At a time when very light jets are all the rage, turboprops might seem “old school” or out of step with the times. After all, the new VLJs will fly higher and faster for the same or less money.
Well, not exactly. Regular readers of Pilot Journal may recall that we flew the homebuilt Epic LT turboprop out of Las Vegas a few years ago, and even in those early days before the first VLJ had flown, the big turboprop showed all the signs of competing with the VLJs head-to-head in practically every area.
Rick Schrameck, CEO of Epic Air in Bend, Ore., believes his homebuilt airplane will nearly match the performance of most VLJs, and the price for both acquisition and operation will be considerably lower. The trouble with a homebuilt is that you do have to build it. As much as we may love the performance and concept of a homebuilt over a production airplane, most of us don’t have the time, the talent or the inclination to construct one, especially a sophisticated, pressurized six-seat jetprop.
In fact, the folks at Epic have turned that perceived downside on its head. Epic Air is in the process of certifying a version of the 1,200 shp Epic LT homebuilt, and the company may actually benefit from its shared experience with the homebuilt. “We’re doing something that’s relatively new in aviation,” says Schrameck. “We’re using the homebuilt program to help verify the market and the engineering on the production Dynasty certification effort. We’re benefiting from the experience of the homebuilders in our development program on the certified airplane. By using the feedback we receive from those homebuilt customers, we may be able to shortstop problems in the certification program, and that translates directly to savings of both time and money. We’re also using revenue from the homebuilt program to help fund the Dynasty production airplane.”
In this case, “we” refers to three aggressive entrepreneurs who’ve made their fortunes in various aspects of high-tech industries. Rick Schrameck has earned his money primarily in the computer and communications business. For the last 20 years, Schrameck has rescued and managed companies in trouble. He’s also an expert on auto emissions and standards and aircraft turbocharging. Mike Shealy is general manager of Intel’s Integrated Access Division, another product of the high-tech world, and has been a CEO and senior vice president of several major computer and technology companies. Jeff Sanders has started and sold 10 companies in the last 20 years and is now involved in land acquisition, primarily along the California coast. (Sanders also built and flies his own Epic LT.)
Epic operates a 100,000-square-foot facility in Bend, Ore., producing components for the Epic LT and providing builder assistance in the actual construction of the aircraft. The company currently employs 150 people at Bend, and nine Epic LT homebuilts have flown away at this writing. The backlog on the world’s most impressive experimental aircraft is nearly 30 airplanes, which means 40 pilots so far have written checks for more than $1 million dollars for an airplane they know they’ll still have to build. With a 4,000 fpm climb rate, 335-knot cruise speed and full six-seat payload, the Epic LT is probably the most exotic homebuilt ever offered. It’s also the most expensive, but that doesn’t seem to have inhibited sales.
Epic’s Dynasty certification effort is also a little different in that it’s being launched in Canada. Just as motion pictures and television productions are finding Canada to be a friendly and economical environment, aircraft manufacturers are discovering that Canada is an easy place to work. Diamond Aircraft produces all its North American products from a plant in London, Ontario. Airplanes certified under Canadian regulations are automatically approved for U.S. operation under a reciprocal agreement.
Rick Schrameck emphasizes that’s not because of a lack of trying on the FAA’s part. “They have some very talented people at the FAA, but they’re simply overwhelmed,” says the CEO. “The extreme amount of time and money necessary to get an airplane certified in the United States isn’t a result of any malevolent government obstructionist plot. Those folks simply have far more work than they can handle.”
When Epic went shopping for a place to build the Dynasty a few years ago, they investigated a number of alternatives. “We looked at business possibilities in several European countries, Brazil and a number of Canadian provinces. In the end, Canada won out,” says Schrameck. “The Canadian government is eager to foster investment, and they offered us some major incentives to locate north of the border.”
As a result, the Canadian division of Epic Air is building a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility outside Calgary, Alberta. Additionally, Epic Air is working with the newly formed Canadian Centre for Aircraft Certification to build a 50,000-square-foot certification facility. Epic Air will be the first manufacturer to utilize the CCAC facility, but the CCAC hopes to attract other companies to certify aircraft north of the border. In two to three years, as the program spools up, Epic Air hopes to expand its Calgary production facility to 200,000 square feet, and Epic hopes to be building Dynasty propjets in Calgary with a workforce of between 500 and 600. According to Schrameck, the Dynasty is expected to be certified sometime in the fourth quarter of 2008 and should sell for about $2 million in early 2009.
When we talked to Schrameck in late February, he commented that there were “more than 20 orders” for the Dynasty. He strongly implied there were a lot more, but settled for 20 for now.
The Dynasty won’t be Epic Air’s only product. The company is currently flight-testing a twin jet based on the Dynasty. It’s called the Elite and will be introduced as a homebuilt in late 2007, then be certified and produced at the CCAC in Calgary starting in 2009. Preliminary specs include Williams FJ-33 engines rated for 1,550 pounds of thrust apiece. Max cruise will be more than 400 knots and max altitude will be 41,000 feet. With luck, we’ll be seeing the Elite prototype at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Schrameck says the company will also be offering two 90%-scaled models based on the Epic fuselage and wing, project code name Mini-Me 1 and 2. One will be a slightly downsized version of the current turboprop, and the second will be a single-engine jet similar to the Diamond Jet, only stretched 14 inches to allow more cabin room.
If this program sounds aggressive, consider that Rick Schrameck, Mike Shealy and Jeff Sanders are very successful businessmen. This isn’t a lark for them. The Epic/Dynasty trio have studied the market, they understand exactly what they’re doing, and they’re convinced the models they’re planning will be well received.
If performance of the prototype Dynasty is any indication, they very well may be correct.