Alan Klapmeier on hope for general aviation

One of the heroes of my book Free Flight, and of this excerpted Atlantic cover story, was Alan Klapmeier, who with his brother Dale founded and ran the Cirrus Design aircraft company of Duluth, MN. Ten years ago, when I was spending time with them in a mainly-vacant hangar in Duluth, they had not delivered the first airplane to the first customer and were in promising-startup mode. Through most of the years since then, their mainstay SR-22 propeller plane has been the most popular single-engine plane in the world. More than 4,000 of them are in service in North America, Europe, South America, Australia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and other places too. Like all airplane companies from Boeing on down, Cirrus has had to cut way back in the past year.

Manufacturing people are not always eloquent about their work and its implications. Alan Klapmeier is a dramatic exception. He is an interviewer's dream: able -- and all too willing! -- to talk for hours about why he made this decision versus that one, why he believes in his work, what his vision of the future is and how he plans to get there.

Klapmeier is still chairman but no longer CEO of Cirrus, for reasons I'd know more about if I were on scene to talk with him. But via the Cirrus owners' site I found this link to a speech he delivered recently at the Atlanta Aero Club. Index of Aero Club speeches here; direct link to video of Klapmeier's appearance here. From the video: 

Klapmeier3.jpg

People who are interested in aviation will be interested in the whole hour-plus presentation. Klapmeier talks about the real-world barriers to the expansion of general aviation; Cirrus's upcoming models including its new jet; the problem of icing in small planes; and many other topics.

People who don't care about aviation but are interested in human nature, innovation, technical progress, and the kind of advances on which future U.S. prosperity depends might want to watch at least a few minutes. I think they give exposure to an impressive person who can not only "do" but also talk engagingly about what he is doing. We're used to encountering this kind of person in. say, the biotech or software world. This is a sample from the world of producing tangible, highly-complex physical objects -- working, by the way, in the only manufacturing category (aerospace) in which the U.S. has long produced a significant trade surplus.

The first eight or nine minutes, in which he discusses why small aircraft became an oddball specialist taste, give an illustration. (Forgive the first 45 seconds, in which he is fiddling with the projector.) From about minute 20 through minute 30 he talks about the problem of icing and pilot safety. From minute 30 onward, he talks about Cirrus's new "personal jet." From minute 45 onwards, an entrepreneur's perspective of Wall Street, derivatives, etc. But right at minute 37:00 through about 43:00 you get a full view of the entrepreneur's passion that I encountered when I first met him. This may give a little taste of why I thought I had come across an interesting story after that first visit to Duluth.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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