An iconoclast that’s built to last
By Frederick K. Larkin
Sixty years ago, Canada’s northern skies were dotted with single-engine monoplanes.
By Frederick K. Larkin
Sixty years ago, Canada’s northern skies were dotted with single-engine monoplanes. These flying pickup trucks delivered a vast array of personnel and goods in support of a post-war economy that craved natural resources. They included the Fairchild Husky, the Noorduyn Norseman, the Republic Seabee, the Stinson Reliant, the ubiquitous de Havilland Beaver and its larger sibling, the Otter.
|Georgian Bay Airways of Parry Sound, Ont.,operates a Bush Hawk-XP and a pair of Cessna 180Ks. Here, the XP prepares for takeoff in Snug Harbour, Ont. Photo: Georgian Bay Airways
While many of these classic models remain in operation, their production lines have long since been closed. There is, however, a somewhat smaller bush plane from that era that is in production today. The Found FBA-2C3 Expedition and FBA-2C4 Bigfoot are the latest versions of a design that first flew 62 years ago. Although Found products have been around for more than six decades, they have always been up against well-established competitors that dominated the light-utility market. Can this iconic independent carve out a share of its target niche and see its production rate takeoff? Before answering this question, it’s useful to first review how the company got to where it is today.
It began with a dream
In 1946, Nathan K. (Bud) Found and S.R. (Mickey) Found created Found Brothers Aviation Ltd. to develop a light aircraft that would provide northern operators with a smaller and less expensive alternative to what was available. Their first model, the FBA-1A, had a steel tube airframe covered in fabric and was powered by a 140-horsepower de Havilland Gipsy Major engine. The sole example, registered “CF-GMO-X,” had its maiden flight on June 27, 1949.
|Based in picturesque Parry Sound, Ont., Found employs a 38-member team working within 12,000 square feet of space at the Parry Sound Area Municipal Airport – 100 nautical miles north of Toronto. PHOTO: FOUND AIRCRAFT|
After flight testing, it was decided that a slightly larger cabin would be preferable, along with all-metal construction and a more powerful engine. In order to generate the cash required to develop the new design, the entrepreneurial pair expanded their activities during the 1950s. The 1960 Aviation Directory of Canada noted that Found Brothers Aviation manufactured magnetic clutches, temperature bulbs and dynamometers; acted as a manufacturers’ agent; designed and built aircraft ground handling equipment; and was involved in aircraft design and development. Incredibly, this activity was being performed by only 10 employees.
The new model, the FBA-2A, was powered by a 250-horsepower Lycoming. The pre-production prototype, also registered “CF-GMO-X,” had its first flight on Aug. 11, 1960. Production models were to be available with either tricycle landing gear (the FBA-2B) or with a tail wheel (FBA-2C). Although the FBA-2B was never developed, the first FBA-2C (CF-NWT-X) took flight on May 9, 1962. Its type certificates were eventually issued by Transport Canada on Feb. 19, 1964, and by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on June 23, 1965. Twenty-six FBA-2Cs were built between 1962 and 1966, primarily in a single-storey building in Rexdale, a suburb of Toronto. During that period, Found was competing in the bush plane market with two longtime players whose products were selling well – Cessna and de Havilland Canada.
Although the Found had superior short-field performance and a somewhat competitive useful load, its selling price was less favourable than those of the popular Cessnas.
During 1966, the company experienced some financial challenges and the Found brothers departed. The new management team transferred the facilities from busy Toronto to tranquil Grand Bend, Ont. By Oct. 1966, a refined model was being designed to accommodate a slightly larger payload. The result was the Found 100 Centennial, which featured a wider cabin with six seats and a 290- horsepower Lycoming engine. The prototype, aptly registered “CF-IOO-X,” took flight on April 7, 1967. It received its type certificates from Transport Canada and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Sept. 9, 1968 and Dec. 3, 1968, respectively.
According to Flying Annual 1968, the Centennial had a useful load of 1,750 pounds and a gross take-off weight of 3,500 pounds. That was quite similar to the Cessna 185 Skywagon’s useful load of 1,775 pounds and GTOW of 3,350 pounds. While the 300-horsepower Cessna 185 had a basic price of US$21,375, the Centennial’s basic price was US$26,250. Perhaps the 23 per cent price premium was a contributing factor, but the aircraft did not receive an enthusiastic response from potential buyers. As a result, only five Centennials were built. By the end of 1968, financial issues had overtaken the company and it ceased operating. Its assets were later sold at auction on March 4, 1969.
A review of the Canadian Civil Aircraft Register dated Sept. 30, 1969 shows that Found aircraft could be found all over Canada. In British Columbia, Ocean Air had a fleet of five based at Port Alberni. In Manitoba, Midwest Airlines of Winnipeg had a trio, while Chiupka Airways of Lynn Lake had one. Other operators included Calm Air of Stony Rapids, Sask.; J.L. McAvoy of Yellowknife, N.W.T.; Georgian Bay Airways of Parry Sound, Ont.; and Alma Air Service, St. Felicien Air Service and Kipawa Air Service – all in Quebec.
Over 20 years, 33 aircraft (comprising four models) had been produced by Found. The dream of building a reliable downsized bush plane had seemingly come to an end.
A phoenix named Bush Hawk
Some aviation entrepreneurs can’t remain on the ground. Encouraged by industry talk of the need for an economical utility aircraft and bolstered by positive feedback from FBA-2C operators, Bud Found decided it was time to bring his bird back to life. He started by acquiring the designs of the FBA-2C from the estate of John David Eaton, who had become a significant shareholder in FBA prior to its demise 28 years earlier. He then incorporated Found Aircraft Development Inc. on May 6, 1996, and set up a manufacturing subsidiary named Found Aircraft Canada Inc. at Parry Sound, Ont.
The prototype of the new model (named Bush Hawk) was built using the airframe of C-FSVD, a FBA-2C (serial number 26) that had been built in 1966. Powered by a 260-horsepower Lycoming, the aircraft first flew on Nov. 26, 1996. Flight-testing continued until September 1998, when it was determined that C-FSVD could not be modified to meet the required specifications. In the meantime, Found Aircraft’s engineering team led by William McKinney, had created a detailed computer model based on the FBA-2C’s original drawings. That effort was rewarded when Transport Canada reissued the FBA-2C type certificate on April 22, 1997. This was an important development, as it validated the design of the airframe that the new model would be based upon and avoided the extremely expensive and lengthy certification program that is required for a clean sheet design.
The production prototype FBA-2C1 Bush Hawk (serial number 28) (C-GDWO) first flew on Oct. 4, 1998. The new model featured a 300-horsepower Lycoming and a completely redesigned fuselage. The fore half of the fuselage, incorporating the cabin, was built using a steel tube frame with aluminum panels. The aft half was constructed of aluminum. After flight testing was complete, Transport Canada approved the Bush Hawk on March 5, 1999. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) followed suit on March 3, 2000. During 1998, while the Bush Hawk was being designed, it became apparent that the company required greater financial resources.
A.F. (Tony) Hamblin, a veteran of the investment management industry, and T.R. (Bob) Beamish, founder of Woodbridge Foam Corporation, became the controlling shareholders that year. Besides capital and a passion for aviation, they brought entrepreneurial know-how to the outfit.
Production of the hand-built Bush Hawk progressed slowly at first, then the pace gradually increased – one machine in 1999, followed by two in each of 2000 and 2001. Five rolled off the line in 2002, eight in 2003, five in 2004, six in 2005 and the final two in 2006. A total of 32 Bush Hawks were built, including the prototype.
While the Bush Hawk was proving to be the most successful Found model, it was thought that a refined variant would stimulate buyers. In 2003, work began on the FBA-2C2 Bush Hawk-XP. Also powered by a 300-horsepower Lycoming, it had Fowler flaps, and later, vortex generators atop the leading edge of the wings and extended wingtips. Transport Canada and the FAA issued their approvals for the enhanced design on May 14, 2004 and Jan. 11, 2005, respectively. While six Bush Hawk-XPs were produced during 2006 and 2007, 29 of the 32 FBA-2C1s were modified to the XP’s specifications.
Always looking to enhance their products, the team at Found announced on Feb. 20, 2007 that it was developing two new models: the FBA-2C3 Expedition E350 (since renamed Expedition) and the FBA-2C4 Expedition E350XC (since renamed Bigfoot), both equipped with 315-horsepower Lycoming engines. The tricycle-geared Expedition first flew on Oct. 3, 2006 and the tail wheeled Bigfoot followed on June 1, 2007.
All four will also be available on straight or amphibious floats. Additionally, it will be possible to fit Bigfoot models with skis and tundra tires for backcountry operations. Each of these models will have the following design features that will differentiate them from their peers:
- Four doors that swing open 180 degrees and are removable;
- A flat floor that is flush with the lower edge of the doors;
- Cantilevered wings that enable cabin loading without interference from struts;
- Outstanding downward visibility for all aboard, as a result of the high wings and oversized windows in the four doors.
The Expedition received its approvals from the Canadian and U.S. authorities on July 28, 2008, and December 23, 2008, respectively; and efforts are underway to achieve approvals for the other three models within the first half of 2012.
Each Found aircraft is a conglomerate of approximately 3,500 pieces. Its employees are involved in a wide range of tasks, including design and engineering, the procurement of materials, manufacturing and assembly and ground and flight testing prior to delivery. Supporting those activities are the information technology, stores, quality assurance, finance, marketing and management personnel. All of this is accomplished by a 38-member team working within 12,000 square feet of space at the Parry Sound Area Municipal Airport – 100 nautical miles north of Toronto.
The original Founds tended to be purchased by independent commercial operators to either fly charters or support tourism activities. Typical of that customer is Todd Lougheed of Nestor Falls, Ont., who owns a FBA-2C built in 1965. He cites the airplane’s straightforward design, solid construction and ability to haul good size loads in challenging conditions. With respect to its in-flight characteristics he notes that his 46-year-old, “flies sturdy in the air, like a small Beaver.”
Found Aircraft’s primary competition is the Cessna 206 family. Some key comparative statistics related to those aircraft are provided in the accompanying table.
OF FOUND AIRCRAFT
In order to achieve a better understanding of any business model and therefore to appreciate how a company may perform in the future, it is useful to perform a S.W.O.T. analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). Doing so with Found Aircraft provides the following insights:
Valuable intellectual property
Given the significant cost (approximately $80 million) and the enormous length of time (several years) required to certify a clean sheet design, it is highly unlikely that an additional competitive model will emerge to challenge the two incumbents. Found’s type certificate represents a valuable barrier to entry that should allow it and Cessna to keep the light utility market to themselves.
Found’s reputation for building aircraft that provide superior performance, low operating costs and longevity is reflected in feedback received from current and past operators. These attributes have led to repeat orders from some buyers.
With a 4,000-foot hard surface runway adjacent to its facilities and relatively affordable rents, Parry Sound, Ont. meets Found’s requirements. Furthermore, it provides an agreeable lifestyle and a comfortable standard of living for its employees.
Found’s team is enthusiastic about designing and building products they are proud of. The skill level is high and the turnover is low.
According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Cessna has produced 252 model 206H Stationair and 858 model T206H Stationair TC aircraft since the beginning of 2000. These 1,110 units show the sizeable market that exists for this type of machine and confirm Cessna’s commanding influence. Given the economies of scale, one can imagine the cost advantages that the Wichita, Kan.-based producer has with engines, avionics and aluminum.
Previously owned aircraft offering similar performance are readily available at significantly lower prices. A recent review of aircraft listed on a well-known aircraft brokerage website revealed 20 Cessna 206Hs/T206Hs available, priced between US$200,000 and US$400,000.
“What’s a Found?” To the average aviation-oriented individual, the company’s name is lost on them. While that may seem discouraging, the good news is that those who are familiar with the company tend to have great respect for its products. By leveraging this goodwill, Found should be able to effectively market its four models in due course.
Individuals, charter operators, government agencies and defence establishments outside of Canada offer potential for future sales. Approximately one half of the Founds in service are based in the U.S., including 14 in Alaska.
Finding and keeping skilled personnel is key to any business. Found’s talented team includes members who are approaching retirement. Given its somewhat remote location, it might be a challenge attracting candidates with the right mix of knowledge, enthusiasm and dedication.
Weak U.S. economy
Until economic activity within the U.S. shows signs of sustained growth, a psychological damper will remain on consumer spending. Even high net worth individuals balk at such outlays in an environment of uncertainty.
The Found analysis
Over many decades the company has designed, developed and delivered light utility aircraft with a focus on performance and durability. The fact that a number of airframes remain in service almost 50 years after their first flight is a testament to that. Although this category of aircraft is dominated by a major competitor, the costs associated with bringing an all-new design to market pretty much rule out the likelihood of a third player arriving on the scene.
Although Found is held in high regard by its owners/operators, its industry profile is low. With only 53 airframes in service, the distinctive design is not a common sight at major airfields across North America. The addition of three derivative models should provide an opportunity to capture the imagination, and eventually the chequebooks, of those looking for something excitingly different.
Despite the current weak economic environment, new orders have been received and the rate of production is recovering. Once there is a greater sense of financial stability, the order backlog should experience a gradual rate of climb.
Compared to its large competitor, this compact team produces a tightly engineered aircraft in a diminutive factory at a small airport. No big deal? On the contrary. One thing that Found has never lost over its storied life, is its desire to produce a quality product that performs well for its owners. The result has been a cult-like following amongst its operators and an allegiance that has led to follow-up orders. This is not solely a domestic phenomenon, as there are currently almost as many Founds registered in the U.S. as there are in Canada.
A look to the future
With six Expeditions on order, plus several pending in the fall, the plant was set to remain busy well into the new year. The opportunity for increased order flow should come once the other three models are available. The current facilities in Parry Sound could handle the production of as many as 24 aircraft per year.
When asked where he sees the company in 10 years, Tony Hamblin, Found’s president/general manager, said: “We do not think of our business in terms of a time horizon. Our corporate plan is simply to look for opportunities and take advantage of them.”
Hamblin maintains that in order to be successful, a specialty manufacturer like Found must be flexible. If market demands shift, then the product offerings should be adjusted to meet the customers’ requirements. Given the costs of developing an all-new design, it’s unlikely that any future Found models will be significantly different from the current airframe. One possibility is a turbine-powered variant. Market conditions would dictate any move in that direction.
The final word
Glen Tudhope of Tudhope Airways in Hudson, Ont. is only the second owner of an FBA-2C built in 1965.
Having flown it for almost 30 years, he is a keen supporter of the airplane’s rugged construction and its performance. After speaking with him, it’s apparent that airfoil design, power plant and cabin dimensions are the three key criteria that define a useful bush plane. The ability to get off a small lake with a full load on a hot day is a prerequisite in selecting an aircraft to work for a living in the wilderness.
By many accounts, the Founds (regardless of the model or vintage) outperform their Kansan contemporaries. To some they don’t look as pretty as the Cessnas, but there are operators who prefer brawn to beauty.
Standing beside a new Expedition sitting high atop amphibious floats being readied for its owner in Seattle, it is easy to see why he might be sleepless in anticipation of its delivery. The machine is quite striking.
With four models, the folks in Parry Sound should be able to demonstrate to potential buyers that there is an attractive alternative in the sport utility market. For a design whose future seemed to have been lost over 40 years ago, the outlook for Found has probably never been so bright.