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
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
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
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
Of course, the company has all of those
details in its internal plan, but they are not being revealed, and won’t
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.
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
High cruise speed will be important, but
maybe not up to the 350 knot top speed that has been kicked around as a
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
Epic has no connection to the new Kestrel
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
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,
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.