Joe Wilding scanned the skies over Oshkosh, Wisconsin, looking for the jet aircraft he’d helped build. Wilding and his colleagues at Adam Aircraft had de- cided just six weeks earlier to sprint and finish their plane in time for Oshkosh’s big summer air show, but now none of them knew exactly which runway their A700 would land on.
In the aviation world, the A700’s appearance would be one of the biggest surprise debuts ever. No one at the Oshkosh show, formally known as EAA AirVenture 2003, expected Adam Aircraft Industries, a Colorado startup, to arrive with its jet. The company had announced the aircraft–its second product–only a year ago. (Its first was the A500, an innovative twin-engine prop plane.)
It would be inaccurate to say that Wilding, the project engineer for the A700, would be surprised to see the A700 touch down at Oshkosh. Relieved is the better word. The plane had taken to the skies for its inaugural test flight just four days before. It had flown for a grand total of 15 hours since then, and was still a work in progress. The cabin wasn’t pressurized, so the pilots had to wear oxygen masks in the cockpit. There were no seats or carpeting in the cabin. The landing gear stayed down, since the hydraulic system to retract it hadn’t been installed yet.
Adam Aircraft’s A700 is just one entrant in a race to build the first of a new generation of small jets. Often called “light business jets” or “personal jets,” these pint-size planes hold fewer than eight passengers. They use newer, more fuel-efficient turbofan engines to slash the operating costs of the current generation of gas-guzzling private planes. And the sticker price is half what you’d shell out for your own set of wings today–much less in some cases. The A700 is projected to cost just under $2 million; an entry-level Cessna Citation goes for about $4 million.
The company that produces the first reliable personal jet could find itself at the forefront of a new industry. A cheaper jet won’t end up in suburban garages, but it will allow more business travelers to use private planes the same way they use car services or cabs today and make it possible for more mid-size companies to operate their own fleets. “The first generation of passenger planes, like the Boeing 707, were like mainframe computers,” says Rick Adam, the chief executive at Adam Aircraft. “You fly on the airline’s terms, and their timetables. We’re going to be like PCs compared to the big jets.”
But Adam is competing with a half-dozen other hungry young companies, including Eclipse Aviation and Safire Aircraft, as well as established players like Cessna, to address the demand for personal jets. Even Honda has announced plans to build its own prototype personal jet–the Civic of the skies.
And so the race is on. One hundred years after the Wright Brothers first took flight at Kitty Hawk, few things remain more challenging–or dangerous–than building a plane from scratch and getting the Federal Aviation Administration to approve it for sale to the public. In January, a Florida company designing its own personal jet lost its chief test pilot in a crash caused, regulators say, by a landing-gear malfunction. Pieces of the plane were found in trees near the airport, 35 feet above the ground.
Now, on this last day of July, the test pilots flying the A700 had called from the airport at Waterloo, Iowa, during a refueling stop on their way to Oshkosh. But Joe Wilding would have been happier once the plane was on the ground in Wisconsin. He clutched a pair of binoculars and listened to a handheld scanner that was tuned in to the control tower’s frequency.
June 19, 2003
At a banquet dinner at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Rick Adam had batted the idea around with a few of his employees: What if they tried to finish the A700 in time for a cameo at the air show at Oshkosh?
The young company, founded in 1998 while Adam was still running his previous startup, had already built its unique-looking twin-engine prop plane, the A500. But that twin-tailed plane, which seats six and is made of lightweight carbon composite materials, was still wending its way through the FAA certification process.
Adam felt good about the company’s momentum. Earlier in his career, he had been chief information officer at Goldman Sachs. He then went on to start New Era of Networks, a software company. He took that company public, selling it to Sybase, a more established business software maker in the Bay Area.
More relevant to the aviation industry, as a captain in the U.S. Air Force, he’d worked on the mission-control computers for Apollo lunar missions 8 through 14. Adam kept his pilot’s license current, and as chief executive of New Era of Networks, he often flew himself between Denver and New York on a Cessna CJ1, the low-end Citation Jet, and a Citation VII.
One hundred years after Kitty Hawk, few things are as challenging–or as dangerous–as building a new plane from scratch.
He started Adam Aircraft because he didn’t see much innovation happening in the world of private aircraft. “There weren’t new products being built,” he says. The last all-new twin-engine prop plane to win FAA certification was the Piper Seneca in 1971, Adam points out. The company’s initial funding came out of Adam’s own bank account, followed by an investment from GS Capital Partners LP, a private equity fund managed by Goldman Sachs, Adam’s old employer.
Adam decided that his new company would first build a twin-engine plane with a target price of $900,000. It features a prop on its nose and another, pointing backward, at the rear of the fuselage. Since both props are centered, the plane is easier to control if one engine fails. The A500 also has a “twin-boom” tail, which makes room for the rear prop and gives the plane a distinctively futuristic look.
But Adam believed that the market for twin-engine props was much smaller than the potential market for personal jets. And he’d made sure that his A500 was designed so that, with the right turbofan engines, it could easily be upgraded to a jet.
When Adam returned to the office the next day, on June 20, he called a meeting. “There were about 10 of us,” recalls Dennis Olcott, Adam’s vice president of design engineering. “The question was, Is it feasible to get the A700 flying in time for Oshkosh? What would it take? Would it be a distraction from getting the A500 certified?”
The conceptual design for the A700, owing much to its predecessor, had been completed earlier in the year, and in the spring, the team had started building a few random parts for the new plane. But the only pieces that were done by June, says Olcott, were “a lot of a wing, most of the pieces for the tail, the landing gear, and one-half of the fuselage shell.” By Wilding’s estimate, only about 15% of the plane’s exterior was finished.
The group decided to give the A700 a green light, and work started immediately. The plane would look like an elongated version of the A500, with twin turbofans on the back of the fuselage, instead of at the front and back of the cabin.
The team was able to move fast because they did almost everything in-house. The engineers and the quality assurance manager sit in one big room at headquarters, with Rick Adam in the middle. In addition, the A700 shared the vast majority of its components–more than 80%–with its predecessor. The manufacturing department already had experience assembling those parts on the three A500s they’d already put together.
The carbon composite construction would make the A700 lighter than jets made from aluminum, but more important, Olcott says, it let the team work faster. “We can build up our own tools [for making exterior panels] extremely fast, and change them quickly,” he says. “Our process takes a week and a half to build a tool. Aluminum tooling is bigger and heavier, and it can take months to have it made. You also wind up with more parts, which have to be riveted together, which takes a long time.”
As a material, carbon fiber costs more than aluminum. But Wilding says it reduces labor costs, which will help the company sell its jet for less than $2 million. The company also keeps a lid on costs by operating with fewer employees than established plane makers, which has the added advantage of limiting bureaucracy. “Keep it simple is the philosophy that permeates this place,” says Wilding. “We like things efficient, whether it’s a system on the plane or a process in the hangar.”
The streamlined process also meant the plane was a vivid presence for the team. “There was visible progress every day, and it was just incredible,” Olcott says. “Parts would be glued together, or the plane would be painted, or the engines put on. One day it was standing on its own landing gear.”
“Everybody in the whole company knew what our goal was, and everyone chipped in,” says Wilding. In the engineering department, there’s a large window that overlooks the shop floor. “We could see in an instant what the status was. The airplane itself became the motivator.”
A month after the initial A700 meeting, Glenn Maben, the company’s chief test pilot and director of flight test operations, cranked up the plane’s engines for the first time. Then he began conducting slow-speed taxi tests, steering the jet around the periphery of Centennial Airport in Englewood, the Denver suburb where Adam Aircraft is based.
“We’d never built an airplane that fast before,” says Wilding. “I don’t know if anybody’s built an airplane that fast before.”
July 27, 2003
Maben had been conducting tests of the A700 on the ground, gradually barreling down the runway at higher and higher speeds. But he’d always stopped at the end of the airstrip. He was getting a feel for the engines, the brakes, and the flight controls.
The A700 team knew that the first flight could take place at any time, but it’s up to the pilot to determine when he and the plane are ready for it. On one of his high-speed runs, at around 2 p.m., instead of slowing to a stop, Maben pulled back on the control stick and lifted the A700 into a smooth takeoff. He climbed up to 15,000 feet and stayed aloft for just under an hour. A few minutes later, Maben called Wilding from the cockpit on a cell phone. “Congratulations, you’re a dad,” Maben said. “The thing is perfect. It’s the best airplane we’ve built.”
But there was a snafu: The plane’s two electrical generators quit during the first flight. It posed no threat to Maben and Bruce Barrett, the other test pilot, since all the plane’s systems were mechanical at this stage and didn’t require power. (Eventually, the A700 will feature a full-color digital display in the cockpit.) “The effect is that the engines are not generating electrical power to recharge your batteries,” explains Olcott. It’s a similar problem to having a broken alternator in your car.
It took most of the next morning to figure out the glitch and devise a temporary fix. The plane was ready to fly again Monday afternoon, but at that point a hailstorm loomed near the airport. The FAA had told the company that the A700 needed a total of 15 hours airborne before it could go “cross-country” to Oshkosh. After the weather had cleared, the test pilots took the plane up four times on Tuesday–the air show’s opening day–and four times on Wednesday. Maben and Barrett took off for Oshkosh on Thursday morning.
July 31, 2003
Joe Wilding left Colorado for the Oshkosh air show before the first flight on Sunday, so he had yet to see the A700 in the air. AirVenture, organized by the Experimental Aircraft Association, attracts more than 750,000 attendees each summer. Rick Adam describes it as the Comdex of aviation, referring to the big high-tech show held each November in Las Vegas. But it also feels like a flier’s version of Woodstock, with pilots in tents beneath the wings of their aircraft. “There are four major air shows in the U.S.,” Adam says. “But the biggest by a lot is Oshkosh. If you have a new product, you want to introduce it there.”
Wilding learned that the A700 would come in on Runway 27, one of Oshkosh’s secondary runways. He and the crew from Adam craned their heads toward that airstrip, and squinted for a sign of the plane coming in from Iowa. “We were all hoping that the plane would be allowed to do a flyby of the air show,” Wilding says. “We wanted it to do a low pass, so all of Oshkosh could see it.” But the request had been denied; the airspace was too busy with arrivals and departures.
Finally, Wilding spotted the A700. “You could barely see it,” he says. “But I could recognize it was our plane from the shape of the tail.” As the A700 descended toward the runway, Wilding and the others listened intently on their scanner to the conversation between the control tower and Maben in the cockpit. When the jet was only about 660 feet above the ground, the controller told Maben that there was another airplane on the runway. Maben was instructed to abort the landing. He had to pull up, and then fly a big rectangle pattern at low altitude over the entire air show to line up the plane for a second landing attempt. By happenstance, the A700 had been granted a star turn above Oshkosh.
When its wheels met the runway, the welcoming party broke into cheers and applause.
Marion Blakey, the FAA’s top administrator, happened to be visiting the show that Thursday, and she was ferried over in a golf cart to congratulate the Adam Aircraft team. The plane was towed over to Adam Aircraft’s vendor booth, where it sat for the rest of the AirVenture show. “I couldn’t believe how many people came to the booth and said, ‘That’s a nice mock-up you have,’ ” Wilding says. “They wouldn’t believe we flew it there from Colorado.” Eclipse’s personal jet, which underwent its first test flight almost a year before the A700, didn’t make it to the show because of a malfunction.
The A700’s presence “so surprised Oshkosh crowds,” according to the aviation Web site AVweb.com, “that Adam put a sign on the nose asserting that, yes, the airplane really did fly to the show from Denver.”
September 2, 2003
When the A700 returned from Wisconsin, the work pace slowed a bit, but not much. The hydraulic system was installed to raise and lower the landing gear. The cabin interior began to take shape. The engineers, including Wilding, went for their first rides in the plane they’d built–strictly to measure temperature and vibration on the airframe, of course.
Maben and the other three test pilots were logging more hours on the A700, checking the plane at slow speeds to see at what point it would stall out, and, as Maben puts it with “right stuff” understatement, “getting the speed envelope opened up even more, opening up the G envelope.”
The team would treat the first A700 as a kind of airborne proof-of-concept, using it to make small adjustments to the design before they begin building planes for customers.
But for all the bravado and triumph of the A700’s unexpected descent on the Oshkosh air show, some industry watchers doubt that will ever happen. “I’ve seen an endless string of great designs for personal jets since the 1980s,” says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group in Virginia. None has made it to completion. “Building jet aircraft is a business that’s biased against newcomers,” Aboulafia explains. “I think the incumbent player will win, unless someone else pulls off a near miracle.”
The incumbent player is Cessna. Incorporated in 1927, it’s working on a personal jet called the Mustang. It’ll cost $2.3 million, but it won’t reach the market until at least 2006. Aboulafia also questions whether the availability of a cheaper jet will spur large numbers of new jet purchases, though he does agree that some owners of turboprop planes will decide to upgrade.
Rick Adam remains confident. “We’ll be [FAA] certified in the second half of next year, and delivering jets toward the end,” he says. “The other guys, Cessna and Eclipse, have helped us by creating demand, and they’ve taken hundreds of deposits between them. Everyone agrees there’s a market there. If our plane gets certified first, we get to fill the demand that Cessna and Eclipse created.”
Around the time that the A700 heads into the plodding, detail-oriented certification stage, the engineers at Adam Aircraft will be itching to start work on another project. “We know what we’re going to do next,” says Dennis Olcott. “We’ve got some easy projects in mind, and some hard ones. We don’t want to just turn into a production house. We want to keep innovating. A year from now, we’ll have another model flying.”
But for now, Adam Aircraft prefers to keep it a surprise. nFC
Contributing editor Scott Kirsner (email@example.com) writes about technology from Boston.