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 4 of 5)
Merrill tried to partner with several manufacturers, but in the end, Douglas Private Jets went it alone. Williams International won the GAP contract with its FJX2, a cutting-edge turbofan that worked fine in the test cell but flopped when the company tried to turn it into an engine for the Eclipse 500. It has since disappeared (see "The Little Engine That Couldn't," Oct./Nov. 2005).
"NASA stabbed us in the back," says Merrill. "Instead of an engine for a 200-knot, 20,000-foot lightplane like we proposed, they ended up with an engine for a small business jet that cruised at 41,000 feet. Even if it had worked, it wouldn't have revolutionized a damn thing."
Sour grapes? NASA's Leo Burkhardt, the GAP program manager, confirms Merrill's role in getting the GAP ball rolling. "Gerry's advocacy opened our eyes to the potential of small turbofans," he says. "Gerry made it happen. I give him total credit for that." Burkhardt says he considered Merrill's proposal technically feasible but felt that Williams' design was more advanced. "Of course it was more advanced," retorts Merrill. "That's why it failed. The whole point of our engine was that it was all proven technology, but optimized for the low-and-slow regime."
Don Douglas died in 2004, and Merrill has carried on with occasional help from Douglas' younger brother Jim and other industry friends. He still gives presentations now and then at the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and is currently targeting a potential investor in the Persian Gulf. Although Merrill's enthusiasm for his crusade shows no signs of spooling down, he seems resigned to his 40 years of failure. "People get interested, but everywhere you turn, the capital always seems to be committed to other projects," he says. "To people with money, we're just bothersome pissants."
Bruce Holmes, the cerebral former NASA general aviation soothsayer, puts it a bit more delicately. "It comes down to the investment culture these days," he says. "Going from slow little planes to fast little planes really changes the paradigm. That's too unpredictable for most investors."
That's because most investors are cautious by nature, says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for the Teal Group, an aerospace investment consulting firm in Fairfax, Virginia. "Investors are willing to underwrite incremental improvements, but not great leaps forward like Merrill's," he says. "The [market is] too unpredictable, and that scares them off. You need slam-dunk numbers to attract money, and investors don't see that kind of potential in the lightplane market. They want to see numbers like the bizjet market, which has more than quadrupled in the past decade."
Another problem for Merrill, Aboulafia says, is that "he's a small startup company. The history of this business is that the big guy wins. An investor would be very leery of putting money into a small company with a new engine technology like this, only to watch Pratt & Whitney come along and take over the market."
Even the newer, more visionary aviation companies seem wary. "It's ingrained in our core, our company culture, that the engine has to be there, certified and proven," says Mike Van Staagen, vice president of advanced development for Cirrus Design. Cirrus recently unveiled a mockup of a single-engine personal jet, but it will use a standard high-and-fast Williams FJ33 engine. "We closed the door on Merrill because it was just too big a leap. To hinge the entire company on an unproven engine is just something we're not willing to do."