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The Big Flight Back

The once booming German aviation industry has seen major brands such as MBB and Dornier going bust or being swallowed up by multinationals. Grob is reversing that trend with its SPn business jet – the first plane to be entirely made in Germany for years.

Erschienen:

  • Mai 2008

Fotos:

  • Ralf Barthelmes

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Situated in an ancient, misty forest that looks like something out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting is one of Germany’s most hi-tech businesses. Here in Tussenhausen-Mattsies, in the green and rocky Allgäu region of Bavaria, is the manufacturing plant of Grob Aerospace.The company has been building aircraft for more than 37 years, but now its engineers say they have created a masterpiece: the SPn business jet.

The aircraft is a “clean sheet design”, meaning Grob has developed every aspect of the plane and will also be manufacturing and ssembling it. “It is wonderful to see that finally in this country a company is building an entire plane from start to finish again,” says Bernd Gans, president of the German Business Aviation Association.

Though the German aviation industry has a long history that includes well-known names such as Messerschmitt, Heinkel and Dornier, today almost all of these companies have either been liquidated or absorbed into international corporations such as EADS. Apart from gliders and ultra-light aircraft, German companies just construct parts of aeroplanes or supply components.

Although 70,000 people currently work in the German aviation industry, Dornier was the last company that tried to build a whole jet on its own – and it filed for insolvency in 2002.

Grob’s SPn is an elegant small business jet, with an all-carbon-fibre composite airframe – similar to the one Boeing is using for its forthcoming Dreamliner – making the plane extremely robust, spacious and light. Additionally, the technology reduces the individual parts used from 16,000 in a comparable aluminiumplane to just 160. Thousands of metal parts and rivets can be dispensed with because the plane consists of just two main elements: the fuselage and the wing, both of which come out of a mould complete.

The strong, light aircraft will be able to land on airfields with short runways and even on unpaved ones that until now were only accessible to turboprops. “We wanted to build an aircraft that combined the typical features of a turboprop that can land in the African bush, with the cabin volume and comfort of a jet,” says Andreas Strohmayer, who is joint managing director of the company’s German operations alongside Ulrich Gehling.

This concept will dramatically increase the number of airfields where the business jet can be used. “If you need a runway of 1,200m for takeoff, there are probably 40 airports you can fly to in Europe. If you need only 900m, this number suddenly increases to about 200,” says Strohmayer. As a result you can access many more rural areas by plane.

Typically, the US accounts for 80 per cent of business jet sales. Because of its potential use in the developing world, Strohmayer expects the SPn to switch this ratio to 50 per cent US and 50 per cent rest of the world. “But the Americans also like us,” he says. Currently over half of all orders are from the US.

Inside a hangar, 20 mechanics are at work on the plane. “Thanks to the carbon-fibre technology, a space 20m by 30m is all we need to assemble the SPn,” Strohmayer says. “There’s no kilometrelong production line as there is with traditional aluminium aircraft.”

The idea of a light but robust business jet selling for just below €6m seems to be taking off. Grob has over 80 advance orders for the SPn, which is expected to receive European Aviation Safety Agency certification at the end of the year. “Right now the next available delivery times are in 2011,” Strohmayer tells potential customers.

Meanwhile the company is growing exponentially. In 2004 Grob had 120 employees, now there are 380. Strohmayer aims to have 550 by 2009. Not surprisingly, finding all these aeronautical experts is not that difficult. It’s an engineer’s dream to build an entire plane.

There is one dark cloud in the history of the new jet. The second SPn test aircraft crashed in November 2006, killing its pilot. Bernd Gans was visiting the company when the accident happened: “We saw the plane emerge from the clouds, then there was the bang and a fireball.” He feels that though obviously the crash has delayed the company’s schedule, it has probably not affected customers’ interest in the plane. “Every major manufacturer has at some time had a crash.”

Interest in Grob is spreading. Bombardier, owner of the Learjet brand says its next business jet, the Learjet 85, will be designed and constructed in cooperation with the Grob engineers in Allgäu. “Right now this small company is producing two business jets,” says Andreas Strohmayer. “That’s something much bigger companies only dare to do every 10 years at most."