James D. Raisbeck 

CEO and Founder, Raisbeck Engineering, Inc., Seattle, Washington

Wisconsin native Raisbeck joined the U.S. Air Force as a mechanic in 1954 and ended his service as a flight engineer aboard B-36 Peacemakers and C-119 Flying Boxcars. The GI Bill paid his way through Purdue University. An aeronautical engineer, he joined the Boeing Co. as it was entering the jetliner age. He transitioned from there into a modifier of aircraft, which delivered a roller coaster of experiences. He founded his current firm in 1980 and its products have enjoyed great market acceptance. Today the Raisbeck Foundation supports a number of arts, educational and medical institutions in the Seattle area, as well as Raisbeck Aviation High School.

You’re seen as a maverick. How did you get on at a colossus like Boeing?

Raisbeck: I began as a research aerodynamicist. My first boss was Dr. Bernie Gratzer, a wonderful fellow, who went on to design the elliptical winglet for Aviation Partners, Inc.  In 1966 they made me a manager in Dayton to deal with Wright-Patterson. I was 30 and a former enlisted guy meeting with generals — quite a challenge! Three years later I was back in Seattle working on the preliminary design for what became NASA’s QSRA, or quiet STOL research aircraft. It was a de Havilland Buffalo with jet engines and blown flaps. We said the QS stood for “quite silly” because some thought it was. I left Boeing in 1969 and can honestly say I loved everything I did there.

And then ventured out on your own.

Raisbeck: I initially ran Robertson Aircraft, which did STOL conversions on singles and light twins; then started Raisbeck Group and worked with Dee Howard on developing the Mark II performance improvement package for Learjets. That got the attention of Rockwell, which was developing the Sabre 65. They contracted us to design and deliver the first supercritical wing in general aviation, and as part of that, I got to do the mod for existing Sabre 60s. Well, I hired a lot of people — at one point we had 600 employees. We delivered 75 wing shipsets to Rockwell, every one at a loss. We were working on our 28th in-service installation when Rockwell called in my bank loan. Everything collapsed at that point. I almost lost my house. I was feeling sorry for myself at a bar when a guy says, “Are you Jim Raisbeck?” I said, “What do I owe you?” Turned out, I owed his machine shop $22,000. But then he said, “Get yourself useful again,” and that he’d then do business with me again. That’s what I did, and that’s what he did. Rockwell gave me the opportunity to start over.

And salvation came in the form of the King Air?

Raisbeck: The first system our current company designed was the fully enclosed main landing gear on the King Air 200. Our first delivery was in July 1982, followed by the Mark VI Performance Improvement System. That proved to be so popular, we kept at it, designing wing lockers the following year and new props after that, across all models of King Airs. We currently have four new active programs for the King Air 350. We introduced two new Hartzell Swept-Blade props for the 350 at NBAA this year, and are developing a ram air recovery system and drag reduction package for it. Beyond that, Raisbeck designs are now on all three new production King Air models. All totaled, over 4,100 King Airs have some Raisbeck systems. That’s more than 60% of the fleet.

So, the King Air is your golden goose?

Raisbeck: Well, we’re proud of our other products such as our Lear lockers and ZR Lite Performance System. But historically the single biggest hit was our Stage 3 Noise Reduction Kit for the Boeing 727. It sold for $695,000 to $1,595,000 depending on the model. We did 170 aircraft, making it our most lucrative program. So, that just proves it isn’t how hard you hit; it’s knowing where.

With that history, what lessons can you share?

Raisbeck: Be careful of big corporations. Never go into debt. Keep things small — we’ve got just 38 employees now, including me, and we stay focused.  Stay one drink behind the slowest drinker. Always tell the truth, and you won’t have to worry about remembering what you said. And finally, if you can take an apparently unsolvable problem, break it down into parts and solve those, put them all back together, and do that in your head, then you’re a real engineer.