On 28 July, Piaggio issued a statement verifying what most people anticipated – that the company was shifting its primary focus to military programmes.
“Military platforms provide a sustainable and scaleable growth trajectory for Piaggio, which has been severely impacted by the contraction of the business aviation market,” said Logli in the statement.
“Shareholder approval of our military-focused industrial plan marks the next phase for one of the world’s oldest aircraft manufacturers. We now have a state-of-the-art manufacturing base at Villanova and a proven military program with the P.1HH HammerHead, both of which allow us to take on this new challenge.”
The statement also said that Piaggio was “actively seeking buyers of non-core areas”. P1’s spider-sense was tingling as we feared the worst for the EVO, and it seems like we were not alone.
Piaggio issued another statement on 16 August reassuring customers about their plans for the EVO. Just eight days later on 24 August, Piaggio announced that Logli would be stepping down.
Chairman Ali Al Yafei said Logli had “shown great leadership in managing the business through a period which saw the delivery of a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility at Villanova d’Albenga against the challenging backdrop of tough economic conditions.
“It is time for a new CEO to deliver on the new industrial plan recently announced to yield a sustainable future for Piaggio Aerospace.”
Less than one week later, on 30 August, an Avanti EVO rolled off the production line at Villanova d’Albenga and completed its maiden flight, with first delivery pencilled in for September.
“This event was very energizing for the whole Piaggio Aerospace team and it retains a highly symbolic value—with our new production center of Villanova, we are now able to compete as a main actor in the production of both commercial and defensesystems,” said new CEO Renato Vaghi.
If a month is a long time in politics, it’s clearly an age in aviation.
Jump forward to the beginning of October 2016 and that first production EVO was being handed over to a Middle Eastern agent for charter and demonstration flights
Vaghi personally delivered that landmark EVO to Sheikh Khalifa Al Saif, CEO and founder of the Al Saif Group – appointed in July as commercial agent for marketing the aircraft in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Iraq.
Al Saif Group has also signed an option for a second aircraft in Medevac configuration to be delivered in 2017.
Speaking at Farnborough in July, Al Saif said they chose the EVO for its performance and environmental credentials.
“This aircraft is the perfect answer to our business and personal needs and indeed a perfect combination of lavish Italian style, comfort and best-in-class operational performance, with an excellent cost-benefit ratio,” he said.
Equally keen to get their hands on the EVO was UK-based ConnectJets, which held its own showcase event for the turboprop at London City Airport on 11 and 12 October.
“I am delighted as sole sales agent for the Avanti EVO in the British Isles and Channel Islands to be demonstrating this luxurious aircraft at London City Airport,” said MD Gabriella Somerville.
“Never has the pressure on aviation to lead the way in reducing the impact of transport on the environment been so high and with this in mind the introduction of the EVO to the UK Aviation market could not be more timely.”
Tale of the Tape
P1 compares the Piaggio Avanti EVO to the best-selling fellow turboprops and selected very light jets. Which aircraft comes out on top? Where should you be spending your money? Which option is the best for your mission profile? Read on to find out…
The EVO strikes a distinctive figure on the apron and inside passengers are treated to a luxurious cabin that’s positively roomy, with a height of 5 feet 9 inches and width of 6 feet 1 inch. Compare that to the popular King Air – whose cabin is a whole foot shorter and 1 foot 5 inches narrower.
There is air conditioning and personal lighting in the EVO, plus the cabin is pressurised to just 6,600 feet at max ceiling, or sea level to 24,000 feet.
Speed is significantly greater than fellow turboprops the King Air and (market-leading single engine turboprop) PC-12, and with a range that’s just 86-125nm shorter, that looks like a good payoff.
Against fellow newcomer HondaJet, the EVO stacks up well. Yes, the HondaJet is faster, but the EVO has superior range to the tune of 320nm. HondaJet is a whole US$2.5 million cheaper to buy, but operating costs of the EVO’s turboprops compared to the HondaJet’s engines will soon cut into that advantage. And the EVO can carry twice as many passengers.
EVO’s impressive speed, coupled with turboprop performance and decent range make it a genuine contender not just against fellow aircraft of its own category but also the lucrative VLJ segment.
The EVO retains the Avanti’s short-field and steep-approach capability, allowing it to operate from runways of less than 1,000 metres with ease.
Those Italian looks may not be to everyone’s taste, and there may be lingering doubts over Piaggio’s long-term commitment to business aviation, but you have to say that the EVO is a compelling proposition.