Friday, January 11, 2013

Norfolk-built biplane ready for take-off in Germany – but grounded by UK red tape

A Norfolk aircraft manufacturer’s latest innovation has helped unlock new markets in Germany – but frustrations remain that the finished product is still grounded in the UK because of red tape. 


The Light Aircraft Company (TLAC), based at Little Snoring Airfield near Fakenham, produces the Sherwood Ranger aircraft, which has been sold in kit form to customers all over the world. 

After a year of development work, the firm has recently finished testing a ballistic parachute recovery system which can bring both plane and pilot safely to earth in the event of an emergency.

The system was designed to meet the regulations required to sell the microlight model as a fully-built aircraft in Germany.

But the current certification regime run by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will not allow the same model to be sold as a completed biplane in the UK.

Director Paul Hendry-Smith said: “It is absolutely crazy. We are getting to the point where we can manufacture finished aircraft, ready to fly, for German customers, but we cannot sell them in the UK.

“We are employing more British labour and more British skills and components, and we are in a position where we can export British-built planes – which is what I thought the whole game was about.

“We have made representation to the CAA to ask to be considered to produce finished aircraft in the UK. They have a complex set of arrangements where we have to create an exposition of bills and on control of the whole process.

“The German equivalent of the CAA has empowered their national controlling authority for microlights to manage the construction of finished aircraft. That is like the CAA saying to the British Microlight Aircraft Association: ‘We’re busy doing jumbo jets, so you guys can control the smaller aircraft’ – but that has not happened in the UK.”

Mr Hendry-Smith took over the company in 2008 and now sells 12-14 Sherwood Ranger kits per year. About 18 kits sold since 2010 are currently under construction in countries including Thailand, Holland, Spain, Italy, America and Japan.

The company’s German distributor, Lanitz Aviation in Leipzig, has committed to sell between six and 12 finished aircraft per year.

TLAC is preparing for an April trade show in Germany, where demand has already been found to be high, with potential customers prepared to pay the equivalent of about £50,000 for a fully-built microlight, compared to the starting price of £13,500 for a kit.

Mr Hendry-Smith hopes the added sales will allow him to add to the company’s workforce, currently standing at two production staff, two on aircraft maintenance and two on administration duties.

“Successful completion of Germany will mean we are able to take on two more staff, and I would like them to be apprentices – because we are losing a phenomenal amount of engineering skills in the UK and unless we put some time and effort into bringing apprentices through then we are going nowhere as a country,” he said.

Jonathan Nicholson, a spokesman for the CAA, said while most aircraft were certified to European-wide standards, smaller aeroplanes like microlights were assessed on a “nation-by-nation” basis.

“The rules are very similar for the whole of Europe but there are some differences,” he said. “Some countries, like Germany, might have requirements for ballistic parachutes, for example, but we don’t.

“For us, we require a bit more oversight initially for a new type of aircraft, but that is just to ensure it is safe. For a new type of microlight we might be interested in doing some test flying, looking at the factory and seeing what standards they have got and how it is built. It would be exactly the same for a car manufacturer, where you would hope they had someone who understood how the brakes worked.

“But we have devolved a huge amount to associations like the BMAA and we are looking to do a lot more where we can, and where the association wants to take it on.”

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