In The Works: Atlas Aerospace Liftmaster

 - May 15, 2008, 8:26 AM

Overnight-package carriers FedEx, UPS and Airborne Express use big jets to move cargo between major hubs and rely on smaller piston and turboprop airplanes, such as the Cessna Caravan, to service outlying airports. Packages, which are shipped in containers on the cargo jets, must be removed from the containers and placed on pallets for loading into the smaller airplanes. If this step could be avoided, time would be saved–a package-carrier goal stressed quite emphatically by Tom Hanks’ character in the opening scene of the movie Cast Away. If only there were a small airplane that had a fuselage big enough to carry containers.

Such thinking was behind the ill-fated Ayres Loadmaster (for which FedEx had placed orders, but which now has a highly dubious future), the AeroCourier and American Utilicraft FF-1080 (both looking for financing) and a new design being promoted by a tiny startup company in Zephyrhills, Fla. Atlas Aerospace is affiliated with Aviation Instrument Technologies Inc. (AITI), a four-year-old company that designs and develops instruments for aircraft and flight simulators. It was founded last summer by AITI-owner David Teichman, who has employed Jim Stewart, an aviation veteran with more than 50 years of design work under his belt. Stewart, whose major claim to fame is the Stewart S-51 Mustang kitplane (a 70-percent-scale P-51 Mustang), designed the Atlas Aerospace Liftmaster.

The twin-turboprop, twin-tailboom Liftmaster resembles the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar, built from 1947 to 1955, but smaller. It is sized to carry three LD-3 containers in its six-foot-long, seven-foot-high cargo hold (volume 715 cu ft). However, Stewart told AIN, the fuselage could be made wider and higher to accommodate larger containers preferred by FedEx. Preliminary useful load is 7,160 lb and twin 675-shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-14A turboprops would provide power. A single-piece aft cargo door hinged to the roof of the fuselage would permit easy loading of the containers. Projected price is $2.1 million.

But like the other small cargo airplane programs, financing is proving “exasperating,” according to Stewart. “We’re looking for $5 million to build a prototype, which would be production conforming as much as possible,” he said. Teichman estimates he needs at least $25 million to fund the program through certification. So far, he has received a $150,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to help expand a hangar where the prototype would be built and has applied for a $600,000 Community Block Development Grant from the state to build a 100,000-sq-ft production facility.