In a paddock between Mystery Creek and Hamilton Airport’s main runway sits the heart of New Zealand’s aircraft export industry. The what, you say? Exactly. Idealog aviation correspondent Vaughn Davis heads south to uncover one of NZ Inc’s best-kept secrets: the company where 130 keen Kiwis are designing, building and exporting what its CEO calls ‘the Toyota Hilux of planes’.
The clouds are clinging low and grey to the jungle-covered ridge as what seems like everyone in the village crouches by the side of the clearing, waiting. There’s an old woman propped against a tree with a pillow behind her back. They’ve tried to make her as comfortable as possible, but she’s clearly in a lot of pain.
Her sons walk out into the clearing – a rough grassy gash in the hillside – for what feels like the tenth time in an hour and look at the sky. Then they hear it. The deep throb of a propeller signaling help is about to arrive.
The aeroplane appears over a ridge, a bright white speck against the green and grey. It’s not what you’d call good- looking. Its low-mounted wings are fat rather than slender, and they crank upwards towards the tips. If you were close enough, you’d see so many rivets on the wings they look like aluminium bubble wrap. Its three big wheels dangle permanently underneath, their fat black tyres looking like they belong on a builder’s trailer. Whatever it’s built for, it isn’t speed.
Descending steeply now, and with its huge flaps helping it fly even more slowly, the white plane makes its final approach to the steeply sloped grass strip. Like most of the airstrips here in the Papua New Guinea highlands, it’s one-way only, and strictly a one-shot deal. You land uphill, and if it you get it wrong, you’re in the jungle.
Touchdown is firm, just metres from the start of the strip. The engine noise chops from idle to bellowing as the prop goes into reverse pitch, slowing the plane and sending up a cloud of spray from the wet grass. Under the tree the old woman looks up and knows that in an hour she’ll be in the hospital on the coast.
As the villagers and crew lift her into the plane, they almost certainly miss the small black plate riveted behind the door. If they did see it, they’d read that the plane that just landed wasn’t made in the USA or Europe, but in somewhere called Hamilton, in a country called New Zealand.
And that’s where I’m about to land, as I fly in from the North on a showery and gusty Friday morning.
From the air, there’s little sign that I’m about to arrive in the heart of New Zealand’s aviation manufacturing industry. The air traffic controller is flat out, juggling arriving airliners, (mainly foreign) student pilots from the local flight schools and an arriving goat farmer on the same frequency. He clears me to land behind an Air New Zealand flight and tells me to exit left for Pacific Aerospace at the first taxiway. I land short as instructed, and as my wheels skid just a little bit on the wet runway I glance at where I think he means. There’s no taxiway in sight, just a narrow track heading off towards a fence, so I keep rolling and look for my exit.
There’s just a hint of pissed-off in the controller’s voice: “Tango Golf Foxtrot, cleared backtrack for Taxiway India; landing aircraft go around.”
Shame on my name ... (well, my callsign). I’ve missed the taxiway and mucked up the next guy’s landing. Oh well. And sure enough, that track is the taxiway. It leads to a locked gate and when I finally get someone to open it (very Area 51) I follow it through what feels very much like cow paddocks (the cows are a giveaway) before turning a corner and parking by the cluster of hangars and office buildings that make up the global headquarters of Pacific Aerospace.
A factory in a paddock. Kind of appropriate, for a company that bills itself as manufacturing ‘the Toyota Hilux of aeroplanes’.
There are half a dozen of them in the assembly hangar, from green-primed wings and fuselages at the back, to ready-to-roll completed airframes by the door. Each of the six planes here is destined for a different customer, all of them in the third world. The one closest to the front is off to Papua New Guinea to do God’s work for Adventist Aviation. (Missionary Aviation Fellowship is also a customer.)
The next one in line is headed for Indonesia.
It’s in places like these, with isolated communities and poorly developed runways, where Pacific Aerospace’s flagship, the P-750XSTOL, shines. It’s not surprising. While the 750 is an almost completely new design, its heritage stretches back over 50 years of some of the most challenging flying in the world: topdressing from small steep farm strips in New Zealand.
They’ve been building aeroplanes in Hamilton, believe it or not, since the 1950s. The ‘Fletcher’ topdresser – great granddaddy of the 750 – was the first. Originally built from imported US components, the Fletcher replaced the ageing post-World War II planes that pioneered topdressing here, and helped transform (for better or worse) unproductive scrub-covered hill country into sheep-infested pasture. Fletcher development continued throughout the decades, with the original piston engines giving way to turboprop ones and more than 500 delivered worldwide.
The 750 design takes the proven (but not very beautiful, to be honest) wings and tail of the Fletcher series and mates them with a much more capable body. Depending on customer requirements, the two pilot seats up front can be joined by another 10 passenger seats, a roomy cargo area or padded accommodation (appropriately) for up to 17 skydivers.
Inside Pacific Aerospace’s 70s-vintage headquarters I meet its CEO. Damian Camp is a young bugger to be running New Zealand’s biggest aeroplane manufacturer. That’s not the most surprising thing about him though; that’s reserved for the fact that – at least until he signed up for the role in 2007 – he’s never really been into aeroplanes. A couple of years’ consulting aside, his career has been focused on biotech, putting his Otago biochemistry degree to use building better horses, cows and sheep. His brother’s company investing in an ailing Pacific Aerospace in 2007 changed all that, and Camp found himself moving from biotech to agricultural aviation.
Well, not totally agricultural. When Camp turned up in 2007, Pacific Aerospace had finally reached the end of a long and intensive process to transform the Cresco Topdresser (the ultimate turboprop-powered evolution of the Fletcher) into the multipurpose P-750.
And that, says Camp, was part of the problem. Pacific Aerospace had always had a strong engineering and design focus, and the years spent developing the 750 – in many ways a totally new machine – had intensified that. And while the order books were fairly healthy, there really wasn’t a strategic plan around how to take the aeroplane to the world.
So one of the first things Camp did was to partner with NZTE through its Manufacturing Plus programme, looking hard at exactly what business they were in and where their market really was.
The result was a two-pronged focus. On the product side, the company decided to focus on the ‘functional utility aircraft’ market. While the P-750 design had come about due to demand from commercial skydiving operators (many of whom had already converted and re-engined agricultural versions themselves), Camp’s team saw that the size of that market was limited, and the barriers to competition weren’t particularly low.
The second focus was geographic. While Pacific Aerospace will most probably sell a P-750 to anyone with a chequebook and a pilot’s licence, their marketing efforts are centred on the ‘Equatorial band’.
Less developed countries with poor infrastructure are made for the P-750, as are their typically hot temperatures and often high-altitude airstrips. (Hot and high is the worst possible combination for aircraft, so the P-750’s performance in these conditions gives it an edge.)
The focus seems to have paid off, and while the P-750 is still available in agricultural (topdressing) and skydiving configurations, the utility version is what’s paying the bills, with 60 percent of the planes rolling off the Hamilton assembly line in utility configuration (passenger, freight, or convertible).
Pacific Aerospace’s other pivotal partnership was with NZTE’s Better by Design programme. Here, they focused on the aircraft as a brand, not just a machine. The outcome of this process was to rename the PAC750XL (Camp claims no one could ever agree on what the XL stood for anyway) the P-750XSTOL.
While on the face of it the name appears to be the most complicated thing about the plane, to its customers it makes sense. ‘STOL’ is an aircraft performance category, and stands for ‘Short Take Off and Landing’. By adding the X, Pacific Aerospace differentiated its product by creating a new performance category – ‘Extremely Short Take Off and Landing’. And with a fully loaded 750 able to get off the ground in just 244 metres, they deliver on the promise.
Demand from passenger operators has been such that the aircraft is being evolved even further as a small, albeit rudimentary, airliner. Its just-certified ‘big wing’ configuration gives the P-750 greater fuel capacity, and soon it will be able to operate on legs up to 1,200 nautical miles (2,200 kilometres) long.
The only catch is that at the P-750’s very cruisy cruise speed of just 160 knots, that’s over seven hours in an aeroplane without a toilet.
Even with branding, marketing and manufacturing issues under control, it hasn’t been all plain sailing; months after announcing the business had grown to the point where it was employing 160 people, Pacific Aerospace laid 30 workers off late last year, after expected orders didn’t materialise. The company only builds around a dozen aircraft a year, so just two or three cancelled orders can leave a big hole.
And it’s getting orders – building demand as well as they build aeroplanes – that Camp wishes now he’d worked harder at. When I ask him what he regrets the most he replies that he wishes he’d worked harder on developing the market from day one, rather than focusing predominately on manufacturing efficiency.
He also wishes he’d looked harder at the agency relationships they had around the world. Many of them existed for historical reasons and weren’t delivering value for Pacific Aerospace.
But at the end of the day, he says, nothing sells the aeroplane like the aeroplane itself. Once a P-750 is operating successfully in a market, pilots talk to pilots and before you know it you have another order, then another ... Rather than take his word for it, I wind up the interview and step outside to where a brand new 750 sits waiting to be flown.
“I’ve got a bunch of paperwork to do, so you just fly it for a bit.” And just like that I’m in charge of a $2.5 million aeroplane. I’ve tagged along on the pre-delivery test flight of P-750, temporarily registered (as in, with markings spelled out in duct tape) ZK-KBO, before its new owners, Adventist Aviation, collect it to fly back to its new home in Papua New Guinea.
Roger Shepherd, New Zealand’s only production test pilot, is in the left hand seat. For the last half hour or so he’s been working with one of Pacific Aerospace’s engineers to confirm the aeroplane’s navigation systems are working perfectly, mainly by flying oval racetracks over Tokoroa. That’s all done now, so I squeeze through the narrow gap between seats, taking care not to catch a foot on one of the several levers that would shut the engine down, and strap in.
It’s all business up front. There’s not a lot of plastic and other than the seats, not much upholstery. I notice as I turn towards the sun that there isn’t even a pull-down sunshade, although it’s apparently being considered. You control the 750 with a fighter-style joystick, its fairly meaty grip studded with trim controls and a radio talk button. An equally meaty power lever connects me to the Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboprop engine. Like the C130 Hercules I once flew, the turboprop couples the power and efficiency of a jet engine with the instantly available thrust – especially at low speed – of a prop, making it perfect for short strip operations.
Huge cockpit windows mean visibility up front is fantastic, and I can see this would be a great aircraft to operate down low in the mountains. I drop a wing into a steep turn and get a great view of Lake Karapiro below us, before something makes me look back inside to see we’re flying well out of balance.
Unlike my Piper Warrior I flew down in today (or the Cessna 182 Shepherd commutes in) this aeroplane actually needs to be flown – and in this case it’s asking for a boot full of rudder to balance the turn. Steepening the turn even further demands a major pull on the stick to hold us level, and Shepherd looks over to suggest I might even want to use two hands.
Since we’re 3,000 feet up, we take a look at how the aeroplane stalls. A stall is what happens when you fly more slowly than the wing can handle, and in a plane designed to land and take off very slowly, stall characteristics are critical. I fly one first, the way I was trained to – power back to idle, gradually pull back the stick to hold altitude, then drop the nose and power up when the wing starts to let go.
Shepherd looks at me like I’m a wimp, then really shows me what the 750 can do. While I held the nose on the horizon, or just above it, he pulls it so high all we can see is sky, and hauls the stick back hard into his stomach. Then, with the plane falling fast and the wing almost completely stalled, he shoves the stick from side to side to rock the wings and show that should one of Pacific Aerospace’s customers ever be so ignorant as to accidentally find themselves in this situation, the plane is still controllable.
The sun is beginning to get low, and both Shepherd and I need to fly ourselves home after this flight, so I point the 750’s big nose west and start the descent towards Hamilton.
As usual there are three or four aircraft practicing takeoffs and landings on the runway, but we slot ourselves in and soon find ourselves on final approach. Despite weighing three times as much as my plane and packing four times as much power, approach and landing are straightforward, even in the afternoon’s gusting crosswind. Shepherd demonstrates a touchdown (after all, he only has my word that I’ve even touched the controls of an aircraft before), then I take off and fly a quick circuit of my own.
We don’t bother using full power – with 10 empty seats down the back there’s no need. The engine is super-responsive so it’s easy to stay on speed and glidepath. We touch down exactly how you should in a crosswind – upwind wheel, downwind wheel, then the nose. And then I finish things off with something I haven’t done in a decade and a half – take the power lever back over the gate and make the propeller howl as I pull in a glorious fistful of reverse thrust. I’m grinning like a fool, and if I had $2.5 million in my account and a chequebook in my pocket I’d sign up for a P-750 on the spot.
BACK IN THE GAME?
While the P-750 is the only plane Pacific Aerospace currently has in production, that could change overnight if potential contracts for its military trainer the CT4 come to life. Loosely based on an Australian design but, like the 750, evolved hugely over the years, the CT4 is the basic trainer of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Royal Thai Air Force and the Republic of Singapore Air Force, and once filled the same role for the Royal Australian Air Force.
The two-seat CT4 is fully aerobatic (you may know it from such local formation display teams as the RNZAF’s Red Checkers, right) and comes equipped for instrument flight training. Its 300hp engine makes it a very capable machine (the RNZAF’s original batch only produced 210HP) and with a number of foreign air forces looking for replacement basic trainers the CT4 could quite possibly join the P-750 on the Hamilton production line.
While not everyone might be thrilled to see clean green nuclear-free New Zealand back in the military aviation export game, Camp certainly would be, and the company was in discussions with a number of foreign military operators as we went to print.