Cessna’s departure leaves a gaping hole in Central Oregon’s aviation industry, but there’s a fledgling airplane manufacturer that wants to take its place.
Bend’s Stratos Aircraft recently revealed a full-size replica of its proposed jet aircraft, minus the wings and tail section. To be built of composite materials, the proposed plane would be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, be able to reach a maximum cruising speed of more than 477 mph and comfortably carry four passengers more than 1,700 miles at 462 mph.
The replica is just a mock-up, meant to be shipped to air shows, including its debut at this summer’s prestigious EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis., in order to entice investors and potential buyers. It’s a big developmental step forward for Stratos, which currently has just three employees but hopes to have an assembly line up and running in Central Oregon within the next few years.
“The biggest player (Cessna) may be gone, but there are still a couple of smaller players here, in the carbon capital of aviation,” said Stratos’ CEO Michael Lemaire, referring to the lightweight but exceedingly strong carbon fiber material that Cessna, Lancair International and Epic Aircraft use to make their planes in Central Oregon.
Due to its speed and an estimated price tag of $2 million, based on current materials prices, the Stratos plane — which is classified as a VLJ, or Very Light Jet — could be a viable alternative to the more expensive metal-framed business jets that dominate the market, Lemaire said. But the plane also would serve the general aviation market, he added, noting that it’s specifically designed to easily carry skis and golf bags.
“Those requirements are essential for an aircraft like this,” Lemaire said.
The company is roughly three years old and is seeking $12 million from investors to build two prototypes. Lemaire said the company would need an additional $100 million to certify the plane and set up a manufacturing facility.
The company also has begun accepting $50,000 fully refundable deposits from fliers interested in future delivery. No buyers have stepped forward, but Lemaire said the deposit program has only been finalized in the last few weeks.
While a recession may not seem the best time to invest in aircraft — Cessna blamed canceled orders and a lack of demand for shuttering its Bend plant — it does present opportunities, said Kevin Jordan, the company’s chief sales officer and vice president of sales and service.
“There are lots of engineering resources that are dormant right now, lots of parts that are available, lots of outsourcing you can do,” Jordan said. “It’s like construction — during the boom years, you can’t get a second-rate carpenter, but in a slump, you get craftsmen for half the price.”
The poor economy has taken its toll on airplane manufacturers, especially those focusing on jets to serve business travelers.
The Eclipse Aviation Corp., of Albuquerque, N.M., which built six-seat composite VLJs, filed for bankruptcy in late 2008 and has since liquidated.
Adam Aircraft Industries, based in Colorado, which also built composite VLJs, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation in February 2008.
Investment money is tight, but Lemaire said there’s a race on in the aircraft industry, likening the recent development of composite VLJ technology as the biggest step forward in general aviation since the development of the Learjet in the late 1950s.
“If you are interested in aviation, this will be a part of history,” Lemaire said. “There’s no four-seat aircraft with this kind of performance. You compare this with planes flying today that were designed 20 or, in some cases, 50 years ago, and there is no comparison.”
Lemaire, who is French but has a home in Bend, is a computer industry executive who’s also worked in aviation. He was introduced to Central Oregon eight years ago, when he purchased and built a Lancair 4P model.
At the time, he struck up a relationship with Lancair engineer Carsten Sundin, who has since left Lancair and mostly designed the Stratos plane.
The Stratos mock-up, which was built in Colorado and shipped to Prineville for finish work by GS&K Interiors, is housed in Lemaire’s private hangar at Bend Municipal Airport and can be viewed by appointment.