Sunday, October 08, 2006

Trip Report - Quest Aircraft

For new visitors to this blog, please read the comments that typically follow each post. We are fortunate to have some very knowledgeable and thoughtful individuals sharing their views. Often, there is more meaningful content in the comments than in the original post. Check them out.

My wife and I flew United to Spokane and rented a car for the two hour drive to Sandpoint, Idaho. Our timing was fortuitous, the Aspen trees were at their peak. In full sun, the gold-orange colors were so brilliant, one almost needed sunglasses to look at them. We bought a bag of freshly picked apples from the back of a pickup truck, sure didn't taste like the ones they sell at Krogers.

What does all this have to do with Eclipse?

Quest Aircraft (www.questaircraft.com) is a start-up company. They are developing the Kodiak, a turboprop bush plane, a bit smaller than the Cessna Caravan. The Caravan grosses 8,000 lbs, the Kodiak, 6,750 lbs. The Caravan has a 675 hp engine, the Kodiak 750 hp for takeoff. Quest is looking for takeoff performance, specifically takeoff performance on floats. - Performance always sells! -

We were in Sandpoint September 29th, the day Quest received their TIA. They expect full certification by the end of the year. The company has slightly over 100 employees, only about a dozen engineers. They have a new building, new NC mills, Unigraphics CAD/CAM system, Faro laser tracker, all state-of-the -art equipment that Eclipse and the rest of the industry (including myself) is using.

When the Eclipse program started, Vern liked to boast he was the first to apply this high end equipment in a small company environment. He was wrong of course, but what he really does not understand is how this equipment increases the productivity and allows a small group of people to do a really big job. Quest's dozen engineers proves the point. I don't know how many engineers Eclipse has on staff, but their help wanted section on the web has often listed 20-30 engineering positions open at any one time.

Quest has kept the airplane simple and light without losing sight of their most important goal, keep the airplane field reparable. With the exception of the usual purchased items, the company intends to manufacture everything it can in-house.

Quest could have had their wings built in Japan or the nose section built in Chile. These suppliers will burden each sub-assembly with a 30% profit margin. This burdened cost, plus packaging, plus shipping will be carried forward to the Eclipse bill-of-material and get marked up another 30%. Costs for coordination, purchasing, receiving inspection and travel within the supply chain, all adds to a company's overhead. - A lot of blue sky for the buyer or red ink for the company. -

But you say, Eclipse is just following the Boeing model for outsourcing. Boeing has very good reasons for outsourcing not shared by Eclipse. Union work rules (here in Wichita, get a job at Boeing and you are going to work at the Lazy-B Ranch) and union driven wage rates make outsourcing a pretty easy decision for Boeing. Then there is the matter of offset trade agreements. Boeing's 787 wing will be built in Japan, not coincidentally, All Nippon Airways 50 airplane order with an option for 50 more, launched the Dreamliner.

When Quest production has a problem with a design issue, they can drag an engineer down to the shop floor and get a quick fix. It is not that easy when production and engineering is a few hundred or few thousand miles apart.

Quest engineers designed their own spring gear and will build it in house. While the design may be borrowed from some other airplane, I have never seen anything similar and it is quite clever. They built their own drop test rig for the gear, did all their airframe static testing, machined all their own tooling to form the sheet metal parts and even built their own hydropress to squeeze their parts, which is why I was there.

We had quoted a new $200,000 hydropress to Quest, so my wife and I traveled to Idaho to finalize the details. I took one look at their press and asked, why do you want a new one, yours is perfectly suited for your needs? As it turned out, they need some new cylinders but not a new press.

Overall, it was heart warming. Quest is staffed by straight shooting airplane people who have clearly defined objectives and are quietly achieving realistic goals, one at a time.

With the first design out of the box, they have mastered the art of building a light and strong sheet metal structure. The Kodiak's empty weight fraction is coming in at 51% vs Caravan's 50% and Cessna has perfected the art of building light weight sheet metal airplanes. Quest's production is sold out for the next three years; they are concentrating their resources on internal efforts and minimizing outside activities.

Even with their new building and new manufacturing equipment on the shop floor, I would guess that the Quest investment to be well under $50 million by the time they receive certification...about one-tenth of what Eclipse spent.

2 comments:

adamwebster.com said...

Stan,
I really like the blog.

So much so that I am now linking to you from my blog. Your blog inspired the "I'm not alone" post btw. I look using "sunlight as disinfectant."

I am going to start watching the Quest closer too. As an ex-bush pilot and Northeast Corridor air taxi slave, I can say that anything that is simple, inexpensive and reliable is a win. I don't know why any of these start ups are so committed to using the "wrong" airplane.

--Adam

Stan Blankenship said...

Adam,

Have checked your blog, you have a real talent for writing, have you considered a second career?

Aboulafia's blog earlier this spring was my inspiration to start this blog. I just had a few points I wanted to bring out in the first post. Now thirty some posts later, there is still more topics to cover than time to write.

Since you are in the air taxi business, readers would probably like to hear more of your views on use of the Eclipse in air taxi operations.

The Linear Air and DayJet models are one thing, what about a smaller charter operator in a 2-3 plane operation?