Raisbeck Engineering and its precursor, Robertson Aircraft, go back to the late 1960s, when James Raisbeck left Boeing to start a career in aircraft design. Since then, the Raisbeck team, under his direction, have amassed a staggering number of ‘firsts’ in the industry. They have come up with one innovation after another, many of which have subsequently been adopted as standard by the OEMs involved.
Q: What is the secret? How have you managed to keep on innovating down the years and how do you decide which element of an aircraft provides you with the opportunity to design and produce a profitable ‘add on’ innovation?
A: In retrospect it is always easy to see where the OEM has left gaps that we can fill. Down the years I have come up with some basic rules, or guidelines, on what to look for when thinking about making improvements to existing aircraft. I have always tried to choose an airplane, whether it be as large as an Airbus A320 or as small as a Cessna 182, or anything in between, that provides us with a decent profit opportunity. The basic rules are: 1) The aircraft should be in current production. 2) It needs to be popular, with plenty of them out there in service. 3) They should be operated by people who can afford to upgrade their aircraft if that upgrade can deliver proven additional performance and utility. 4) We would like, if possible, to have some relationship with the manufacturer (this has not always been possible, and we have not always been blessed with a loving relationship with the manufacturers whose airplanes we have targeted). The fifth and final rule is that there needs to be a technological hole, something the aircraft lacks, and the bigger the hole, the better the opportunity for us to make measurable improvements.
Q: You have had a real focus on Beechcraft, so it seems that their King Air line meets your five rules. What is it about Beechcraft that makes this OEM such an ideal candidate from your perspective?
A: I should preface this by saying that Beechcraft has simply done what so many OEMs have done down the years, namely to keep on adding new life to an old airframe design by stretching and tweaking it. The idea is always to do just enough to create a new model and stimulate fresh demand. For example, the Beechcraft King Air 350, in current production, is simply a stretched and repowered model of the King Air 200 and 250, which itself is a stretched version of the C90, which is still in production. If you go back to the King Air 90, that was a modification of the piston-powered Queen Air, which itself was a twin engine version of the Bonanza that Beechcraft had flying as a prototype before the Second World War. There has been an enormous amount of new technology and innovation in aviation since Noah grounded that particular Ark, but Beechcraft made its living for nearly 60 years by doing just enough to tweak an old model into a new model. The first King Air was delivered in 1964, so they have done a very good job of getting the most out of that series of aircraft, and still are.
Similarly with Boeing, the 737 is the same tube that it was in 1964. It has been reengined and stretched and provided with new avionics, but it is essentially the same aircraft. The Lear Jet which first flew in 1963 was a redesigned version of a 1950s Swiss fighter and the Lear 60 still has the same wing. So when someone like us comes along and looks at these aircraft there are going to be opportunities. Actually, when you look at the business aviation industry and at the numbers of aircraft sold each year it is pretty obvious that there is insufficient money in the business to retool the manufacturing process for new clean sheet aircraft on a regular, cyclical basis. So you don’t see a lot of new technology being rolled into airplane models on a yearly basis like you do in the auto industry. There is a huge cost associated with developing and certifying new technology in aviation. So the name of the game has been about breathing new life into old concepts.
Our approach is to start with an aircraft that is already parked on the ramp, in production and certified, so we don’t have to worry about what tyres to put on it, for example. It is there, ready for us to examine and to see where we can improve it sufficiently that a customer will want to buy the upgrade at a price that we can turn a profit.
Q: That last point, of course, is key, and Raisbeck has been very profitable down the years, despite working with a small team. I believe your team currently stands at around 25 staff, including engineers. How do you form a view on what makes for a sufficient increase in productivity from whatever innovation you are planning to introduce?
A: Seven things go into productivity. 1) Payload, how much will the aircraft carry? 2) Range, how far can it carry that payload? 3) Cruise speed, how fast can it get where you want to go? 4) What airfields can you get in and out of? What is your operational flexibility? 5) What is the impact of the improvement on direct and indirect operating costs? 6) What impact will it have on the aircraft’s resale value? In other words, how popular is the modification likely to be? Lastly, 7) Does it have ‘ramp appeal’? Will it make the aircraft look sexier? You have to worry about a mod that might work but makes the aircraft look pug-ugly.
Q: What are you busy with at the moment?
A: Right now we are working on the swept propeller for the King Air 350. There are over a thousand of them out there, still in production and we are on most of them with Dual Aft Body Strakes which increase the King Air’s speed, stability and its maximum permitted altitude, and with our Crown Wing Lockers, both standard equipment on the production line. The Wing Lockers are worth expanding on. When you get into the King Air 350 and turn right, that’s where your baggage goes. In terms of height, width and depth the luggage space is the same as the 1958 Queen Air, from which this model is derived. Yet the King Air 350 carries three times as many passengers as the Queen Air; so where are you going to put their luggage? There is nothing brilliant about wing lockers. They have been on aircraft forever, but not on a King Air. Why? That is a very good question, but it goes directly to the OEMs’ historic reluctance to do more than the minimum required to bring a ‘new’ (i.e., tweaked) model to market.
Q: I follow that there are opportunities, but it takes a certain mindset to spot them, and entrepreneurial skill to transform opportunity into profit. You have made sufficient profit through your engineering successes to donate some US$20 million to further education and to charity over the years, which, with limited staff numbers, is a tremendous feat and says great things about Raisbeck’s status as a company that cares for its local community. What do you put your success down to?
A: I worked with excellent engineers at Boeing, really brilliant people. I started with Boeing in 1961 as a Research Aerodynamicist and left in 1969 to avoid the rush as I like to say. True engineers, like true physicists, do not just work nine to five; so when I left Boeing I was able to tap like-minded engineers still there, after their normal working hours, to help me solve engineering problems I was encountering. The rumour was that half of Boeing used to moonlight, consulting to Raisbeck; why, it wasn’t over 10%! Seriously, nowadays, I make a practice of taking our young engineers to Boeing Field; we walk together along the ramp and try to pick apart every aircraft we see there. “Why did they do it that way?” we ask, again and again. “Why is this part here shaped like this? How could we make it go faster, using less fuel, carrying more weight?”
It is all about thinking through the problem at hand. For example, if you take the Raisbeck Epic Package for the King Air B200GT, it makes that airplane the fastest fully certified King Air of any model, at 318 knots; faster even than a King Air 350. Our Swept Blade Propellers are part of our EPIC Performance Package, but getting more speed by simply redesigning the propeller has some very real practical limits and much depends on whether you want to accelerate faster to cruise speed, or actually increase the cruise speed. We can make a four-bladed prop that will go faster off the runway and help you to achieve additional climb, but at cruise speed you really battle to improve by two knots. At those speeds it takes around an additional 1% of propeller efficiency to gain an additional knot of speed and you are already at 85% maximum efficiency. The only way of going faster beyond that is to put a jet on the aircraft, unless, of course you go for more horsepower. So, for the King Air 350 for example, we are developing systems which increase the net horsepower at altitude, along with drag reduction to complement our new propellers there.
For business jets, we studied aerodynamic flows in great detail on a Lear 35. We had an idea about reducing drag. We did over 600 hours of flight testing to understand what the load distribution was across the wings in cruise mode. In the end we found that we could reduce the drag by 10% just by morphing the fixed trailing edge of the wing. So we unbuttoned the flap, made our own composite flap in its place, and sold a whole bunch of those systems to Learjet operators. That is vastly more appealing and less expensive to an owner than swapping out his engines for ones of higher power.
Q: You mentioned leaving Boeing “before the rush”?
A: That was stretching the point a bit, because I left in the late 60s. But in the mid-1990s, the top management at Boeing decided that the company needed to save on staff costs since it wasn’t going to design a new airplane for several years. Up to that point Boeing had produced new models with great regularity from the 707 thru the 777, on time and on budget. It had a fantastic and extensive engineering team. But the company’s direction changed with the merger with McDonnell Douglas. The word got out that engineers were expendable. When the bean counters called for voluntary early retirement among the engineers, they expected around 400 to take the offer. Instead they got over 6,000 engineers of senior rank walking out the door. Basically the company lost the heart of its engineering competence. What happened after that was Boeing spending 10 years on the preliminary design of a new aircraft, including the so-called Sonic Cruiser. That eventually morphed into the 787, which wound up over three years late, racking up a massive budget overrun. That’s what happens when you lose your key engineering skills and the continuity of a senior team. They will do better on subsequent models because Boeing has now rebuilt the engineering skills that it should never have lost in the first place. That’s why we keep our team at Raisbeck Engineering small, happy, and constantly challenged by problems needing innovative, creative solutions. It’s our credence and our future.