NBAA Convention News

Adam Aircraft’s VLJ Gambit

 - September 20, 2007, 7:38 AM

Seven years ago, at an aircraft factory in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, two engineers met and worked together on Fairchild Dornier’s ambitious 728 and 928 programs. While those airplanes never made it beyond the conceptual design stage, the engineers–John Wolf and Duncan Koerbel–went on to have successful careers managing significant aircraft programs at a variety of large aerospace companies. Now Wolf and Koerbel are together again, manning the helm at Adam Aircraft, the Englewood, Colo. company whose founder Rick Adam recently stepped aside as chairman and CEO.

Wolf and Koerbel joined Adam Aircraft on February 12. Koerbel succeeded Joe Walker as president, and Wolf was newly elected to the Adam Aircraft board of directors. Following Adam’s relinquishment of his leadership role on August 1, Wolf was named chairman and CEO. Adam remains a major investor in the company and holds four seats on the board of directors.

“This is not a sudden change,” said Wolf. “It has been part of the plan for a long time.” Wolf and Koerbel will be responsible for turning Adam Aircraft from an aircraft development firm into a successful aircraft production company.

Having achieved the significant task of certifying the A500 pressurized piston twin and obtaining a production certificate, Adam Aircraft has struggled to ramp up volume production. After delivering three A500s in 2005 and four in 2006, Adam Aircraft logged zero deliveries in the first and second quarters of this year. Certification of the A700 very light jet has been pushed back, likely to next year.

To make the transition to a “world-class producer” of general aviation airplanes, Wolf sees four goals that Adam Aircraft needs to accomplish. “The first is achieving the complete TC [type certification] on the A700,” he said. Adam Aircraft will certify the A700 as fully capable, including RVSM, flight into known icing, Part 135 and day/night IFR/VFR. The A500 was certified in an incremental fashion, initially without the capability to operate throughout its full envelope, and it still lacks known-icing approval. Wolf wants to avoid having to put the A700 into a modification program right after certification, and he doesn’t want to use the provisional certification route that some manufacturers have chosen.

A clean certification also makes the second goal, transitioning to volume production, that much easier. While Rick Adam has been thinking about ways to speed up the production process, it will be up to Wolf and Koerbel to see this transition through to actual deliveries of the A500 and eventually the A700. “We are redeveloping our production process from stem to stern,” Wolf said. “We’re focusing on significantly reduced production times, which results in significantly lower costs and clearly improved quality.”

The improved production process, called “Make Production Fly,” is already being applied in the A500 program, which should lead to a resumption of deliveries in the fourth quarter of this year and a full production rate of three airplanes per month before the end of next year.

“We did that on purpose,” Wolf said. “We knew we needed to revamp the production process. It’s extremely difficult to do that when you’re also trying to produce aircraft at a high rate. So we had a choice of revamping the process slowly and continuing to try to deliver aircraft inefficiently or we could slow down the volume of aircraft that we were trying to produce and instead [do] the revamping extremely quickly. We chose the latter mainly because we were in the early phases of a ramp-up for the A500. It made sense to slow that down and put as many airplanes as possible through the new process. We’re seeing this as a short-term effect this year only. And we’ll be ramping up to full-rate production next year.”

“That’s the best decision for our customers in the long term,” said Koerbel, “because once we get through the ‘Make Production Fly’ program, we’ll be able to deliver more than we previously could have for the long-term backlog that we have. We’ll end up delivering those airplanes sooner versus later.”

The third goal is to establish a network for customer support and training. More details about the training program are due to be released here at the NBAA Convention.

The fourth goal is already under way, according to Wolf: “It’s what I would call an evolutionary plan for a family of products because the unique all-composite and low-part-count technology that we’re employing is a natural for product evolution, and that evolution can be done at very low cost.”

No information is available about the type of airplanes that Adam Aircraft might produce in the future, but they will likely be in the $2 million to $5 million range, according to Koerbel, and would be certified under FAA Part 23 regulations.

Efficient Manufacturing
For Wolf, ramping up production on the A500 and eventually the A700 is similar to the challenges he faced at McDonnell Douglas. “When I moved to Long Beach [Calif.],” he said, “we were trying to produce 140 MD-80s a year, but we were actually producing only 120, and we were losing money on every airplane we delivered. We managed in less than a year to cut the flow time of that whole aircraft process in half. So I’m familiar with the process side of this and what has to be done in an aircraft manufacturing line to make these kind of efficiency improvements. It’s irrelevant in size and it’s material independent; whether it’s aluminum or composite, the manufacturing challenges are much the same.”

The Make Production Fly program, which Rick Adam announced earlier this year, involves expensive new production tooling that will enable high-rate production. “It’s a completely new tooling strategy,” said Koerbel. Equipment includes laser projection tools that help improve alignment of materials and thus speed up composite construction.

“Quality is improved significantly,” Wolf added, “as better tooling allows us to attain repeatability. What really paces the timing is the ability to get the new tooling into the process.”

The third A700 took flight in April and the fourth joined the flight test fleet last month. Aircraft No. 5 should fly at the end of the year or early next year, after which a final flight test airplane, No. 6, will be used for certification function and reliability testing. Both jets 5 and 6 will have production interiors installed. The first prototype A700 is no longer used for certification flight testing.

The prototypes have logged more than 900 hours, but most of that is in nonconforming A700s, which don’t match the final design. Aircraft No. 3 and newer are conforming A700s, and much of jet No. 3’s flying should count toward certification. Remaining work includes performance and handling qualities testing, field-performance tests, systems tests, certification of the Avidyne avionics suite in the A700 and damage tolerance and durability testing. “We’re working through all those progressively right now,” Koerbel said.

While Rick Adam said previously that he hoped to see A700 certification and initial deliveries next year, Wolf is careful not to commit to projections that may be hard to meet. “Our modus operandi is not to be crystal ballers and predict a clean date of certification,” said Wolf. “I think we all understand that that the process has inherent uncertainties. So we’re not going to be publicly out there saying this airplane’s going to be certified on a certain date. We will be very open and happy to discuss the progress we have to date but we’re not going to be making predictions on the end date. We’re moving steadily toward certification.”

“We’re still a young company,” Koerbel added, “and as companies much older have demonstrated, it’s not an exact science to do a clean-sheet-of-paper airplane and get it done on time.”

Wolf and Koerbel said they appreciate the foundation that Rick Adam built and believe that the company’s small size and lack of bureaucracy will help it transition quickly to the new and more efficient production processes needed to fill the 400-airplane backlog. “Rick Adam deserves a tremendous amount of credit,” Koerbel said, “because John’s been doing this for 39 years and I’ve been doing it for 24 and to put Adam Aircraft on the map like Rick did and get the 500 certified is just a phenomenal accomplishment.”

“This is an absolutely exciting time for the company,” said Wolf. “When you look at it from the whole, we’re in the process of beginning a big ramp-up on the A500, we’re in the air in terms of certification of the 700, and we know that immediately after that will be the ramp-up of another aircraft in production.”