Alan Klapmeier on hope for general aviation

By James Fallows
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: 

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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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/04/alan-klapmeier-on-hope-for-general-aviation/13004/