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Aviation: Material Benefit

Bailey S. Barnard and Michael Schulze

A mock-up of the spn, the upcoming light business jet from Grob Aerospace, displays one of the aircraft’s main attractions. The cabin, created by Porsche Design Studio, is unusually roomy for a light jet, especially in this six-seat executive configuration. (The standard configuration seats eight passengers.) Grob currently is taking the mock-up on a tour through the United States and Canada, prior to beginning deliveries of the $8 million, all-carbon-fiber craft toward the end of this year. (The letters sp in the jet’s name stand for special performance, single pilot, and superior payload. The n signifies to the nth degree.)

Josh Kovac, a Grob director and ex-Marine fighter pilot, has good reason to appreciate the spn: He stands 6 feet 4 inches. "Most aircraft manufacturers measure cabin width at the widest point, which is waist-high because the cabin is circular," he says during a tour stop in Los Angeles. "The trouble is, a circle narrows at the top, where you need space most." The spn, on the other hand, has an irregular shape that is widest at shoulder height. "It’s hard to make this shape with most materials," Kovac notes. "But not carbon fiber."

Grob, which is based in Zurich, Switzerland, began employing carbon fiber as early as the 1980s in surveillance planes such as the Strato 2C, which reached an altitude of almost 80,000 feet. "Carbon fiber is light and extremely strong," notes Grob CEO Niall Olver from his office in Zurich, "so you can do a lot of things with it. With the spn, for example, we could considerably reduce the jet’s weight and give it a robust undercarriage, allowing it to land and take off on short, rough runways, like a turboprop."

Olver expects that the spn’s short-field capabilities will make it attractive in the United States, where there are about 9,000 small airports, 4,000 of which cannot accommodate most jets. With a pilot and six passengers on board, an spn can fly 2,070 miles without refueling—the distance, say, from New York to Denver, or from Chicago to Los Angeles. The jet can ascend to 41,000 feet and reach 0.7 Mach, or about 520 mph.

Grob recently opened a facility in Portsmouth, N.H., to sell and maintain the spn. "We’re already backlogged to 2011," reports Claude Chidiac, the head of the U.S. operation, during a stroll through the building. "People are responding very well to carbon fiber—not only to its aerodynamic advantages, but to its aesthetics. The material doesn’t corrode, so your plane still looks great after a couple of years."

One fan of the spn is George Antoniadis, president and CEO of Alpha Flying, whose PlaneSense fractional operation sells shares in the $4 million Pilatus PC-12, widely regarded as one of the best turboprops available. Antoniadis, whose new headquarters is located just a few miles from Grob’s Portsmouth facility, recently ordered 25 spns. "It’s a big departure for us," he says during a tour of his hangar. "But it makes a lot of sense. The spn handles short airstrips like a PC-12, but it has a bigger cabin and flies about 135 miles per hour faster. This is the ideal trade-up plane for turboprop owners."

Grob Aerospace, 603.766.6060, www.grob-aerospace.net;
PlaneSense, 603.501.7751, www.planesense.aero

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