E1000 Cleared For Takeoff
It took precisely 27 min. from the time that Epic Aircraft CEO Douglas King, company owner Vladislav Filev and 11 top Epic engineers arrived at the Seattle FAA Aircraft Certification Office at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 6, to walk out with a freshly signed type certificate (TC) for the all-composite Epic E1000 single-engine turboprop.
Their collective sigh of relief just might have been heard 220 nm to the southeast at the firm’s Bend, Oregon, headquarters. The Epic team had anticipated as much as 8 hr. of intense negotiations with the FAA might have been required to work through final certification issues before they could earn the TC.
As late as 7:30 p.m. the previous evening, it appeared the Wednesday meeting might be yet another occasion during which regulators raised more questions, posed more challenges, and created more delays en route to earning final approval.
Only two days before the meeting, for instance, the FAA expressed concerns about non-destructive inspection test methods, immunity of the stall barrier system to high-intensity radiated fields and lightning, EICAS warning versus alert indications and interior night cockpit lighting. These last-minute pop-ups caught Epic engineers by surprise, as they had received Type Inspection Authorization in July 2019 after submitting more than 400,000 pages of detailed certification documents to the FAA. TIA historically has been the FAA’s signal that TC can be expected with no major roadblocks.
No one was more elated on Wednesday than King, who in mid-2010 bought the then-bankrupt kitplane factory with four other investors for $4.3 million, naming it the Epic LT Builders Group. The group bought the firm partially to rescue their unassembled LT parts that had been seized as assets by the bankruptcy court. The last kitplane has now been completed and Epic LT has become Epic Flight Support, the MRO for all models.
“I was spending a lot of time in Bend, working on my airplane and staying at the Comfort Inn,” King recounted recently. “In September , when Epic declared bankruptcy, I moved into the Comfort Inn and I’ve been here ever since. I don’t think you can do something like this by remote control. You’ve got to be here.”
Serious development of the E1000, the production model that evolved from the original kitplane, began in November 2012. King says the years-long struggle since then to earn the TC was the most difficult undertaking of his professional life. He has related the story many times, explaining how he originally just wanted to complete his Epic LT kitplane when the company went broke due to rampant corruption cloaked by shoddy accounting.
“This was my dream aircraft. And it was like somebody stealing my dream,” King recalled. “Our goal was just to get the company turned around and cash flowing. Many people have said, ‘You just wanted to finish your airplanes.’ That’s not true. I wouldn’t have done it just to finish my airplane. It was a decision. If I were going to do it, I was going to do it to make a profit. And it’s hard to make a profit in aviation. It was even harder in 2010.
“Then, I was the only one who worked here. I made a compelling argument that I should run it because I put in most of the money [60%] and didn’t take a salary.”
The kit airplane market is a small niche in general aviation, accounting for less than 10% of sales. It was especially hard hit during the Great Recession as potential kit builders channeled discretionary funds into other ventures. King, nonetheless, turned around the company by mid-2011. He raised LT kit prices to $2 million, convinced kit owners they’d be treated fairly and supported the kit fleet with technical assistance and spare parts. In the next four years, the revitalized company would succeed in manufacturing close to 50 Epic LT kits.
King could afford to work as an unpaid volunteer in his early years at Epic because he was financially self-sufficient, having built a comfortable cushion in banking and credit card software and systems in the 1990s. His years in the finance sector also baptized him into the deep sea of federal banking regulations that require skillful navigation and strict compliance to avoid running afoul of arcane statutes. Overcoming such federal regulatory challenges in banking later would prove valuable as he delved into complying with myriad federal aircraft certification regulations.
“Well, it mainly was figuring out the similarities and differences between Federal Aviation Regulations and Federal Banking Regulations, which I had a lot more experience with at the time,” he said. “And, honestly, they’re not that different. The manner in which you address them is not that different.”
The complexities of aircraft certification quickly became apparent as King embarked upon morphing the LT into a certified aircraft. He knew a certificated production airplane had to be forthcoming if the company were not only to survive, but thrive. Hence, the E1000 was born.
King also was no stranger to the aviation industry. Prior to his assuming the left seat at Epic, he had run Syncro, a Van Nuys, California, business jet refurbishing company, specializing in Gulfstream and Learjet interiors. It was hit very hard in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11.
“Long story short, I came in to help them recapitalize the business, turned it around, got it going, made it profitable and I liked it, I liked being in aviation,” he said. Goodbye plastic cards and electronic banking.
King says he’s been an active, current private pilot since he was 17 when he earned his pilot’s license as a high school student. He paid for flying lessons by scrubbing the bottoms of airplanes and later running an aircraft paint shop in Santa Maria, California. He had only flown piston singles until buying his Epic LT kit.
“Aviation is a much more technical business [than banking]. And I love that,” King said. “I hired an IA [A&P with Inspection Authorization] to watch me overhaul the engine of my 182 myself. And I’d also done a top-end overhaul on it. I flew a lot of hours on that 182. So, for me, getting involved in the mechanical and technical aspects of airplanes is what I love to do.”
King still has his Cessna Skylane. It’s now used by Epic employees as a flying club airplane that they can fly for the price of gas. The company picks up the maintenance and the insurance.
Passion . . . and Money
The Epic LT Builders Group slowly rebuilt trust with customers, vendors and the FAA. Meanwhile, King kept searching for ways to propel the Epic E1000 to certification.
“I actually prepared a business plan for doing it, went around and talked to people who had worked on other certification programs. And I looked at ‘How do you do this?’ The dollar amount and time looked staggering to me. Nonetheless, I created a business plan with an aggressive goal in the form of time and money,” King recalled. A skeleton crew of consulting engineers and technicians kept the program alive, but it was going nowhere.
All that was about to change in November 2011. At a New York cocktail lounge, Vladislav Filev, a passionate, long-time Russian private pilot, was enjoying an adult beverage with another aviation enthusiast. They talked about what model would be the ultimate owner-flown, high-performance aircraft. The American showed Filev a picture of the Epic LT in an aviation magazine. Intrigued, the Russian wanted to look at the airplane in person.
“Passion? It’s really an illness,” Filev said recently about his instant attraction to the Epic LT.
Filev had business in Los Angeles later in the week. So, he changed his itinerary and traveled to Bend to visit the Epic LT Builders Group. He met with King and went for a demo flight in King’s Epic LT. With 1,200 shp and a light fuel load, the aircraft leaped off the Bend runway and climbed at more than 3,500 fpm. In less than an hour, Filev was hooked.
King had given dozens of demo flights to potential customers. “Who was this Vladislav Filev?” King asked. “He called me out of the blue. I didn’t know what or who S7 was.” King didn’t know that Filev was the cofounder of Russia’s S7 Group and owner of S7 Airlines, a brand that has grown to be worth more than $30 billion.
How Filev came to own Epic was “just by chance,” Filev said. “Actually, you wouldn’t believe it, but I arrived at Bend with no expectation to buy a factory. My idea was to buy an airplane. At that time, there was only one employee, Mr. Douglas King. He met me here and showed me [his airplane]. I understood the situation [with kitplanes]. I had no chance to get the airplane I dreamed for. And somehow, I started to talk with him [King] and I decided to be part of this story.” A deal for one airplane was about to become a deal for one company.
“Needless to say, I did pretty good,” King recalled. “I gave him a price. We agreed. I wrote up a one-page agreement. He asked, ‘When can I have an agreement to sign?’ I said, ‘Tomorrow morning at 7:00 a.m.’”
“It was very fast,” said Filev. “It was a pretty funny story. I was calling to my wife and said, instead of a $2 million airplane, I’m going to buy the factory. Because I didn’t sleep well because of all the jet lag and I’d traveled a lot, I told her the numbers. I said I was going to buy the factory for $200 million.
“And, my wife went furious and started to hate me. I was listening to her and said ‘Mom, why are you [yelling] that much for that relatively reasonable money?’
“‘How reasonable? It’s $200 million!’ she shouted.”
After a prolonged discussion, one that involved considerable backpedaling and bold downplaying of the short-term costs, Filev won the approval of his wife.
“And this is why I didn’t have [much opposition] from my family,” Filev recounted. “It was lucky.”
King well remembers the day: “I wrote the agreement and Filev said, ‘Change this, change that.’ I said ‘OK’ and we both signed the piece of paper. That was what guided the attorneys to write up the deal. It was our deal between two aviation fanatics. And that deal stood through all of the due diligence and everything else. It ended up being the deal.
“It was a deal between two people. He had the money and the passion to go after this dream of certifying the airplane. That’s what made it exciting, that’s why I sold him the business. It was because there was no way that I was going to be able to get somebody to invest in the certification effort without [their] really taking a controlling interest. He’s become a friend over the last eight years, but back then, I didn’t know him at all. And, so we sold him the whole company,” recalled King. That day King also stopped working pro bono for Epic.
In March 2012, Engineering LLC, an MRO subsidiary of S7 Airlines, became the official owner of Epic Aircraft, a new firm that would design, develop and certify the E1000. Under the aegis of Epic LT Builders Group, Filev acquired his own Epic LT in late August 2013. King personally flew the airplane from Bend to Moscow, just in time for Filev’s 50th birthday.
King originally believed it would take three years and $20 million to earn FAA certification.
“That was crazy,” he laughed. “The actual cost was about the same as the aircraft’s empty weight in hundred-dollar bills,” King explained, or roughly equivalent to the $200 million Filev paid for Epic.
During the years it took to develop the E1000, there were several setbacks and challenges. King says the FAA does not yet have a high level of comfort with composites, even with the pioneering work done by Boeing with the 787 Dreamliner and Airbus with its A350. He says that many ultimate strength tests, for example, require 50% higher loads than those required of aluminum structures. He also didn’t anticipate miles of red tape.
“I just didn’t expect the bureaucracy we ran into,” King explained. “The FAA drives the bureaucracy into you. It’s not that they necessarily require any particular method of bureaucracy, but it’s sort of pushed into you. And maybe not all a bad thing, because it forces you to build quality systems, build checks and balances into the system. When you’re building a kitplane, it’s all about the product and if it looks ‘about right’ and you can make it work. And now, is it certifiable and can you get the paperwork on it? It really changes things. [For example,] you can’t use a marine-grade hydraulic pump any more, even though it’s fantastic because it’s salt water [proof], sealed up, does a great job and all that. You just can’t do that. On a kitplane, it’s no problem.”
He continued, “You have to have paper trails on all components, all the way back to the mine. So, it makes supply chain management much more difficult. It’s not difficult from the standpoint that you expect it to be difficult. It’s difficult because you learn the path of least resistance is to use experienced aviation suppliers. And they [suppliers] don’t have the ‘go get ’em, go fast, break things’ attitude. It sort of knocks the entrepreneurial spirit out of you a bit. I find myself fighting for sanity in paperwork, trying to automate systems and controls within the organization. I didn’t expect that to be as big a fight.
“When our first production airplane is ready to go out the door in December 2019,” he said, “it will have 400,000 pages of documentation with it — 400,000 pages. It’s every purchase order, the certifications that go with every nut, bolt, part, everything, all gathered together. It’s all digital, it’s all PDFs, but it’s a ridiculous amount of paperwork that goes into the process. That was unexpected. I knew there would be bureaucracy, I expected it, [but] it’s quite a bit.”
King also says that regulatory compliance and safety are tough to achieve affordably. “Many people think that safety and regulatory compliance go hand in hand. They do often, but not completely,” he said.” You could do things that are safer to do that are not compliant, but you don’t have a choice. You have to be compliant. And you don’t have a choice, you have to be safe. So, you have to find the intersection of those [two] things — and in a profitable way. So, it’s hard. The aviation industry is difficult.”
Supply chain management is difficult because “you can’t buy landing gear at Walmart” King noted. “It has to be designed around the airplane. So, we designed it, then we have to find somebody to make it and that takes an aerospace supplier. There are a lot of parts and it’s a really low volume, comparatively. The experienced guys want to be making parts for Airbus and for Boeing, not for some start-up out of Bend, Oregon.”
The difficulties of supply chain management, extreme lead times and component expense all drive vertical integration by airframe manufacturers. “By being more vertical you control more of the supply chain issues. And you’re simply buying raw materials,” King observed. “Consequently, we’re a very vertically organized business. The 587 composite parts, we make here in house. And primarily that’s because we couldn’t get it done anywhere else. We build the molds here because we can control the process.”
Initially, Epic tried to outsource some composite parts, but it couldn’t get acceptable quality, repeatability or on-time delivery. That gave impetus to going vertical.
There was another setback in summer 2018 when Epic found that the E1000 fell 10 to 20 kt. short of its promised cruise performance. King says the problem was ram recovery loss in the engine air intake manifold.
“The [Epic LT] kit intake did not require meeting Pratt & Whitney [Canada] intake guidelines for certified aircraft. It didn’t need to be approved,” King said. “We had to change the intake when we went to the E1000 to something that Pratt & Whitney [Canada] would approve. We designed something that met their specifications, but it didn’t perform nearly as good as the kitplane’s [intake]. That was very frustrating.
“So, we made the decision to redesign the intake. Then, we would have to re-fly some of the flight tests. It was really a shame, because the issue was, were we going to finish or not,” King recalled. The issue was coming to market with an aircraft that would be considerably slower than the archrival Daher TBM 940. But it also delayed final certification by more than six months.
King believes the production aircraft will reach 325 KTAS in the high twenties, as promised. “We’ve seen more than that in flight test, but Pratt wants to run the engine a certain way. They’ll allow you to run another way. Our competitors have the same kind of pilots operating handbook that we’re going to have. The ‘should run it this way’ numbers are going to be less than the ‘can run it this way’ numbers. That’s a 10-kt. difference,” King said. Plan on 315 KTAS at maximum recommended power and 325 KTAS at maximum allowable continuous power.
He believes the aircraft will have faster block-to-block mission times than the TBM 940 because of the engine’s 1,200-shp 5-min. takeoff rating and 1,000-shp maximum continuous rating. The French competitor is rated at 850 shp. Both aircraft have essentially the same power available at high altitude.
About the E1000’s performance, King said, “The great thing is that you have all this extra power on takeoff and climb. You can get up to altitude. The ceiling up at FL 340 really makes a difference, to get over weather.” And he claims that every 1,000 ft. of increased altitude also reduces fuel consumption by 2%.
The E1000 also will have a maximum range of more than 1,600 nm. King says fuel flows drop to less than 50 gph at FL 340, the aircraft’s maximum cruise altitude. He’s comfortable flying his Epic LT 4.5 hr.
“The real question is: How much can a human go without a toilet?” he asks. He says his wife wants out of the airplane in 3 hrs. So, he flies it at maximum cruise and plans on 900-mi. legs. “Flight plan it at 300 kt. and 60 gal. per hour. That’s roughly what you’re going to spend and how long it’s going to take you,” King said. The E1000 performs about as well as the Epic LT. It’s heavier, so it climbs a little slower. But it cruises faster because of an aerodynamic clean-up.
Will it be faster than a TBM 900-series airplane? “Point-to-point, 100%,” King asserted. “We get up to altitude quicker, we climb better. So, yeah, you’ll get there faster.” But he’s underplaying speed promises, reining in the enthusiasm of his marketing team.
“And, we’re bigger inside. The airplanes are about the same size outside, but our cabin is a bigger proportion of that size. And we’re wider and taller,” he said. “What you’ll see is when you get into an Epic, sitting in the pilot’s seat, you’re a long ways from the person next you. You’re not rubbing elbows. In the back, you’re not knocking knees. It’s a couple feet longer inside.”
He says there’s more aisle room between the pilot and forward cabin seats. “You can walk up to the front from the entry door and sit down. We don’t have a center console that you have to step over. It’s quite a difference climbing in and out of an Epic than climbing in and out of a TBM.”
The baggage compartment behind the two aft-most cabin chairs has a recessed floor to accommodate tall items. King says it will hold golf club bags standing up, including the drivers, adding, “I don’t think you can do that in a TBM.
“We’re going to have some performance and size that they would like,” he said, claiming, “If you’re six and half feet tall, you’re probably buying an Epic, not a TBM.”
Hard Work Ahead
“Seven years is a very long pregnancy,” said Filev while enjoying Epic Aircraft’s evening gala held on certification day, attended by more than 500 customers, employees and vendors. “But now we have our baby and we want to watch it grow up.”
“We have more than 80 orders, but we plan a slow ramp [up] in production,” said King. For the first half of 2020, he plans four weeks to build each aircraft. The first few aircraft will have to be individually approved by the FAA in accordance with the type certificate specifications. Epic hopes to earn its production certificate by the second quarter of the year, enabling the firm to clone production aircraft and sign them off with airworthiness certificates on its own.
Production will be increased to one aircraft every three weeks in the second half of 2020, one every two weeks in the first half of 2021 and one aircraft per week after that. Mature production rate will be 50 aircraft per year, starting in 2022.
“I have learned not to ignore the history of aviation. When you try to say you’re going to do something that nobody else has been able to do, you better be really sure that you can do it,” King said.
Once production deliveries begin, Epic officials believe that the E1000 order book will swell.
“For the foreseeable future, the [single-engine turboprop] market can handle a couple of hundred airplanes per year,” said King. “It’s going to be a mix of planes. Daher has a heck of a head start with the TBM. They have a very loyal following. . . .
“But we’re a million dollars cheaper,” he added. “That buys a lot of jet fuel. A million dollars cheaper to buy a bigger, more comfortable, faster airplane.”
Most E1000 customers are stepping up from high-performance single-engine piston aircraft, such as the Cirrus SR22 or Bonanza 36-series. Some are migrating from used jets that were cheap to buy but expensive to fly. A few are coming from Epic LTs, as well.
“One of the issues is that the Epic LT still is a good airplane. So, people are saying, ‘Why would I do this?’ The questions are ‘Do you want to go higher?
Do want some additional safety features? Do you want a certified airplane?’” said King.
“All my friends who are private pilots are jealous of me,” Filev said. “Of course, Russia is not a rich country like the U.S. As you know, 75% of airplanes like this are in the U.S. market. I believe it’s a great airplane and it has potential in Russia and CIS countries as well.”
“The E1000 shows that we can still innovate and manufacture in the U.S. a high-quality product that performs well, that people want to buy. We’re still in this. American companies can still do this,” said King. “This is still the best place to be in aviation.”
“There are plenty of people wanting to buy airplanes around the world. This is a great airplane. We’re going to sell a lot of airplanes,” said Filev, adding that the E1000 is the first of a family of new Epic aircraft.
All it takes for other general aviation start-ups to succeed in bringing innovative new turbine-powered personal aircraft to market is exceptional leadership, unbridled passion for aviation, a decade or more of hard work and $200+ million of investment. Hats off to King, Filev and their team at Epic.