In the aircraft industry, the Piper Cub, first built in the 1930s, is an iconic brand that symbolizes personal flight; company founder William T. Piper is frequently referred to as the “Henry Ford of aviation.” These days, Henry’s company and its famous brand is struggling to survive economic and technological turbulences. In contrast, thanks to a savvy management team and the introduction of new models that take off at niche markets, Piper Aircraft is flying well above the stormy clouds that beset so many others. Indeed, at a time when piston-aircraft deliveries are down by 16 percent for the first half of 2008, Piper Aircraft’s are up by 18 percent, with overall deliveries in all categories up 13 percent from the same period last year. In all, Piper delivered 118 aircraft representing $98,782,802 in billings for the first half of 2008, compared to 104 aircraft and $78,967,711 in billings for the first half of 2007.
“In the last three years, Piper has moved forward on virtually every front – from new product introductions to strong sales, from strategic alliance to breaking into an entirely new segment with our PiperJet,” says James K. Bass, president and CEO. “We are a modern day American success story; a vertically integrated company that relies on American workers to provide next generation aircraft to the world. We do outsource the avionics and the power plant, which is actually fairly typical in the industry, but the aircraft itself, from basic sheet metal to final finish, is all produced by our workers to our exacting standards of quality and craftsmanship.”
And it will continue to do so at Vero Beach, Fla., where the company is headquartered. “We recently entered into a long-term agreement with the state of Florida in which they purchased our Vero Beach facilities and lease it back to us. We did have attractive offers from elsewhere in the nation, including Oklahoma City and Albuquerque, N.M., but we’re happy to say that we’ll be continuing from our longstanding home base with the necessary state-of-the-art facilities to continue to innovate and meet customer needs.”
What makes the company’s performance all the more remarkable is how Piper has managed to stay aloft despite the after effects of first, 9/11 and, secondly, the 2004 hurricanes that devastated the Vero Beach, Fla. region and left the company with significant damage. Piper’s management team, with Bass and most of its senior executive positions appointed in the last three years, led a turnaround that not only averted a potential nose dive, but headed the company to new altitudes of success. This involved both literally rebuilding the company in the wake of storm damage and building new models to meet unique needs.
According to Bass, “It’s a tribute to the commitment of our workforce, which totals about 1,200 people, that we not only rebounded quickly from the three hurricanes that hit us in quick succession, but that we emerged as an even stronger company. We are not only fully recovered in terms of physical plant (700,000 square feet of manufacturing space on 80 acres), but we’ve modernized our headquarters. The hardening we put into place when we restored our buildings makes our facilities stronger than ever and better able to withstand future hurricanes.”
What makes the company better able to withstand market conditions is the recent introduction of the Piper Matrix, a cabin-class, six-seat aircraft it began delivering this year, and the PiperJet, its first pure jet-powered, turbofan design that took its maiden voyage last August but is already attracting considerable interest from prospective owners; production begins in 2009 and first deliveries are expected in 2010.
The Piper Matrix is based on the Malibu Mirage, but offering the economy of an unpressurized cabin. (Interestingly, the first PA-46 Malibu, introduced in 1983 and designed to provide the creature comforts and amenities of a small business jet in a piston aircraft, was a revolutionary concept that enabled Piper to not only survive, but thrive in a down economy in which many manufacturers were pulling back or calling quits. The upgraded Malibu Mirage, introduced in 1988, features a turbo-charged 350hp Lycoming engine.) In the first half of 2008, 48 deliveries of the Piper Matrix accounted for more than half of the company’s record breaking deliveries of piston aircraft.
According to Bass, “We have orders for 101 Matrix models this year; our first year of production is sold out and market demand continues to be strong. We’re filling a niche that really hasn’t been addressed until now, providing a more affordable aircraft to those who want the features of a pressurized aircraft, but aren’t rated, or aren’t interested in becoming rated, to fly at higher altitudes.”
He adds, “Along with advanced glass avionics and the sophistication of retractable gear aircraft, the Matrix delivers the roominess and comfort that are associated with cabin-class aircraft, packaged at an unmatched price point of $757,000. Unlike some cabins where passengers are limited to seating face-forward, the Matrix allows passengers to face any way they want and move about in ways that are typically available only on more expensive aircraft. With more space, more range and more power than any aircraft in its class, the Matrix and its 350hp piston engine deliver a maximum cruise speed of 215 knots and a full-fuel range of more than 1,345 nautical miles at the aircraft’s maximum operating altitude of 25,000 feet.”
Some might say that Piper is late in coming to the private jet market. Bass, however, argues that it is in keeping with Piper’s history of first determining what the market needs are, and then getting it right to properly fit those needs, as opposed to rushing in just because everyone else is. “For us, the question is never how fast we can come to market; instead it is, what does the market want? To that end, for the PiperJet we conducted one of the most comprehensive market research studies ever undertaken in the aviation industry that encompassed an analysis of surveys taken with customers, trade associations, dealers, suppliers and pilots, both domestically and internationally. In effect, we let the market design the aircraft for us.”
The PiperJet’s all metal body measures 33 feet 9 inches in length and 16 feet 6 inches in height, with a 44-foot wingspan, and accommodates six passengers, with an optional seventh seat. It can attain cruising speeds of 360 knots at a maximum altitude of 35,000 feet. A range of 1,300 nautical miles with a full fuel payload of 800 pounds means it can fly across the United States with only one stop for fuel that combines fuel economy with enhanced performance.
The power plant is the Williams International FJ44-3AP engine, which is rated at 2400 pounds of thrust in the PiperJet application. Full authority digital engine control (FADEC) greatly reduces pilot workload, allowing greater focus on control and navigation; pushing a single power level full forward for takeoff results in a smooth but rapid buildup of thrust and acceleration.
Avionics supplied by Garmin International provide advanced navigational, situational and system technologies that are state-of-the-art. The primary flight displays (PFDs) digitally integrate flight information on two, large-format displays for easy interpretation. The multifunction display (MFD) depicts a composite view of the aircraft’s environment; engine performance and situational data such as location, terrain, traffic, weather and airport information are all digitally depicted and can be easily interpreted at a glance on the large-format display. These systems are integrated into Garmin’s Automatic Flight Control System, an altitude-based, three-axis autopilot that makes it possible for pilots to maintain airspeed references and optimize performance.
The PiperJet heralds what Bass characterizes as a “new era for Piper in which we literally take flight into a whole new realm of large-cabin luxury, performance, capability and single-engine efficiencies. With this major milestone, we are witnessing our future, one that is built on a strong and lasting heritage and reputation for innovation and experience.”
He adds, “The PiperJet is equally attentive to pilot and passenger comfort and needs, as well as aesthetics, with a 293-cubicfoot cabin featuring rich leather seats, deep zebra wood details and rich fabrics and trim. It also incorporates perfectly placed storage, cup holders and docking stations for personal electronics. A 36-inch door easily accommodates larger cargo and facilitates ease of entry. From a technical standpoint, PiperJet innovations include a high-speed, natural-laminar flow wing that enhances fuel economy and performance and advanced metal bonding for improved strength and manufacturing integrity. In sum, the PiperJet is about the journey, and the journey is about uncompromising luxury, utility and performance at incomparable value.”
This is not to say that Piper also doesn’t see growth for its other aircraft models. The company’s flagship turboprop, the Piper Meridian, saw 53 deliveries in 2008, for example. The Meridian is a single-engine 500hp turboprop, featuring an all-glass cockpit with a maximum cruise power of 262 knots and a maximum altitude of 30,000 feet.
In fact, Piper is the only general aviation manufacturer that builds aircraft in every category, from trainers to high performance business and personal aircraft, to turbine-powered business aircraft to, now, a business jet class.
“When you get a pilot’s license, it’s not like getting a driver’s license and you can get behind the wheel of a Ferrari or a Prius,” Bass explains. “There are levels of certification you go through. Beginner pilots start with trainers and then can qualify to operate multi-engine planes and at certain altitudes. High altitude flying, which requires a pressurized cabin, requires skills and awareness of the environment that aren’t crucial to low-altitude, unpressurized flight. While some people reach a level where they feel most comfortable and content, with no desire to qualify higher, some of our customers do like to move up, and, therefore, there’s a certain amount of upgrading from one plane to another in our customer base.”
Piper customers are businesses who employ pilots, as well as pilot-owners who use the aircraft both for personal enjoyment and business purposes. “Frequently our customers are themselves pilots, but who employ professional pilots to fly their planes. It’s a question of, if I’ve got a six-passenger aircraft that I use to fly guests or business associates, do I want to spend my time up front in the pilot seat, or do I want to be back in the cabin to interact with people? In many cases, it’s the latter.”
ACROSS THE WORLD
Aircraft are sold through about 40 dealers and maintained by 65 authorized service centers and 2,500 field personnel around the world. About 40 percent of sales are international, primarily Europe but with Asia representing growing market potential. Over its 71-year history, Piper has made almost 150,000 aircraft comprising 160 FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) certified models. Today, the company can boast that about 90,000 of these aircraft are still flying.
“Piper has the second largest fleet in the world, and we maintain more than 28 percent of that entire fleet,” Bass says. “Our planes fly virtually everywhere around the globe.”
Bass emphasizes that even as Piper is in many ways a new company, with new leadership and new products, it is building on a considerable heritage to propel itself to future success. “We know where we’ve been and what milestones we’ve accomplished. And, we know where we’re going. We truly are the inheritors of a great legacy, and we are inspired by the knowledge that our best days are ahead of us.”