Pociunai airfield is an unlikely location to find a world-leading aviation company. The deliberately out-of-the way former Soviet military base lies outside the small town of Prienai in western Lithuania, and for much of the year its runway is knee-deep in snow.

But Sportline Aviacija is one of five companies in the world producing competition gliders and now it is considering a move into the mainstream general aviation market.

The key to it achieving its ambition could be the European Union's structural funding programme, designed to bring the poorer areas of the EU – most of them now in the new member countries of eastern Europe – up to western European economic levels. There is around €2 million ($2.6 million) reserved for Lithuanian companies who invest in projects that boost employment in depressed regions, with particular focus on high-technology.

Stasys Skalskis, managing director of Sportline Aviacija, believes the company will be a strong candidate to pick up funding. If it is successful, Skalskis wants launch the LAK-21 two seat composite piston, pitching it as a sportplane able to go higher and faster than its rivals. The structural funds will be awarded from next year and Skalskis estimates a development time of around 30 months before a prototype is available.

If it wins funding, the company will have to match the EU grant. If not, the project could be on the rocks as Sportline will almost certainly not be able to shoulder the entire development cost, says Skalskis.

The company would also enlist neighbours at Pociunai airfield, principally an engine overhaul shop to assist in engine mounting and testing. In this way, Skalskis hopes to make Pociunai the general aviation centre of excellence for the Baltic region. He points to low labour costs as a chief draw: Sportline has already carried out subassembly work for French GA manufacturer Sman, making glassfibre and graphite fibre wings and bodies for its Petrel ultralight amphibian aircraft.

However, this advantage is being diluted. "Five years ago, our wages were 40% lower than today. The average wage was around 500-700 Lts ($190-265) per month. Now it is 1,200 Lts and this is rising all the time," he says. He forecasts average salaries reaching EU levels within 10 years, not least since his engineers now have the possibility to work elsewhere in the EU.

Skalskis says meeting EASA certification rules would pose few challenges for Sportline, founded as the Lithuanian Aviation Construction company (LAK) in 1969 to make observation gliders for the Soviet air force. "Often Soviet military standards are higher than general aviation rules today," he says.

Also, since the Lithuanian CAA took the European JARs as its basis when it was founded after independence in 1991, EU membership has not imposed any new regulatory hurdles.


Source: Flight International