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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedKlapmeier back in the airplane business
No more a mere dreamer, this Cirrus founder is now among aviation’s establishment
By J. Mac McClellan
 

Alan Klapmeier stands next to the Kestrel prototype at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2010. Photo by Randy Dufault

Alan Klapmeier and I have been discussing—some would say arguing—about what’s wrong and right about general aviation, and more importantly, about what’s possible to change and what is not, for well north of 20 years. We’re both older, more experienced, and somewhat wiser now and I like what I hear from Alan about the single-engine turboprop Kestrel project.

The Kestrel is a large six- to eight-passenger turboprop that promises good cruise speed with turboprop efficiency and simplicity. In case you missed the news, Klapmeier and a group of investors merged with Farnborough Aircraft to put the Kestrel into production in Brunswick, Maine, where the U.S. Navy is closing down a big airbase –making available for manufacture of the carbon-fiber Kestrel a nearly new facility built for airplane maintenance.

Better yet, a bunch of economic development money is also offered so the Kestrel project is given a solid financial foundation in terms of manufacturing plant and facilities.

It’s not always what you know…

What I really like hearing from Alan is what I’m not hearing. Details. Credibility soars with me when a person in charge of a brand new aviation project says they just don’t know the answers to really fundamental questions.

That’s a big change in our discussions. Back in the 1990s Alan would tell me in great detail exactly what the Cirrus SR20 would do.
He knew the weights, the cruise speed, when it would be certified and delivered, and most importantly, he knew the price. I didn’t believe him, or at least believe he could make all of that happen.

It turns out we were both mostly correct. The SR20, as is true with almost every airplane development program, took longer, cost more, and didn’t make every weight and performance promise.

Score one for me.

But Alan and the Cirrus team scored too when they proved me wrong by overcoming very long odds to become the first all-new airplane manufacturing company to succeed in decades.

Many say that Bill Lear and Learjet were the last to do that, but if you were a Learjet investor I doubt you felt that way because the company essentially went bankrupt after building 100 jets. Cirrus has built thousands of airplanes and has been in business for more than a decade—and that meets anybody’s definition of success.

This time, with the Kestrel project, Klapmeier told me there are no specifications for weight and performance, no development schedule, and no price tag for the airplane being announced.

Of course, the company has all of those details in its internal plan, but they are not being revealed, and won’t be soon.

The other extremely successful aviation entrepreneur who has made a huge success of not divulging details of his development projects until they are far along is Frank Robinson, founder of Robinson Helicopter.

When Frank launched his R66 turbine powered helicopter project he told everyone he didn’t know exactly how long it would take to get into production, what exactly the helicopter could do—or what it would cost.

Frank simply said nobody could know those details with precision until far into development and test flying. Frank’s reasoning is that he will build the best helicopter he can in the category and if it satisfies him, people will buy it. And his methods have worked like gangbusters.

Experience-based confidence
Though Klapmeier isn’t telling what he expects the Kestrel to do, or what it will cost, he does have a great deal of confidence in the data collected by Farnborough Aircraft during testing on what is a prototype of the final airplane.

Not the final design, mind you, but a carbon and metal version of what the company wants to build.

The Farnborough staff is sophisticated and experienced in collecting reliable load and performance data, something that is totally missing from many airplane startups.

Klapmeier did tell me that the wing will change and the sleek, but aerodynamically problematic curved leading edge will be replaced by a straight wing—probably with some taper.

The fuselage dimensions will also probably change at least some to optimize cockpit and cabin comfort.

Even an engine selection hasn’t been finalized.

High cruise speed will be important, but maybe not up to the 350 knot top speed that has been kicked around as a goal.

There are endless tradeoffs to be made as there are during any airplane development project.

There had been some cooperation between Farnborough Aircraft and Epic, the turboprop kit company, but that has all ended.

Epic has no connection to the new Kestrel company.

Reinventing the propjet single
I don’t see any show stoppers in the Kestrel development program because everything they propose has been done before. There are three production airplanes in the category with the Pilatus PC-12, TBM 850 and Piper Meridian—all enjoying success.

Being the first to do something, like certify a single-engine jet, or in the case of Cirrus, be one of the first to mass produce all-composite airframes, raises lots of questions—and risks.

The big issues for Klapmeier and Kestrel will be the usual ones that challenge any airplane development project.

Keeping empty weight under control is always the biggest issue because if you miss the target weight then all other performance expectations go out the window.

Single-engine airplanes also have to hit the 61-knot maximum stalling speed—or come very close—and that can be a problem, particularly if weight targets are exceeded or the flaps and airfoil don’t perform as predicted.

And then there is the spin question.

All singles must recover from a one-turn spin in an additional turn or show equivalent ways to demonstrate equal safety. A stick-pusher stall barrier system, such as the one used on the PC-12, or an even more advanced autopilot based system, can answer the spin question with no risk to the program.

Klapmeier is still a big believer in the whole airplane parachute for single-engine airplanes, but says a chute won’t be fundamental to the Kestrel design.

It may be offered, but as with all other details that is not yet known.

Finally there is price.

When he was developing the Cirrus SR20 Alan was convinced that every incremental step up in price would reduce demand for the airplane by hundreds, or even thousands.

Maybe he was right, but the early price targets of around $130,000, and then $169,000, proved to be too low to sustain the company. The much more capable, and expensive, SR22 came along in time to keep Cirrus going, and Alan says that was part of the business plan all along.

Probably, but that was cutting it close.

With the Kestrel Alan takes the view that the airplane will cost what it must to give pilots what they demand.

Piper’s Meridian is the low price pressurized turboprop single at around $2 million, with the PC-12 well above $4 million. That gives Kestrel a big window to shoot at, and Alan is being realistic about production volume being in the 50 airplanes a year range, in a good year.

I like this new Alan because he’s, well, part of the aviation establishment. He now talks from experience, not hope.

Instead of seeing only the mistakes of others in the business, he has learned from his own.\

Alan is still an optimist, and one must be to start a company in any business.

But he is also tempered by the reality of founding an airplane manufacturing company and leading it to success.

Optimism is great, but when it comes to leaving the ground, as pilot, passenger or airplane manufacturer, nothing beats experience.

That’s why I think the Kestrel has unusually good odds of success.

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