75 years after William Piper made his name with the J3 Cub, the great US aircraft manufacturer has an Englishman as its CEO
Like so many private pilots, I have more time on Pipers than any other make of aeroplane?so when I went to Vero Beach in January to test the current Malibu Mirage (see the June issue) and the Archer, it was something of a pilgrimage. Piper Aircraft has been making aeroplanes since 1937. During its 75-year history it has produced 51 different types, and built almost 128,000 aeroplanes, including some of the greatest light aircraft ever made. These include the immortal J3 (19,888), the classic Super Cub (10,222) and the ubiquitous PA-28. In its various incarnations of Cherokee, Archer, Arrow, Dakota and Warrior, an astonishing 35,434 PA-28s have been built?and the type is still in production today.
While it has a proud legacy, Piper is as much about the future as the past?and several different models (most of which are sold even before they’re completed) continue to roll off the busy production line every week. The current line-up includes the PA-28 Archer LX, Archer TX and Arrow; the PA-34 Seneca, PA-44 Seminole and the three different PA-46s in the ‘M-class’: the Meridian, Mirage and Matrix.
Piper’s new Chief Executive Officer does not speak with the kind of accent you’d expect the boss of big American company to have. So, while I was eager to enquire about several burning issues when I got to talk to him, one question was uppermost in my mind: how did a boy from The Wirral end up running one of the greatest names in GA?
“It always been in my blood,” laughed Simon. “I’ve been working in this industry for almost 38 years, and have always been interested in aviation. I even used to make model aeroplanes as a child.”
Simon’s first jobs in aviation were with one of the great British aviation companies, Hawker Siddeley. He had always wanted to be involved in the design side of engineering, and was lucky enough to be offered an engineering apprenticeship at Broughton, Chester. The company also paid for him to go to college. At Hawker Siddeley he mainly worked on design and, although he also did some systems work later in his career, he has specialised in airframes.
After Hawker Siddeley became part of British Aerospace, Simon was placed on a fast-track management development program. He was involved in the production of the successful 125 business jet, running the programme virtually as a separate business (the offices were even on the opposite side of the airfield).
When the 125 was sold to Raytheon, Simon stayed with the aircraft, initially within the UK, and then relocating to the USA when final assembly was moved to Wichita. Having joined the senior leadership team and worked his way up to Vice-President of assembly operations, he ended up running five different plants and manufacturing ten different models of Hawker-Beechcraft.
He moved to Piper in 2009 as Chief of Production for the Altair. “It was kind of ironic that I was hired to produce the PiperJet. I did that for about a year before becoming Vice-President of Operations. I then became CEO, and one of the first things I did was to suspend the jet programme! Of course I did it for good business reasons?the market just isn’t there right now.”
Piper as a company is a notable absentee from the very buoyant Light Sport Aircraft market and you have to wonder if Simon, who has a private licence himself, has any plan to put the Cub back in production. The J3 was the original LSA, and American Legend and Cub Crafters have enjoyed a considerable amount of success in recent years with their own versions.
“Personally, I would love to do it. In fact, when I took over as President and CEO, one of the first things I did was to put up two new paintings in my office. One of them is of obviously the Meridian, which is our flagship. The other one is a lovely painting of a J3 Cub, because that’s the heritage of this business. I look at it every day and think ‘if only we could build those’. Of course, its not that we can’t build them, it’s just that the business case?what with the cost of product liability insurance these days? just doesn’t stack up. It’s purely down to the financials.”
Piper has a truly amazing back catalogue: are there other types he might consider resurrecting, such as the Cheyenne or Chieftain?
“We’ve no immediate plans. Every now and again someone will come along and ask us if we could make them a Chieftain or something, but you know, we’d really need a sizeable order to make it viable. At the end of the day, this is a business I’m running?and my agenda is to make planes to make money?it’s that simple.
“To bring back an old model would require a heavy investment in tooling, because for some of the old models, although we may have some of the tooling here, we don’t have all of it. Furthermore, regulations have changed over the years, and equipment has changed. In fact, we probably couldn’t get the equipment that we used to build a Chieftain on, so we’d have to do some re-engineering, which means development work, which means re-certification issues, and all of this adds costs?costs which must be recouped.”
Today Piper has a new certification body to contend with, in the form of EASA. “As we have to deal with the FAA and many other regulatory authorities all round the world, it’s simply part of the process. Some regulatory authorities do have stricter regulations than others, but it’s our job to ensure that our aircraft meet those requirements. So, to answer your initial question completely, although the LSA market is never off the radar there are several good reasons why a resurgence of the Cub isn’t my highest priority.”
Most analysts are predicting that air travel will continue to grow ‘exponentially’, and professional flight training organisations are gearing up to supply the tens of thousands of new airline pilots that the industry will need over the next twenty years. Interestingly, about five years ago, Piper decided to get out of the flight training business. However, as Simon pointed out “when you look at the heritage of Piper and the fact that the Cub is probably the world’s most recognisable trainer, flight training really is the grass roots of Piper Aircraft.
“I firmly believe that we need to be in the training business and consequently we are focussing on the single-engine market with the Archer, and the twin-engine market with the Seminole. Both types are rolling off the production lines right now, and my intention is to secure more sales with the professional flight training schools.”
What about the Altaire jet?is the project completely dead? “Well, we’ve put it on ice indefinitely, as it really is heavily dependant on the market. In fact, the programme has actually only just finished. Although it was suspended some time ago, we didn’t just stop it dead. Having invested so much time on it, it made sense to finish all the elements we were working on. So we actually kept some engineers working on it to complete various parts of the project, and all the engineering data and intellectual property has been carefully archived.
“Furthermore, all of the tooling and parts that we’d already made have been quarantined. So, if and when the market for this aeroplane does improve there’s a possibility we’ll revisit it. In any event, the ideas and engineering that we developed for the Altaire may well find a use in some of our other aircraft.”
Piper’s piston-engine aircraft are selling well and it appears that the company has no immediate plans for alternative diesel or electric power plant. “One of the key things that I want to do?remember that I only took the company over nine months ago?is to get a very clear idea of the direction in which we want to go. I’ve currently got the engineering team looking at all of our products, and all the elements of our products?such as what will our power plant strategy be moving forward? What’s the market going to demand? And of course there are big questions about the future of avgas and its availability.”
Finally, a more light-hearted question. To conclude the interview I asked Simon if he had a favourite type. He laughed, and admitted that “I do have a little bit of a bias. Having built business jets for the best part of my career and been on the design team for the Hawker 800, I just think it’s a great aircraft. It’s really good looking and is also nice to fly, either as a pilot or passenger.
“Of course, if we’re talking about a fun plane, I don’t think you can beat the Piper Cub. It’s another great looking aircraft…” He pauses for a moment. “You know, if I could only find a way for Piper to make money out of it, I probably would build it ?and I’d definitely have the first one off the line.”