Redmond kit-plane maker soars for 30 years

Video: Hear from Lancair pilots about their kit planes

By Joseph Ditzler / The Bulletin / @josefditzler

Published Aug 31, 2014 at 12:01AM

REDMOND —

Dr. Ben Welch, an Urbana, Illinois, emergency room physician, used his Lancair IV-P to fly to short-staffed emergency rooms in central and southern Illinois and lend a hand.

Bill Harrelson, a commercial airline pilot from Fredericksburg, Virginia, in March 2013 set a record in his Lancair IV, flying 8,114 miles from Guam to Jacksonville, Florida, nonstop for 38 hours, 38 minutes.

Both pilots joined as many as 80 other Lancair owners and pilots who flew into Redmond last week to mark the 30th anniversary of Lancair kit aircraft production, and the first flight by the Lancair 200. That first plane, now a museum piece, broke new ground in general aviation when it appeared in the mid-1980s, said company founder Lance Neibauer. As general aviation becomes more expensive, however, and fewer earn pilot’s licenses each year, the Redmond company, which Neibauer sold more than 10 years ago, continues to reinvent itself as an engineering and fabrication firm.

At the time a graphic designer with a background in sculpture, Neibauer in the 1980s was among the first to design an airplane that came in a kit with all the parts included and some already assembled. Previously, he said, pilots interested in building their own aircraft purchased the plans and materials separately and went about making the thing themselves.

“Building from plans is a lot of work,” Neibauer said Wednesday from his home in Tumalo. His first sales pitch for a “fast-built” kit airplane over one built from scratch went like this: “Everybody enjoys the pleasure of building an airplane,” he said. “Except nobody wants that much pleasure.”

Neibauer, unable to find space to expand the operation in Southern California, moved the company to Redmond in 1991 and sold the original firm in 2003. He said he started out thinking he’d design a one-off airplane for personal use, not the high-flying, high-performance, airborne version of a sports car that set speed and endurance records. More than 2,000 Lancairs have sold, in several models, including the IV and IV-P. Only two, the two-seat Legacy and the Evolution, are in production today.

Lancair and other kit-plane makers that started in the same era simplified the task of building an airplane. The low number of pilots who actually finished an airplane from plans alone was “miserable,” said Paul Dye, editor of Kitplanes magazine. Along came kit planes, and buyers opened the box to find a life-sized version of a model airplane.

“You’d get everything in one box with a fair amount of prefabrication,” he said. “That really increased the completion rates for home-builts.”

Today, new versions of kit-built aircraft constitute more than half of the new aircraft licensed in the U.S., Dye said. Neibauer and other kit-plane makers created fully formed structural components — wings, airframe, fuselage — first from fiberglass and then from carbon fiber.

The Lancair models’ sleek designs also lent appeal over “slab-sided” fuselages of other aircraft models, Neibauer said. When his colleagues at the local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter saw his first plans they said, “If it flies as good as it looks, you should have a winner,” Neibauer said.

Lancair International progressed from a two-seater with a 100-horsepower piston engine to today’s Evolution, a four-seater with flat-panel cockpit displays, leather interior and a 750-hp Pratt & Whitney PT-6 turbine engine.

Lancair unveiled the Evolution kit in 2009 in response to pilot requests for a turbine model, said Lancair customer service manager Kimberly Lorentzen. Lancair has sold 63 Evolutions, one of which can cost as much as $1.6 million, depending on options. The company aims to unveil plans for a version of the Evolution with a piston engine and touch-screen avionics that, if produced, would cost less than $1 million, said Randy Akacich, Lancair chief financial officer. A top-of-the-line, 310-hp Legacy with retractable gear, by contrast, sells for about $250,000.

The kits come with some systems assembled, the cockpit display and the engine, for example. Federal regulations require that the owner of a home-built aircraft must do at least 51 percent of the actual work putting all the parts together. The Lancair company provides a builder-assist program that gets its customers started, and some aircraft businesses provide the same service.

Assembling the Evolution takes about 2,000 hours — 2,500 if you want upholstery and a custom paint job, said Mike Custard, owner of Summit Aircraft, at the Bend Municipal Airport. Custard provides an owner-assist service as well as annual aircraft inspections for home-built aircraft owners.

“I can go and spend an hour showing a customer how to fit the wing skin and walk away,” he said. “With the Evolution, it’s a lot easier; there are less pieces to manufacture, which makes it a lot easier for people to build.”

The Lancair IV-P, with a cruising speed of 330 mph at 24,000 feet, was at one time the fastest four-seater piston airplane in the world, Custard said. The Evolution is a bit slower, but has a wider cabin and larger baggage capacity.

Said Dye, the Kitplanes editor, “The Evolution is designed to put your people in and fly across the country in a day, and not the whole day.”

Doug Meyer, marketing and sales director for Lancair, said private pilots can transition easily into a Lancair, whose flight characteristics at some stages of flight are close to those of other small airplanes.

However, without proper training, pilots with little or no experience in high-performance aircraft can find themselves in trouble quickly in a Lancair. Meyer said the plane itself breeds a confidence in pilots who may overestimate their skills and fly into bad weather, for example, as a result.

A Lancair “is fast but stable,” Custard said. “It’s very fast, which takes a lot of pilots a lot of time to get used to. Your thinking and thought process has to be sped up a lot.”

Not surprisingly, doctors, dentists, attorneys, business owners — people in higher income brackets — typify the Lancair owner. The emergency room doctor said he employed his IV-P (the P indicates the airplane cockpit is pressurized) as part of his job when other Illinois hospitals found themselves shorthanded.

“I offered to hire out for help as an independent contractor to meet their staffing needs,” Welch said. “I did that until I had it written off.”

Welch, who’s been flying since 1982, said he outfitted his IV-P with four moving map displays on electronic screens. Separate screens provide information on weather, air traffic, his fight plan and approach patterns. “All I can say is it’s a sheer pleasure to fly,” he said Wednesday.

While Lancair still sells nine to 12 aircraft annually, it’s branching into other projects that capitalize on its engineering, fabrication and machine shop capabilities, Akacich said. He described Lancair as a manufacturing and engineering company that happens to be good at aviation. The company employs 55 at its Redmond facility and another 10 at a plant in Cebu, The Philippines.

The company developed a primer-assist device that automatically primes irrigation pumps, for example.

“The direction we’re heading is nonaviation products, as well as some new aviation products,” Akacich said. “From a business perspective, (Lancair is) diversifying our product line in both aviation and non-aviation in the next five years.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7815, jditzler@bendbulletin.com

A Lancair timeline

• 1983 — Lance Neibauer founds Neico Aviation Inc. in Gardena, California.

• 1984 — The first Lancair 200 flies. The prototype resides in the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

• 1990 — Lancair IV introduced

• 1991 — Neibauer moves his kit-plane company, Lancair International, to Redmond from Santa Paula, California.

• 2003 — Neibauer sells Lancair International to Joseph C. Bartels, a New Orleans attorney, to concentrate on building and certifying the Columbia aircraft through the separate Lancair Co., later Columbia Aircraft Co. Columbia files bankruptcy in September 2007 and is purchased by Cessna Aircraft Co., which shut down Bend operations in 2009.

• 2009 — Lancair Evolution comes to market. Also, Sen. Ron Wyden announced that the FAA would withdraw proposed rules on homebuilt aircraft that Lancair and other kit makers said would hurt their businesses.

• 2010 — The Wolstenholme family, Gene and son, Bob, of Colmar, Pennsylvania, makers of military robots, among other things, acquire majority interest in Lancair International.