UK general aviation may be long past its heyday, but the now tiny manufacturing sector is still pushing innovation despite the many difficulties it faces

At its height, between 1925 and 1950, UK general aviation was famed for its innovation, success and pioneering designs. The illustrious sector spawned luminaries such as Fred Miles, designer of the M2 Hawk and M65 Gemini; Desmond Norman and John Britten, developers of the BN-2 Islander, Trilander and Defender utility aircraft; and Geoffrey de Havilland, designer of the Moth family and ubiquitous Hawker business jet, which is now produced in the USA following its sale to Raytheon Aircraft in 1993.

At the opening of the 21st century, the landscape has changed beyond recognition for the now tiny but no less innovative UK GA manufacturing sector. Aviation focus has switched to European air transport and defence programmes, while the UK has become a nation of first- and second-tier suppliers to the aerospace industry. GA manufacturing, which has had no shortage of start-ups, has been shunted to the sidelines to grapple with costly development, funding shortages and negative image.

According to the latest statistics from the UK General Aviation Manufacturers and Traders Association (GAMTA), there are now only three aircraft manufacturers in the UK. Of these, Europa Aircraft is a leading producer of kit-built aircraft with over 1,000 kits sold to date, while nearby, at Kirkbymoorside in North Yorkshire, Slingsby Aviation has an empty orderbook for its T67 Firefly ab initio trainer.

"We are now the only UK company producing factory-built aircraft," says Maurice Hynett, deputy chairman of B-N Group, fourth owner of the Britten-Norman utility aircraft line. The Bembridge, Isle of Wight-based company has a long-standing agreement with Romanian aerospace group Romaero to build the fuselage and wing for its aircraft line, which now comprises the Islander and Defender 4000 since Trilander production was halted in 1982 due to a lack of demand. Final assembly and completion are done in the UK.

The Islander orderbook has also dwindled over the years, Hynett admits. "There are around 800 [B-N types] in service today. These aircraft were built to last, which is very satisfying for the customer, but frustrating for the manufacturer, which is in business to sell."

To reduce its reliance on aircraft manufacturing, the Omani-owned company is building up its subcontracting and maintenance work. It plans to offer a diesel-engined version of the Islander to the new and upgrade market and is eyeing the 300hp (225kW) engine under development by French manufacturer SMA. B-N Group says it is having notable success with its Defender 4000, securing orders from medical evacuation, coastal patrol and homeland security agencies operates worldwide.

A UKGA aircraft that was withdrawn in 1995 could soon re-emerge, however. The heightened terrorist threat worldwide and increased demand for airborne security could trigger the revival of the Optica as early as next year. The light-observation aircraft was designed in the UK in 1978 by John Edgley and was scrapped by previous owner FLS Aerospace after only 18 aircraft were built, one of which crashed during police service.

"The new aircraft will be an upgraded version of the original," says Chris Burleigh, owner of UK design company Black Art Composites, which is assisting new owner Brian Kyme, chairman of the British Light Aircraft Company, with the project. Kyme has also acquired the design rights from FLS Aerospace for the Sprint aerobatic trainer for which it has earmarked service entry within 12 months of its stablemate. "The Optica will incorporate the latest technologies, including Lycoming IO-540 engines and modification to the cabin and cockpit such as stretched as opposed to blown windows," says Burleigh.

To reduce overheads, Kyme has appointed Romania's Aerostar to build the "labour-intensive" subassemblies, which will be shipped to the UK for final assembly. A US final-assembly facility is also planned to service the North American market.

But Burleigh suggests the task of bringing the revamped Optica to market in the UK will be a challenge, despite having UK and US type certification for the existing design. He admits the UK investment community has become increasingly reluctant to back aviation programmes because the industry does not have a high success rate. "Thankfully, the very costly variables such as certification can be removed from this funding requirement, which may open a few doors," he says.

Market costs

Historically, it has been more costly to bring a product to market in the UK than almost anywhere else in the world, says Mark Wilson, managing director of GAMTA, because the UK Civil Aviation Authority is funded entirely through aviation and is required to make a small profit.

Angus Fleming, owner and managing director of Aviation Enterprises, agrees. He has been developing the two-seat Magnum light aircraft since 1991, funding the programme from the profits of his turbine-blade manufacturing business. The aircraft has UK CAA very-light-aircraft approval, but Fleming hopes to open the market by developing an instrument-flight-rules version under JAR Part 23 regulations. The Bombardier Rotax 914-powered aircraft is due to fly at the end of the year.

"It has been a hand-to-mouth existence at times," Fleming concedes. "Certification is a very expensive, lengthy, yet necessary process. But you cannot cut corners." Pointing out recent CAA charges of £135 ($245) a hour, he adds: "The programme has cost around £800,000 to date." But he admits that if he were to begin the process today, development costs could exceed £3 million. "You have to be slightly mad to get into this business. It is a passion, but I have a world-beater that I want to get to market."

This passion is shared by James Labouchere, managing director of Centaur composite seaplane developer Warrior (Aero Marine). Unlike Fleming, however, Labouchere has no subsidiary business to fall back on and is seeking to secure the next round of funding through private investment to take development of the six-seat, folding-wing aircraft through to first flight. "We have faced every hurdle imaginable," says Labouchere. "The fallout of 11 September and the dotcom bust hit investment and consequently programme development hard. Some milestones were not reached and investment money pledged against these targets was withdrawn."

However, Salisbury-based Warrior has successfully secured significant government grants in the UK - home to its research and development facility - and in the USA, where it recently established an engineering and assembly base. "We have always had a robust business case as the Centaur has at least four unique selling points," he says, one of which is a high-value replacement market, estimated at 4,000 aircraft, and significant market expansion opportunities.

But progress is now subject to raising funds, which Labouchere says "is proving very difficult despite our unique position, as few investors share our enthusiasm for the market".

This view is echoed by Farnborough Aircraft, developer of the F-1 six-seat, single-engined turboprop, for which funding is proving hard to find. Lead investor Geoffrey Galley is supporting the programme for the time being. Jonathan Sumner, director of Farnborough Aircraft, says: "In the UK we lack an appetite for risk around aviation start-ups." He says the GA industry is littered with failures, but adds this is due to "a lack of deep thinking and understanding" by investors who want a quick return on their money. Sumner adds: "They must step outside their comfort zone because here is a consumer story that will take their breath away."

GA supporters say there is a lack of appreciation in the UK for what the industry can provide, as both a wealth creator and transport provider. GAMTA's Wilson says the industry is hampered by a deep-rooted negative image at local and national level. "Airfields, for example, far from being seen as a benefit, are being closed down by authorities in response to appeals from local residents," he says.

The UK General Aviation Awareness Council (GAAC) says there are now 140 licensed aerodromes - the lowest number since the Second World War. Of these, some are facing closure in the near future and others may soon face restrictions on activities.

Unused infrastructure

Sumner says there is a huge unused infrastructure and the technology exists to support safe access to most of the airfields, which would alleviate congestion at major airports. "The UK government is in a unique position to establish this transport option for the benefit of the economy, but its lacks leadership and commitment to long-term risk taking."

Although UK GA manufacturers this century are unlikely to achieve the prominence and security of their predecessors, there will be no shortage of players with a passion to bring their designs to market.

The establishment of the European Aviation Safety Agency as the centralised aviation regulatory authority for the European Union should help ease the costly certification burden for manufacturers and level the playing field with the rest of Europe. Trade bodies such as GAMTA and the GAAC will continue to push for measures to smooth their path ahead. As Britten-Norman's late co-founder Desmond Norman pointed out: "You can make fortunes out of aviation - I am proof, having made three. You can also lose fortunes out of aviation. I have lost four."


Source: Flight International