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The Quest for the CentaurThe Quest for the Centaur

A new aircraft company struggles to get off the groundA new aircraft company struggles to get off the ground

Tucked in a small hangar near Portland, Maine, is the U.S. headquarters of an airplane company you probably have never heard of called Warrior (Aero-Marine).

Tucked in a small hangar near Portland, Maine, is the U.S. headquarters of an airplane company you probably have never heard of called Warrior (Aero-Marine). Company officials believe their airplane design will be an aviation success on par with Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corp. or Cirrus Design. The airplane, called the Centaur, will seat six, cruise at 145 knots, and provide more than 1,500 pounds of useful load. The Centaur is an amphibious design capable of landing on pavement or on waves up to 4 feet high. It sports two truly unusual features for a seaplane. Once on the water, it can fold back its wings and either cruise like a boat at 20 knots or maneuver into a 40-foot boat slip using a built-in water thruster. It also features a hull design immune to several hazards associated with seaplane takeoffs and landings.

If passion were cash and good ideas were all it took to lure investment, Warrior would be well known. The history of aerial innovation records far more heartbreak than cheer, however, and many excellent ideas never see the open sky. Warrior has good reason for believing it is an exception. Its database lists nearly 1,000 serious purchase inquiries including individuals, air-ambulance companies, charter operators, and defense agencies. The design has won awards in the United States and the United Kingdom and the prototype is two-thirds complete. Two multimillion-dollar manufacturers have negotiated with Warrior on funding the project.

Despite all the promise, however, construction of the prototype has halted and the majority of the staff has been laid off. Warrior isn't closing its doors yet. The quest for the Centaur is already 10 years in the making. The people behind the airplane know setbacks and frustration are simply part of the challenge of getting a new airplane company off the ground.

It began with yachts

In 1992, a young engineer named James Labouchere was working for Green Marine in Southampton, England. Green Marine was a premier builder of racing yachts, including streamlined-hull catamarans and trimarans. Some of these designs approached speeds that a seaplane needed for takeoff. More impressive, they did so without pushing a bow wave in front of them or even planing (skimming across the surface like a water ski). It occurred to Labouchere that a similar design would be extremely useful on a seaplane.

The drag of the water around the floats or hull of a seaplane is enormous. Imagine taking off in a landplane from a grass runway where the grass is more than a foot high — your only hope would be a soft-field technique to get your wheels unloaded and out of the grass. Seaplanes face this problem on every takeoff and get past it by "getting on the step."

As a seaplane accelerates, it builds a wave in front of the hull or floats. At approximately 30 percent of takeoff speed, the hull rides up on the wave and accelerates past it, so that the rear half of the hull is out of the water and the front half is planing. Getting on the step reduces drag, but it batters the airplane, rattles the passengers, and wastes energy needed for takeoff. The Centaur accelerates in the water until 70 percent of takeoff speed. At this point it has already accelerated past its bow wave. A small rotation switches it into a brief planing mode, where it accelerates a bit further to takeoff speed and lifts off conventionally.

Building models

Labouchere is no stranger to airplanes. His father, Colin Labouchere, is a retired Royal Air Force pilot and was a British stunt pilot of the year. As a teenager, the younger Labouchere designed, built, and flew his own ultralight. (He later crashed it, rebuilt it, and flew it again.)

Labouchere applied for and received funds from the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) to build test equipment and the first of two one-fifth-scale models of his Centaur design. These were flying, radio-controlled models accurately simulating the full-scale Centaur. Working nights and weekends Labouchere demonstrated that the design was sound and that the airplane could be built. "By the time we flew the first model we knew it would perform, rotate, and unstick," he says. "Still, a warm fuzzy feeling goes through your veins, much as [it does when watching] any first flight. I think there was an extra element knowing that every text on seaplane design implied that what we were doing could not be done."

Additional funding from investment "angels" and government grants allowed the team to grow in size and experience, with engineers and certification experts from Raytheon's Hawker business jet program coming on board. In 1995, Warrior Aero-Marine incorporated in the U.K. and business plans were created. By 2000, the company was ready to make its efforts public and secure funding for building the prototype.

A call to the U.S.

In the spring of 2000, David Verrill, of Portland, Maine, received a call from Gerry Elms in the U.K., who had been chatting with James Labouchere's father, Colin, after church. The elder Labouchere mentioned how his son's company wanted a presence in the United States. Verrill was a certified public accountant with experience getting troubled corporations back on solid financial ground, and Elms thought he would be interested in the opportunity. Verrill began working part time setting up the corporation in the United States, but the job became full time by the end of 2000. Soon his wife, Jackie, with her background in sales and marketing, was working full time as well. At a conference Jackie met Keith Burgess, a former DuPont composites expert who had moved back to Maine and was looking for a place to use his skills. Burgess started a company whose only project was creating the composite structure for the prototype.

Warrior set up an 8-by-8-foot booth at the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In in 2001 and staffed it with five people. The booth was mobbed every day, with the Warrior staff members speaking until their throats were sore. The same thing happened at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh later that year. Magazine articles began to appear and the company was noted in Robb Report magazine. The message from everybody was that the Centaur, if it delivered on its promise, stood to address almost all the issues currently frustrating seaplane operators.

Money was coming in, too. In addition to private investment, Warrior secured a $500,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute, received $450,000 from the British Department of Trade and Industry, and $500,000 from a hedge fund in the Bahamas. The company was approaching the $3.1 million it needed to build and fly the prototype.

Then September 11, 2001, and the dot-com bust occurred. Some promised funding disappeared and additional funding became almost impossible to secure. Even so, Warrior held on, using the funding it had as best it could and moving forward with the prototype. By the summer of 2002, the molds for the fuselage were built and much of the design work was complete. "That time was probably the best time in the whole experience," says Verrill. "Everything seemed to be on a roll."

Getting attention

Some very big players believed Warrior was onto something. Two multimillion-dollar aerospace companies, one in Europe and one in Asia, approached Warrior with discussions of using Warrior's technology. The European company was interested in producing the Centaur for the private market, as well as a military turboprop and a 12- to 18-place commuter airplane based on the same design. The Asian company wanted a scalable amphibious aircraft design for a port-to-port network of commuters. Months of technical and financial due diligence as well as several intercontinental trips went into both projects. Everything looked very promising, but in the end the Asian company scaled back and focused on existing projects and Warrior turned down the offer from Europe. "There were just too many uncertainties for our other investors," says Verrill.

None of these deals fell through because of the lack of a market. At one point questionnaires were sent to 250 names from Warrior's database. The company received 136 responses — considered extraordinary for this kind of questionnaire — and 74 percent of those respondents said they would buy one or more Centaurs today if they were available. Since some respondents indicated they would purchase more than one, the resulting total count was more than 150 airplanes.

The move to Sanford

The grant from the Maine Technology Institute was contingent on the production of the aircraft in Maine. The Verrills quickly zeroed in on Sanford Regional Airport, just south of Portland, because of its 6,000-foot-long runway, support from the town, and the potential pool of skilled labor. Sanford, Maine, had been the home of Lake Aircraft, which also made amphibious airplanes, and is a jumping-off point for flights to hundreds of recreational lakes and salt-water bays.

In 2002, the fuselage halves, many other airframe components, and all the Centaur tooling were still at the composites shop north of Portland. Warrior took the staff it had been building, including people from Adam Aircraft, Scaled Composites, and Lake Aircraft, and put it to work finishing the fuselage before moving everything to the future factory in Sanford. The completed fuselage and parts were loaded on to a truck and taken on a four-hour, 40-mph trip down the Maine Turnpike. The fuselage was strapped on at an angle so the tail wouldn't hit the highway overpasses. Once everything was safely in the hangar at Sanford, Warrior threw a party for all its investors, supporters, staff, and staff families. "It was a big open house for everyone," says Verrill. "It was a very proud, happy day for us. Unfortunately, it was followed by having to shut down."

Faith in the future

Actually, the only thing that shut down after the move to Sanford was active construction on the prototype. Lost time completing the prototype had cost Warrior one of its grants, forcing the company to lay off most U.S. staff by November 2003. The Verrills stayed on as unpaid employees. The U.K. portion of Warrior continued technical work on the Centaur and on a water-capable unmanned aerial vehicle project using a similar design. The principals of the company went out in search of funding — again.

"We so strongly believe [in] the plane, and the market is solidly there," says Jackie Verrill. "We believe it's going to happen, that it can and should happen." She may be right. Warrior is pursuing a new funding source that could restart construction by this summer.

A flying prototype is only the beginning. Adam Aircraft struggled with certification and Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corp. continues investment into production. Cirrus knows that market success doesn't stop the headaches. Despite all the trials ahead, the promise of the Centaur makes a pilot's heart believe Verrill is right and that faith, perseverance, and great technology will triumph. While many great efforts fade into obscurity, this is one company you may well hear about again.

Jeff Van West is the editor of IFR magazine. Find out more about the Centaur online.

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