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Kestrel's Brunswick landing: Klapmeier discusses drones, skeptics of Navy base venture

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Kestrel's Brunswick landing: Klapmeier discusses drones, skeptics of Navy base venture

BRUNSWICK — It started with a voice-mail message.

In the spring, several months after a bitter split with the company he founded, aviation visionary Alan Klapmeier left a message for the agency redeveloping Brunswick Naval Air Station. 

The message, according to Klapmeier, went something like this: "Hi, I'm Alan Klapmeier, co-founder of Cirrus Design. We're looking at starting a new company to build airplanes. I was wondering if somebody could get back to me."

Several months later, at a July 23 press conference at the Augusta State Airport, Klapmeier, Gov. John Baldacci and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority announced a $100 million deal to bring Kestrel Aircraft to the base, which will become Brunswick Landing after the U.S. Navy leaves in May 2011.

The deal is being touted as the first major step on a long road toward post-base closure economic recovery. Three hundred manufacturing jobs are predicted. The often-ballyhooed composites industry is supposed to benefit. Supporting businesses might be lured to Brunswick Landing.

How much of that happens may largely depend on Klapmeier, whose reputation as a charismatic visionary is sometimes accompanied by other adjectives, like stubborn and quixotic.

It's almost certain to be Klapmeier who determines the success of the Kestrel, a single-engine turboprop once owned by Farnborough Aircraft of Great Britain. The plane has been in development since 2002, and until recently, going nowhere.

That changed when Klapmeier and his team of Cirrus expatriates purchased development rights, promising design and performance improvements, proven development expertise and star power to woo investors.

Despite the high failure rate of aviation projects, the industry response has been mostly positive.

The Kestrel announcement in Augusta drew coverage from prominent trade publications. Several days later, at the AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wis., news about Klapmeier's new venture spread internationally, prompting analyses from the industry's heavy hitters

The buzz centers on Klapmeier, who co-founded Cirrus Design 28 years ago with his brother Dale. Despite early cash flow issues, Cirrus eventually certified and produced the SF20 and SF22, two composite planes that revolutionized an industry previously wedded to aluminum airframes.

The SF22 is the best-selling aircraft in the world. Cirrus is now mentioned alongside Cessna. And Klapmeier, thanks to his stubborn, romantic, vision is compared to Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

In his book "Free Flight," journalist and former Jimmy Carter speechwriter Jim Fallows put Klapmeier's aerospace innovations alongside those of NASA.

Most recently, in the Aug. 4 edition of The Atlantic magazine, industry journalist Lane Wallace advanced the Jobs comparison. Kestrel, Wallace said, could become Klapmeier's Pixar.

"... Aviation's equivalent of Steve Jobs is back in the game," Wallace wrote. "And that means all kind of transformative innovations will now have a place and a greater opportunity to develop."

Klapmeier chuckles at the Jobs-Pixar comparison – but not dismissively.

"Relatively speaking, I hope this is as successful as Pixar," Klapmeier said in telephone interview this week. "This group has been there before and learned from its mistakes. This time, we're going to do it better."

Klapmeier's celebrity and success has spurred some skepticism. Why Brunswick? And why the need for state and federal aid?

And then there's the drone issue.

Recently, Debbie Atwood, vice chairwoman of the Town Council, and a member of PeaceWorks of Greater Brunswick, said she might have trouble supporting a CDBG request for Kestrel because of Klapmeier's previous participation in the 1996 development of the U.S. Army Outrider drone.

According Klapmeier, Cirrus became one of 100 subcontractors in the project because "we needed the cash to survive."

Klapmeier described the project has having a lot of "very negative aspects," particularly its effect on workplace efficiency and culture. After the failure of Outrider in 1998, Cirrus never again participated in a military project.

Still, Klapmeier this week refused to rule out future involvement in drone production because, he said, so-called unmanned aerial vehicles represent the next progression in aerospace development.

"Philosophically, I'm not opposed to UAVs. They're going to happen," said Klapmeier, adding that the UAV market will go beyond military applications.

"It wouldn't be something we'd do anytime soon," he said. "... I basically don't believe you can do a military program and a civilian, commercially driven program in the same building. They're just two entirely different cultures. It's incompatible with a customer-driven company."

Some people, mostly in the comments section of newspaper articles, have questioned Kestrel's request for state and federal assistance. 

The company is expected to contribute $90 million through equity investment and debt. The state will seek $10 million in bonds for Kestrel, potentially through the Finance Authority of Maine and other entities with access to low-interest bond markets.

An additional $1.5 million is being sought to ready and upgrade Hangar 6 at BNAS for Kestrel's operations. Included in that amount is a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant, and another $200,000 development fund loan, which will be used for a paint booth.

The alacrity of the CDBG application for the paint booth has sparked concern, especially since production of the Kestrel could be several years away. Some have speculated the arrangement is a back-door deal for Oxford Aviation, a company that in February abandoned a lease proposal in Brunswick after its past performance came under scrutiny.

Klapmeier said the paint booth is a misnomer. The apparatus contains an oven, he said, that is needed for composite molds. He added that most aircraft manufacturers do their own painting and detailing.

As for questions about Oxford's involvement, Klapmeier said, "I don't know anybody at Oxford."

Klapmeier also addressed criticism that Kestrel would be a recipient of corporate welfare.

"People wonder why we need help from MRRA, or the state, or the federal government," he said. "It's because the capital formation process in this country is broken. If you want healthy, growing companies that produce a lot of jobs, this is part of what you have to do to get them."

Klapmeier also scoffed at insinuations that Kestrel might not be a worthy project if he couldn't convince investors to fund the entire thing.

"Really?" he said. "Do you somehow think those guys with all the money are somehow smart?"

His comments reflect a man whose idealism has been wounded by the business world. In Klapmeier's case, the wounds are personal.

In 2001, Klapmeier and his brother surrendered a majority stake in Cirrus to the firm Arcapita. It was the beginning of the end for Klapmeier, whose quest for innovation clashed with a new board of directors.

In February 2009, he was replaced as the company's chief executive.

After Klapmeier tried to take over development of the SF50, a sleek, single-engine jet designed to launch Cirrus into the corporate jet market, Cirrus decided not to renew Klapmeier's contract.

Klapmeier is reluctant to speak publicly about the divorce with Cirrus. However, the Cirrus wounds are laid bare in his business philosophy.

"Money should be seen as the measurement of doing a good job, not the purpose of doing a good job," he said. "That's what companies have forgotten."

Kestrel, Klapmeier said, will honor that credo.

"They might say I'm a nut and it will never work," Klapmeier said. "I'm used to that kind of stuff. At the very least, I hope as they get to know us and what we're trying to do, they won't say, 'who are these rotten guys trying to take advantage of us.'"

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net