Who Says a Jet Can’t Be Cheap?

Gerry Merrill says he can build you one for $150,000

Thanks to the wonders of computer animation, Gerry Merrill's theoretical Cloudster airplane takes an imaginary spin over Bryce Canyon. (Gerry Merrill)
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Emmett Kraus, a retired manager of advanced design at Cessna, thinks Merrill's calculations are more than just wishful thinking. "He knows what works and what doesn't," says Kraus. "His program makes a lot of sense. I've studied his performance and pricing claims, and I think they're pretty reasonable. With all his hands-on experience in the industry, he's in a better position than most startups to accurately predict his prices. By far."

His slick airplane designs notwithstanding, Merrill's engines alone would seem to have the potential to revolutionize personal flying. It's an industry axiom that engines beget airplanes, and history suggests that if Merrill can ever get the engine built, the airframe makers will come, in droves. For the past 35 years, every time the jet engine bar has been lowered, the smaller, cheaper jet that results quickly becomes the fastest-selling ever. In 1971, it was the Pratt & Whitney JT15D and the Cessna Citation. In 1993, it was the Williams FJ44 and the CitationJet. Today, it's the Pratt & Whitney 610 and the Eclipse 500.

As a kid growing up in Michigan during World War II, Merrill was obsessed with aviation. At age 12, his design for a 50-passenger turboprop won a prize from Air Trails magazine. Mesmerized by a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star at a post-war airshow, he decided he'd rather help create fantastic jet airplanes than fly them.

Merrill was hired by General Electric right out of high school, and went to work as a draftsman in the engine development department. At night he attended the University of Cincinnati, and by day he worked on the GOL1590, a prototype jet fighter engine that spawned the J79, which powered the F-104 Starfighter, F-4 Phantom, B-58 Hustler, and A-5 Vigilante. Then came gigs at Chrysler, Curtiss-Wright, and Smith-Morris, a jet engine component supplier. In 1963, he took a job as a senior design engineer at Teledyne CAE, at the time the leading U.S. manufacturer of small jet engines. He and Tom Foster, a designer who'd been a student of jet propulsion pioneer Frank Whittle in England, became Teledyne's preliminary design department.

It was here that Merrill first launched his quixotic quest to create a small turbofan for private airplanes—and where he first felt the sting of rejection and betrayal. In 1966, Foster and Merrill started work on a small general aviation jet engine. Their design for a 1,300-pound-thrust turbofan with a bypass ratio of 3:1 was a radical departure from the general aviation jet engines of the day—noisy, fuel-hungry turbojets with around 3,000 pounds of thrust. When Foster and Merrill first pitched their idea for a quiet, fuel-efficient turbofan to Cessna, the company was interested. But Cessna president Dwayne Wallace kept asking for more power, Merrill says, and the proposed Teledyne engine eventually grew to 2,100 pounds.

But then, according to Richard A. Leyes' book, The History of North American Small Gas Turbine Aircraft Engines, "Wallace...called Bill Gwinn, president of United Aircraft Corp., explaining that Cessna wanted to build a small jet, and that they wanted a Pratt & Whitney engine on it. Gwinn then called Pratt & Whitney Canada president Thor Stevenson, and the next day P&WC engineers were designing their first fanjet engine."

"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.


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