Despite our rich aviation history, only a handful of light aircraft are made in the UK; how can this be? Tim Cooper investigates

To the tune of the Noel Coward song, please:

Slovenes do it,

The French do it,

Even educated Czechs do it,

Let’s do it,

Let’s make a plane.

Having finally shaken free from our European Commission oppressors isn’t it time, by jingo, for us to make a properly certified, small, modern, British aeroplane for recreational pilots? Our bosoms would swell and our cockles would warm. Oh! How proud we would be.

You might wonder why this clarion call is even necessary. I certainly do; I’m puzzled. Especially as our aerospace industry is the fourth largest in the world, employing tens of thousands of people, and worth billions of pounds. It is a leviathan. The UK aerospace industry includes these British firms: BAE Systems, Britten-Norman, Cobham, GKN, Hybrid Air Vehicles, Meggitt, QinetiQ, Rolls Royce and Ultra Electronics. Then there are the foreign companies that have operations in the UK: Boeing, Bombardier, Airbus, Leonardo, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, MBDA, Safran, and Thales Group. Quite some list then.

One might hope that this bunch would produce something modest for us in GA to fly, but that is a vain expectation. It is highly unlikely that BAE is going to build our chimeral, certified, GA aeroplane in UK because the market is inconsequentially small for these biggest of players. Cirrus, world champions at selling piston aeroplanes, barely manages four hundred sales each year; Cessna and Piper less than two hundred.

In fact, with this year’s closure of the BAE Hawk production line, our really big aerospace companies will no longer even produce one measly ‘whole aircraft’. The only properly certified aeroplane still produced in UK is the indomitable Britten- Norman’s Islander. And that’s a bit bigger and more expensive than most GA pilots want.

Instead, we produce bits of aircraft. A wing from here, a fuselage from there, a brace of engines from somewhere else, avionics from there, all nailed together in a factory in the South Of Wherever. It is just the way the aerospace industry works now.

Is it because of money?

I don’t think that lack of investment is the main factor derailing our quest for our aeroplane. In Europe the EU provides funding to small aviation companies, and State support is available in UK too. In 2019 UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) launched the clunky sounding Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Future Flight Challenge. UKRI’s website put out the following call: ‘Organisations with an interest in this field are invited to apply to attend a workshop to develop ideas to meet the challenges posed by future flight. The invitation is the first phase of a £125m government investment’. The Light Aircraft Company did so, and recently won funding from this scheme. Beyond government funding, investment and finance is definitely available commercially, especially now that low interest rates make sitting on piles of cash unattractive for investors. So it isn’t money that is holding us back.

One wonders what Geoffrey de Havilland or Claude Grahame-White?the man behind the 1912 ‘Wake Up Britain’ campaign to get aviation taken seriously?would have thought of our deficit of a GA machine? I am interested in finding out why this is, given that our aerospace industry is buzzing with brilliant engineers, hyper-accurate CNC machines, gigantic autoclaves, unimaginably powerful computers and availability of investments.

So, for this article I set out to see what other more articulate and credible experts say. Bob Bell, is Technical Director of AERALIS, a rather serious start up that intends to make a British fast jet trainer to fill the vacuum left by the Hawk. He says this about our aviation industry: “We make a lot of very important sub-assemblies for other organisations but we’re not developing new commercial or military aircraft on our own. It seems a big shame that we have lost this capacity in the UK manufacturing industry when we were so dominant in the 1950s and ’60s.”

Bell, who was the Chief Technical Officer for the Renault Formula One Racing Team, has strong views. “I’m passionate about Britain rebuilding its manufacturing base,” he says. “It’s a great country for engineering, science and technology and we’re world leaders in so many things. For me it’s important that we maintain a strong foothold in developing aircraft into the future and is just something that’s personally important to me.”

Great sentiment, but what about the strategy?

The Government expressed a similar sentiment in its March 2015 General Aviation Strategy report: ‘The Government’s vision is of the UK being the best place in the world for GA as a flourishing, wealth generating and job producing sector of the economy.’ One imagines that building aeroplanes for GA might form a part of this vision. (This report’s cover features the Trig team’s pair of American designed Pitts Specials going vertical, generating smoke. I wonder what message was intended?)

We do make a few flying machines in cheaper, non-certified categories in Britain. The Light Aircraft Company has its Sherwood line of retro, three-axis microlights, and a smattering of cottage industry level firms make flexwing machines. But the fact remains that there is not a single British designed and built, light aeroplane certified to current standards available for the patriotic private pilot, or indeed for foreign pilots who would like to buy a machine from a national lineage that stretches back to the early days of powered flight.

So, why don’t we manufacture a GA aircraft in UK? The lazy answer to this question would be to pin the blame on our aviation regulators. I’m sorry, but that is the wrong answer. The real answer is nuanced and complicated, market related, and most of all, very human. However, let me reiterate, the blame is certainly not to be laid at the door of the CAA. (I do have a Brexit caveat, but we will come to that later.)

Under EASA, Britain signed up to revised light aeroplane Certification Standards, found in CS-23. These new standards, which apply to aeroplanes up to nineteen seats, were rewritten in 2017 by EASA, and were developed in parallel with America’s FAR Part-23 Regulations. The new rules aimed to dramatically simplify the design, development and production of GA aeroplanes.

An EASA press release on those rules did not, for once, exaggerate: ‘The new CS-23 establishes objective and design-independent requirements. New designs will not be hampered by detailed prescriptive rules. This enables innovative solutions to enhance safety, while at the same time red tape, time and certification costs are reduced. The innovations are supported by better up-to-date industry standards which are continually developed in cooperation between manufacturers, users, EASA and other authorities’.

The new legislation tore up the old rule book to allow engineers and designers to apply the latest thinking, materials, and technology to their designs. The new standards encourage manufacturers to think out of the box. While the regulations provide design latitude, they are not intended to lower the safety bar. Small manufacturers of light aeroplanes who formerly sheltered their designs in a variety of lower approval classes like VLA, LSA, UL and microlight, are now bringing aeroplanes to the market that are certified to the much higher, international, and uniform CS-23 standard. A significant benefit is that this higher level certification makes an aeroplane more versatile, since it can be used with fewer restrictions for more purposes. Therefore, it is more valuable, and more worthwhile to produce.

In 2017 Ivo Boscarol, the founder and CEO of the Slovenian manufacturer Pipistrel commented on the new certification standards by saying: “It’s revolutionary, which is why we have been an active supporter of the CS-23 initiative. Right now, we see tremendous opportunities in electric and hybrid propulsion and increased automation. The new CS-23 will enable us to move at the pace of these developments and more readily leverage these innovations”. Boscarol pulled the rabbit out of the hat when three years later Pipistrel rolled out the world’s first certified electric aeroplane.

Entrepreneurial drive

With our heritage and huge industry is it unreasonable then to expect a British manufacturer to take advantage of the new rules? The French, like us in Britain, have a rich aviation heritage and a massive industry. So what’s going on across the Channel? Is there a modern, light aeroplane stirring French hearts? Yes, and two projects spring to mind: the Elixir and the Aura Aéro. Both are two-seat, fixed-gear machines.

Elixir received its EASA type certificate in the Normal category under CS-23 at the start of lockdown in 2020. The Elixir is a carbon fibre trainer/tourer, made using proven and reliable boat production methods in the heart of yacht-land at La Rochelle. The introduction of this type of construction, which significantly reduces costs and simplifies the wing and fuselage using a ‘one shot’ moulding technique, was eased by the provisions of the new EASA certification rules. Elixir’s production line is already rolling.

Aura Aéro, which is aiming for CS-23 certification in the aerobatic category this year, has taken a different approach, and is building a stronger and better performing replacement for the CAP 10 aerobatic trainer using carbon fibre and traditional wood. Aura Aéro have just bought the specialist company which built the CAP 10 and are serious about moving to the production phase.

Neither of these new aeroplanes come from the big beasts of French Aerospace. Quite the opposite in fact. Both are the brainchildren of innovative and ‘disruptive’ founder-entrepreneurs. The importance of a founder, we will see, is perhaps the single most important factor in bringing new aeroplanes to market, and that is a factor that has absolutely nothing to do with EASA, the FAA, or even the UK CAA.

Elixir was founded by Arthur Leopold-Leger, a keen yachtsman whose goal was to build a superior small aircraft using modern materials and design technology (which was the exact same goal as Wolf Hoffmann, founder of Diamond Aircraft in 1981 in Austria). You will be pleased to hear that Elixir has a British link: Leopold-Leger’s studied aerospace engineering at Kingston University. Good to know Britain can produce entrepreneurial aeroplane designers. Even if they are French!

The other firm, Aura Aéro, was founded by Jérémy Caussade. His vision is quite simply to produce an evolved aerobatic trainer to sell into an established market, and thinks that by doing so he can move fifty planes a year. So, the French, with their extensive aviation history, have entrepreneurs willing to have a go.

Rich aviation heritage

It’s the same story in aviation-heritage rich Czechia, where Bristell has recently been awarded an EASA Type Certificate for its two-seat B-23.

The B-23 follows on from its successful and well regarded kit, LSA and ULA models. The two-seater has a 750kg maximum takeoff weight, is robust and offers solid performance. Bristell is now applying for IFR certification on top of its initial Night VFR authorisation. The passion driving founder Milan Bristela is clearly displayed on each of his company’s products, all of which are emblazoned with the slogan ‘Wings With Heart’. Bristela has a clear view on what his next target is: “The market is impatient for an electric airplane and our goal at Bristell is to be able to respond to this with a flight trainer which is clean, quiet and affordable to operate”. A man with a vision, then, and keen to compete with his Slovenian neighbour.

But aviation heritage, might in fact not be as critical a factor as one may think. Hear what Pipistrel itself has to say about its own beginnings: ‘Ivo Boscarol has been actively involved in alternative aviation since 1975, when Slovenia was still a part of former Yugoslavia. In that time alternative and microlight flying was illegal?in fact it did not exist at all. The airfield Ivo was using belonged to the military, so the first alternative pilots[sic], if they wanted to fly, had to do it in secret’. Slovenia, with no history of civil aviation, is now at the global forefront of light aircraft design.

So, if heritage is not crucial, then what is? Let’s look at a recent success story?and stand by to be disheartened, my compatriots.

Philipp Steinbach, a forty-six year old German, started flying gliders when he was fourteen: at sixteen he was apprenticed as a mechanic and composites worker at a glider shop, and following national service he was hired by Walter Extra as a mechanic where he was inspired by the Red Bull racer Peter Besenyei. However, unable to afford an aerobatic aeroplane on his salary, Steinbach left Extra to make his fortune, and set up his own company in Germany in 1997. He designed and produced the Impulse 100 ultralight, and sold forty-nine of these machines, until he started to face competition from Eastern European labour and went bust eight years later.

A tenacious chap, Steinbach then found an investor and began what is now called XtremeAir. Starting from scratch in December 2005, his first aerobatic design flew five months later, and his certified aeroplanes even made it to the Red Bull air races. At the same time he learned to fly aerobatics, initially coming third in the German national championship, but eventually winning the trophy four times. The XtremeAir machines he designed compete head-on in aerobatics against those of his old boss, Walter Extra, who is himself both an aviation entrepreneur and an aerobatic pilot.

You can see a picture emerging here. Highly driven entrepreneurs, German, Czech, French and Slovene, are filling our frame. And Steinbach is typical of this dynamic breed.

Cheerfully labelling himself as determined and arrogant, Steinbach then departed XtremeAir in 2013. Upping sticks he moved from Germany to a container office at Wickenby airfield in Lincolnshire. Steinbach had hooked up with Steuart Walton, grandson of the founder of Walmart (then owner of Asda), who was trying to develop his family business in Europe.

Steinbach’s goal back then was to produce a fully certified two-seat, aerobatic aircraft with the lightest possible airframe and with the biggest possible engine, capable of winning any competition, that would also be a versatile and fun touring machine. Walton was in his late thirties, ran his own venture capital fund, and was a competitive Pitts pilot under Alan Cassidy’s tutelage. Sharing Steinbach’s vision, Walton then made the investment into the start-up, Game Composites, that aimed to build such an aerobatic two-seater.

In the venture, Steinbach soon showed his stand-out, typically Teutonic talent: organising things. He says that only twenty per cent of Game Composites’ efforts went into the physical design and production of the aircraft, the GB-1. Eighty per cent of the effort, instead, went into the enormous procedural challenge of getting Gamebird its Design Organisation Approval (DOA) and then receiving the all important Production Organisation Approval (POA) without which Steinbach’s machines would just be Experimental aircraft.

Steinbach, a designer but not an aeronautical engineer, hired two British graduates fresh from university, Jing Dai and Robert Finney. This duo first learned about aeroplanes, then crunched the numbers, and finally made Steinbach’s vision a structurally sound reality worthy of certification approval. The prototype was produced in 2015 and structural testing was done at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. The first GameBird aeroplane, G-IGBI, was certified under CS-23 in 2016.

Born in Britain, then left these shores

So, a class-leading, fairly innovative, fully certified, GA aeroplane was conceived, designed, tested, flown and certified in Britain. It was even named after these sceptred isles: the GB-1. Hurrah!

But that promising success only makes it hugely depressing to report that Game Composites and its GB-1, its design team, its production line, its jobs, its development potential, and its prestige migrated from these shores in October 2016. Drat.

Gamebird Composites relocated to Walton’s home town, Bentonville in Arkansas, where they and their shiny new British aeroplane were welcomed into a purpose-built facility at the municipal airport. Still a British aeroplane then? No, it’s really a Steinbach/Walton aircraft at this point.

Game Composites will produce twenty GB-1s this year, and has sold multiple airframes to various aerobatic teams, including Britain’s Blades Team?which liked the 200kt cruise, one thousand mile range, very comfortable cockpit, and unlimited aerobatic capability of the aircraft. The price ($425,000) is competitive, and Game Composites are able to make a stonking thirty per cent margin on each airframe. Steinbach has created a stable, profitable, company that has both an aviation and a non-aviation future by applying its aerospace skills to new work. That doesn’t happen by accident.

Part of the secret was disciplined cost-control in the initial design and certification phase. Getting an aeroplane from the drawing board to the production line is an expensive and time-consuming process. Less so if you are the sedulous Philipp Steinbach. He claims that Game Composites’ total spend, right up to serial production of the CS-23 certified GB-1s, was $3.3m. Compare that to the “three hundred million dollars” spent, says Steinbach, by fellow entrepreneurs Alan and Dale Klapmeier at Cirrus “to get to the same point”. Steinbach reluctantly acknowledges that he took “a couple of months” longer than originally planned to reach full certification. The shame!

Is Britain really business and GA friendly?

In a recent online seminar organised by USAF-backed Agility Prime, Steinbach was scathing about the UK and his experience here. “We started the business in England. About a year into this English adventure both Steuart and I agreed that we didn’t want to be in England for any significant amount of time. If you want to fly, then the US is the place to be?and we moved there three and a half years ago, with no regrets so far.”

When asked, “what was so bad about England?” Steinbach replies: “It would be easier to say what’s not so bad about England. You start with the weather and go on. Fuel prices and airspace structure, how business is viewed, how business-friendly the environment is, how you get to get any kind of people to do any kind of work?the list goes on.” This is in contrast to Bentonville, according to the designer: “Arkansas makes big, big efforts in being competitive. [It provides] all the political support we could ever wish for.” The inference is that UK did not.

I was sorry to hear about Philipp Steinbach’s low opinion of this Kingdom. It is a shame, but it seems that designers generally stick to their homelands?although in Steinbach’s case it was his patron’s home town. It seems then that we will need to find a homegrown light aviation entrepreneur all of our own.

There is, currently, at least one man that would fit the bill. Ivan Shaw can justifiably claim to be Britain’s most successful living designer of a ‘whole aeroplane’, with perhaps one thousand of his Europa kitplanes sold. Yorkshireman Ivan, who was based Stateside with Burt Rutan for some years, uses American idiom to divide the world into “pioneers and settlers”.

Pioneers versus settlers

Ivan is himself a typical pioneer; now in his seventies, he has recently designed and built an interesting single-seat, twin boom, single engine, highly efficient, composite aeroplane, and is hard at work looking for a settler to move the project forward. Pioneers are the people who think up an idea and let nothing stand in their way of making it happen.

“Bill Lear was one,” explains Ivan, “he designed and sold a wonderful aeroplane, but once he died… well, the innovation stopped and the settlers took over.” Settlers, says Ivan, instead are those that stifle innovation. A mystified Burt Rutan complained once to Ivan “that his first aeroplane was designed and built in nine months by nineteen employees, while his second, with a workforce of one hundred and fifty, took eighteen months.” Ivan replied to Rutan: “Your first nineteen employees probably never looked at their watches once in nine months, but now you’ve got one hundred and fifty all looking to see when it’s going to be five o’clock. Settlers, see.”

Ivan’s astute observation is, as we have seen, Philipp Steinbach’s reality. It will be interesting to see whether Steinbach will manage successfully to feed his intensive, restless energy into a settled, home town workforce in a salubrious factory in middle America; he too will have to face the pioneer versus settler battle.

So, besides Shaw, where else shall we look? Britain’s motorsport industry, for instance, is utterly, crushingly dominant, and it’s not just Formula One. There are more than four thousand companies involved in motorsport, signalling a sector dominated by entrepreneurs. The industry is worth £9b a year, and employs 41,000 people. In addition, many motorsports engineers have an aeronautical engineering background. Bob Bell, whom we heard from at the start of this story, is himself one of these. So we are not short of engineers, and we have all the technology we need to make a modern light aeroplane.

No shortage of engineer/entrepreneurs

Neither are we short of successful engineer/entrepreneurs in Britain. James Dyson is an example. Dyson himself is an aviation enthusiast and bought a Lightning and Harrier “as inspiration to Dyson engineers, but also as a reminder of what happens when you lose your resolve. [The] Harrier is one of Britain’s greatest technological achievements and yet, through what can only be described as a lack of vision we are out of the Harrier business”. Dyson intended to mount his aeroplanes outside his facility in Gloucestershire. Guess what? The planning authorities stopped him.

Dyson then bought the former RAF Hullavington airfield, near Malmesbury. Once housing a variety of aviation activities, and home to both service aircraft and many civilian craft, Hullavington had hosted the 1970 World Aerobatic Championship. If any airfield has a right to call itself a part of our aviation fabric then Hullavington does. The airfield became Dyson’s second UK Technology Campus following a £200m restoration of the hangars. Quite naturally, Dyson wanted to open the airfield to flying again, on a limited basis. And you will never guess what: complaints from nearby residents about anticipated noise led the planners to stop Dyson reopening Hullavington. This is a story we hear over and again.

I think it unlikely that James Dyson is going to dip his toes into GA aeroplane production, and I believe that it is these sorts of smothering actions, and the atmosphere thus created that led to Steinbach and his investor departing these shores.

Next steps?

The British Government’s vision is of the UK being the best place in the world for GA as a flourishing, wealth generating and job producing sector of the economy. We have a Minister of Transport who has skin in the game. What then, can the Government do to create the conditions for our little aeroplane to materialise? Most importantly, it can prevent the UK CAA from gold-plating CS-23. If the CAA were so to do then any hope of a certified UK GA machine would be forlorn. Game over. It is absolutely essential that UK’s certification standards are in complete lock-step with those of EASA and the FAA in the future.

Second, it could reinforce success where possible. The Future Flight Challenge fund is a good start from central government. Local government initiatives, such as Fareham’s excellent development of Solent Airport in Hampshire, could receive targeted, central support to attract more GA aircraft entrepreneurs. Tax breaks would help.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the government could really try to change the atmosphere surrounding GA to deliver a more permissive, positive environment?isn’t that also part of the Brexit settlement, slashing red tape?

Finally, might we expect some real, positive, leadership from the CAA? Britain’s motorsport industry, which has outstanding technical capabilities which are similar to those required by light aircraft manufacturers, is booming. Might not the CAA take a lead from UK motorsports and do whatever is required to engender the same positivity and enterprise?

In May 2020, Grant Shapps, when recommending a new Chair of the CAA, told Parliament, “I strongly consider that Sir Stephen [Hillier, former RAF Chief of Staff]… is an excellent choice for the role of CAA Chair?having the skills, experience and track record needed to undertake this challenging role very well at a time of continuing reform, challenge and innovation in the aviation sector.” Sir Stephen has a fine record of achievement and leadership in the Royal Air Force. What a shame it would be if those very qualities were now stifled by the settlers. Floreat, Sir Stephen!

Ultimately, though, we will probably just have wait for our own Steinbach, Klapmeier, Leopold-Leger or Boscarol to emerge. A Geoffrey de Havilland for our modern age.

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Diamond Aircraft