Chinese Firm Acquires Epic’s Assets
Composite aircraft builder Epic’s plan for three new turboprop and two light jet models collapsed when the Bend, Ore.-based company filed for bankruptcy last year, stranding 12 of its builder-assisted, single-engine turboprop LT kitplanes on the assembly line.
On March 26 of this year a bankruptcy court accepted an all-cash $4.3 million bid from China Aviation Industry General Aircraft, a recently formed government-owned subsidiary of the giant Aviation Industries of China (AVIC), for Epic’s assets, rejecting a competing bid from a group of seven LT kit owners called the LT Builders Group. China Aviation announced its intention to build the former Epic aircraft models in China.
However, in April the court ordered China Aviation to form a partnership with the LT Builder’s Group, allowing it to operate the Bend plant, complete aircraft already in production and to market former Epic kit aircraft in North America.
Don King, CEO of the LT Builder’s Group, said that LT kits were back in production by July and that five former Epic employees had been hired to assist kitbuilders and to make and sell parts for the existing fleet of LT aircraft. He also said the company worked extensively with the FAA to ensure that it was in compliance with all regulations governing amateur-built aircraft and estimated that the cost of constructing a well-equipped LT was now $1.9 million.
Conceivably, China Aviation could begin building an 80-percent-scale version of the LT that Epic had developed. Called the Escape, this aircraft is virtually identical to the Epic-built prototype of the Farnborough Aircraft Kestrel. That aircraft first flew in 2006. Plans for Epic to produce the aircraft for Farnborough collapsed and Farnborough filed for bankruptcy in September 2008 after failing to attract sufficient investment capital. A new ownership group took over the company in 2009, but then business director Adrian Norris acknowledged that the company needed to attract additional capital, and possibly form a partnership with another manufacturer, before it could bring the aircraft to market.
Enter Alan Klapmeier. The cofounder and former chairman of Cirrus Design made news last year when his bid to take over that company’s fledgling single-engine jet program, the SF50 Vision, failed. He subsequently entered into discussions with Norris and Farnborough’s Anthony Galley regarding the Kestrel.
In July it was announced that Klapmeier would head the new Kestrel Aircraft Company, to be headquartered at the soon-to-be shuttered naval air station at Brunswick Landing, Maine. Kestrel entered into a lease option with the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority for Hangar 6, a 170,000-sq-ft aviation maintenance facility built in 2004.
The repackaged Kestrel venture still needs to raise substantial additional capital to get off the ground and qualify for the attractive incentives provided by Maine governments, according to Klapmeier. “We have a lot of money we need to come up with,” he said, estimating that number at approximately $100 million.
However, while he declined to provide an exact amount, Klapmeier said the new company has already raised some of that capital and he expressed confidence that it could attract the remainder, in part because of what he characterized as the Kestrel’s inherent advantages over the competition. Chief among those was a flying aircraft backed by $20 million to $30 million already invested in its engineering.
“A huge amount of design work has already been done with an eye toward certification,” giving the Kestrel a big advantage over any clean-sheet design, he said. “We are going to be editing the design, not starting over.”
Part of that editing will be a redesign of the wing, to make it easier to manufacture, a slightly bigger cabin with larger windows and a less powerful engine than the 1,200-shp PT-6 currently in the nose.
Projected range with five passengers is 1,324 nm. While Kestrel declined to set a price for the 350-knot, six- to eight-passenger aircraft, Klapmeier said he hoped it would be less than a TBM850 that sells for approximately $3.2 million. He said the company’s goal is to sell 35 to 50 aircraft per year in what he called a “niche market.”
While acknowledging that the Chinese could make a similar product with lower labor costs in light of their acquisition of Epic’s designs, Klapmeier said, “I am confident in our ability to design the better airplane.”
Here Comes India
China is not the only country looking at developing turboprops, either indigenously or by acquiring designs. India, with its high population density, scarce airport resources and underserved rural populations, seems a natural for turboprops.
During the last three decades, India’s attempt to develop a homegrown business class turboprop, the twin-pusher NAL (National Aerospace Laboratories) Saras, has been fraught with problems and delays.
Designed with input from Russia’s Myasishchev, which later pulled out of the project, the first prototype flew in 2004. The second flew in 2008 and crashed last year during an engine relight test, killing the crew. In the days that followed the crash, NAL put a brave spin on the program, insisting that the aircraft would be certified this year.
“The Saras project will continue; we will not shelve it,” said SK Brahmachari, director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force reaffirmed its order for 15 of the $9 million aircraft.
That was before India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued its scathing crash investigation report earlier this year. The DGCA blasted both NAL and the Indian Air Force’s Aircraft System and Testing Establishment, which flew the flight tests, for conducting a shoddy program with lax controls, poor procedures and an overall lack of accountability.
It faulted NAL for subcontracting and inadequately monitoring almost all of the Saras’s development and flight-test analysis to a company called Aircraft Design and Engineering Services in Bangalore and for using unapproved propellers on the crash aircraft.
The report also noted the crew’s negative remarks about aircraft controllability with regard to excessive control surface drag and faulted the crew for poor coordination, inadequate cockpit procedures and an overall lack of professionalism.
After six years of flight tests, the Indian firm has called the Russians back in to help fix the aircraft’s design and stay with the program through certification, which seems unlikely this year. However, when it does happen, production is expected to be transferred to HAL-Kanpur, the same facility making the components under contract for the revived Dornier Do-228-212-NG.
NAL, meanwhile, is continuing with preliminary development of a 70-seat commuter turboprop called the RTA-70, which it expects to best the ATR 72. Preliminary goals call for an aircraft that costs at least 25 percent less to acquire and operate, with a range of 1,100 nm and the ability to cruise at 300 knots at 30,000 feet and use 3,000-foot runways. Plans are for the aircraft to possibly be fashioned from composites, have fly-by-wire controls and be powered by next-generation engines.
Private Indian companies are also getting in the game. Late last year the Mahindra Group, a $7 billion-a-year industrial and IT conglomerate based in Mumbai, bought a controlling stake in Australia’s Gippsland Aerospace with an eye to kick-starting the single-engine GA10 Airvan, and later fielding an improved version of the venerable twin-engine Nomad to be badged the GA18. The aircraft are expected to sell for $1.3 million and $3.3 million, respectively. Gippsland Aeronautics acquired the type certificate for the twin-engine Nomad in 2008.
The GA10 is expected to be a stretched, eight- to 10-passenger version of the piston-engine GA8. Power for the GA10 single and GA18 twin will come from Rolls-Royce series 250 engines with upgrade paths anticipated to the RR500 when it becomes available.
Certification of the GA10 is expected in 2012 and the first fuselage already is built. Mahindra expects to invest $37 million in Gippsland and could eventually move production to Mallur, India, where it already has an aviation facility, having long been a supplier of engineering services and structural components to OEMs including Airbus and Hawker Beechcraft. Immediate plans call for the plant to be used to produce subcontracted structures and the N5, a light five-seat aircraft Mahindra is developing with NAL.
The German Phoenix
Three moribund German designs, two from Dornier and one from Extra, are poised for renewed production.
The twin Honeywell TPE 331-10-powered Dornier Do-228-212-NG is once again in production, with India’s Hindustan Aeronautics making structural components including the fuselage, wing and vertical stabilizer. Those are then shipped to Ruag’s plant in Oberpfaffenhofen for aircraft final assembly.
More than 150 older-generation 228s remain in service worldwide from a production run that spanned 1982 to 2002. HAL built and sold 80 of those under license. The NG is a revised design with a new five-blade composite propellers, glass-panel avionics and more comfortable seats. The aircraft can be configured to seat up to 19 passengers. Ruag has orders for the aircraft from customers in Australia, Mexico and Japan.
On August 18, EASA granted Ruag extended type certificate approval for the aircraft. One month later, Ruag handed over the first NG to New Central Airservice of Japan, intended to connect Tokyo to offshore islands, with entry into service set for October 10. Ruag also announced that it is building a special-mission variant of the aircraft for the German Navy, which will use it for pollution detection in the North and Baltic seas. The 228NG “Special Mission” will be equipped with side-looking airborne radar, color line and IR/UV line scanners and an electro-optical sensor.
Another design with German roots, the Dornier Seastar CD-2, is one step closer to entering production now that the company has finalized a production site. The Dornier Seaplane Company will be setting up shop in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, chosen for its proximity to Lake Champlain and a government incentive package. Construction on the plant should be completed late next year for customer deliveries to start in 2012. The company currently holds letters of intent for more than 25 copies of the $6 million twin-engine, push-pull amphibian.
The 180-knot, all-composite amphibian was designed in the 1980s and was FAA certified under Part 23 in the early 1990s at a cost of almost $150 million, underwritten by the Dornier family.
The Dorniers formed the Dornier Seaplane Co. and installed U.S. business jet industry veteran Joe Walker to run it. Walker sees a potential market for as many as 300 to 500 aircraft over the next decade. He said the flying boat’s cabin is 50 percent larger than that of a Cessna Caravan 675.
Power for the 10,000-pound Seastar comes from a pair of 650-shp P&WC PT6A-135s. Interiors for the unpressurized cabin range from an opulent six-seat executive layout to a 12-seat high-density configuration.
Like the 228NG and the Seastar, the Extra EA500 is already certified. The brainchild of German aerobatics aircraft guru Walter Extra, the 500 was poised to be a Piper Meridian killer, but the strain of developing the aircraft threw the company into insolvency in 2003 and the program languished. Now the company’s new owner, Ken Keith, has begun selling the $1.65 million, Rolls-Royce 250-B17F/2-powered, single-engine turboprop.
Plans announced this summer called for the aircraft structural components to continue to be produced at the Extra factory in Dinslaken, Germany, but with final assembly to take place at a new facility to be built in Montrose, Colo. In late September, those plans apparently hit a snag over how much of a proposed $2.6 million government incentive package can actually be provided.
Errol Bader, Extra vice president of business development, told AIN that the Montrose snag would not delay the company’s plan to deliver its first U.S. customer aircraft by year-end. “That airplane will be completed in Germany now,” he said. Bader said the Montrose impasse had delayed Extra’s production plans, that other communities are interested in hosting the plant and that “at some point, you have to move on.”
The company has firm orders for five copies of the six-seat, 226-knot (at 25,000 feet) aircraft from U.S. buyers, according to Bader. As with the Gippsland aircraft, Bader said he expects Rolls-Royce to offer an RR500 upgrade for the Extra 500 when it becomes available. He said he expects the aircraft’s 19-gph fuel economy to win it additional orders.
Waiting for the Dough
The global recession has placed developers of “clean-sheet” designs at a financial disadvantage when it comes to raising capital and completing certification.
Comp Air never saw the anticipated $150 million required to develop and certify the CA-12 single-engine turboprop and finance a proposed new facility in Melbourne, Fla. The company had hoped to have the $2.95 million single certified by 2012, but a spokesman told AIN that a single flying nonconforming prototype had been retired and that, for now, the project is shelved.
That aircraft first flew in 2007, but plans called for significant changes to the production aircraft including a 42-inch fuselage stretch. He said the company has returned to its core competency of kit building and is also developing a smaller, faster version of the CA-12 for that market called the CA-11, and recently sold several of its high-wing CA-9 kits into Brazil.
There are several other apparent casualties of this financial entropy. For the last seven years, Evektor has been working on its new-design twin, the EV-55 Outback, and late last year conducted successful ground power tests of the high-wing turboprop. The company said the aircraft would make its first flight sometime later this year. The Czech Republic company best known for its single-engine light sport aircraft unveiled hopes to position the new turboprop to compete against the Cessna 208, but without a significant financial infusion, this appears unlikely.
A variety of proposed amphibians also linger in this financial limbo. Two remakes of classic Grumman designs–the Goose and the Albatross–are in various stages of development and also await additional funding, as does the Russian Beriev Be-112. The once much-discussed Freight Feeder FF5000 cargo container twin turboprop appears moribund.
Privateer Industries is currently constructing a prototype of an all-composite, single- engine amphibian powered by a single GE M601 with a shrouded propeller and aiming for a first flight next year. The company says the aircraft will cruise at 215 knots and have a range of 1,000 nm with its seven seats full.
Company principal Frank Leventhal said the company has enough money to fund the aircraft through its first flight but then will have to raise $200 million to get it certified and start production. Leventhal said the company is angling to partner with an established OEM. Failing that, he said Privateer would “fund it on our own.”
Projects Under Wraps
Ambiguity and secrecy cloak some other long-discussed projects. The fate of the long-anticipated follow-on aircraft to the TBM850, code named NTx, is unknown following Daher-Socata’s announcement that it is studying plans to resurrect the former Grob SPn twinjet program with the current owner of those assets, Allied Aviation Technologies. Grob filed for bankruptcy last year after building three prototypes.
While Pilatus Aircraft president Thomas Bosshard acknowledged that the company is studying options for a follow-on to its PC-12 turboprop single, he refused to address speculation that one of those options involves unducted fan propulsion. “We are looking at several things,” he said, adding that any announcement this year would be “premature.”
Likewise, a spokeswoman for Piper declined to comment specifically on reports that the company is contemplating a revised Meridian turboprop, possibly with winglets, insisting instead that the company is focusing all of its attention on the development of the single-engine PiperJet. She said any change to the Meridian would be a “long-range” project.
Finally, a spokeswoman for Hawker Beechcraft declined to give traction to reports that the company is developing a new turboprop single based on the fuselage of the B200 King Air, but she did not quash it either. “I do not have any information or announcements on a single-engine project.”
At NBAA this year Hawker Beechcraft announced a new variant to its popular twin B200 King Air series, the $5.799 million B250. Deliveries are scheduled to start in early 2011 for this revised model, which features composite winglets, composite propellers, and an improved ram-air recovery system. The company said the changes will produce significantly better short-field and high-hot performance that will exceed that of the Cessna Grand Caravan or the Pilatus PC-12, enabling the B250 to operate out of 2,000-foot runways and maintain 300-knot cruise speed.
For now, most established OEMs appear to be keeping their powder dry with regard to new turboprop projects as the air of general economic nervousness has not abated. “Turboprops are doing remarkably well,” said Pilatus’s Bosshard, “but I would be cautious on 2011.”