That's the word Jim Griswold wants you to keep foremost in your mind when you think of his company's new homebuilt design, the Venture. Integrity in the aircraft's design and testing, integrity in the materials and components that go into it, integrity in its performance and handling -- and integrity in the way you will be treated as a customer.
Integrity in any product has to start with the people who created it and stand behind it -- so, first, let's get acquainted with Jim Griswold and his Questair team.
Jim enjoys telling people he was born just 15 miles south of the Kansas pasture where Clyde Cessna flew his first airplane. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1953 with a degree in aeronautical engineering and went to work for Cessna. His first job was the inboard wing design on the T-37 --and, later, was involved with the design and development of the 300 and 400 series of Cessna twins and the Skyhook helicopter. When Bill Lear brought his Learjet project home from Switzerland, Jim was one of the engineers he hired to get it finished and pushed through FAA certification. After that program ran its course, Jim switched to Aero Commander and was a key figure in the development of the Turbo and Grand Commanders. He had another stint at Cessna, first working on the A-37 and, later, becoming manager of all the firm's commercial programs. In August of 1978, he became Piper Aircraft's Director of Engineering -- and as such was the person responsible for the development of the highly regarded Malibu -- with the invaluable assistance of Ed MacDonough.
Ed graduated from the University of Florida in 1937 with a degree in mechanical engineering, with an aero option. His first job -- at the munificent sum of 35 cents per hour -- was working for Walter Beech in the development of the Staggerwing and Model 18 twin. As World War II approached, he moved to Connecticut to work for Chance Vought where his first assignment was the design of the inboard wing section of the now legendary Corsair. Over the years, Ed would work his way up through the company, becoming manager of load stress dynamics testing, project and chief engineer and, ultimately, vice president. When Vought was merged into a huge conglomerate, he left aviation and bought a specialty truck manufacturing concern. Eventually, he and his wife retired and moved to Vero Beach, FL where he dabbled a bit in commodity trading. That activity was over by 9:00 o'clock each morning, however, and soon he found himself bored stiff. One day he walked in Piper Aircraft's front door, told them he used to be an engineer and thought he could still crunch a few numbers. He was hired as a junior stress analyst -- and eventually came to the attention of Piper's new Director of Engineering, Jim Griswold.
Jim recalls the initial crossing of their paths with pleasure and a little understated humor: "When I came to Piper I knew no one, so I spent a lot of time, initially, going around asking questions -- and that older gentleman at the desk over by the wall consistently had the best answers. I pulled his file and when I saw his background, I just flipped. I went right over and said, 'Ed, as of this moment you are our advanced design department..' And in his quiet way, he said, 'Fine, what are we going to design?' That was the beginning of the Malibu. After we got it conceived and underway, he retired -- again -- and left the execution to me, which I will never forgive him for!"
The pressurized Malibu would emerge as the one Piper design that has been selling consistently throughout the current -- and continuing -- debacle the light plane industry is experiencing. It has been widely heralded as the only truly new single engine light plane design since at least the 1940s -- but Jim has some interesting commentary on that.
"With the Malibu, Ed and I were committed to creating the best customer value that technology would permit. K We started from scratch and, among other sources, sifted through Fred Weick's library of all the old NACA reports to be sure we always decided on the very best way to do every job. When we got all through and the airplane was in the hands of the customers, we were working through a lot of the research material we had used and suddenly realized that the total technology package for the Malibu was known in 1933! At first we were a little shocked, but, really, it isn't particularly surprising because the majority of the effort since 1933 has gone into transonic, supersonics, etc., which is a whole different picture. What we gained was a tremendous respect for the fellows who actually created this industry in the 20s and 30s. They were very disciplined and intellectually honest. They were trying to create a product of value. It's humbling when you go back and review their work, because our generation has not done all that well. We have had the recent examples of new aircraft being designed and put into production to replace earlier designs --- only to have the new design discontinued because it did not prove to be a better value for the customer than the old one. That is a serious indictment of our generation. Looking back at the work of those that preceded us in this industry takes you down a few notches to where you can do work on a little higher level than arrogance will otherwise permit."
The Venture actually began as an airplane Jim felt he needed for himself. He and his wife, Helga, had family scattered across Texas and Kansas -- too far from Vero Beach for convenient, economical weekend travel by means of existing light planes -- so he decided to design and build his own. After getting well into the concept, he began to think that if it met his needs so completely, others might also get excited about it -- and pretty soon the idea of starting a new company to build his airplane as a homebuilt kit just naturally evolved.
The project actually started on Jim's patio in Vero Beach with a cabin mockup made out of particle board, 2x4s, lots of cardboard and some divan cushions. From the beginning the design rationale was to create an airplane by thinking like a customer instead of an engineer. It had to have a big, roomy cabin because, as Jim says with his matter-of-fact humor, "The cabin is the only reason people buy airplanes. The upholstery is all the customer buys --- the rest of it is nuisance. If it didn't have wings, a tail, a landing gear, engine --- think what a delight it would be to own an airplane -- you could put it anywhere. In the past when engineers have created designs, they have typically designed for their own convenience and joy, not the customer. But I don't know any engineers who buy airplanes. Customers buy airplanes. That's why my airplane has a cabin 45 inches wide, has comfortably upright seating and lots of baggage room. Outside of that cabin, my task as an engineer was to figure out how little was needed to do what had to be done to make this upholstered box transportable.
"After I built this cabin mock-up, I called Ed down from Charlotte, NC, where he had moved, to see if I had done everything right. We messed around with it a bit, made some changes and, essentially, at that point had the Venture nailed down, because once you get the people accommodations set, the rest of it has to fall in place to fit the cabin. What we were after was creature comfort, performance in the mid-200 knot range, a thousand nautical mile range, a very low noise level and elegant flying qualities."
Timing is everything, someone has said, and it simply happened that as Jim was conceiving his personal airplane, the bottom was dropping out of the light-plane industry's market. All the companies began pulling in their horns to concentrate almost exclusively on the top end of the market -- on Starships, Citations and Cheyennes. Jim's interest was in the other end -- "where the customer really hasn't been serviced well lately," as he puts it, so, ultimately, he decided to make the break and charge out on his own.
As a result of contacts made during the Malibu days, and to an extent because Ed was now living in North Carolina, Jim made a pitch to potential investors in Greensboro, working through Don Godwin, president of Atlantic Aero, a fixed base operation on the Greensboro/High Point/Winston-Salem, NC Regional Airport. Ultimately, 16 local investors and one from Cleveland, OH became involved, and Questair, a Sub S corporation, was chartered on June 24, 1985. The venture capital raised in Greensboro to start Questair became the inspiration for the name of the company's first product, the Venture.
Just before sending the moving van north, Jim added one more member to the Venture design team --- his son, Doug. A graduate of the University of Kansas with a degree in aeronautical engineering and a masters in stability and control, Doug had worked for a time at Cessna on the Citation 3, but had just been hired by General Dynamics as one of the first 25 members of its advanced fighter development team. Jim feared he had lost any chance of getting Doug on the Venture team when he was selected for this far out program, but like most aeronautical engineers, Doug was intrigued with the opportunity to create an entire airplane from scratch. One day he called his father to say he had quit General Dynamics -- and to ask where he was supposed to move to hook up with Questair.
Greensboro has recently built a beautiful new airline terminal complex -- which left a lot of empty space available in the old terminal buildings. Questair snapped one of them up and in July of 1985 had its McDonald Douglas CAD/CAM up and operational. Jim, Ed and Doug have virtually lived in the plant ever since, and with the help of 3 college students endured a one year stretch in which the CAD/CAM equipment was operated 20 hours per day, 7 days per week! Despite being totally unwilling to do any task any way other than the best they knew how, with the best materials and components available to them, they succeeded in designing, building and testing the aircraft you see pictured here in just over two years. That time frame included the business planning, money raising, start-up activity and, very significantly, the designing and building of their own metal stretch forming equipment and hard tooling. The prototype you see pictured here that was flown to Oshkosh in late July was built in the same tooling that the kits will be.
In the latter stages of the program, a fourth significant member of the team was added. Rich Gritter is a professional experimental test pilot who was half of the flight test crew on the Malibu. Of him, Jim says, "As a result of our work on the Malibu, we are tuned into each other. When we say something, we know what each other means. He's with us full time now and committed to working 18 hours a day like the rest of us." Rich was born in Grand Rapids, MI and grew up in Spring Lake. His family moved to Florida in 1966, and he later went to school at Georgia Tech, earning a degree in aeronautical engineering. While in college he was a co-op student at McDonald Aircraft in St. Louis. After graduation he went to work for Douglas --- on the DC-10 --- but later returned to Florida to work for Piper as a flight test engineer. Interestingly enough, he was not a pilot when he went to work there. He learned to fly at Piper, progressed through the various licenses, worked through several test pilot programs and, ultimately, found himself employed as the project flight test engineer for the Malibu. Victimized by the big cutbacks in production and consequent layoffs, Rich found himself expendable at Piper just about the time Jim needed him in Greensboro. Timing is everything!
So what is this winged thing called the Venture? One thing it is not is a composite airplane. EAAers are normally very considerate of aircraft displayed at Oshkosh, but few could resist tapping a knuckle on the Venture to see what it was made of. Everyone assumed at first glance that its rounded fuselage was a certain tip-off for a composite structure, but upon closer examination a flush rivet line would be noticed -- and the knock, knocking would begin. To their surprise, the metallic reverberation told them Venture is an all metal airplane -- which, in turn, caused them to begin looking around for someone connected with the airplane to ask how such a compound shape was done in metal.
When I asked Jim essentially the same question, he replied, "We made the decision at the first minute that the airplane would be all metal because it is something we thoroughly understood, something that is inspectable, something backed by the integrity of Alcoa and something we knew how to manufacture with economy. Of course, the down side is that you can't make shapely, aerodynamically nice airplanes out of aluminum -- so some say. We proved that was a lot of hooey with the Malibu -- you can do an elegant airplane in metal if you do it right. We just set about production tooling this airplane. This prototype is built totally with production tools -- hydro form parts, stretch pressed parts. The entire exterior is made on a stretch press. We've got a stretch press that we designed and built for $12,500 that can stretch a complete 14 feet long wing skin. Even the narrow chord tail surface skins are stretch formed. The vertical fin is only eight tenths of an inch thick at its thickest point at the tip. There isn't a flat surface on the airplane. The fuselage is made out of 6 stretched skins, split down top and bottom centerline up to the firewall, and the cowling is split horizontally. The whole airplane is made out of either .032 or .050 aluminum..
"Structurally, this is a fighter. It has the same envelope as a World War II fighter. It has been designed to meet FAR Part 23 aerobatic load criteria -- the tail, for example, is designed for full asymmetric loads, which is a unique requirement for aerobatic aircraft. We brought in a FAA DER consultant and had him do a complete flutter analysis --- the ground shake, complete analysis through the computer, projection of all the airspeed and everything. The only place we got tripped up was in aileron flapping frequency coupling with wing second order bending at zero fuel. The fix was very simple, however. It cost me a pound and a quarter of weight on each aileron to move that mode up over 400 knots. We have a 300 knot redline, so we have no flutter modes within the airplane's envelope. To get in trouble, you would have to be 100 knots over our 300 knot redline and out of fuel! The airplane has a 760 knot divergence speed."
At that point Jim invited me to squeeze the tip of the horizontal tail, then give it a yank to determine its rigidness. I did -- and I have to tell you this is a hard airplane.
By this time I was really curious about what lay beneath the thick metal skin, so I asked for a front-to-back technical walkthrough of the design -- and Jim readily obliged.
Dimensionally, the Venture is a small airframe built around a large cabin. The wingspan is 25.5 feet, the fuselage length is 16.25 feet, and the empty weight is about 1,1000 pounds. Gross weight is 1,800 pounds, and the wing loading is 21 pounds per square foot. Powering such a dense little package is a version of the 6 cylinder, fuel injected Continental IO-520, in effect derated to 250 horsepower in order to meet desired levels of quiet operation. It is a special engine made up specifically for the Venture -- and no other engine can be used. It is essentially a Malibu engine, minus the turbocharger and intercooler, set up to run at 2500 rpm and a specific fuel consumption of .375. It has a tuned and balanced induction system, a geared alternator and a "spaghetti" tuned exhaust system with mufflers. Jim says the exhaust is so quiet you can hear the alternator running when you start the engine.
The propeller is equally unique. The idea was to have a very short, slow turning propeller for low sound levels, but when Jim began talking about a 250 knot cruise and a 300 knot redline, the manufactures simply threw up their hands. They had nothing on the shelf for a -520 Continental with either the blade shape or hub configuration required for such speeds. The biggest problem was the amount of pitch travel Jim needed -- a really big bite at cruise. McCauley finally found a way to get the job done by adapting a beta (reverse pitch) control mechanism to one of their hubs that could provide a high enough pitch to keep the prop from overspeeding in, say, a 300 knot power-on descent. Fortunately, the company also had a stock forging blank from which a suitable prop blade could be machined. The resulting propeller is only 68 inches in diameter -- again to keep the tips out of the supersonic range for quiet operation.
I asked about the engine mount -- and from the sly grin that crept across Jim's face, I could tell he had been waiting for that one.
"Well, you know in the Malibu program we made a habit of breaking tradition at least twice a day. You've got to be careful with these innovations, however, because a really good engineer is right about one time out of ten and, of course, every engineer thinks he is right all the time. It's a hazard. We are pretty honest with ourselves, however, and if our ideas don't work, we admit our mistake and drive on. The engine mount on this airplane is one of our breaks with tradition that appears correct. I didn't want to provide the engine start-up and shutdown excursion clearance that would make the nacelle so awkward, so we elected to make the lower nacelle a fixed structural member to serve as the mount. We didn't have the wherewithal to weld up steel tube mounts, and I didn't want to buy those expensive rubber biscuits -- so I sought another way to attach the engine. I got to looking at the -520 and decided that instead of those 8 or 9 pounds of forgings on there for mount legs, there was a much better place around the sump attachment flange to mount the engine. We finally decided to put a beam, a truss clear across the airframe and bolt the engine on using every pan bolt. We're making our own biscuits, and we've hung the rear of the engine with a fully gimbled pair of rod ends because all of the motion in a flat six is around a vertical axis. It's fairly easy to damp that out.
"Our cooling baffles are another innovation. Conventional sheet metal baffles are always a mess --- they are always cracking and every time you put a cowl back on, one of them gets bent the wrong way and then the engine overheats. There's got to be a better way. I started calling vendors and I found a fabric material that is air tight, will live indefinitely at 500 degrees F and has 100 pounds per square inch strength. It's a glass fiber impregnated with silicon, 10 mills thick, lightweight -- and we just glue it in with G.E. 550 degree RTV to form an absolute diaphragm. It's been on there 45 hours (at Oshkosh) and we've had no problems with it. You cannot get baffle rub, and the sucker can't crack."
The Venture's nose gear is attached to the engine, and its retraction link is bolted to the airframe in such a way that lateral loads cannot be transmitted to it. The main gear, as you can see in the photos, is really unique -- and, in fact, had more people down on the ground looking up at it than any other gear on the airport during Convention week. That is saying something, as you Oshkosh veterans know, because seeing someone flat on his back examining a gear is a common sight there. Burt Rutan was one of them, Nick Jones was another -- and what each of them saw was an all aluminum gear mounted to the fuselage with oleos made at Questair, a rather complex appearing set of support struts and a floating trunion. When the gear begins to retract backwards into the aft fuselage, the two legs begin to collapse into each other. They do not twist and turn like a Cessna 210 gear, they just come straight back and up in an arc, and two doors close behind them when they are in the single well. The nose gear simply follows an arc back and up into a tunnel in the bottom of the fuselage. Both the mains and the nose gear are actuated by a 3/16 cable loop run around shives by an electrically driven jackscrew set in the top of the gear tunnel/cabin console right at the instrument panel station. There is no up lock; the gears and the gear doors are held in the "up" position by the irreversibility of the jackscrew, at which time bungee cords jerk the gear down and hold it firmly in place. The prototype has a free castoring nose wheel, so ground steering is via differential braking and the rudder. A nose gear steering mechanism was set to be installed after Oshkosh and will be a part of the kit airplanes.
Venture's gear looks more complicated than it is, according to Jim, due in part to the multitude of fixed gear doors that double as the aircraft's drag producers -- in lieu of conventional flaps. The drag of the gear is 3-* times that of the airframe, itself, so let-downs in the area of 4,000 to 5,000 fpm will be possible -- without damage to the gear doors, which are very ruggedly built. Jim says the gear extended speed can be extremely high but will be subject to whatever the gear down speed is determined to be -- which is a function of the pitching response of the airplane as the gear comes out of the wells and into the airstream.
The massive canopy you wee in the pictures is not representative of what will be supplied in the kits. It was simply a first try, something to be used in the early flight tests and for getting the prototype to Oshkosh ë87. With a centerline hinge up behind the crew's heads, the canopy swings up at the front, like a clam shell opening. The frameless prototype canopy was a quarter of an inch thick and had substantial buttons bolted into each side around which beefy hooks slipped to dog the bubble down. This setup had been tested to 220 knots indicated with no indication of distress -- but, nonetheless, a new 3/8 inch thick cast Plexiglas bubble will be developed for the kits. It will be 4 to 5 times stiffer than the prototype bubble, will have a different hinge and an actuator system to raise and lower it.
The most obvious innovation in the Venture's cockpit is the shape and location of the sticks. A glance at the accompanying photograph of the cockpit will show you the stick's shape --- they are just right angle handles on shafts that extend from each side of the instrument panel. The neutral aileron position is at 45 degrees from vertical. Full left aileron is the vertical position, and full right aileron has the handle in the horizontal position. This is a natural motion for the pilot's wrist, Jim says. Pushing and pulling the handle actuates the elevator. As usual, Jim has some interesting reasons for his unusual sticks. "The most valuable geography on the instrument panel is right in front of the pilot, yet we normally put a wheel there to eat up the space. Our system leaves the area in front of the pilot open and puts the stick in his hand where it is in line with the natural motions of his arm and wrist."
Venture's baggage compartment is behind the seats and contains 9.6 cubic feet of space.
The fuselage structure is largely the thick, concave skin sections, a few bulkheads and virtually no stringers. The wing is a 3-piece unit --- a fuselage carry through and two outer panels. The latter bolt on at the fuselage. The wings have a full length main spar, full length rear or aileron spar and a front stub spar about 30 inches long. The main spar handles the bending loads and the stub spar the fore and aft loads. The main spar incorporates one inch square extrusions, machined to a taper, to form load carrying caps for the webs. The one piece, stretch formed skins wrap completely around the wing, from the top of the rear spar, around the leading edge of the ribs and back to the bottom of the rear spar. Each wing is sealed internally to carry a total of 26 gallons of fuel. A one gallon header tank on the centerline bottom of the fuselage feeds the engine. All 53 gallons are usable. The narrow chord, full length ailerons droop 10 degrees when the gear is lowered and reduce the stall speed by about 8 mph.
The control system runs are push/pull tubes for the ailerons and cables for the rudder and elevators. Jim says, "There is really no difference in the end result between pushrods and cables if you install each with care. Install pushrods incorrectly and they don't work. Cables will work even if poorly installed, but will result in a crummy system. Put cables in correctly and they are as elegant as pushrods and a darn sight lighter and easier to manufacture."
A lot of people at Oshkosh, some of whom should have known better, looked askance at the short tailcone of the Venture and questioned the airplane's longitudinal stability. Knowing this would be the case, I asked Jim what his answer would be to such critics. His reply: "It's got the same stability coefficients as a Citation or a Malibu, which I think knowledgeable people have come to recognize as having the best flying qualities in the industry. Aerodynamics is not a matter of tailcone length or appearance. We shortened up the fuselage because a long one represents a lot of weight, wasted volume, cost, etc. We compensated for our shortened moment arm by simply making the empennage areas large enough to get the longitudinal stability we desired. Now, the tail surfaces, for the overall size of the airplane, are rather large. People look at them and say, gee, they look small, but proportionally, they're very large, and the stability volume coefficients both directionally and longitudinally are high. Their effectiveness is enhanced by the fact that all three surfaces have high aspect ratios. The horizontal tail has the aspect ratio of a Bonanza wing, about 6 to 1, and is very, very effective. The rudder is awesomely powerful. It controls the full torque of the engine at 17 mph on take-off. When you have large, high aspect ratio surfaces like these, the rest is just a matter of getting the hinge moments tailored and your gear ratios tailored to where a pilot is comfortable with them, and so the airplane doesn't do anything unusual while you are not paying attention to it. Our high aspect ratio ailerons are so effective we've got them limited to plus and minus 6 degrees in travel. Frankly, they'll jerk your neck. The roll acceleration is enormous, and the stick forces are just about right. We will ultimately have a system in the airplane that will provide some artificial feel where we want it, as well as providing 3-axis trim.
"One of the most essential things in leaving the pilot with a good impression of an airplane is a lack of control system friction. If the sucker returns within a knot of where it was trimmed every time, you've got a good airplane -- and friction is the thing that keeps that from happening.
"I guess the really fun thing we've done is combining a World War II fight envelope with the 210 or Bonanza airport envelope. We've got the same wing loading (21 pounds), same stall speed (60 knots), same flying qualities, same approach speed around the airport, so you can have what people, I think, erroneously refer to as a ëhot' airplane --- but it's manageable. There have been some awfully slow airplanes that were very ëhot', because ëhot' really refers to how adverse the flying qualities are, not what the performance is. You can fly Mach 2 like flying 200 mph, if you are in a well behaved airplane --- it is a fast airplane. It behaves itself well around the airport.
"Performancewise, we've obviously got the engine cranked down to where it is only running at cruise power --- 250 horsepower max --- and at sea level it should generate about a 245 to 250 knot cruise. At altitude and leaned out, it will cruise at 235 to 240 knots. With our .375 fuel specifics, we're talking about 15.5 gph at sea level and something like 11 to 12 gph at altitude. With just 44 hours on the airplane since our first flight on July 1, we have worked our flight envelope to 220 knots in level flight at 10,000 feet -- despite the fact that we are pumping an enormous amount of cooling air through the cowling. Our heads are running under 300 degrees F. We've got some more work to do to keep our nose gear door closed and our cooling exit properly sized --- we started out with the heads running at 260 degrees, and we've got them up to almost 300 now, and we've picked up about 10 knots for every 50 degrees of head temperature we've gained. We also have to improve our exhaust system, which currently is costing us about 30 horsepower. These are problems we know how to solve -- we simply did not have time to do so before Oshkosh. When we do, we should be right on the money with our performance."
Finally, I asked about the kit. Jim told me that almost all of it will be fabricated inhouse at Questair's facility at Greensboro, even the landing gear. "We intend to assemble the main spar," he said, "and the landing gear and the engine mount. From there it will be a matter of what the FAA will permit as to how much more we will be able to preassemble. Everything will be pilot holed. We're going to do all of our pilot holes, planking, piercing, flat pattern work on a NC driven plasma cutter so that everything comes out absolutely correct. Everything else will be included: nuts, bolts, rivets, etc., and, of course, detailed building instructions.
"Everything" also includes the engine and propeller -- brand new. Because the Venture was literally designed and built around a specific engine/prop combination, the kit will not, in fact, be sold without them. The only items that will not come with the kit are the things builders would obviously want to choose for themselves -- paint, upholstery, flight instruments, avionics and lighting.
Questair is taking a page out of Frank Christensen's book for their marketing/kit delivery system. You will not be able to buy a complete kit at one time, because the resources and storage space needed for having complete kits sitting on shelves is beyond the ability of a small company. What customers will do is sign a contract that includes a payment and delivery schedule. An initial down payment is required, which will guarantee delivery of the first kit segment on a specified date. Thereafter, additional payment and kit segment deliveries will come around at intervals spelled out in the contract.
So what's the bottom line? Obviously, with a new engine and a specially built constant speed propeller, the Venture will not come cheaply. Considering the price of a 520 series Continental and a constant speed propeller, alone, however, the Venture's price of $49,450 is rather surprising. Also surprising is the fact that Questair will take aircraft trade-ins -- and is working on a financing plan with a reputable financial institution.
"It all gets back to customer value," Jim says. "We're not trying to see how far we can rape a customer --- we're trying to see how good a value we can provide a customer and still make a reasonable profit. If we're going to get an aircraft industry back in this country, we're going to have to address customer value because that's the only thing that makes an industry. We've got a lot of competition out there, and if we are not competitive -- and maybe a little better -- we're not going to survive.. We intend to survive, however. If anyone questions our intentions, they should know we've already sunk 1.2 million into this project, we're got production tooling -- and we've got 2 years of our lives in this thing.. We've burned our ships at the shore -- we are committed."
The Venture prototype was flown non-stop from Greensboro, NC to Oshkosh in company with a Cessna 340 -- and back again on its own. It was flown several times at Oshkosh and was, as claimed, obviously very fast and very quiet.