Sunday, August 7, 2016

Arlington, Snohomish County, Washington: Glasair set to be state’s second-biggest plane maker

Nigel Mott, president of Glasair, an Arlington-based airplane manufacturing company.

Glasair employees Jeramy Olson, Omar Alvarez and Ken Andreason (right) talk about seat belt attachment points as they measure the right fuselage of a carbon fiber composite body for a new Merlin airplane last week in Arlington.

Glasair Aircraft Production Manager and pilot Ben Rauk gets ready to fly a four-seat, pre-production Merlin on July 12 in Arlington.

ARLINGTON — The alarm klaxon cut through the whirring noise of the airplane engine. The digital speed gauge dropped steadily toward 39 knots — the two-seat plane’s stall speed, indicating it would be going too slow to stay in the air.

As the plane stalled, its nose gently dipped toward Puget Sound about 1,500 feet below. The plane descended ever so slightly. As it lost altitude, it picked up speed. The gauge’s dial climbed above stall speed, and the plane smoothly returned to level flying. The whole thing lasted less than a minute and was hardly noticeable but for the alarm.

“The plane wants to stay in the air,” the pilot, Ben Rauk, said.

He banked the Glasair Merlin right toward Arlington Municipal Airport, Glasair’s home for more than 20 years. Rauk is a production manager and test pilot for the company.

The light sport airplane marks a major shift for the company, which has made more 3,000 kit airplanes since it began in 1979. Unlike kit planes, which are assembled by their owners, the Merlin will be sold ready to fly.

It is the first step in Glasair Chief Executive Nigel Mott’s plan to transition the company from selling kits to making turnkey airplanes.

The company is simply following the market, he said.

Private pilots increasingly want turnkey planes. While kits have never been a huge portion of small airplane sales, demand “is probably stable for now, but slowly declining” in the near future, he said.

The addition of the Merlin makes Glasair the state’s second largest airplane maker, but the roughly 45-person company is a far cry from the leader, Boeing.

The Merlin has an all-composite material body — as does the 787.

However, its production line looks nothing like the highly-automated, super-sized assembly lines at Boeing’s Everett plant.

“It’s still a fairly labor-intensive process,” Mott said.

The Merlin’s airframe is made on site using molds built by Bayview Composites, a tooling and fabrication company in Mount Vernon. The carbon fiber hardens at room temperature, so no need for a costly and large autoclave to bake it.

Glasair is still refining the plane’s production process. It’s a huge change in mindset from doing kit planes, Mott said. “With the kit side of the business, we’re really a job shop,” making plane parts on demand.

Mott hopes to have Merlin production running smoothly within 12 months. The company is shooting to deliver the first plane by October to Rainier Flight Service in Renton.

The flight school has ordered three of the $150,000 airplanes. It also is selling them for Glasair.

Training schools play a big role in the Merlin’s market, Mott said.

The plane is built to be durable and forgiving, key features for new pilots. A Glasair customer, Chuck Hautamaki was its chief designer. The plane first flew last year, and the Federal Aviation Administration certified this past spring.

Glasair had considered the Merlin for a few years before moving forward on the project in 2014, Mott said.

The decision to go ahead was backed with money for tooling and other production costs from Glasair’s owner, Jilin Hanxing Group. The industrial conglomerate is based in Jilin City in China’s northeast corner, between North Korea and Russia.

Hanxing’s owner, Fang Tieji, bought Glasair in 2012 from Thomas Wathen, a hands-off owner who had raised the airplane maker from the dead when he purchased the assets of Glasair’s defunct predecessor, Stoddard-Hamilton Aircraft in 2001.

Wathen named the new company for Stoddard-Hamilton’s oldest model airplane, the Glasair.

When Fang acquired Glasair, the company had plans to fully certify its successful Sportsman as a production airplane, rather than a kit.

However, when Cessna stopped production of its two-seat Skycatcher in 2013, “we saw an opportunity” to step in with the Merlin, Mott said.

The company plans to start this fall on the process of moving the Sportsman into production, an effort which could take three years, he said.

Beyond that, Glasair could possibly develop a six- or eight-seat production model, Mott said.

The Merlin “is a good airplane,” said Bradley Donaldson, co-owner of Rainier Flight Service. “It flies very smoothly.”

Given its durability and stability, “it’s going to be a good training airplane from what we’ve seen so far,” he said.

Glasair Merlin specs

Max speed: 120 knots (138 mph)

Cruising speed: 105 knots (121 mph)

Stall speed (full flaps): 39 knots (45 mph)

Wing Span: 31 feet, 9 inches

Length: 21 feet, 8 inches

Base price: $149,950

Height: 8 feet, 8 inches

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