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So you want to start your own airplane company – a few thoughts

Airplane Business 5 Comments

Will general aviation ever see another upstart aircraft manufacturer, or is building and certifying a new airplane just too complex for reality?  It used to be easier to certify a new airplane design, which brought about many new designs and choices into the single and multi-engine piston market. Some of these include the Wing Derringer two place twin engine airplane, the Mooney M-22 Mustang, the first piston single airplane that was pressurized, and as another example, the Grumman American single engine airplane line, that was actually quite successful.  Since the mid 1980’s, there have been several attempts to bring a new airplane to the market, such as the Adams 500 centerline thrust twin, the Eclipse 500, with design attempts to certify single engine jets like the VisionAir Vantage jet.  Each one of these design prospects brought an interesting design element, however, none of them sold very well.  Lets look at two successful designs, and find the elements that make an aviation manufacturer a possibility for long term viability.

The first of our studies, involve the Al Mooney designed Mooney Mite!  A favorite airplane of mine, it was a small single place RETRACTABLE gear airplane for the sportsman.  Obvious to the design intention, it was to be a low cost airplane, and a very economical airplane that most definitely wouldn’t stand a chance to be introduced in 2016!…or would it?  Lets see…a very fast single engine airplane with ALL the stuff as in certified known ice, glass panel, heavy duty autopilot, and the performance to make it enticing like 277 miles per hour cruise, fuel burn 15 gallons per hour, etc.  This is what the Mooney Mite looked like to the market when it was put into production.  It was advertised as a business airplane, long cross country that was very economical, 283 aircraft built over a seven year span.

Mooney Mite

This is the single place Mooney Mite prototype flying with the Crosley engine.

But I digress, the Mooney was the first Al Mooney certified airplanes, and it was originally certified with an automotive engine off the shelf with a few mods!  The airplane is built mostly of wood and fabric, but an enclosed cabin and for the day, avionics that were state of the art.  The small Mooney was faster than the Aeronca Champ, the Piper Cub, and the Cessna 120 which were the popular sport aircraft after WWII.  Due to the underpowered Crosley engine that was first installed in the new Mite, the engine was replaced by a Continental 0-145 four cylinder engine which produced 65 horsepower. Once they removed the 25 horsepower Crosley engine, the climb rate was excellent with a service ceiling close to 18,000 feet.  Cruise performance was very acceptable at something around 120 miles per hour, with a duration of approximately 4 hours.

There were several innovations that were brought forth with the Mooney Mite design, like the tail system that moved the entire horizontal tail AND the vertical stabilizer to trim the airplane. This was a trademark of future Mooney models…the vertical stabilizer was an aggressive backward looking stabilizer, with the rudder working most effectively when the airplane was flying at high angle of attack, like during take-off and climb, and while in the landing flare.  The first Mooney also had simple systems, and low maintenance solutions like the manual gear retraction system, the rubber doughnuts as the shock absorbers for the gear instead of oleo struts.  These features were incorporated in all the future Mooney aircraft designs, and are sort of the trademark of the Mooney series of airplanes.  At one time, the marketing department had it figured out, they would tout the Mooney as the least maintenance retractable gear airplane, and for good reasons. Compared to more complex systems, the Mooney had these simple features built in and talk to any Mooney owner, and they just rave about their airplane.

Mooney Mite business plane

A single place VFR panel…was considered a business airplane!

Getting back to the development of the Mooney aircraft company, and the Mooney Mite as our example.  It was an inexpensive entry level airplane that brought the manufacturer a starting point for more complex certification.  Instead of having to certify an airplane for IFR, which brings the static system into play, the radios and equipment, along with lightening strike capability, and generator/alternator output, etc., all Mooney had to do was to certify the Mite for day/night VFR.  The airplane weighed something like 520 lbs empty, and was brought into the market for an introductory price of $2,965!  In equivalent 2015 dollars, that price would be somewhere around $31,514 for a brand new airplane.  That price may have been with the Crosley automotive engine, but still, we would go ape nuts to be able to buy a new certified airplane for that price, wouldn’t we?

Fighter airplane - The Mooney Mite

This is how you paint an airplane with a sliding canopy, stick, and retractable gear.

One of the best web sites for information on the Mooney Mite, and a template on how to keep information cataloged, this is it:  http://www.mooneymite.com

In today’s world, this would be impossible no matter how you sliced it and truly I don’t think you could build, certify, and manufacture an airplane to be sold for under $100,000.  The Mooney Mite wasn’t a big seller for the company, but it did gain experience in the certification process, and brought the four place M20A to the market with similar construction methods, airfoil, empennage, and a host of other proven airframe components.  This would be how I suggest getting started manufacturing airplanes, tackle the simple certification project, learn why/how/that with regards to how the process goes, and build the more complex airplane.  I truly believe Honda should have approached the market with a more simple airframe project, and since Honda is an engine company that so happens to build motorcycles/cars, why not develop an engine to go with the airplane?  Once they understood the nuances and complexities of aircraft certification, get the HondaJet project going and understand how mating an airframe to an unproven engine, along with in-house avionics suites was going to be a challenge, and approach these items one at a time.  In other words, design the airframe, but off the shelf components such as the Garmin G series avionics, and a GE or Pratt & Whitney off the shelf engine, and get the airplane up and flying as a certified airplane as fast as you can!

Our second example of entering the aircraft manufacturing arena, would be the Jim Bede designed BD-1.  This airplane was introduced as an experimental airplane, with some very interesting construction techniques and design.  The airplane went into the certification process and was known as the American Yankee AA-1, and continued development of a four place airplane, the Cheetah and the Tiger, along with a light twin Grumman American Cougar.  These Grumman American and the Yankee AA-1 were some of the sportiest flying airplanes, and had the image of a fighter aircraft as, with the exception of the Cougar, employed a sliding canopy, a sports car look seat design, and a few sold with camouflage paint schemes. The airplanes were known for their durability and sprite handling, along with some of the lowest cost to own airplanes in their class.

Bede 1 airplane

The experimental Bede-1 that became a production airplane.

The American Yankee AA-1 was built using aluminum composite construction methods that were unique to the industry.  The fuselage sides and belly, were constructed of honeycomb panels that were glued together, along with the wing skin that was glued to the aluminum ribs.  The wings were built using a tubular spar that doubled as the fuel cell for the AA-1 series airplanes, the main gear was fiberglass, the nosewheel was free castoring, and there were no rivets used…everything was glued together. In fact, that was one of the problems with certification, was how the glue was going to hold over time, and what was the process for ensuring a good bond.  The original certification process was thought to be easy, but as the FAA needed proof that the glue would hold the components, problems in the curing process needed to be changed, along with the properties of the glue.  Things we don’t think about, but extreme temperatures over time, vibration, salt air, etc. come into play, and this delayed the project.  Although we can complain about having to go through the certification, the fact is the Grumman series of airplanes, many of them over 40 years old, do not have any problems with the bonding of the metals.

Grumman Trainer

The Grumman American AA-1B trainer. What the airplane looked like when it was in production.

So the airplane was designed as an experimental, but because of the innovations in construction and the performance from a 108 horsepower Lycoming, the airplane was certified.  The manufacturer started with a training airplane, that was selling relatively well compared to the dominant player in the training market, the Cessna 150!  But, they knew they needed to build a four place airplane, so why not go after the worlds most popular airplane, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk.  Thy Skyhawk was the most popular airplane built for many years, which identifies this as a large enough market to design and develop an airplane to compete with this hot segment of airplanes.  Grumman American approached the next design, the AA-5A very closely tied to the original model in that it used honeycomb constructed panels, no rivet construction on the wings and fuselage, a sliding canopy, fiberglass main landing gear, and crisp handling that made you think you are flying a fighter airplane.

The advertising was interesting, in that it offered an alternative to the stodgy looking Skyhawk, with a much more fun flying experience along with better performance.  Once the AA-5A traveler was certified, it only took a year later to bring out the larger engine Grumman AA-5B Tiger to compete with the ever popular Cessna Skylane.  Performance wise, The Skylane and Tiger were very close, but the Grumman Tiger didn’t have the same room and load hauling ability as the 235 horsepower Skylane.  The Grumman Tiger even competed against the four place retractable gear models of the day, and were very competitive when compared to the Piper Arrow with 200 horsepower, and the economy champ Mooney Ranger M20C. Timing for these new models couldn’t have been better, sales were doing well and it appeared as if Grumman American should start looking at a six place airplane, but instead entered the light twin market because a multi-engine trainer was considered more in demand at the time, plus it was a step up airplane for other Grumman owners.

Unfortunately the market started to turn for single engine piston airplanes, and the Grumman aircraft company went through a few ownership changes, from Gulfstream American…yes, the real Gulfstream G650 maker, to other companies that tried to bring the airplane back into production.  After several attempts to bring the Grumman Tiger back into production, the demand for a new airplane costing four or five times as much as a clean used one just couldn’t justify the purchase of a new airplane.  Although American General Aircraft Corp. tried to bring the airplane back with a new 28 volt electrical system, a modern panel, and other small modifications, these just weren’t enough to justify the price of buying a new airplane…so the airplane will most likely never be produced again.  The point is, the market demand and timing is what made the idea of taking an experimental airplane, and making it into a successful production airplane worked very well, along with the vertical market of offering faster and more capable airplanes that sold to newly minted private pilots who learned to fly in the Grumman Trainer.

The hundred million dollar question is – can this be repeated?  Not in the current economy, NO WAY!  If you were able to do it, you need to bring to the market something that is innovative enough that it changes the way we fly our private airplanes.  To take a Vans RV-9A that is very popular among the homebuilders, and certify it would probably not be too difficult, since Van is an excellent engineer and the flying qualities are very close to what certification would probably require.  The RV-9A offers a lot more performance than you can buy from an older airframe, such as the Cessna 152.  When you compare speed with the same Lycoming 118 horsepower that Van’s has demonstrated in the ‘9A, a cruise of 165 miles per hour Vs. the Cessna 152 that may be able to cruise at 120 miles per hour.  So…more performance, but is this enough to get a flight school excited about a new airplane to train students in?  After all, the RV-9A has a low stall speed, a stable platform, and the performance to go, why wouldn’t the airplane sell?

Experimental RV-9A

Two place Vans RV-9A experimental home built airplane.

I think to really make things happen, you need to bring something to the table that seriously changes the way we fly.  I hate to say it, but the electric airplane may be the answer, although the technology is still a little too far off to make this happen anytime soon.  I look at the cost of the modern four cylinder air cooled aircraft engine, and find that cost to be somewhat irrational, along with the fuel injection and ignition systems as being outdated.  To me, an electric motor with 3,000 hours TBO that can be purchased for less than $5,000 USD means something, IF you could get the battery capacity to make this type of flight practical.  I believe one day that will happen, this will be the future of aviation, and it makes sense.  You have noise issues that are affecting airports, you have the EPA saying the environment is being polluted by inefficient airplane engines, while the cost to maintain some of these older engines is getting to be a little ridiculous.  The electronic powerplant simply is the answer.

If we look at a direct comparison to the Mooney Mite, we have the Onex which is a kit airplane distributed by SonexAircraft.com  This is a single seat design, that is very economical with a total kit price for the complete turn key price of $28,425.  This includes the hardware, airframe, engine, propeller, and a $2,000 allowance for instruments. So the price of this kit plane is very close to what the price of the original manufactured Mooney Mite was selling for.  With the experimental airplane, you get a non-certified aircraft engine, with about the same level of avionics and instruments that the original Mooney Mite was equipped for.  However, you have a 700 to 1,000 hour build time on the Onex airplane, plus paint and everything else that is not included in the kit.

Sonex Onex kit airplane

A single place Sonex Onex kit with performance very similar to the Mooney Mite.

This is just a reflection of modern day society, the price of labor is more expensive than it was in the 40’s and 50’s, therefore the price of a small piston powered airplane probably will never be deemed “affordable”.  Unfortunately many single engine aircraft designs and development of this segment is been forgotten, and that explains why there has been a lack of development in more fuel efficient and safer airplanes. If the certification process is arduous and expensive, the cost of producing the airplane gets too expensive for higher volume sales, and the industry is slow to develop these new airplanes.  This is what explains the development of aircraft the past twenty years, it has been concentrated in the corporate market and not the recreational market.  Although there are over one hundred LSA manufacturers, the airplanes that are the most popular are those which have been manufactured for a longer period of time, and most don’t really have any advantages over an older Cessna 150.

And that is the conundrum, and is why a real game changing aircraft design is going to need to be brought to the market before we see the small single engine airplane development start to sell again. The reason the automotive industry is so strong, is that the fresh designs, the added features, and the fact that we all NEED a car, is why people purchase these items.  Considering the average price of a new vehicle sold is over $31,000, this is the second largest purchase most people will make in their lifetime, the first being a home.  So as the automotive business keeps innovating with real world benefits that make a buyer say yes, aviation has not been afforded this opportunity.

Jim Bede - 5

The coolest personal airplane ever to fly! The BD-5!

5 Responses to “So you want to start your own airplane company – a few thoughts”

  1. Scott Says:

    If Honda, GM, BMW, Mercedes and Toyota would come together with Cessna/Textron and Mooney to develop efficient airframe and engine power plant designs at mass production low cost and eliminate liability from the certification process, building a 100K airplane would be possible.

  2. admin Says:

    Scott,

    I really believe the days of a $100,000 new airplane are behind us…just not going to happen. No matter how much new technology and manufacturing methods that can be used toward building an airplane, there just isn’t a way to build an airplane that has the appeal needed to sell in large quantities. You would need to sell a lot of airplanes, so that you could get the economy of scale profile to deliver a profit to the manufacturer.

    I do believe that there are manufacturing methods that would lead to a lot more reliable, and a more economical airplane to own formula, if someone would pay attention to these two factors. Lets face it, the current air cooled opposed engine used in a majority of piston powered airplanes, is extremely outdated! What is especially frustrating about this fact, is that not only is the technology outdated, but the cost of a new manufactured engine just doesn’t make any sense!

  3. Rod Beck Says:

    Hi Scott,and others:

    Both Mike and I thank you for your “comment”. That said, however, it seems, at least to me, that many “technical” types, either ignore, or just don’t consider, the DEMAND for piston (light) powered airplanes!

    Today, all the improvements in the world, will NOT bring a mass DEMAND for light aircraft. I think this is a rather bias idea by those “partial” to aviation, rather than a pragmatic or rational approach to create a greater DEMAND or “economies of scale” perhaps?

    The tread is, and has been, for several decades, away from a “want” to a NEED, or UTILITY value of the airplane, largely do to the “cost/benefit” equation. WHY? Take a look at WHO (demographic) non-career excluded, at today’s flight student; middle-upper middle class individual, who has BOTH the means (financial) and the NEED (utility value)for the mobility of the personal airplane.

    Yes; fewer are leaning to fly; BUT those who are, represent the contemporary personal (recreational) and and owner flown (business) pilots of tomorrow.

    This IS a QUALITY($$$)aviation consumer with LTC (Life Time Customer) value to the aviation retail provider (FBO,etc) in 2016 and beyond.

    Frankly,until the entire GA industry, both recreational and business, recognize/identify this is a niche (vertical) market, AND has pro-active and aggressive sales people “selling” the BENEFITS of light-turbine aircraft, it will continue a gradual decent.

    I rest my case!

  4. Scott Says:

    Experimental aircraft like Vans RV hold a lot of promise of a fully built fast 100K aircraft.

  5. admin Says:

    Scott,

    Your reference to a Van’s airplane build of $100,000 is correct, that is what Van’s aircraft publishes for the fast build kit w/new engine. They specify a range of $88,940 to $102,245 with a new Lycoming engine. That of course, does not include labor cost. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the cost for an average manufacturing labor person, is $36.34 per hour which includes the benefits package cost. With a build time of 2,000 to 2,200 hours, you are looking at adding at least $80,000 to the cost of production. That being said, manufacturing efficiency’s and the quick build kit should lower the build time by at least 700 hours, you are still looking at labor cost of at least $50,000. Now…start putting a panel with GPS, glass, and an autopilot and you have another $50,000 easily.

    This is before any facilities, administration, sales and marketing, and liability cost. My point is that you could never manufacture a Van’s RV-9A and sell it for that $100,000 price range. More realistically, if you could certify the RV-9A quickly, you would probably be looking at a manufacturing cost of around $250,000 before any profit is put into the equation. If you could sell more than 500 of these one model airplanes, the cost would go down for sure, but the case for a $100,000 airplane is a difficult goal to attain.

    IF you could buy a new RV-9A for $250,000, you would be looking at a good high performance airplane, and you could put the Lycoming 235 cu.in. engine in the airplane for a trainer, and still have a fast cross country airplane. I am a little surprised someone hasn’t gone forward with the success the Van’s airplanes have had, and not taken the airplane and make it a certified aircraft. But when we stop and look at the options, why wouldn’t you take a certified airplane like the Grumman AA-1C Lynx that is already certified, and tweak the design with a 160 horsepower? You can buy the airplane on the used market for under $30,000 with the engine mods, and have a good 150 miles per hour airplane in a sporty two seat airplane.

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