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Future of Flight
John McGinnis, left, and his father Pat McGinnis dust off and clean the one-quarter scale model of the Synergy Aircraft at their shop in Evergreen. Photo by Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake

KALISPELL - If you ask John Paul Noyes, the phrase "modern airplane" is an oxymoron.

"I'm passionate about aviation. And I'm passionately frustrated with aviation. It's stuck in a 1940s model, and it doesn't need to be," he said.

That's what excites Noyes about the plane his friend and business partner John McGinnis has designed. Synergy could be the plane of the future - or at least finally of the present.

McGinnis, the brains behind Synergy Aircraft and the company's chief executive officer, and Noyes, chief operating officer and pilot, unveiled the radically different airplane design at a Comparative Aviation Flight Efficiency electric aircraft symposium in Santa Rosa, Calif., in late April.

McGinnis is still working to build the plane in his father's shop in Evergreen. He has had a quarter-size electric model of the plane for a few years.

Full-sized Synergy will be tested at the CAFE Green Flight Challenge in July in Santa Rosa. The NASA-sponsored competition offers a $1.65 million prize to an innovative, environmentally friendly design.

But the end game isn't filthy lucre. McGinnis and Noyes hope to see Synergy manufactured locally as a kit plane - and they wouldn't mind changing aviation itself.

Synergy looks dramatically different than other planes on the market.

That's due in large part to the aircraft's double box tail design, which creates a more stable and safe flight than similar-looking box wing planes, Noyes said. Synergy also has a propeller in the back rather than the front of the plane, which, if the right propellers are used and if items that could cause interference are not placed in front of it, could offer a 14 percent to 22 percent improvement in efficiency.

While the plane isn't completely "green," it is more environmentally friendly than many other planes. That is due in part to Synergy's engine, McGinnis said.

Usually the engine makes a plane's propeller go 'round and does little else, he said. Synergy's turbocharged engine actually helps reduce drag.

The engine is more efficient than a typical motor, which is important in an age when gas is $4 a gallon for cars and $6 or $7 a gallon for planes, Noyes said.

"If you're going to use a gallon of gas, you've got to use it right. You can't waste it in the form of heat or emissions," he said.

Synergy's diesel engine "can run ... on almost anything," he said. It will use biodiesel for the Green Flight Challenge.

Less horsepower doesn't make for a slower aircraft, Noyes said. On the contrary, Synergy will be nearly twice as fast as the small homebuilt plane Noyes now flies. Instead of a two-hour drive to Missoula, or the 25 minutes it takes Noyes to fly there, Synergy could make the trip in 15 minutes, he said.

And the journey would be more comfortable than most flights in small aircraft, McGinnis said. Synergy will "fly above the weather, and there's no highway in the U.S. half that smooth," he said. It will be roomy, with cupholders and air conditioning.

Synergy "is what I want for me and my family," McGinnis said. Noyes agreed.

"I'll fly anything. But my wife wants to be comfortable," he said.

***

It's the technology behind Synergy, not the comfortable flight, that has attracted attention from some of the top scientists in the country. After the plane is built, McGinnis and Noyes will work with NASA to test it.

NASA approached the Flathead duo about working together, Noyes said. According to McGinnis, the government aeronautics agency is relying on homebuilt designs like Synergy to transform aviation.

"They're looking to Synergy for change," McGinnis said. "If (Synergy's technology) went into committee, it would never see the light of day."

He admitted to feeling a certain amount of pressure, with so many people hoping his design can shake up the mentality about aviation design that has held sway for the last several decades.

"I felt the pressure from Day One," McGinnis said.

Noyes said as a pilot, not inventor, he doesn't feel the same pressure that has been placed on McGinnis. Noyes praised the way McGinnis has dealt with the stress so far.

"John has to answer for every single one and zero, every single data point. He handles it beautifully," Noyes said.

McGinnis said he was presenting ideas about Synergy's design for at least 18 months before he and Noyes unveiled the plane. Before the design itself was released, there were many scoffers.

Now, Noyes said, when people actually see the concepts manifested in the model, "they're all left with their mouths open. They have to rethink their education."

Many young aeronautic engineers are excited about Synergy, McGinnis said. They flock to him when he presents his designs and want to work for Synergy Aircraft.

He and Noyes hope they can one day offer jobs to educated young people. Their dream is to manufacture Synergy as a kit plane here in the valley, creating a business venture that would attract bright workers and give the Flathead an economic boost.

But there are those who aren't enthusiastic about Synergy and don't believe the plane is as revolutionary as its inventor believes it will be, McGinnis said.

"Nobody wants to learn what they were taught was wrong," he said. "And even now, there are people who will say there is nothing to change."

Those are the same people who would have scoffed at the idea that people miles apart could have a conversation without being physically connected, Noyes said. He compared aviation's stagnant design with the development of the cellphone.

If cellphones still looked like the very first - and by today's standard, enormous - model released in 1973, no one would own one, Noyes said. But because the phones are now tiny, efficient pocket computers, consumers are willing to pay for them.

The same thing needs to happen in aviation, he said. Airplanes need to embrace new design and technology instead of clinging to the status quo.

 

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