By Harlis Brend
During a recent Porsche Aircraft Experience at Van Nuys Airport, Alan Klapmeier, co-founder of Cirrus Design Corporation and recipient of the 2006 Living Legends of Aviation Entrepreneur of the Year Award, took time to sit down with attendees and discuss his views on aviation today.
He began with some history of Cirrus Design. According to Klapmeier, it all began in 1979 with the design of the VK-30 high-performance airplane kit. The VK-30 used a lot of new technology, based on some work that they—Alan and brother Dale—had done with NASA on laminar flow. During his senior year in college, he would daydream about airplanes instead of paying attention in accounting class. Aviation has always been a part of his life, a part of his imagination that began to crystallize even more when he learned to fly in 1975.
Cirrus Design has been around for a long time, officially materializing as a company in about 1984. The company progressed through the early days to produce the SR-20, the SR-22 and now the Vision Jet. “The beginning was the same as where we are today,” he said. “How could we combine new technology to come up with a product that would entice new people into the market? How could we make it comfortable, high-performing and, most importantly, how could we make it a good value, easy to fly and something that people want?”
“I have this very strong belief that most people want to fly,” he continued. “I will sometimes tease people and say it this way: It’s in our DNA to want to fly. There’s a very small group of people that have a birth defect and don’t want to fly, but 98% of the population really do. And since most people do want to fly, we have to overcome their objections, we have to show them why they would enjoy it, how it would change their lives. Almost everybody wants to fly, but it’s buried. They don’t know they want to fly.”
In his definition, flying ranges from an ultralight on a nice calm evening at sunset to float planes, antiques and warbirds. He said, “Sport flying to me is going from Point A to Point A, with all the fun in between. Other people fly for recreation, going from point A to point B, and they love flying, but they also love getting there!”
He finds it disappointing that general aviation hasn’t grown more. “It has so much value, it’s so much fun, has so many benefits,” he said.
According to Klapmeier, the problem starts with misconceptions such as:
1. “It’s hard to fly.” Part of it is our fault. We, as pilots, like to tell people that we’re “supermen” as opposed to, “Gee, anybody can do it.” “Think about it,”he said. “I learned to fly in high school. I soloed in a Cessna C-172 in 14 hours. Flying isn’t difficult. It requires decision making—it requires responsibility.”
2. “It’s dangerous.” You certainly can get hurt, the same as you can in many other ways, including driving a car. You can learn to be a safe pilot, to be careful.
3. “Flying is expensive.” “Consider golf,” he said. “I tease my golfing friends that the reason I don’t golf is because it’s too expensive. It’s really just a choice of how you want to use your disposable income.”
The first airplane that Klapmeier and his brother Dale owned (a 1940 Cessna 140) cost them $5,000. He remembers showing up at college and people saying, “He has an airplane!” His share of the airplane cost less than their car! It was a choice. “We chose to put a little money into an airplane,” he said, “but obviously, it can be very expensive.”
He continued, “Airplanes are good for the economy. Airplanes are fun—it’s a great lifestyle, and airplanes can really change your life forever. We see that with the Cirrus airplane customers. Once they have owned and operated the Cirrus, it has expanded their horizons to the point where they can’t go back. It’s changed their life. We expect the same thing to happen with our jet. Like the SR-20 and SR-22, it’s designed to be easy to fly. I joke about it being easy enough for me to fly! By increasing the level of performance, capability and range, you take what we can do with piston planes and expand it out to a larger audience. That is what we are trying to do—make flying easier and more valuable, making it so people will fly more.”
More flying leads to a question. If more people fly, do we have the air space to support it? Do we have the capacity in the system?
Klapmeier thinks so. “The answer is, ‘Absolutely!’ We do not have an air space problem. We have plenty of volume. What we do have is an air space design issue. We need to learn to use the air space more efficiently. We have the technology to design the system so we can get more airplanes in the air. The FAA is working on what they call the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). Nothing about this plan is undoable. It just takes the political will to get on with it!”
NextGen will allow more precise positioning of airborne planes and provide the ability to communicate that position with everyone, shrinking the separation requirements. The system will be simplified while providing better information thanks to the development of new airplanes and advanced air traffic control.
“We now have data link in the cockpit. We know where the weather is, a huge change from 10 years ago. The pilot’s job now is to be a decision maker. More information is available than in the past. Sometimes people will ask me if I ever worry about getting lost. I say, ‘Yes, but not in an airplane.'”
He addressed another important issue for aviation—noise. He said, “One of the threats we face is the closing of airports, and one of the biggest reasons they close is because neighbors don’t like the noise. So, we constantly have to think about making airplanes quieter. As we address the noise issue, we have to look at the airport design and aircraft operation. Our role as aircraft manufacturers is to think about aircraft design. The engine is mounted on the top of the Cirrus Vision Jet, so the noise is reflected between the V-tail surfaces, and as a turbo fan it is very quiet. The Vision Jet is in flight test now and is very quiet on takeoff.”
In conclusion, Klapmeier said, “Growing up with a passion for aviation as I did, flying is like breathing. I can’t imagine not being able to fly. Flying is my life. What flying opens up is a completely different perspective on the world, on distance, on time. It really is a time machine. Most of the time when we talk about aviation, we talk about the thrill of flying and how we love aviation, what we get out of it.”
But we also need to remember the economic benefit—airplanes are essential to the economy. “They create jobs, they create economic activity. Everybody gets something out of aviation,” he said. “The productivity provided by airplanes really does drive the economy; it touches everyone, it creates part of the economic engine that keeps people employed.”
On June 25, 2009, about 150 planes carrying Cirrus owners and pilots converged on Duluth for its annual convention. The manufacturer is being besieged on several fronts—several wrongful death lawsuits, recession and shifts in internal control of the company.
Alan Klapmeier is seeking investors to acquire the rights to purchase the single-engine Vision Jet. He has formed a team to raise money, which he has been very successful at doing in the past. The company’s majority owner is Arcapita Bank, the American arm of the First Islamic Investment Bank of Bahrain, which owns 58%.
Vision Jet is in the preliminary stages of develolpment, but the goal is to get production moving forward to fulfill the more than 500 jet orders already placed. Although still moving forward, production has slowed. Alan Klapmeier stepped down as chief executive officer of Cirrus Design in February 2009, but he remains chairman of the board, giving him less responsibility in the day-to-day management and more opportunities to raise money and move his Vision project forward.