Another Airplane Manufacturer Takes Wing in Washington’s Skies
April 8, 2016
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  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently certified a composite airplane built in Washington state, just a year after its first flight. It’s not a Boeing airliner.

    The Merlin, a two-seater fun airplane for weekend recreational fliers who can afford its $150,000 price tag, is just 22 feet long with a wingspan of 32 feet.

    Yet it’s a huge step for Glasair Aviation, located among a bunch of other small aviation businesses at the sleepy municipal airport in Arlington. It’s only the third Washington company with a current FAA airworthiness certificate, allowing sales of finished aircraft.

    On Thursday, the company’s first and only flying prototype test plane offered a smooth ride aloft toward the foothills of the sunbathed Cascades. Back at Glasair, the second one was under construction in a manufacturing process that’s more artisanal than industrial.

    Glasair’s workforce of about 40 people does the engineering, builds the tooling fixtures, fabricates most of the parts and assembles the airplanes — all in-house.

    In the composite shop there, Jeramy Olson stirred a catalyst into a small pot of glue. A clear plastic tube fed the amber-colored glue into a mold in the shape of a cockpit instrument panel, where sheets of glass-fiber fabric were pulled tightly into place by a vacuum.

    Long before even getting to this part-making stage, Olson had made the mold himself by hand with meticulous care. He hopes that mold will be making parts for 20 years or more.

    “My 5-and-a-half year-old son could be making parts on that mold someday,” Olson said with pride.

    Olson opened a valve, letting the glue flow into the mold, and as the vacuum sucked it in, a circular amber stain spread out quickly from the center until the entire part was infused with this resin. He left the part to cure at room temperature, a process Glasair uses for both fiberglass and carbon-composite parts.

    Olson, 43, previously worked in auto-collision repair and retrained to work with composites at the Washington Aerospace Training & Research Center operated by Edmonds Community College in Everett.

    He didn’t think of going to Boeing.

    “At Boeing, you make one part; you do the same job every day. This is my second go-round at a career. I didn’t want to be a number,” Olson said. “At Glasair, I get to be part of building an entire plane. I have a say in how we make it.

    “I love the innovation. I love the creativity. This is an awesome company.”

    The fuselage for the Merlin is made in two full-length carbon-composite halves, as if the plane were sliced precisely along its length. The halves “come together like a clam shell,” said Dan Burwell, vice president of marketing.

    The seam is bonded with carbon tape and more resin so that it’s both “super strong” and invisible, said Burwell. The wings have a fiberglass shell with an interior substructure of aluminum spars and ribs.

    Coby Young, 22, an aircraft technician who graduated from Everett Community College with an FAA-issued Airframe and Powerplant certificate, assembled a wing Thursday for Merlin No. 2. Making a wing from start to mounting it on the plane takes about 200 hours, he said.

    “I’m with this plane from start to finish,” said Young.

    Founded in 1979, Glasair previously manufactured only kit airplanes, delivered as a bunch of parts and designated as “amateur-built.” A 25-foot-long wooden crate in the Glasair shipping area sat ready to go out for delivery of such a kit to Turkey.

    Federal regulations require the person buying a kit plane to assemble at least 51 percent of it. That owner, not the kit’s developer, is then liable if there’s an accident later due to mechanical or structural issues.

    But kit planes have declined in popularity, said Burwell. “Millennials buying planes aren’t necessarily into building them,” he said. As a result, kit makers must “evolve or die.”

    Manufacturing and selling an entire assembled plane, for which the manufacturer is liable, is a much bigger project, said Ted Setzer, one of Glasair’s original founders and now its in-house plane-making guru.

    “It’s like the difference between cooking something in your own kitchen and opening a restaurant,” said Setzer. “Now the health department has to come in and qualify your kitchen. Everything, every part, every process, every test, has to have a supporting piece of paper.”

    He noted that in 37 years, no plane sold by Glasair has had a structural failure. “And that’s without the FAA lording over us,” he said.

    The FAA in the early 2000s introduced a new category of airplane called the “light sport aircraft,” or LSA, to make the world of small personal-use airplanes — a branch of the small airplane universe known as general aviation — more affordable.

    For this category, the FAA offers a much simplified certification process. The manufacturer must self-certify and document that its manufacturing and quality processes meet established standards. The FAA goes over all that paperwork, then inspects the first airplane for airworthiness. After that, each subsequent airplane built is inspected by an FAA-authorized inspector.

    At the end of March, the FAA certified the Merlin as airworthy.

    Glasair President Nigel Mott said it’s taken more than two years and more than $2 million to get there.

    That investment was made possible after Glasair was bought in 2012 by Jilin Hanxing Group, a Chinese conglomerate.

    Jilin is trying to develop a budding general-aviation sector in China, building small airports and flight schools.

    “Now we have certification in the U.S.; it’s a fairly direct path to certification in China,” said Mott. Jilin Chairman Fang Tieji “will be able to sell the Merlin in China and set up production there.”

    In the meantime, he said, the Merlin represents a great opportunity for his small company.

    He said they are targeting the flight-school market, offering the Merlin as an ideal plane to teach people to fly.

    So far, the Merlin sales book has exactly two orders, from Rainier Flight Services, a flight school in Renton.

    Ben Rauk, Glasair’s aircraft-production manager and test pilot, flew the Merlin last summer to AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., a showcase and sales bazaar for general-aviation enthusiasts.

    This summer, Rauk is flying into Oshkosh again and hopes for real sales interest because, “this year, we’ve got an airplane that’s certified.”

    The Merlin had its first flight on April 7, 2015. A year later to the day, it rose easily into the sky above Arlington.

    Out of habit, the pilot, Rauk, identified his machine to other air traffic in the area as “experimental,” a term used for test planes and amateur-built aircraft.

    Actually, he no longer needs to say that.