On carbon wings, a vision and a prayer


This week we begin a monthly diary following one extraordinary engineering project through to its completion. Richard Noble, who broke the land speed record with his supersonic Thrust SSC, is trying to create a fast, long-range taxi aircraft, called the F1, made of high-tech, lightweight carbon. The aim is to capture a new market, to cut airline travel times by 50%, reduce passenger stress and operate at business-class fares. Key ingredients will be the 7,800 active small airfields in North America and Europe, and internet booking and scheduling software. A US law change enables the role to be carried out with a safer, single-engine aircraft and sets higher return-on-capital standards than the airline industry has ever seen.

The project has been run on a shoestring, with private investors and a small group of benefactors (including Centaur Publishing, which owns The Engineer) providing services or equipment. Within the past two months, thanks to the 300-page Farnborough-Aircraft.com High Technology website, a stream of new investors have been coming through. Richard Noble, chief executive of Farnborough-Aircraft.com, takes up the story.

One of the biggest problems is finding the right team members. The funding situation is OK, and the money is coming in quite well – although not fast enough, which is one reason we are behind schedule. But the critical thing is to find engineers.

One difficulty is finding experienced engineers capable of an overall understanding of the project. Many engineers are too specialised. The design team, under chief engineer Nigel Bamber, has to be as small and flat as we can make it, and that requires a wide breadth of vision.

We need thinking, multidisciplined engineers who have not turned into financial managers or project managers. We have 28 at the moment, and many applicants are wary of us, because we have no security and we try to spend our income each month, starting the next with no funds.

We need to develop the project fast. We are designing an aircraft for a market which will take hold in the next few years when the first generation aircraft fly. The demand in our key markets alone may be as large as 16,000 units.

We have no major financial backer, and we operate from an old Farnborough building lent to us by Slough Estates. It is probably the dodgiest aerospace company in the country.

That said, the backing coming in from the internet is brilliant. We are getting three or four enquiries a day, with around a 39% hit rate, and an average commitment of about £4,000 of investment from each person. It’s great news: a steady, scaleable, dependable supply of capital.

What’s the alternative? City backing, financial institutions that want to control the project, that are not good at innovation, hordes of non-executive directors who do not understand what you are doing. There is a real flaw in the financial structure in Britain. If you go to the City, no one shows any interest, and if they do get on board they will try to control everything, at the expense of what you are trying to do. No vision.

Now that we have a steady income stream from the internet we are approaching a major aerospace corporation and I am happy with this kind of investment.

Many of these companies are stuck with uncertain defence contracts and airliner work on low margins, as Boeing and Airbus slug it out for market share.

We can offer the corporations a far higher return on capital than they can achieve, and a 20-year supply chain. The discussions are getting interesting as the scale of this project dawns on them and they realise that with our internet funding, we are here to stay.

The public interest is tremendous. I had no idea how fed up business people are with the stress and hassle of airline travel, and by investing in us, they are voting with their cheque books. Already the first airline has shown strong interest.

While the engineering team is advancing on a broad front, the next key point is the last wing tests in the Cranfield Tunnel in August. Dr Gordon Robinson has designed an outstanding high-lift laminar flow wing and the tests are to prove the Fowler Flaps.

This combination gives the F1 the unique performance characteristics of a 59 knot stall, a 330-knot cruise and a 1,000-mile (with reserves) range. The wing cannot be manufactured in aluminum. Carbon has better performance and is safer.

This project is getting stronger and larger and the teamwork is outstanding. As we get bigger, we will drive the project harder. We are going for number one in the world, and it’s all British.

Catch up with Noble’s project next month in the 7 July issue