A few aviation entrepreneurs have imprinted their name in the industry not only because they have provided a great product or service, but also because their foresight, innovation and personality have been a driving force behind it. George “Rick” Adam Jr. appears to be destined for that list.
The first thing you notice about Adam is that he’s full of energy, in constant motion and always immersed in what he’s doing. As you walk with him through his Englewood, Colo. offices and manufacturing plant, there is a continuous barrage of interaction. Apparently he not only knows everyone by name, but also what they’re working on. Sometimes they are asking his opinion but more often they’re simply keeping him in the loop. Adam can cite the most technical details of his operation off the top of his head, yet there is no sign of micromanagement. His employees appear to genuinely like him and about a third wear Adam Aircraft shirts to work.
Long before Adam became interested in aviation, he was a general partner in charge of information technology (IT) for Goldman Sachs and Company, where he managed a successful turnaround of Goldman’s IT operations. He transformed its IT function from a cost to a profit center and changed the philosophy of Goldman executives about the use of technology.
Adam, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was also a launch crew officer in charge of the Air Force Real Time Computer Center (RTCC) at Kennedy Space Center for Apollo Missions 8 through 14.
Before starting Adam Aircraft in 1998, he was with New Era of Networks, a Colorado-based technology company he founded. It was that company that made the Deloitte & Touche Fast 500 list and made Adam Aircraft possible. In 1992 Adam got the bug to learn to fly and as he acquired his private pilot certificate, instrument and multi-engine ratings and a Citation type rating, Adam was struck by what he perceived as a lack of innovation in the light aircraft market.
For the most part, “single-engine aircraft were technologically unchanged since the 1950s,” Adam told AIN. “And there was a large gap in the market. Since about the mid-1980s the only new aircraft available were non-pressurized light twins and pressurized turbines. A lot of people believed the light twins available didn’t offer much in the way of performance relative to the available higher-end singles. On the other hand, turbine twins were way beyond the means of the average general aviation buyer. It was that realization that eventually took the form of the Adam A500.”
From the beginning Adam decided he would develop a family of aircraft. He chose to skip over the piston single because he thought Cirrus had a good product and strong command of the market. The plan was to start with a piston twin and move to a turboprop twin, then into a twinjet. Ultimately he opted to launch the twinjet before the turboprop.
Early on, Adam decided to transplant some ideas from the computer industry. He knew that one of the most fundamental characteristics of the computer industry that led to its explosive growth was commonality. The vast majority of computer manufacturers designed their hardware to work with a common operating system so that anyone could develop software and individual support components, and then market them to a huge audience.
He knew that it didn’t matter what the manufacturer did deep down inside the machine as long as it interacted at the top level with everything else and there was commonality of components. Generalized to the fleet of aircraft Adam had in his mind, it meant making a given component one time and then using it in different aircraft with little or no modification. Commonality of parts became a fundamental block of the Adam Aircraft line.
In 1998 Adam and John Knudsen started Adam Aircraft Industries. Knudsen had been an attorney specializing in aviation litigation in Denver. Before that he had been an FAA trial lawyer in Washington, D.C., and he is also a retired naval aviator. Adam initially used capital gained from the sale of New Era of Networks to fund the company.
Less than one year after giving Burt Rutan, of Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, $1 million to develop a proof-of-concept aircraft based on Adam’s specification, the CarbonAero flew. The innovative design incorporated twin centerline-thrust piston engines, a lightweight composite structure and a glass cockpit. “We took the CarbonAero around to places like Oshkosh and Sun ’n’ Fun,” Adam said, “and we listened to what people thought. Then we went back to the drawing board and made changes to the original design and came up with the A500. One of the most common suggestions had to do with the door being located over the wing. People didn’t want to have to climb up on the wing to get in the aircraft, so we repositioned the wing and added an airstair door.”
The A500, currently in the certification process, is a six-seat, pressurized aircraft powered by two Teledyne Continental TSIO-550-E engines each rated at 350 hp. It carries a price tag of $895,000, and Adam says the maximum cruise speed will be 230 ktas and range 1,470 nm. First delivery of the A500 is scheduled for the end of this year.
Things have been moving fast because the company operates 24/7. “The longer you take to bring your product to market, the more likely something bad will happen,” Adam said. “We are set up so that our direct employees work three days in a row on 12-hour shifts then get four days off. They love the free time it gives them. We never require employees to come in on Sunday, but it’s an option and about a dozen show up every week. The full-time staff, such as the engineers, generally work a long day shift.” Adam said another advantage is that the system time-compresses everything. Six days consisting of two 12-hour shifts yields the equivalent of 18 days of straight, time, with Sunday as a bonus.
Pushing off such a steep learning curve, Adam opted to move into the twinjet market even before the first A500 was delivered. The A700 is a turbofan-powered aircraft with six seats, including two crew seats. The $1.995 million aircraft will sport a private toilet–a feature that will no doubt find favor with those considering a very light jet.
The A700 is designed to cruise at a maximum of 340 knots at FL380 in ISA conditions. Its maximum operating altitude is expected to be FL410. VFR range, including takeoff, climb, cruise at FL410, descent and 30-minute reserve, is 1,400 nm (NBAA IFR range is set at 1,100 nm). Takeoff distance at sea level, ISA conditions is 2,950 feet.
Each of the two aft-fuselage, pylon-mounted Williams International FJ33 turbofans produces 1,200 pounds of thrust. The A700 will be certified to the requirements of FAR Part 23 single pilot and approved for flight into known icing and RVSM.
Composites Cut Costs, Time
What keeps the cost down is the similarity between the A500 and the A700, which goes far beyond their both sharing side-stick controllers. The fuselage is constructed of carbon-fiber composite materials with the monocoque structure consisting of honeycomb-stiffened skins. “We use a pre-impregnated carbon-fiber composite material produced by Toray,” Adam explained. “It comes in prefabricated rolls, which are used to build the aircraft structure. The parts are laid up in molds, which are then placed in vacuum bags and cured at 240 degrees.”
One of the great advantages of carbon-fiber technology is the ability to form an entire structure in terms of shape and thickness rather than having to assemble it out of numerous parts. Composite proponents assert that this cuts development time by as much as 75 percent and, according to Adam, the entire wing structure has only about 250 parts, one-tenth the parts count of a comparable metal wing.
The A700 has a two-spar wing with an integrated fuel tank. It’s the same wing structure used on the A500, with some minor changes to accommodate the higher performance. Over-engineering the wing for the A500 has resulted in dramatic cost savings for the A700 because most of the work is already done and nearly approved by the FAA. Company engineers developed what they call the “smart tunnel.” It allows them to shift the spar tunnel fore and aft to control the aircraft’s center-of-gravity range, making it adaptable to a wide range of performance specifications. The empennage design is of a blended, high-tail configuration, again like the A500. In fact, many parts are interchangeable between the two aircraft, including the basic instrument panel.
Adam emphasized that most of the components of both aircraft are off-the-shelf items, such as the engines and avionics, but he does have a keen sense of when to eliminate something that costs more than it’s worth and do it in-house. For example, during the design phase, computer design was done in-house with commercially available software on off-the-shelf computers.
Adam engineers used the software as much as practical to run fluid-dynamic computations to reduce the need for a wind tunnel. By simulating the wind tunnel and aircraft they were able to make even minute adjustments and see their effects immediately. Adam also opted to build his own aircraft seats, suitable for the entire line of aircraft, for what he says is a fraction of what it would cost to buy them from an outside vendor.
One of Adam’s goals is to move the company to paperless operation. He currently has all of the production data stored online, as well as the manufacturing processes, inventory and customer-support information. In addition, there are rolling terminals on battery-powered carts that access the local-area network through a wireless connection. Employees don’t need paper manuals, they simply roll a terminal up to wherever they are working and access the information online.
Adam also decided early on that it made more sense to build his own tooling in-house using a computer-controlled milling machine. “We didn’t plan it that way originally,” Adam said, “but when we started looking at what outside companies wanted to charge us to make our tooling we realized we could buy a five-axis numerically controlled milling machine and train our people to use it for a fraction of the cost. We’ve made everything, including the 42-foot lower wing skin tool. Just as important, because we’re on a 24-hour schedule, we can do it faster than a contractor.”
The A700 first flew on July 27. With 15 hours logged, it was flown from Denver to Oshkosh for the annual EAA AirVenture. With all the small-jet startups that keep postponing their first flights, not many believed the A700 was for real.
“People would look at it in the display area and ask if it was real,” Adam laughed. “We ended up putting a sign on it saying, ‘I flew here from Denver,’” The company has begun taking orders for the A700, with the first delivery scheduled for December next year.