This year, Piper Aircraft, Inc. celebrated its 70th anniversary. The occasion is a good deal more than a token chronological milestone, as it coincides with a new company direction: Piper is spreading its wings into the jet market with its newest aircraft, the PiperJet. Further, this substantial expansion has compelled the company to consider moving into significantly upgraded manufacturing facilities. That initiative could move the company from its Vero Beach, Fla. home, where it has resided for the past 50 years.
Piper has accumulated an impressive legacy. During its 70-year history, it has introduced more than 160 models and brought more than 144,000 aircrafts to market. Today, approximately 90,000 of those aircraft are still flying and being serviced on every continent by Piper’s 65 service centers, 40 dealers and 2,500 field personnel. “One of the distinct competitive advantages we enjoy is our heritage,” says Piper President and Chief Executive Officer James K. Bass. “It is a formidable weapon and differentiator.”
Indeed, Piper has evolved into the only manufacturer to build aircraft for every General Aviation mission, as it offers trainers, high-performance aircraft for personal and business use, and turbine-powered business aircraft. “Piper has the second largest fleet in the world, and we maintain more than 28 percent of the entire global fleet,” adds Bass. “Our aircraft fly into virtually every corner of the world.”
Now, the company is soaring into the realm of jet-powered flight.
Introducing the PiperJet
In October 2006, Piper Aircraft announced it would develop a single-engine, very light jet (VLJ) PiperJet to compete with the twin-engined Cessna Citation Mustang. By February 2007, the company had received 180 pre-orders for the new aircraft. “The response has been amazing,” comments Bass.
It’s easy to understand why. The PiperJet features a cleansheet design that incorporates single-engine turbofan power for optimum cost efficiency, state-of-the-art safety measures, and a strong, smooth all-metal body. “It breaks the mold in offering an unparalleled blend of performance and luxury,” says Bass.
The PiperJet, which measures 33-feet 9-inches in length and 16-feet 6-inches in height, with a 44-foot seven-inch wing span, can reach cruising speeds of 360 knots and maximum operating altitudes of 35,000 feet. The six-passenger aircraft (with an option for either a seventh seat or enclosable lavatory) boasts a range of 1,300 nautical miles and a full-fuel payload of 800 pounds. “It will be able to fly across the United States with only one stop for fuel,” Bass points out.
In addition, its design features the most advanced integrated glass avionics and incorporates major innovations, including a high-speed, natural-laminar flow wing that enhances fuel economy and performance. Its luxurious interior synthesizes a sophisticated color palette with a spacious design. Further, navigation, situational awareness and system information is delivered through advanced technologies such as Flight Into Known Icing (FIKI) to FADEC.
The first prototype was built in Vero Beach. Production will begin in 2009, and the company will make its first deliveries in 2010. The PiperJet will be priced at $2.199 million.
Matrix Composites has helped Piper to achieve this latest innovation. Matrix is an industry leader in precision composites for aerospace, medical, and optics, and lately, military aircraft. “Composites are being used more and more in aircraft including the new 787 and Airbus 380,” notes Matrix President David Nesbitt. “They provide a lighter weight with higher strength – it’s the wave of the future for aircraft and our core business.”
Supplying Piper since 2001 with 25 different parts, including interior and avionics ducting, radomes and fairings, seat components and integrated structures, Matrix has built a solid relationship with Piper, Nesbitt explains, that “has been mutually beneficial,” starting with a solution Matrix gave to Piper on its Meridian aircraft that saved 25-26 pounds. Nesbitt adds: “We’ve had good years of production and with the PiperJet there are more opportunities – we’d like to be a part of that as well.”
The PiperJet represents the latest in a long line of historical milestones. The company was established in 1937 in Bradford, Pa. as Piper Aircraft Corporation. Its founder, William T. Piper, became known as the “Henry Ford of Aviation.” The company’s first plane was the Piper Cub J-3. During World War II, the company modified the aircraft as the L-4 for military use. Nearly 6,000 L-4s saw action.
After the war, the company ran into some financial trouble, but it saved itself with the 1947 introduction of the Vagabond, the first of the short-wing Pipers. Later, the company expanded as civilian aviation grew rapidly during the post-war years. Piper developed technological advances to keep up with the demand. In 1954, it introduced its first all-metal plane, the Apache. It was also Piper’s first twin-engine model. This was followed by the single-engine Comanche.
As the company grew, it expanded its research and development capabilities and its manufacturing base. In 1957, it built a new production site at the old Naval airbase in Vero Beach, Fla., which proved an excellent site for experimental flight tests. The first aircraft produced at the new site was the PA-25 Pawnee, an agricultural spraying aircraft.
During the 1960s, the company continued expanding its Florida manufacturing facilities. In 1961, it introduced the PA-28 Cherokee, the forerunner of a family of innovative aircraft. Its single-engine, four-place design became the basis for more than half of Piper’s aircraft in the ensuing decades. Models included the Warrior, Archer, Dakota, Arrow, Seneca and Saratoga.
In 1965, the company introduced the Cherokee Six series, which featured a new stretched cabin that accommodated six people. As luggage could be stowed in a new forward baggage compartment, passengers enjoyed a larger cabin interior. Two years later, Piper enhanced its twin-engine line with the PA-31 Navajo, designed to meet the growing demands for business travel. Variations of the original included the Navajo Chieftain and the Mojave and a line of twin turboprops, the Cheyenne I, the Cheyenne II and the Cheyenne IIXL.
During the 1970s, Piper focused on development of twin-engine aircraft. In 1971, it introduced the PA-34 Seneca, a six-place, light twin that has served as an air taxi, a charter aircraft and a trainer. The decade also saw the progression of turboprops and, in 1979, Piper introduced the Cheyenne III, later upgraded it to the Cheyenne IIIA. The powerful, 11-seat crafts, targeted to the executive market, cruised at 300 knots with a 2,000-mile range.
In 1983, Piper introduced a totally new aircraft design in its PA-46 Malibu, which revolutionized personal aviation. This pressurized, six-place, single-engine aircraft provided the comforts and amenities of many small business jets at a fraction of the price and operating cost. It proved popular with owner-pilots who used their own aircrafts for business.
Another jewel in Piper’s fleet is the Malibu Meridian, Piper’s top-of-the-line aircraft, a single-engine turboprop, with a 500 SHP engine, Flight Into Known Icing (FIKI) approval, and an all-glass cockpit. Certified by the FAA in 2000, the Piper Meridian’s uniquely stylized turbine inlets and exhaust stacks, four-bladed propeller and sleek fuselage make it instantly recognizable and speak to the aircraft’s stellar performance characteristics, including maximum cruise power of 262 kts and maximum altitude of 30,000 feet.
Piper delivered the first retail Meridian in November 2000 and broke new ground by featuring cockpit technology and capabilities previously only found in expensive business jets.
As it moved toward the new century, Piper introduced improved versions of all models. Each benefited from advancements made available by the latest technologies. Piper also added new models, including a turbo-charged model to the Saratoga lineup: the Saratoga II TC.
Today, Piper’s product range includes aircraft designed for professional use (the Meridian, Mirage and Seneca V), personal use (the Saratoga HP and TC, the Piper 6XT and Piper 6X, and the Archer III) and training (the Warrior, Arrow and Seminole).
Piper’s current production facilities in Vero Beach are equipped with the latest technology to facilitate its mission. Tools include full computational fluid dynamics packages for aerodynamic analysis, wind tunnel access, a high-end aircraft simulator to fully analyze flight characteristics, finite element packages such as NASTRAN for structural analysis, Unigraphics CAD/CAM systems for smooth deployment of designs to the shop floor, and full ground, static, fatigue and flight testing capability.
Deploying these tools, Piper engineers have continuously upgraded the product line and introduced new features to exceed demanding customer requirements. Recent innovations the company has engineered include advanced integrated avionics that enhance the pilot’s situational awareness and visibility and increase safety; advanced metal bonding, which removes or greatly reduces the need for mechanical fasteners and rivets; and advanced engine technology, including the latest in electronic engine controls, engine diagnostics, and service programs.
Within the last few years, Piper’s revenue has grown nearly 20 percent annually. In 2006, the company built 238 aircraft. “This year, we expect to build fewer aircraft but we’ll realize more revenue, as the aircrafts our customers have been buying lately are more at the top of our line,” reveals Bass.
Piper currently has more than 1,000 employees, including design engineers, manufacturing engineers, production workers, marketing and sales experts, quality assurance engineers and flight line operations staff. “Our dedicated workforce has decades of experience and expertise, and as we move toward manufacturing the PiperJet, we’ll be hiring many new employees,” informs Bass.
The company also is upgrading and enhancing its manufacturing capabilities. “We have made and continue to make significant investments in both plant and equipment, and in enhancing our methods, planning and processes,” informs Bass. “We have introduced or honed new techniques to design our airplanes, with strong emphasis on flow technology and lean engineering design.”
New upgrades will be implemented to accommodate production of the PiperJet. These will be considerable. As such, Piper Aircraft has been compelled to consider moving to a new production facility, which may even take the company from its current Vero Beach location.
Piper Aircraft is currently seeking a place to locate a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility for PiperJet production. The company feels that a new site, which could also serve as corporate headquarters, would also accommodate future growth and thus ensure its competitiveness within the general aviation industry
Earlier this year, Piper began conducting site selection, comparing factors involved in staying in Vero Beach against the data from other cities and states. By May 2007, bids to attract the company reached as high as $90 million. Obviously, Vero Beach would like Piper to stay put, and the Vero Beach City Council and the Indian River County Commissioners developed a package of financial incentives to improve the business climate for the company.
“As part of the site selection process, we have been working closely with individuals [from both groups] to explore options for expanding Piper’s operations locally in the event we remain in Vero Beach,” reports Steve Johnston, Piper’s director of human resources. He adds that the main factors that will determine a decision include available real estate, job markets, economic cost factors and business incentives.
Vero Beach’s $50 million proposal includes purchasing Piper’s existing facilities and leasing it back to the company and building a new facility for building the PiperJet, along with the impact fees associated with the construction and possibly a reduced utility rate.
The city of Tallahassee also developed its own proposal, estimated at $90 million. The offered plan included construction of a 593,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and approximately 122,000 square feet of corporate office space. The construction would cost about $65 million. An additional $15 to 20 million would cover capitalized interest through 2013. Another $5 million would be used for airport improvements. Piper has since narrowed the field to three communities: Vero Beach; Albuquerque, N.M., and Oklahoma City.
In the meantime, Piper Customer Service established a new dealer distribution network to address sales and service needs of PiperJet customers. The network includes five regional U.S. centers: PiperJet East, PiperJet Southeast, PiperJet Midwest, PiperJet Southwest and PiperJet Northwest. In all, 14 U.S. offices and 19 international offices will serve PiperJet customers.
This will help satisfy the second of three corporate priorities. The first and third are commitment to employees and meeting the goals of the investors. Both would be impossible without the second: commitment to customers. “It is critical that we remain in the business of exceeding customer expectations,” says Bass.
Piper Aircraft has accomplished this quite well in its 70 years. No doubt, it will continue doing so as it jets into the future, soaring high on the wings of the PiperJet.