Adam Aircraft is getting closer to the major milestone of FAA certification of the A700 very light jet and last month reported receiving its first Type Inspection Authorization (TIA) from the FAA. This TIA allows FAA pilots to fly the A700 for the flight tests needed for credit during the final stages of certification.
The Williams FJ33-4-powered A700 remains on track for FAA certification this year. The company plans to certify the A700–unlike the A500 piston twin–without any pending performance and equipment requirements. When the A500 received FAA certification in 2005, it was not approved to fly to its maximum altitude, at night or with a full load of passengers, and it took some time for Adam Aircraft to eliminate those restrictions. Flight-into-known-icing approval remains pending for the A500 and should be completed this winter.
When the A700 is certified, according to chairman and CEO John Wolf, it will be “ready for full use and delivery as opposed to going into a modification line.” That includes RVSM approval, flight into known icing, 41,000-foot maximum altitude, IFR capability and all requirements needed for Part 135 operations.
A700 S/N 4 is the latest model flying and the second A700 to be built to the final conforming aerodynamic, production and systems specifications. Number five is expected to join the flight-test fleet this month or next, followed by number six, the final flight-test and certification airplane. Meanwhile, in December Adam Aircraft sent an A700 to the McKinley Climatic Chamber at Eglin AFB near Pensacola, Fla., for extreme temperature and severe weather testing.
Making Production Fly
Last August, Rick Adam stepped back from management of the company he founded in 1988, but he remains a board member and holder of additional positions on the Adam Aircraft board. Adam brought the company through certification of the A500 and to the challenging step of obtaining an FAA production certificate. After Rick Adam left the company, Wolf and Duncan Koerbel, now Adam Aircraft’s president, stepped in to see the A700 through to certification and, more important, high-volume production.
Not many A500s have been delivered since certification. Through last year’s third quarter, just one A500 was delivered, although more were scheduled for delivery during the fourth quarter. The reason for the slowdown in production is so that the Adam Aircraft factory could retool and gear up to produce airplanes faster than it had been, company officials say.
Wolf and Koerbel had already begun developing a new manufacturing program, called “make production fly,” by the time Adam relinquished his management role. Since then and thanks to a fresh round of financing, the company has been adding modern equipment and implementing new processes to speed up the production lines and prepare to build the hundreds of A500s and A700s on backlog. The goal is to produce 18 airplanes per month when the production line gets up to speed. A700 S/N 7 will be the first customer airplane and also the first A700 produced using the make-production-fly processes.
The expensive new tooling makes for much faster and more precise production, allowing Adam Aircraft to skip directly to the latest-generation composite construction techniques. The new wing construction tool, for example, is used to accelerate wing assembly. The entire wing is made of 24 parts, including 18 ribs, two spars and four skins. Before employing the new assembly tool, technicians had to glue each rib to the lower skins, install the spars, then bond the upper skins in place, all while carefully measuring and placing each part. With the new system, all the parts are placed in the tool, which pneumatically clamps everything firmly and precisely in place and helps keep all the parts aligned during initial curing. The result is a complete wing built in five days versus 30.
Oven Versus Autoclave
Adam Aircraft doesn’t use autoclaves to final-cure composite parts, according to Koerbel, because an oven, which heats but doesn’t pressurize like an autoclave, is 95 percent as effective as an autoclave and is just as fast at curing. Autoclaves also wear out expensive tooling faster. Using the ovens, Adam Aircraft should be able to reuse tooling for at least 200 shipsets, he said.
Adam Aircraft recently added a larger second oven at its Centennial, Colo., headquarters. The new oven not only speeds up manufacturing, but its greater size will allow Adam to develop new airplanes. Koerbel hinted that Adam Aircraft is looking into developing new Part 23 designs that will not be smaller than the A700. And the fact that Adam has trademarked the model designation A1000 indicates that something new is on the drawing boards.
Another new tool is a laser-alignment system, something that other composite manufacturers such as Hawker Beechcraft and Cirrus have long used for precision manufacturing. The laser system precisely aligns the tooling to ensure that major components are built with repeatable accuracy. It also makes it easier to change to different tooling more quickly, because the alignment system is computer-controlled to match whatever tooling is being used to build a particular part.
For example, whereas Adam technicians previously used rulers to mark where to attach Click Bond fasteners (which glue onto the fuselage interior to provide attachment points for clamps and other aircraft systems parts) now they use the laser system to highlight the Click Bond spot and then glue a fabric-alignment patch onto that spot to show exactly where the Click Bond needs to be affixed. Simple solutions such as this speed up manufacturing and make for more precisely manufactured parts, cutting down on rework during airplane assembly.
The goal is to reduce manufacturing time from the 15 months needed during the earlier-generation processes to 14 weeks, which will be necessary if Adam is to satisfy its backlog efficiently. Koerbel and Wolf have extensive experience in the aircraft manufacturing business, and it’s clear that this background is vitally needed if an aircraft manufacturing firm is to transition from the startup and pre-certification phase to volume production. The make-production-fly effort began last March, Koerbel said, “and in six months we’ve done more than the company could [previously] do in two years.”
Adam Aircraft is preparing its Ogden, Utah facility to take over final assembly of the A500 using the new production processes that were developed at the Centennial headquarters, according to Rob Penrod, vice president for manufacturing. The new process will start with A500 S/N 15. The A700 make-production-fly processes will be completed at Centennial and shifted to Ogden. The A700, however, with an order book about three times larger than the A500’s, will also be co-assembled at Centennial. Adam Aircraft also has a facility in Pueblo, Colo., that manufactures tailboom and empennage components and attaches landing-gear components to the booms.
Koerbel expects the $2.25 million A700 to be certified and deliveries to begin this year, but he doesn’t plan to say exactly when until soon after the beginning of the year. “The more we can under-promise and over-deliver, the better,” he said.
Although orders for the A500 aren’t as high as for the A700, Koerbel believes the A500 has a solid future as a replacement for the approximately 40,000 piston twins that are getting older and that don’t have a pressurized cabin and modern composite construction and glass-cockpit avionics. “Customers will pay for value,” he said.
“We are well financed into 2008,” Koerbel concluded. “Our risk will have all but disappeared by then, and then we will build airplanes that cost less than they sell for. It’s going to be fun. We will be the leanest Part 23 manufacturer out there. We’ll get more done for the dollar than most [manufacturers].”