Perhaps Britten-Norman's greatest success is that it has survived. In its early 1970s heyday, the UK's only commercial aircraft manufacturer – since BAE Systems axed its regional jet activities in 2001 – was shipping 100 piston-twin BN-2 Islanders a year. Today, annual production of its no-nonsense utility and nine-passenger transport has shrunk to just one or two examples.
However, the 65-year-old company has never gone away, surviving several bankruptcies over the decades, and more recently, the financial crash, the arrival of a clean-sheet competitor, and a messy dispute with its landlord that forced it to relocate from its headquarters of over 40 years at Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight, to a site near Southampton.
It is there, at the former RNAS Lee-on-Solent, known as HMS Daedalus, where William Hynett, Britten-Norman's long-serving chief executive and minority shareholder, hopes to resurrect the fortunes of the Omani-owned airframer with a new focus on the commercial market, raising annual production to a "commercially viable" four aircraft a year, on top of a number of refurbishments.
The company's plans for a new civil aircraft assembly and maintenance facility, in two new buildings on the new local authority-owned aviation park, complete with airfield access, come after almost a decade of "making do" in sheds that Hynett admits have been too small. That has forced the firm to take its foot off the marketing pedal, he says, and, at times, even turn away business.
The move to the mainland came in 2010 after the farmer who owned the Bembridge airfield fell out with Britten-Norman – placing straw bales over the runway to prevent access. The same year, the company also stopped outsourcing subassemblies to Romaero in Bucharest – its supplier for four decades – after Romania's entry to the EU rendered labour rates uncompetitive.
Production at Lee-on-Solent has been slow to pick up, although a plum UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) contract to build 10 Defender military variants of the Islander and support the fleet in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided much-needed revenue in the past decade. Maintenance and overhaul business from owners of some of the several hundred Islanders in operation has also been a lifeline.
However, "the priority now is to get Daedalus up and running", says Hynett, who plans to establish production lines in the new hangars in months. This will allow Britten-Norman to target the commercial market again, an area the "artificially capacity-constrained" company has neglected since 2010 as it has focused its limited resources on the MoD and overseas government contracts.
"A sustainable model for us is one new-build and one refurbishment a quarter, but in the past few years this has been difficult," he says. "We want to get back to a more even split between our commercial and military work. The MoD is an important contract, but it is a modest-sized fleet, compared to what's out there in the rest of the world, and they need our help."
Although the Islander’s design is 54 years old, Hynett believes the rugged airframe holds its own against newer, sleeker, lighter rivals, such as the Tecnam P2012 Traveller, which is currently entering service with launch customer US airline Cape. "The Islander is what it is," he says. "It is excellent in most respects. Its shortcomings we accept, but we believe it is as relevant today as it was in the sixties."
In fact, Hynett is "not convinced" the Italian type is a direct competitor. "The Tecnam is very light and aerodynamic, but we're like a Land Rover. What is great about the Islander is that it gets beaten up a lot. It is built so solidly." He regards the equally venerable Textron Aviation Cessna Caravan as a closer rival, although he says the Islander has the "big advantage" of having twin engines.
On around 80% of the almost 1,300 Islanders produced during the past 50 years, these engines are Lycoming O-540s. Rolls-Royce B17 turboprops, which deliver a slightly higher maximum take-off weight than their piston counterparts, power the remainder – mostly aircraft on government or special mission use.
Britten-Norman is mulling over a full-authority digital engine control (FADEC)-equipped engine – the P2012's Lycoming TEO-540 IE-2 comes with FADEC – but Hynett wants to "see how it goes" for Tecnam first. In the cockpit, he is sticking with Garmin's G600 TXi as standard, rather than the P2012's G1000: "It does 90% of what a G1000 does and we don't see the benefit of making the Islander pricier."
The firm is also opening a training centre in Malta, chosen because of its favourable weather, and "strong cultural fit". Hynett – a high-profile Brexit campaigner during the 2016 referendum – says the decision to open in the EU state is also part of a contingency plan, "in the event that the UK and EU fail to negotiate an effective bilateral relationship".
Together with its MoD work, refurbishments have represented the majority of Britten-Norman's revenues in recent years. It recently signed a contract to upgrade four Islanders operated by Romanian aerospace research institute Incas with G600 TXi glass cockpits. Last year, it began a similar upgrade effort on five Islanders operated by the Falkland Island Government Aviation Services.
Islanders have operated in the South Atlantic territory since 1979 – the first one was destroyed in the Falklands War in 1982. The type still carries out exotic and unusual missions in various corners of the world, from ferrying wealthy tourists to a luxury resort on Tahiti to operating the world's shortest scheduled air route – Loganair's 1min hop from Westray to Papa Westray in Scotland's Orkney islands.
That global spread of often tiny operators creates its own challenges. When we spoke to Hynett in the company's new head office in London’s Mayfair, he had just returned from a 24h trip to visit a customer in central Asia that operates a single Islander: "It’s a long way to go, but it's what we have to do," he says.
Despite his faith in ongoing market demand for the type, and his ambitions to restore modest commercial aircraft production, Hynett knows Britten-Norman will never return to its glory days of high double-digit annual production. "New build is capital-intensive and that is why we have gone for a deleveraged business in the past 10 years," he says.
"Besides, when we were producing 100 aircraft a year we were selling them at a loss, which is why we went bankrupt," he adds. "Now, when we produce aircraft we will do it at a modest profit."
THE COMPETITION: TECNAM P2012
While Britten-Norman is striving to put itself back on its feet – with admittedly modest ambitions for its BN-2 Islander – it will not be able to brush off competition from an all-new rival from Italy, which aims to take charge of the piston-twin utility market.
Indeed, where the Islander was designed half a century ago, Tecnam is billing its Lycoming TEO-540-powered P2012 twin as the first aircraft to be certificated in this segment for decades. Walter da Costa, Tecnam’s global sales and marketing director, sees the Traveller replacing many of the thousands of ageing legacy piston types serving island and other remote communities from Scotland to the South Pacific; types in da Costa’s sights include the Islander and Cessna 402.
What makes the Traveller such a significant competitive force is Tecnam’s relationship with its launch customer, Massachusetts-based Cape Air. The employee-owned carrier has ordered 100, and helped Tecnam design the aircraft from scratch; several examples will be delivered this year.
At a newly extended facility in Capua, Tecnam plans to build around 15 Travellers in 2019, including eight to 10 for Cape Air. The airframer has 30 additional orders; plans are to lift production to 25 in 2020 and 35 in 2021.
As of late 2018, Cape Air had 83 Cessna 402s in its fleet. But neither Cessna nor Piper would work with it to design a new passenger aircraft, so it turned to Tecnam. Cape Air’s requirements included single-pilot operation, a modern but unpressurised cockpit and cabin, a high wing for better passenger visibility and rough runways, fixed landing gear, a metal structure, and removable panels to give mechanics easy underfloor access – in other words, an aircraft designed for hops between small airfields of the sort found in coastal and island locations.
Da Costa stresses simplicity of design and maintenance as key features of the Traveller design.
The P2012 has a maximum cruise speed of 190kt (351km/h) and maximum take-off weight of 3,600kg (7,930lb). A large passenger door, twin cockpit doors, a spacious cabin, and a range of 950nm (1,750km) means the type is suitable for a wide range of missions, from commuter and charter air taxi to medevac, troop transport and cargo.
In cabin size, the Traveller, Cessna 402 and Islander are direct rivals. Other modern aircraft that might appeal to operators include the single-engined Quest Kodiak and Viking Air Twin Otter. The latter, in particular, is larger, heavier and more expensive.
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Source: Flight International