Safire sees blue skies ahead for jet

 - July 31, 2008, 7:51 AM

Almost a century ago, Henry Ford launched his Model T as a car for the masses and subsequently produced 15 million automobiles over 19 years. Camilo Salomon, president and CEO of Safire Aircraft, does not fancy himself a Henry Ford, but he has high hopes that the company’s six-place Safire Jet will become the personal jet for masses of owner-flown operators.

In a recent interview, Salomon said studies indicate a potential market for 20,000 owner-flown personal jets over the next 15 years. Miami-based Safire is aiming to garner a substantial market share.

Safire has survived a shaky start with the S-26 and, apparently, now has its program back on track with the faster and more capable Safire Jet. The airplane that is now being prepared to emerge from that early program is 50 knots faster than
the S-26, has better range and a larger and more comfortable cabin, without sacrificing operating costs, according to Safire. The cabin improvements include five inches more headroom and a fully enclosed aft lavatory.

Looking at the difficulties in certification that have faced other aircraft manufacturers with the introduction of new technology, Safire has decided to build its personal jet using “traditional” materials and designs. “The Safire Jet will be very traditional in design and construction–easy to build, easy to certify, easy to fly and easy to maintain,” said a spokesman.

To simplify the production process still further, the airplane’s various parts have been outsourced to vendors. The only work to be done at the Safire Aircraft plant will be assembly of the parts, installation of the cabin interior components, test flight and delivery of the finished airplane. Salomon emphasized that the vendors are not risk-sharing partners, but FAA-certified sub-contractors. They include:

• Apex (Wichita)–wing, tailcone and empennage.

• Avidyne (Boston)–Entegra avionics.

• Castle Precision (Sylmar, Calif.)– landing gear.

• Metalcraft (Cedar City, Utah)– fuselage.

• Williams International (Walled Lake, Mich.)–FJ33-4 engines (certification anticipated in December).

Still to be selected are suppliers for aircraft systems, radar and fairings. Apex has already begun cutting metal for the wings and empennage.

The traditional theme extends as well to the through-panel control yoke. “While the conventional stick had distinct advantages in weight and design, a survey of pilots showed a strong preference for the through-panel yoke [rather than the stick or sidestick],” said Joe Furnish, senior v-p of engineering and program management. Furnish said 56 percent of the pilots surveyed expressed a preference for the yoke design.

Safire had initially “executed a purchase agreement for 1,000 turbofan engines” from startup manufacturer Agilis. But Safire last year rethought the engine choice, and after considering other bids it chose the Williams FJ33-4. “If we look
at the growth potential of the airplane, the FJ33-4 has the potential to meet that airplane’s needs,” said a spokesman.

With a fresh infusion of cash from an unidentified “Swiss syndicate of investors” late last year, Safire Aircraft claims to have sufficient funding to take the company through production of the first prototype and planned first flight early next year.

The company also recently moved into facilities at Opa Locka Airport near Miami. The space will serve for production of the first four Safire Jets–two prototypes and two static test models. Salomon said the company is considering a number of south Florida locations to build a 50,000-sq-ft assembly plant, including two sites at Opa Locka Airport. The plan calls for operation of four assembly lines and includes two paint shops and a flight-test facility.

Initial production, expected to begin in 2006, is set at 90 aircraft a year. The numbers climb steeply from there to a max of more than 800 aircraft a year on four assembly lines.

Salomon said the production rate is expected to match market demand, and that in addition to the anticipated U.S. market for 20,000 personal, owner-flown jets, he expects the airplane to find a ready market in air-taxi service and government and military use, as well as in fractional-ownership programs and corporate flight departments. A new market forecast due in several months is expected to reflect that additional market segment, as well as European sales potential.

Salomon also confirmed that Safire recently met NASA representatives and is hopeful of additional funding from the government’s Small Aircraft Transportation System program. SATS is a five-year effort aimed at developing and evaluating technologies for new operating capabilities that enable the use of the nation’s 5,400 “underutilized public-use landing facilities in near all-weather conditions.”

The original, and now scrapped, S-26 had been priced at slightly under $1 million. With the newer Safire Jet, that price has increased to $1.395 million, and to drum
up more sales, Safire recently announced a new pricing and acquisition process.

New buyers can take advantage of a $195,000 discount off the $1.395 million list price by making a $180,000 nonrefundable deposit at the time the purchase agreement is signed. The deposit will entitle the buyer to a position in the second year of production.

An alternative program for new customers requires a $20,000 (refundable) deposit for a later delivery position at the full list price.

Buyers who had placed an $8,000 deposit on the original S-26 and who do not opt for a full refund have two choices. They may simply apply their original $8,000 deposit toward retaining their position on a Safire Jet priced at $1.295 million. Or they can receive one of a limited number of early delivery positions for the aircraft, based on a price of $1.1 million, in return for a non-refundable $165,000 first payment, which is placed in escrow.

A spokesman for Safire said the company had received orders for more than 700 S-26s, and as of mid-July about 78 percent of those buyers were opting to roll the contract over into one of the new options.

Most of the position holders are North American or European operators, with about 10 percent from Europe. Salomon said most of the orders have also come from owner/ operators, many of them planning to move from a turboprop twin or single. He added that the company has also received a “gratifying” amount of interest from air-taxi operators and fractional-ownership providers.

“This is the airplane the market has been waiting for a long time,” said Salomon. “And we are going to give them what they want.”