Who Says a Jet Can't Be Cheap?
Gerry Merrill says he can build you one for $150,000.
- By David Noland
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
(Page 3 of 5)
"Wallace wanted a screaming eagle logo on the nacelle," Merrill says bitterly, referring to the Pratt & Whitney logo. "So he passed on the specs of our engine to Pratt & Whitney." Whatever the case, in 1969 Pratt & Whitney delivered to Cessna the first JT15D, a 2,200-pound-thrust turbofan with a bypass ratio of about 3:1. Cessna used it to power its new Citation 500, which quickly became the world's best-selling business jet. The JT15D is still in production today.
The pattern for Merrill's coming decades of frustration was beginning to take form: Good idea, but no cigar.
In 1971, Merrill moved from Teledyne to Garrett AiResearch's advanced technology office. One of his projects was a refinement of the original Teledyne concept, a 1,300-pound-thrust turbofan. He offered it to Cessna for a downsized version of the Citation. Then-CEO Mal Harned turned down the idea, choosing instead to proceed with the ill-fated Conquest turboprop. Thirty-six years later, Cessna introduced the Mustang, a downsized version of the Citation with 1,300-pound-thrust Pratt & Whitney engines.
Merrill left Garrett in 1984 to pursue his vision of a practical light-airplane turbofan on his own. For the next three years, under the auspices of his contract engineering firm, Advanced Propulsion Inc., Merrill peddled his ideas to virtually every general aviation airframe maker in North America. He got nowhere. The light airplane industry was then in a state of virtual collapse, and "they were too busy just trying to survive," Merrill says.
Working with old industry friends, Merrill designed a family of small jet aircraft around his engine concept, ranging from a 260-mph single-seater weighing just 760 pounds to a 10-seat executive jet. He called the project Private Jets.
In 1991, a friend introduced Merrill to Donald Douglas Jr., son of the Douglas Aircraft founder. Then 75 and retired from 20 years in the executive suite of the family business, the gruff, no-nonsense Douglas listened intently to Merrill's 45-minute pitch. "He got it immediately," recalls Merrill. A few weeks later, Douglas agreed to use his name and industry contacts to help Merrill raise money. The company was renamed Douglas Private Jets.
Douglas set up meetings with a number of old buddies. There were some tantalizing negotiations, but once again, nothing came of them. Increasingly frustrated with the turndowns, Merrill and Douglas drew up a plan in 1993 to tap a new source: the U.S. government. That June, they gave a two-day briefing to engineers and managers at NASA's Lewis (since renamed Glenn) Research Center in Cleveland. Nice presentation, they were told, but no money available there. Undeterred, the pair went to Washington, D.C., and started knocking on doors. After two years of pleading that included audiences with NASA chief Dan Goldin and FAA boss David Hinson, Merrill and Douglas pulled off what appeared to be a stunning victory: Congress appropriated $37.25 million for a NASA research program based on their Private Jets concept.
The research effort was assigned to the Lewis center and renamed the General Aviation Powerplant, or GAP, program. According to a NASA press release with hyperbole matching that of the flip charts Merrill showed potential investors, GAP's goal was to "reduce the cost of small turbine engines by a factor of 10 and revolutionize the concept of personal air transportation." Just one catch: GAP was to be opened up to bids from the industry. Suddenly Merrill was going up against the big boys again. And there was another problem: Goldin's philosophy that the agency should take care of its "customers"—the established engine manufacturers that it had been working with for years.