Adam Aircraft taxis into position with new top execs and a revamped production process New flight plan

Centennial Airport-based Adam Aircraft had once planned to get federal certification of its A700 very-light jet in 2005. Close to three years later, the company still is working on A700 certification, but it has new leaders and is working on a new production process to get planes built more quickly.

Founder Rick Adam, an intense, hard-driving entrepreneur, was an iconic leader at Adam Aircraft who surprised many when he announced his resignation in August. Adam, who is working on another startup, remains on the company's board.

Adam Aircraft named a new chairman and chief executive, John Wolf, joining president Duncan Koerbel, who started earlier this year. Wolf is an engineer by training who previously worked as an executive for McDonnell Douglas and Fairchild Dornier. Koerbel served as an executive at Bombardier Aerospace, Fairchild Dornier and Lockheed Martin.

Company officials point to Adam's departure and the new executives stepping into place as part of the process of changing from a development company to an aircraft production company.

But with schedule slippages and changes at the top, "they're going to really have to show the market that this is not causing any blip," said Gerald Bernstein, partner at The Velocity Group, an aviation consulting firm in San Francisco.

With Wolf and Koerbel at the helm, the company is continuing work on two main objectives that Adam put in place. One is to obtain full certification of the $2.25 million, seven-seat A700 in 2008, instead of certifying a plane with basic capabilities, then adding additional features as it did with its A500 propeller plane.

Adam Aircraft's other primary goal is an initiative called "Make Production Fly," which would streamline production of the handcrafted carbon-fiber composite planes with more tooling, standardization and laser projection indicating where to place fiber layers.

That's aimed at making it easier to repeat processes and cutting down the hefty backlog of impatient customers wanting their planes. The bodies of the planes are made by layering swaths of epoxy-impregnated carbon-fiber material and baking them in giant ovens into solid aircraft parts.

"We've totally revamped our production," Koerbel said.

The goal is to cut the time it takes to produce a plane from 15 months to 14 weeks, making as many as 240 aircraft a year. For now, it still takes about 21 weeks to produce an A500, according to vice president of manufacturing Rob Penrod. Because the A500 and A700 are similar, the efforts are aimed at speeding up production of both.

The company works on parts assembly in Pueblo, with further assembly in Ogden, Utah, and final assembly at Centennial Airport. Eventually, as the manufacturing process is fine-tuned, more work will be moved from Centennial Airport to Ogden. With close to 600 employees, Adam Aircraft employe about 80 in Pueblo, roughly 50 in Ogden and the remainder at Centennial Airport.

Adam Aircraft has missed many of its hoped-for A700 certification dates, but that's not unusual in aircraft development.

"We, just as an industry, have thought it would explode overnight," but that hasn't happened, Koerbel said.

There are consequences for Adam Aircraft coming in behind competing manufacturers for certification of very-light jets. Customers can easily choose another manufacturer for their aircraft orders.

"Adam has still got a tough challenge ahead because they're up against well- funded, tough competitors," Bernstein said.

Adam Aircraft said it has about 400 orders for A700 or A500 planes, which fluctuates with new and canceled orders.

There are still questions among observers about which very-light-jet developers will survive.

"There's so many dead bodies at this point," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, a consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. Failed very-light-jet projects include those by Avocet Aircraft and Safire Aircraft.

Adam Aircraft has "a decent level of buzz, and they have made it this far," but "it's an industry that's death on startups," Aboulafia said.

Some employees have expressed concern about the rush to certification amid the formidable challenges of certifying an entirely new kind of jet. Company executives acknowledge challenges, but many say such challenges are not unusual when a startup is developing new aircraft.

"One of the reasons we do flight testing is to learn things we don't know," Penrod said.

Kelly Yamanouchi: 303-954-1488