Spectrum’s all-composite S-40 due to fly for the first time next year

NBAA Convention News » 2008
September 30, 2008, 7:27 AM

Although Spectrum Aeronautical has decided to skip this year’s NBAA Convention, the all-composite S-40 Freedom midsize twinjet will still fly next year, according to company president Austin Blue.

The $6.2 million (2006 $) S-40 will be powered by a pair of GE Honda HF120 turbofans. The engine is expected to be certified next year as well. “We’re keeping track of the GE Honda engine development rather closely,” said Blue.

Spectrum anticipates S-40 certification sometime late next year or early 2010. Blue said that he expects the S-40 to compete with the Cessna Citation XLS and the Bombardier Learjet 60XR.

He said that the engine, in concert with the Spectrum’s lightweight airframe, will reduce the S-40’s fuel burn by “40 percent or more” compared with competitive aircraft. Spectrum has signed a cross-licensing agreement with GE that covers the company’s proprietary FibeX carbon-fiber technology. FibeX embeds fibers in the carbon material to provide stiffness and support, as opposed to the traditional and heavier honeycomb layer used in other composite construction techniques.

Spectrum unveiled the S-40’s design at NBAA 2006 and has spent the last two years refining it. “There are no significant visible changes to the aircraft,” Blue told NBAA Convention News. “Wind-tunnel testing has confirmed that the aerodynamics are sound. We’ve widened the vertical tail a little bit to improve airflow over the rudder; [but] that’s about it.”

Over the last year Spectrum has been immersed in “technical development” of the airplane, according to Blue. Those activities have included tool building, sub-element static testing, material qualification, detailed design, and vendor and component selection. Spectrum also has fabricated and tested large aircraft structures, although Blue stressed that these were not flight articles. Spectrum intends to build flight articles later this year. “We’re making good progress and building the tools for those now,” he said. “Our focus remains on developing composite structures and we are making really good progress there.”

Spectrum also is “re-working” the cockpit and the cabin of the S-40, Blue said. At last year’s NBAA Convention, Spectrum unveiled a rough mockup of the S-40 cabin that featured single executive seats and a side-facing divan reminiscent of those found in a Learjet 60. Blue hinted that the refined cabin design might eliminate the divan in favor of more single executive seats.

Work on integrating the Honeywell Apex digital avionics system into the S-40’s cockpit continues as well.

Staffing has remained constant through most of the year at 150 employees at Spectrum’s Spanish Fork, Utah plant.

“We will break ground on our production campus toward the end of this year or the beginning of next,” Blue said. “It’s part of treading that fine line of right-sizing things and planning things ahead, but not too early.” He said the company already has sufficient capacity to build all required flight-test articles and prototypes.

Spectrum currently shares facilities with its Rocky Mountain Composites (RMC) subsidiary and recently completed construction of an 80,000-sq-ft building devoted to aircraft development. Its production campus will be co-located on an adjacent 73-acre parcel. In addition to supporting Spectrum, RMC fabricates composite parts for a variety of other aircraft companies for manned and unmanned and civilian and military aircraft, including the General Atomics Predator B attack/surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle. Blue’s father, Linden Blue, serves as co-chairman of General Atomics, a diversified energy and defense contractor, and is also chairman of Spectrum.

Decade of ‘Idea Churn’

That outside work not only has helped RMC refine its technology and production processes but also provides a steady stream of revenue Blue views as essential to the orderly and successful development of Spectrum aircraft. “Before this airplane really took shape, there was a decade of idea churn, small-scale experiments and the manufacture of subcomponents that got us to where we are today. You can’t do that unless you have other sources of income,” he said.

Over the last several months, Spectrum announced two large fleet orders, from Jet Pool and Starfish, although it would not provide the exact number of aircraft or the amount of money involved in those deals.

“Starfish is interesting and a very good partner for us,” said Blue. Northbrook, Ill.-based Starfish was founded by North America Jet Charter CEO Ken Ross. That company currently operates a mixed fleet that includes Eclipse 500s. Ross did not return phone calls seeking specifics about Starfish’s Spectrum order, and Blue, in keeping with company policy, declined to reveal the details of that or any other order. However, he did say that about half of the orders placed to date were from individuals, while the remainder represented fleet activity. “It’s a very diversified order book,” he said.

Blue also insisted that all orders are backed by “substantial” deposits. “We don’t take orders any other way,” he said. While Blue declined to disclose the exact number of aircraft on order, he did reiterate comments made by Linden Blue, who has said the first three years of production are sold out. Austin Blue said that Spectrum still planned to build “30 to 40” aircraft during its first full year of production. “The demand is not going to be the limiting factor the first few years. It is going to be our production capacity and we will have to ramp up the learning curve over the next few years,” he said.

“Orders are pretty steady. That has been a pleasant surprise over the last few months. We’re getting a tailwind from the fuel markets. I like the way we are positioned in that regard. This is a good time to be selling a fuel-efficient airplane,” he said.

Blue said that Spectrum remains committed to developing a smaller follow-on aircraft–the S-33. Last year the company announced that it was altering its original production schedule. Initially it planned to certify its $3.65 million S-33 this year, with the larger S-40 to follow. However, the crash of the misrigged S-33 prototype in July 2006, coupled with a change in focus on developing the larger S-40 first, led to a redesigned business strategy. “There was a strong business case for developing the S-40 first,” said Spectrum executive vice president Mark Jones.

Blue said Spectrum has “about an equal” number of orders for S-33s and S-40s. “We’re still plugging away and we are pretty happy with the way things are going.  It takes an enormous amount of work to develop a new airplane. It’s awe-inspiring.”  

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