Daher-Socata considers resurrecting Grob’s light jet

 - November 30, 2010, 10:43 AM

Daher-Socata is studying plans for a new aircraft development program under an exclusive agreement with Allied Aviation Technologies, which owns the assets of the SPn light business jet program on behalf of the main creditor for the aircraft’s former developer, Grob Aerospace. The agreement was reached with former Grob Aerospace CEO Niall Olver, who has been trying to line up fresh investors for the SPn since the company’s bankruptcy in January last year.

Speculation about possible new plans for the SPn has been prompted by unofficial reports in late September that the three remaining prototype examples for the aircraft are set to be relocated from Grob Aircraft’s headquarters at Tussenhausen-Mattsies in southern Germany. Grob Aircraft, which is owned by Germany’s H3 Aerospace group, controls Grob Aerospace’s training aircraft business, which was sold separately during the insolvency process. Allied owns the prototypes in addition to all intellectual property associated with the SPn program.

Daher-Socata’s confirmation of the joint study agreement with Allied says simply that it is “evaluating a 100-percent composite, twin-engine business aircraft program based on the SPn platform.” Beyond this short statement, the company has made no further comment on its plans.

The French manufacturer has long had ambitions to expand its turboprop- and piston-powered product line (including the latest TBM850 model) with the addition of a light jet. Resurrecting the SPn program, which was quite far advanced when Grob Aerospace hit financial difficulties with the sudden withdrawal of its main backer in August 2008, would provide a way to do this more quickly than starting with a completely new design.

Although further details of the prospective partnership have yet to be confirmed by either side, the next step, presumably, would be for the SPn prototypes to be transferred to Socata’s engineering and manufacturing base at Tarbes in southwestern France. It is still unclear whether Daher-Socata intends to complete the SPn certification process on the basis of the existing design, or use the work done so far as the foundation for a new design.

Soon after acquiring a 70-percent controlling stake in Socata from EADS in February 2009, French industrial group Daher indicated that it would defer plans to launch a new aircraft until early this year. At the time, Socata was quietly working on various new product concepts under the program heading NTx, but had yet to confirm whether this would be propelled by turboprop or turbofan power.

In April 2009, Daher-Socata indicated that it would need to find new investment partners to complete the business case for a new aircraft development. The company said it could fund approximately one third of the development costs with an injection of some €250 million ($318 million) but that others would have to provide the rest of the launch fund.

Sound Business Case

Conceivably, Daher-Socata has now concluded that a less costly route to market would be to pick up the SPn program. Its short statement on the development in September gave no indication as to whether it would still seek to involve other investors. In December 2008, China’s Guizhou Aviation Industry offered to pay $3.5 million to acquire the SPn part of Grob Aerospace’s assets, but insolvency administrator Dr. Michael Jaffé rejected the bid.

Potentially, completing the certification of the SPn and rebranding it as a Socata product could get the French airframer into the jet market ahead of Italy’s Piaggio Aero. Piaggio and its main shareholders–Mubadala and Tata–have been tentatively working on plans for a jet for several years, but have yet to give a clear indication as to when they might launch what is being referred to as the P1XX. At July’s Farnborough airshow, Mubadala’s executive director for aerospace, Homaid Al Shemmari, said that the group plans to have its first business jet ready for service by 2018.

When Grob Aerospace was declared insolvent in November 2008, the aircraft had been slated to complete certification by the end of that year. The company was preparing to deliver the first 35 aircraft last year before increasing annual production to 48 units.

Originally, the all-composite SPn, which was launched in 2005, had been due to complete certification by the end of the third quarter of 2007. However, a delay of at least nine months was caused by the fatal crash of the second prototype in 2006. Shortly before being forced to declare provisional insolvency in August 2008, Grob had flown a fourth prototype and flight testing was well advanced.

Grob attracted orders for more than 100 SPns at a price of $7.7 million apiece.