Grob readies network as SPn program picks up the pace

 - November 7, 2006, 8:18 AM

Grob, the German company that is developing the versatile, all-composite SPn light jet, has created a U.S. support network for the airplane and is about to establish a U.S. subsidiary to handle direct sales. Two prototypes are now in flight-test and construction of a third started last month. That airplane will join the final push for certification early next year. 

The eight-passenger aircraft, which was publicly revealed in June last year, is on track to receive approval from the European Aviation Safety Agency during next year’s third quarter. The FAA’s blessing is expected to follow in the fourth quarter. Initial deliveries to European customers have been scheduled for next September and October, and the first North American clients are due to get their aircraft early in 2008.

On October 16, Grob announced the appointment of Stevens Aviation and Landmark Aviation as service partners for the SPn. Stevens’ facilities in Greenville, S.C., and Denver, along with the Landmark bases in Springfield, Ill., Los Angeles and Houston, will be the initial authorized service centers for North America. Further support capability might be added as the fleet grows, and the manufacturer will also establish a North American spares warehouse.

Meanwhile, Grob, which has been under new ownership (see box on page 50) since early last month, is preparing to establish a North American subsidiary, most likely located somewhere in the northeast U.S. or in Dallas. The group will be appointing a small North American team of around 20 people.

Outside North America, the SPn will be supported by ExecuJet Aviation at its maintenance centers in Copenhagen, Denmark; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Sydney, Australia; and Johannesburg, South Africa. Northern Executive Aviation at Manchester in the UK will operate an additional factory-authorized service center.

ExecuJet, the sole worldwide distributor for the aircraft outside North America, also has a support center in Monterrey, Mexico, and is planning to add more facilities in Germany and Switzerland. Worldwide customer and product support is led by Hans Doll, who is still considering proposals from other would-be service centers, especially in North America. He told AIN that service centers will be instructed in the “simple” composite repair processes and that tooling requirements are minimal.

The SPn is being certified initially for a service life of 28,000 hours. With bird-strike tests successfully complete, fatigue testing will soon begin. The composite airframe is covered by a seven-year warranty, although the manufacturer expects the material to prove much more durable.

The use of light carbon fiber throughout the fuselage means that it has just 110 parts, versus some 14,000 for a light jet of the same size made of aluminum. The ability to refine the composite material in three dimensions has optimized the aerodynamics.

When it enters service, the SPn will be covered by a comprehensive maintenance-by-flight-hour package. Product support will also be enhanced by full online maintenance capability to track all repair and overhaul work and provide direct access to manuals and automated customer resource management.

Grob is currently negotiating with a flight-training provider and intends to have Level-D simulators available soon after certification. The manufacturer will also
be offering preferential insurance packages to customers, many of whom will likely
be owner-pilots.

According to Grob Aerospace CEO Niall Olver, North America will likely account for 50 percent of SPn sales. This is actually less than the 70 percent of market that the region usually accounts for in business aircraft sales, but the SPn’s flexible runway performance is expected to make it an especially attractive product in regions such as Africa, Australia and Asia.

Avionics Upgrades Planned
The second SPn prototype made its maiden flight from Grob’s Tussenhausen-Mattsies base in southern Germany on September 29. This marked the first flight of Honeywell’s enhanced Primus Apex avionics suite, which incorporates many features of the more advanced Primus Epic cockpit. The Apex suite features two 15-inch PFD screens and a 10-inch MFD screen.

At press time, the prototypes had logged around 300 one-hour test flights, and extensive static testing has already been completed (including tests of the composite structures to temperatures as high as 161 degrees F). So far the airplane has met or exceeded all target numbers, despite the fact that Grob did not conduct any wind tunnel testing. Olver said that the SPn’s backers had always been concerned about the potential for the aircraft’s weight to increase unacceptably during development and so decided to conduct full static testing of the wing before building a prototype.

Gerard Guillaumaud, a former French air force pilot with previous experience with, among others, Adam Aircraft and Diamond Aircraft, is leading the flight-testing of the Grob SPn. Alan Lawless, former lead flight-test engineer with Cessna’s Citation Sovereign program, is on the team, along with Grob chief test pilot Ulrich Schell and Tore Reimers, who worked on the Dornier 328 and 728 regional jetliner programs.

The SPn is to be certified under Part 23 rules for single-pilot operations, with the Primus Apex suite promising to deliver significantly reduced workload. It is also ready to take future avionics upgrades, such as a blend of Honeywell’s newly announced synthetic vision system with the latest version of the optional enhanced vision system. This would allow pilots to take IFR approaches down to 100 feet (as opposed to the 50 feet that would be possible with a head-up display). The third SPn prototype will largely be used for certifying the aircraft’s avionics.

Olver told AIN that Grob had had some concerns about Honeywell’s ability to deliver the new avionics suite in the wake of problems Dassault experienced with the Primus Epic for its EASy cockpit on the Falcon 900EX and 2000EX.

After initial difficulties that resulted in the SPn certification being pushed back from March 2007, the new Grob chief executive said that Honeywell’s performance had improved significantly to the extent that software integration for the Apex installation on the number-two prototype had been completed without a single problem.

Grob has also now selected Honeywell to provide its RE100 auxiliary power unit as an option for the SPn. The manufacturer believes this will be the smallest jet to come with an optional APU. This unit should be certified in 2008 and available as a retrofit for those operators who want additional power self-sufficiency when operating away from full ground support infrastructure and those needing rapid pre-cooling or pre-heating of the cabin.

Controlled by FADEC, the RE100 weighs 115 pounds and delivers pneumatic output of 35 pounds per minute at 50 psi and electrical output of 400A at 30 VDC. It has an operating ceiling of 30,000 feet.

Grob has also appointed the Austria-based Porsche Design Studio to develop a selection of cabin interiors for the SPn. The designers are now working on standard six-seat “executive” and eight-seat “business” configurations. These will be presented in a mock-up at next May’s European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition in Geneva.

The SPn cabin will feature a galley and an externally serviced toilet (which can be located in either the front or back of the cabin). Modular interiors are being developed to allow its carbon-fiber seats to be removed quickly to free up space for utility roles that might require bulky items such as bicycles and tools to be stowed, and also allow space for air ambulance equipment. The cabin will also feature an entertainment system and Iridium satellite communications capability.

Based on early market feedback, Grob has increased the external baggage compartment to 51 cu ft and 6.23 feet in length (room for up to six golf bags). Total baggage space is 56 cu ft. The partially pressurized external compartment will be accessed beneath the nacelle via an enlarged door.

Powered by a pair of 2,820-pounds-thrust Williams International FJ44-3A turbofans, the SPn will offer maximum range of 1,800 nm for one pilot and six passengers (ISA, 41,000 feet, NBAA IFR reserves). The FADEC-controlled engines will also be covered by power-by-the-hour support.

Range, Airfield Numbers Stand Out

It is airfield performance that is the SPn’s real stand-out characteristic. Speed (the airplane has a 407-knot cruise) has been compromised for the sake of a minimum landing distance that is now down to just 2,670 feet. The 3,000-foot balanced field length for takeoffs may be further reduced toward 2,800 feet during the course of certification. Grob will be looking to achieve clearance for the SPn to operate into steep approach airports, such as London City and Lugano. It hopes to be able to slightly increase the existing Mmo of Mach 0.7.

The SPn features rugged and tall landing gear, specifically developed by Grob for use on unprepared landing strips. These are being manufactured by Liebherr Aerospace in Germany.

According to Olver, this combination of range and airfield performance is unique for a jet in its price range. The current list price of the SPn is U5.8 million (approximately $7.3 million).

The Grob SPn was conceived as a replacement for utility workhorses such as Raytheon’s King Air line. Olver insisted that the SPn is not in the very light jet class and that its closest direct competitor is probably Cessna’s new Citation CJ4. He added that the new Grob offers only 10 percent less cabin space than the larger Citation Excel, with similar payload and range, but at 65 percent of the price and with single-pilot, short-field capability.

Grob does not intend to disclose detailed sales figures but has indicated that it has sold its first two years of production, estimated to be about 50 aircraft. Olver said that most of the customers who have to date placed non-refundable deposits of $250,000 are private individuals and private companies in Europe, North America and Africa (it does not take options).

Many of the initial clients will be piloting the SPn themselves, and Olver also reported “a lot of interest” from existing King Air and Pilatus turboprop operators. He has also received inquiries from prospective fractional ownership providers.

The airframer has said that it could increase output to 40 aircraft per year without any increase to its fixed costs. By next June it will have increased its payroll to 200 people and this is set to double to 400 when full production is achieved.

Grob is already actively considering further development of the SPn airframe. It believes that a short stretch could be incorporated easily, and it already has tooling for a wing plug.