Daher-Socata is jointly studying plans for a new aircraft development 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 confirmed last month 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 2009.
Speculation about possible new plans for the SPn has been prompted by unofficial reports 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 and has been storing the aircraft in Tussenhausen-Mattsies.
Daher-Socata's confirmation of the joint study agreement with Allied says that it is "evaluating a 100-percent composite, twin-engine business aircraft program based on the SPn platform."
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. Though 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 2010. At the time, Socata was quietly working on various new product concepts under the program heading NTx, but had yet to confirm whether or not this would be powered by a turboprop or a turbofan engine.
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 that 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.
Conceivably, Daher-Socata has concluded that a less costly route to market would be to pick the pieces of 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 Corp. had offered to pay $3.5 million to acquire the SPn part of Grob Aerospace's assets, but this bid was rejected by insolvency administrator Dr. Michael Jaffé.
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 its Italian rival 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 it may launch what is tentatively being referred to as the P1XX. At July's Farnborough airshow, Mubadala's executive director for aerospace, Homaid Al Shemmari, said that the Abu Dhabi based group plans to have its first business jet ready for service by 2018.
A Mature Program
Even after Grob Aerospace's collapse, Olver continued to insist that the business case for the SPn was sound. While seeking ways to find new financial backers and keep the program's engineering team together in early 2009, he indicated that the program would ask Honeywell to commit to providing updated versions of the aircraft's planned Primus Apex avionics suite.
When Grob Aerospace was declared insolvent in November 2008, the aircraft had been due to complete certification by the end of that year. The company was preparing to deliver the first 35 aircraft during 2009 before increasing annual production to 48 units.
Then priced at $7.7 million, the SPn attracted more than 100 orders, including 25 placed by Alpha Flying for its U.S.-based PlaneSense fractional ownership program. Before the insolvency, Grob had intended to open a completions and delivery center for the SPn at St. Gallen-Altenrhein Airport in Switzerland in 2009. Grob also had a U.S. subsidiary based at Portsmouth, N.H., which, before being declared insolvent itself, was handling North American sales and would have eventually taken over product support.
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 fatal crash of the second prototype in 2006 delayed the program by nine months. Barely two weeks before being forced to declare provisional insolvency in August 2008, Grob had achieved the first flight of the fourth prototype aircraft and flight testing was well advanc