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With new management and additional financing in place- the Sino-Swearingen SJ30-2 light business jet may finally be getting on track toward eventual certification and production. It’s already a program that’s been a long time in progress – about eight years now- and counting.

Dave Higdon   |   1st August 2003
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Pressing On

SJ30-2 resumes flight tests as Sino-Swearingen works to achieve final certificate and deliveries.

With new management and additional financing in place- the Sino-Swearingen SJ30-2 light business jet may finally be getting on track toward eventual certification and production. It’s already a program that’s been a long time in progress – about eight years now- and counting.

The effort to certificate the promising SJ30-2 never quite enjoyed smooth sailing – not even back in the original incarnation- the SJ30- designed by innovator Ed Swearingen and his company- Swearingen Aircraft- in the late 1980s. Funding problems- market changes- program delays and other problems conspired to push back the original program to the point at which it would not be a competitive airplane in the market.

In 1995- with the original design no longer viable in the market- the company came under new ownership- which brought in new capital – and new management headed by former Beech Aircraft president Jack Braly.

Between when the original SJ30 debuted in 1991 and 1995- the light-jet market effectively bypassed the promising little business jet. If the same model were to come to market in this changed field- it would have a tough time competing for sales. Braly recognized that for the company to succeed- the original aircraft design needed changes that would definitively differentiate it from other competitors.

So the company moved the bar and undertook a redesign that produced the SJ30-2 – a longer- roomier- higher-performing model with operating characteristics unlike any other light business jet in the aircraft market. The new design won increased interest thanks to its traits that represented a breakthrough for business jets of its class. Those traits still remain unique in the light-jet class today: A cruise speed of a Mach 0.80; a 2-500-mile range with a pilot and three in the cabin; a 49-000-foot service ceiling and a 1-200-foot cabin at that altitude – with sea-level cabin all the a way up to 41-000 msl.

Sized slightly larger than the Cessna Citation CJ1- about the same size as the CJ2- and smaller than either the CJ3 or the Premier I- the SJ30-2 boasts speed- range and cruise-altitude performance numbers none of these competitors can match; and at a current price of $5.5 million equipped- the SJ30-2 similarly falls between the CJ1/CJ2 and the CJ3 and Premier I.

Advance orders of the SJ30-2 were promising- with the backlog swelling to about 180 airplanes in 2001. But progress wasn’t on the company’s side and money again ran short.

The partnership between Swearingen Aircraft and Sino Aerospace Investment Corp. begun in 1995- and continued under that arrangement until 1999- when the entities were merged and Sino-Swearingen Aircraft Co. was incorporated- bringing in more much-needed capital.

Indeed- in preparation for certification and production- a new factory went up in Martinsburg- West Virginia; production started; and flight tests of a production prototype began. Braly’s marketing team also established a global network of distributors to handle direct sales of the SJ30-2 jet.

Progress toward certification remained slow though. Problems with a risk-sharing partner- for example- prompted a decision to bring in-house component production- previously planned to come from overseas- forcing further delays- even as progress in flight-testing and production moved the program ahead.

Out with the old:

So in September of last year the investors shed the old management team and installed a new one- headed by Dr. Carl Chen. Chen- some of you likely remember- was the brains and energy behind Advanced Aerodynamics & Structures Inc.- or AASI- a California-based company that certificated the JetCruzer 450.

The JetCruzer design employed an innovative single-engine pusher that bore a strong resemblance to the Beech Starship- thanks to its canard-like forewing- swept main wing with tip rudders and a pusher powerplant.

Chen launched work on his design in the early 1990s with a proof-of-concept model that generated support sufficient to take the company public in 1996 – two years after certification of the 450. The company never manufactured the 450 and instead decided to move forward with a larger- more marketable version dubbed the JetCruzer 500. However- in early 2002- AASI was involved in a management change when new investors took control and merged the company with Mooney Aircraft of Texas. Later that year- the company quietly ended the AASI program and it ceased to operate.

Since arriving in San Antonio in September- Chen- working with some of his old AASI team- has managed to keep the SJ30-2 business jet program moving ahead. For example- shortly after his arrival- the company secured what it called “Last Stage Financing” to complete certification and proceed with production of customer airplanes.

On October 23- 2002- the SJ30-2 achieved a watermark when it streaked to a scorching Mach 0.83 in level flight- the fastest of any business jet in its class. And in November the airplane prototype achieved level flight at its projected service ceiling of FL490- along the way confirming speed and handling projections for that altitude.

In March- the company added a second conformal prototype to the flight-test program and progress seemed to accelerate. Progress continued and Sino-Swearingen’s experienced flight-test crew continued to proceed through the lengthy list of performance and handling checks required to win certification.

The third and final prototype was nearing entry into the program when a routine flight test went bad.

Tragedy interrupts progress:

On April 25- 2003- Sino-Swearingen’s highly experienced chief test pilot Carrol Beeler cut short a high-speed flutter test to examine some issues with the airplane. Satisfied that all was fine- he returned the prototype to the test on April 26. On that day the first flying prototype crashed after entering an unrecoverable roll during the same high-speed flutter test- killing Beeler.

After an understandable hiatus to accommodate the post-crash investigation of the National Transportation Safety Board – and a review of the program by the Federal Aviation Administration – flight tests resumed in late June.

Once again- the SJ30-2 jet is proceeding toward certification work that Sino-Swearingen hopes will lead to type certification and initial deliveries – previously targeted for sometime in 2004. “We’re aggressively approaching the flight-test program and looking toward getting all three test airplanes flying-” noted Gene Comfort- Sino-Swearingen’s senior vice president of marketing.

Comfort explained that the program is still destined to use three test planes to accumulate the 1-400 to 1-500 flight hours planned for the test and certification work. “Serial Number 2 was designated for the heavy aerodynamics testing-” Comfort detailed – and that was the test plane that was destroyed in April.

Serial Number 1 is being used as the so-called Iron Bird in ground-based torture tests to help determine wear points and failure limits that can not be quickly – or safely – tested in-flight.

“Serial Number 3- the next airplane in the program- has flown and is currently being outfitted with the needed data equipment-” Comfort continued. The Number 3 airplane has been designated to perform all the testing on systems- avionics- pressurization- control and the like- according to the company.

“Serial Number 4 is in the factory and nearly ready to take up the work that the Number 2 airplane was doing-” Comfort continued.

The fifth airplane is still in the company’s Martinsburg factory and the components made there – fuselage and the main wing components – are approaching completion. Once work is finished in Martinsburg- the two components will be shipped to San Antonio for final airplane assembly and outfitting with all the trappings of a business jet for sale – a full interior- complete with lighting- carpeting and all the other items you’d find in a delivered business jet.

The fifth and final airplane in the test program will be dedicated to completing the test program- including the critical F&R program – or Function and Reliability testing. F&R tests are typically the final step in a certification effort and help show how all the parts will work together in an accelerated real-world environment.

“As we move ahead- our flight-test crews will be flying the three airplanes seven days a week- around the clock- to help move us ahead as quickly as possible-” Comfort said.

Working together:

“We’re really in the best position we’ve been in for a long time-” Comfort noted- “thanks to the experience and background of Dr. Chen. Comfort related Chen’s background- which includes 15 years at Hughes Aircraft- his successful certification of the JetCruzer 450- and his work to take AASI public.

“Dr. Chen really understands how to manage our financial resources well-” Comfort explained. “He doesn’t pinch pennies where it isn’t wise – and knows how to get by frugally on items where it matters less.”

That means spending whatever is needed to put the right kind of computers on workers’ desks – but buying used desks- chairs and other furnishings because their used status doesn’t impact on the quality of work performed.

“He also enjoys an excellent relationship with our investors-” Comfort said of Chen. “He understands the culture- he speaks the language- and knows their concerns and ambitions for the program.

Chen and his team also seem to understand that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel at every step. For example- the company is retaining its distributor-oriented sales system- albeit with some unidentified changes between the distributors and the company. “We are – and will remain – a very distributor-oriented company-” Comfort stressed.

Comfort would not comment on the existing backlog or say whether customer commitments for the business jet remained as strong as before. “We still believe the SJ30-2 will be the best-selling business jet ever-” he stressed.

The one other area about which the company is not yet talking is the new timeline for completing certification and starting customer deliveries. “Dr. Chen is evaluating every aspect of the program and working to create a timeline that we can hit without question-” Comfort said. “That means we won’t have a timetable to announce until he’s satisfied that everything is under control and on track toward a conclusion… And once we announce that target- we’re going to hit it.”

Indeed- that target will be watched closely by the customers with orders - and the competitors who will then have to face the SJ30-2 jet in the marketplace.

Read more about: SJ30-2 | Sino-Swearingen

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