Australia's general aviation manufacturers have had to beat the odds to win export success, including - at times - their own aviation authority

Australian general aviation manufacturers have fared better in global markets than many of their compatriots in other sectors of the aerospace industry thanks largely to dogged determination.

Gippsland Aeronautics and Jabiru Aircraft have both found overseas success after years of trying to break into markets, battling numerous hurdles along the way including lack of certification experience within Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). After more than 20 years of trying to achieve a foothold in the GA manufacturing industry, fellow Australian company Seabird Aviation has at last found success and sales abroad.

George Morgan, co-founder of Gippsland Aeronautics, puts his company's success down to identifying a gap in the market and diligently working through all certification requirements. "By the time you reach the end of the process you have an aircraft that is internationally certificated to the highest level, and one that can carry twice the volume of its competitor and produces a profit every hour," says Morgan.

Gippsland was formed by Morgan and Peter Furlong at the Latrobe regional airport in Victoria in the 1970s as an aircraft maintenance and modification business. The first aircraft design of its own was the GA200 agricultural aircraft, which received Australian certification in 1991 and US approval in 1997.

With the highs and lows of the agricultural business, however, Gippsland soon realised that it could not survive in that sector alone. "Commercially it was worse than gambling," says Morgan. Forty-five GA200s are now flying and the aircraft is produced to order, but in the early 1990s the manufacturer identified a niche that would provide a more stable level of revenue.

The GA8 Airvan was designed as a utility transport to replace the Cessna 206/207 and de Havilland Beaver. "We saw there was a hole in the market between the Cessna 206 and the Caravan. We knew that with the lifting qualities of an agricultural aircraft and the operating economics, we could fill it," says Morgan. The GA8 Airvan offers double the payload and volume of the Cessna 206 at lower operating costs, he says.

Forty-three Airvans have been delivered, with the aircraft operating in nine countries. One aircraft is being produced every nine working days, with the manufacturer aiming to improve this to five days, a goal that Morgan says will be achieved with new expanded production facilities, which will come on line shortly.

"Since 1992 every dollar that we have earned we've put back into Airvan research and development, design and certification. It has cost us well over A$20 million [$15 million]," says Morgan.

It is not enough to come up with a good aircraft design, it also has to be to seen through to certification. In a country like Australia, which has little experience of its own aircraft programmes, that is not easy. Certification issues with CASA have probably caused Gippsland the greatest amount of problems. "In Australia, there are not a lot of people with experience of certification programmes," says Morgan. "We needed to reinforce to CASA that we could do things like manufacture aircraft in this country." CASA was receptive to this, says Morgan, with the authority forming a certification group in Canberra. "But it doesn't stop with certification; you then have modifications and further development. You need someone with this capability within CASA," he says. Gippsland and CASA persevered, as the alternative was for the manufacturer to move to the USA, which Morgan says there is no wish to do.

Certification achieved

After two years of work Gippsland achieved Airvan certification to Amendment 54 of FAR 23 - the highest level of airworthiness - in March 2003. The aircraft was originally certificated in 2000 to Amendment 48, but approval at the higher standard was required to achieve US and Canadian type certification. The manufacturer is now working towards European certification, with UK type acceptance efforts 60% complete. If all goes well, Morgan expects a certificate of airworthiness by the end of the third quarter.

Gippsland now has a good relationship with CASA, Morgan says. "We have been a constant thorn in their [CASA's] side and we've seen many people come and go, and we are still here. We are forming good relationships with the upper echelons of CASA, which is helping, and we are now being accepted as a legitimate industry. But it's still an industry in its infancy in this country and a very small one at that," he adds.

Morgan is also hopeful that CASA's new chief executive Bruce Byron and its new charter, which sees the authority become more accountable to government and introduces more industry consultation, will improve the situation for manufacturers.

Efforts are also being made on reciprocal certification issues after years of Australia recognising the aircraft certification of other countries, but few recognising Australia's. "Good efforts are being made by CASA on reciprocal certification," says Morgan. But he adds: "We [Australia] have no weight in international aviation and you are kidding yourself if you think we have. Our population base is only the size of one large US city."

Despite the hurdles it has faced, Gippsland is planning further developments to the Airvan in response to customer demand, including improving the high altitude performance and power and adding floats. In the longer term, the manufacturer is looking at a family of aircraft to fill the gap in the market, says Morgan, who declines to be drawn further. It is also considering partial assembly in other countries, possibly the USA or Africa.

Queensland-based Jabiru Aircraft has faced the same problems as Gippsland, but with the impending release of the new light sport aircraft rule in the USA and Australia, and reforms under way at CASA, joint managing director and co-founder Phil Ainsworth is confident of a bright future.

The manufacturer produces one certificated aircraft - the two-seat LSA - and is nearing the end of a four-year certification programme for the UL version, which has been specifically designed for the European market. The rest of Jabiru's models are kit aircraft, including the two-seat Jabiru SK; the Jabiru SP; the kit version of the UL (sold as the Calypso in North America); and the four-seat J400, which is also sold as the two-seat J200.

For the new US light sport aircraft rule, which is expected to be released this year and followed by a similar rule in Australia, Jabiru has developed versions of theJ-series aircraft with a longer span and wider chord wing with more flap - the two-seat J250 and the four-seat J450.

Jabiru is also developing a new two-seat trainer, internally dubbed the T200, and a four-stroke, two-cylinder engine to add to its four-, six- and eight-cylinder engines.

To date, the manufacturer has sold about 600 LSAs, SPs and ULs and 150 J-series aircraft, with 350 of these sold at home and the rest exported, plus more than 3,200 engines. Jabiru also owns Microair Avionics, which develops aircraft radios and transponders and operates as a separate company. Since 1991 Jabiru has been fully funded by cashflow, says Ainsworth.

Mix and match

"Australian companies are used to low, volume production, so you need to be adaptable and flexible. This has helped us in international markets. We also have modular aircraft, which allows us to mix and match for different markets," he says.

Australia's insistence on certificating everything has also helped the company, Ainsworth believes, although certification issues have been the bane of Jabiru's life. "In Australia we've grown up under the old regulations that mean everything has to be certificated. In the USA the ultralight/kit manufacturers don't go near certification authorities. This has actually been a great asset to us and has helped us address our products at the regulatory authorities. For 15 years we've been doing it and it has been one of our greatest strengths as it means we've had to develop an excellent manufacturing and certification team," he says.

Ainsworth says that Jabiru now has a good understanding of the certification approval process in every country in the world, although that knowledge has been expensive to obtain.

Like Gippsland, Jabiru's relationship with CASA has not always been happy. "Before the Part 21 rule was introduced in 1998, the CASA certification office gave a very low priority to the light aircraft market and this was a great reason of frustration for us as it meant our UL project languished in CASA for some years," says Ainsworth. It was only when the head of certification at CASA, Neville Probert, pulled the UL project out of the certification office and dedicated authorised people to it that it made progress. "This made an enormous difference and this policy has continued and hopefully will continue for future programmes," he says. Ainsworth is confident that CASA's new charter will further help as it puts the emphasis on manufacturing. "We've also been encouraged by some of Bruce Byron's early statements," he says.

Sports rule

The greatest help the Australian government could provide to Jabiru now is by accelerating the new sports aircraft rule in the country and continue the CASA reforms, he adds. The sports rule in Australia, which has been slightly modified from the US version, is expected to be released in the first half of this year. "The sports aircraft rule will make a big difference to us," says Ainsworth. "We won't do any less work to certify aircraft, but it will mean that we can self-certify and we won't need to go through CASA, although all records will have to be available for inspection. It will mean we can get our products to market quicker," he says.

For Queensland-based Seabird Aviation, the road to market success has been long and hard. The Hervey Bay-based company has spent 21 years and A$11-12 million on developing its two-seat Seeker SB7L-360, says managing director Don Adams.

The Seeker is a fixed-wing two-seat aircraft with a Lycoming 0-360 engine driving a pusher two-blade propeller. It features a "helicopter-style" cockpit, has a 880km (475nm) range and can fly at low altitude and as slow as 65kt (120km/h), making it ideal for low-level observation work including law enforcement, border patrol and power line inspection.

Thanks to a deal in Jordan the programme has finally taken off. Interest from Jordan's King Abdullah II in the military Stormer version of the aircraft has resulted in Seabird establishing a joint venture with the King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau to assemble the aircraft in Jordan for distribution throughout the Middle East.

By late February, Seabird Aviation Jordan was claiming sales of 20 aircraft in Australia and Jordan. "We have further enquiries of about 300 aircraft worldwide," says Omar Massarweh, commercial operations manager of Seabird Aviation Jordan. The Royal Jordanian Air Academy has put two of its four Seekers on order into service, while a third aircraft produced in Australia will imminently enter service there, he says, adding that a further seven aircraft are under construction.

The Jordanian venture is also hopeful of a major order from coalition forces and the Iraqi authorities for around 25 aircraft to be used on surveillance missions. "We have many enquiries from countries in the Gulf region, Middle East and North Africa. Following our exposure at the Dubai air show the interest in acquiring Seekers for many missions has increased exponentially," says Massarweh.

Under the plans for the Jordanian joint venture, manufacturing facilities are to be established at Queen Alia International Airport, with construction expected to be completed by the middle of this year, says Massarweh. In the meantime, manufacturing facilities at the King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau are used. While the Jordanian operation employs just 20 people, the workforce is expected to grow to as many as 200 when the new facilities are completed. Just eight people are employed in Australia.

Seabird Aviation has found success in the Middle East where it has failed in its home market to date. "It's very difficult for Australian manufacturers to break into global markets," says Adams. A prerequisite for success overseas is to be successful in the home market first, which Seabird failed to do because the Australian government did not support home-grown technology, Adams believes.

Australian example

"We've been to many countries around the world and the first question we are always asked is how many Seekers are used in Australia," he says. "The Australian government and defence authorities need to order the aircraft first as that would help us in export markets," he says. Seabird put a proposal to the Queensland and federal governments a couple of years ago to use the Seeker's "go slow and often" surveillance capability for coastal border surveillance. "They weren't interested," says Adams. Seabird also faced funding and certification hurdles, with the Australian authority's lack of experience in certification issues a particular handicap. "We were the first manufacturer for 20 years, since the Nomad, to certificate an aircraft in this category," says Adams. He adds: "There was no certification experience and things just moved at a bureaucratic pace."

Unlike his counterparts, Adams does not believe that CASA's new charter will improve the situation, predicting: "It won't be much different to what it is now."


Source: Flight International