Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Is the 'Vision' Fading or Getting Clearer?

In the daily soap opera that is today's general aviation market, one thing is certain: Here on the outside, We the People have no clue what goes on in the Board Rooms of America's large airframe makers.

For instance, we can watch endless Twitter updates and blog posts of people who THINK they know what is going on with the very fluid Cirrus Design's SF50 Vision jet program, but in reality, unless you are on the inside at Cirrus HQ in Duluth, please don't say with authority you know how to call this one.

So with that said, I must state for full disclosure that I am not affiliated with anyone in Duluth, except in my dreams where the best airplane I could imagine owning will be built. No, my total time rubbing elbows with the Cirrus elite comes down to this:
About three summers ago, I was strolling one of the back rows at EAA Airventure, probably on my way to consume another brat off Johnsonville's "World's Largest Grill". As I walked, I noticed that walking beside me as a sort of wing man was a guy wearing that year's Cirrus Design outfit, with a big ID badge telling me it was Alan Klapmeier. So I struck up a quick conversation, told him I am in awe of the wonderful flying machines his company makes, and how someday I would own one. The conversation lasted maybe two minutes, but in that time he seemed sincere in wanting to know my thoughts on the 'SR' line of airplanes he produced. I could easily see this was a man who actually cared about what this pilot thought...not as a prospective sale, but just because he bought into that age-old concept that in almost all situations, pilots treat other pilots with mutual respect regardless of class. It's just what we do.
Sure, it was only two minutes, and I have no other idea what Klapmeier is like when he's been crossed. But this I do know: When he and brother Dale first started talking about carving Cirrus Design out of the hinterlands of the cold, wet North, people said it would take drive, dedication and immense focus to succeed in building GA's first large-scale production composite piston singles. Well, we know where that drive got the Klapmeiers:
When you look back at the Cirrus sales numbers on the General Aviation Manufacturer's Association website for the last 10 years, it is easy to see this company knows how to build and sell airplanes. The highest year looks to be 2006 when GAMA says Cirrus sold 721 total planes. Nobody can dispute that is a success story without equal in today's GA marketplace. Yes, Cessna sells planes too, but they get to ride on 82 years of brand recognition. I believe the company the Klapmeiers founded is a bigger success simply because in 1984 when Alan and Dale started to produce the VK-30 aircraft, nobody had even heard of Cirrus. Today, it still brings a smile to this pilot's face each and every time I see one on a ramp, or hear any radio call from the hundreds of beautiful birds I share the sky with that have call signs ending in "Charlie Delta".
This past week however, news dropped that has set the GA community on it's behind, shaking our heads as we wonder what the hell is going on up at Cirrus HQ. You've heard it by now, but here is how AOPA reported it:
"Alan Klapmeier, chairman of the board at the Cirrus Aircraft, says he’s had a heavy travelling schedule for the past eight weeks, seeking investors to help him gain control of Cirrus’ SF50 Vision program. His goal is to raise enough capital to convince Cirrus’s majority investor, Kuwait’s Arcapita Ventures investment group, to sell him the Vision project and let him lead a separate company dedicated to manufacturing the SF50 Vision single-engine jet."
Slice that any way you wish, but in an economy where airframe manufacturers are barely surviving, this kind of big financial news about one of GA's most important programs is both shocking and chilling. Like I said, I am not even remotely affiliated with anyone at Cirrus, so the following is simply my two cents worth of speculation:
One has to assume that Klapmeier – who has been a catalyst behind the SF50 program – has seen some sort of writing on the Board Room walls, and didn't like what he read. That could have possibly been that Cirrus's other managers and financial backers were about to pull the plug on the Vision jet, and Klapmeier wasn't about to stand by and let the program die. So like he did when he and Dale first built Cirrus, he went out in search of a way to keep the program alive. This is really the only conclusion one can take, because why would he be seeking to start a completely new company and possibly re-name the jet “Aegis” if the program was going to be alive and well under the umbrella of Cirrus Design?
After the first shock and awe of this breaking news wore off, I have come to realize this is really a very good thing. I am 1000% on board with the Vision, and think it's design and performance goals are as wonderful as every other model Cirrus has developed. I am being Mr. Obvious in saying it would be a huge blow to the entire GA community to see the SF50 program go away, and we as aviators need to rally behind Klapmeier and anyone else who joins him to keep the Vision/Aagis program moving towards certification and production.

And no, sorry, I haven't got the millions Klapmeier will need to pull this off. But if I did, I can think of no single aviation executive I would rather bet on than him. I say that as a pilot who has met him for a total of two minutes, but usually that's all it takes for me to size a man up.