The little two-seater Sling 2 aeroplane buzzes through the amber sky, high above the town of Meyerton in Gauteng. The 3-D display screen indicates that it is flying at an altitude of 6 700 feet and at a speed of 120 knots – about 220 kilometres an hour. Holding the lever of the plane, you cannot help but be awed by the raw power at your command. It gives you the sense that you are holding your – and your co-pilot’s – destiny in your hands.
The Sling 2 is one of South Africa’s best aeronautical exports in recent years, with 160 planes sold worldwide. And its story begins with a bit of aviation romance. It was designed and developed by Mike Blyth and James Pitman, two aviation enthusiasts looking to build the perfect light sport aircraft (LSA). Once it was finished, in 2009, they took their homemade plane and flew around the world in 40 days.
Covering more than 45 000 kilometres, they stopped in 14 countries, including the United States, where they attended the Airventure Airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Sao Tome; Guinea; Brazil; and Malaysia. “The amazing thing was that we could design and develop an aircraft ourselves, get into it and in 40 days zoom all around the world in this little aeroplane we dreamed of making,” says Blyth.
But the trip led to something even bigger. When Pitman and Blyth returned, they decided to turn their passion into a business venture and started up The Airplane Factory. The company produces some of the world’s most reliable light aircraft out of its hangar in Tedderfield Airpark, situated in the dusty town of Eikenhof between Johannesburg and Vereeniging. To prove just how stable the plane is, the team flew two more long distance flights in 2011 and 2013.
“Just Google ‘best handling LSA in the world’ and you’ll see the Sling,” says Blyth. “It’s become very popular in many parts of the world.”
The company has grown so rapidly in the last five years that it now employs 115 factory workers who turn sheets of metal into the beautiful Sling.
Veteran of flight
Blyth, 60, may have been designing and developing aircraft for a great many years, but he did not know his passion, and his life’s work, would lie in aviation until he was 30 years old.
His background is in engineering and his first venture was in the trucking industry. It quickly went bankrupt as he did not have the business acumen at the time to run it. It was not until 1984 that he found his passion in the skies. “When I was trying to find something to do again, I met this chap who took me flying and immediately felt this was great and decided to make a career of it.”
Blyth threw himself into the world of flight, becoming an instructor and a designer of aircraft. He started developing and flying trikes, which he describes as motorised hang gliders. It led him to the World Microlight Championships in 1992, which he won, a first for South Africa.
His first long-distance flight with the vehicle was from Cape Town to the northernmost tip of Norway, to a place called North Cape. His second flight with the trike was a nine-month trip with Swiss pilot Olivier Aubert in 1999, from the southern tip of South America to the top of North America. In 2004, Blythe and Aubert completed another trike expedition, this time flying from the Mozambican to the Namibian coast.
But it was not until 2009 that he built the Sling, which would take him around the world for the very first time.
Birth of the Sling
Walk into The Airplane Factory’s reception area, and there is a large wing standing behind the receptionist’s desk. “That is part of the first prototype,” says Blyth. That particular Sling lasted just six months before the designers decided to scrap it. But they kept the wing as a reminder of how far the company has come in the five years since its establishment.
Before the Sling, Blyth sold Rotax aircraft engines he imported from Austria. But engine sales were dipping and he had just sold another microlight venture, called Rainbow Aircraft, to a business partner. So he looked to design a new kind of plane. “I had been involved in many microlight manufacturing businesses before. And I wanted to develop a slightly better aircraft than I had been making before.”
He put together a small team that included a draughtsman, an engineer and himself, and started working on the plane. A few years later, Blyth met Pitman, who had a passion for flight. Blyth did not have enough cash to start the business, and Pitman decided to channel funds into what became The Airplane Factory.
They built the first prototype together, says Blyth. “We got the first aircraft into the air. We flew around for about six months, getting the controls and the engine right, and then scrapped it because it wasn’t perfect. We didn’t want an aircraft going into the marketplace that was not 100%.”
A person at Denel helped with the aerodynamics of the second prototype, and Blyth decided to take the Sling to the skies. As a result, its handling, size and ergonomics turned out to be perfect, he says.
After the Sling 2 proved to be a success, Blyth and Pitman brought in a third shareholder, production director Jean d’Assonville, to build a four-seater aeroplane they called the Sling 4. The three owners completed a second round-the-world trip in 2011, flying eastwards in their new four-seater plane.
In September 2013, the team completed a three-legged long distance flight with the Sling 2. Blyth and his son flew to Oshkosh, with Pitman flying from the US to England and his brother, Andrew Pitman, flying back to South Africa. The month-long trip cost them about R180 000 (about $17 400).
There were no major problems with the Sling 4, but the troubles the pilots did experience were beyond their control. For Andrew, the company’s marketing manager, refuelling at airports in Africa that did not have fuel pumps took up to five hours. “You have to take your two 25-litre jerry cans out the airport, into a taxi, to a petrol station, back to the airport, through customs, out on to the runway, fill it up then go out again. And we have these long-range fuel tanks on our Oshkosh planes that take 450 litres of fuel.”
But still, refuelling, says Andrew, was not as big a problem as the rigid bureaucracy at these airports. He first had to clear customs and “prove that you are a real pilot even though you’ve arrived in this tiny aeroplane”. Thereafter, he would have to run to several offices just to pay for landing and parking fees. Along the way, officials would ask for bribes to hasten the process.
But The Airplane Factory has a strict policy against bribes, he stresses. “When someone tried to [solicit a bribe from] us we would say, ‘No, we will just sit here and wait until a high official comes around.’ So we didn’t end up spending a whole lot of money.”
Stringent testing and quality control
Just outside the service hangar, d’Assonville lands on the tarmac with a Sling fresh off the production line. Andrew explains that he is testing the plane before it is shipped off to a training school in Australia. The test includes an all-round inspection of the plane while it is on the ground, followed by five flights to check for faults.
According to Blyth, there have been no recorded problems with aircraft the company has sold. There have been a few minor incidents, but Andrew points out that these have not been the company’s fault. “When [Blyth] says minor he means in terms of no injuries at all. He also means that it’s been completely pilot error and not the fault of the aeroplane.”
Sling is cheap and economical
Andrew says the company now manufactures two Sling 2 models – the original 700 kilogram plane and the 600 kilogram light sport aircraft. “The LSA category is useful for us because they are sold worldwide as factory built planes. Anything above 600 kilograms has to be a certified aircraft to be factory built. Our planes are non-type certified, a slightly less stringent form of certification we apply to. It is the reason we can sell our planes as cheap as they are.”
Sling planes are marketed towards general aviation pilots, those who want to use them for personal use. A typical certified four-seater plane can cost as much as R6-million. However, since the Slings are non-type certified, they can be sold for R1-million. But this does mean they can only be used for hire-and-fly and training planes and not for charter flights.
Andrew says the biggest advantage of the Sling is that it takes petrol, otherwise known as mogas, which is cheaper than aviation gas (avgas) and jet fuel. “In Accra, Ghana, avgas costs R78 per litre. So it would cost you R30 000 to fill up the plane. But normal mogas costs R6 per litre. So there’s a huge difference in price.”
It is also economical, he says. The 150-litre fuel tank in the Sling 2 can give a pilot up to 11 hours of flying and the 168 litres on the Sling 4 as many as eight hours. This translates to 2 200 kilometres in the two-seater and 1 800 kilometres in the four-seater.
Big in America
Besides selling factory assembled planes, the company also produces kits for customers who want to build at home. The biggest market for this product is the United States, followed by Brazil, Australia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana.
The company’s success in the US has been possible because it has certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, which tests the safety of aircraft used in that country. As a result, it has built up a large client base and has even set up a branch in California. “The biggest market for general aviation is America. It is the leader and the rest of the world looks to them for trends, so we need to have a strong presence there.”
The company is located at Torrance Airport, just outside Los Angeles. “At the moment it’s not so much a factory,” says Andrew. “It’s a chief executive, a marketing guy, and a few workers assembling kits. We have a flying aeroplane there for customers to go on demo flights.”
Though one kit has been sold to a customer in Poland, it is difficult for The Airplane Factory to enter the European market because the company does not comply with the European Agency of Safety and Aviation (Easa) certification laws. However, James met Easa officials in Belgium this month to discuss the criteria needed to obtain certification.
After the success of The Airplane Factory, Blyth’s dreams for the company are flying as high as his planes. Though all three Sling models have proven reliable among pilots worldwide, Blyth believes the plane can be improved. “If you are an engineer you are always looking for ways to improve it. For instance, I would like to try a slightly different wing and a lot of little different things to streamline it.”
Within the next year, he is looking to design a new high-winged version of the Sling 4. He is also set on building a faster twin engine aircraft. “One day, when I’m sitting on a beach somewhere, we’ll do jets. Eventually we’ll do airliners. There is no point in putting this amount of effort and only doing this. Take the business, hand it to your kids and let them take it to a new level.”
For Andrew, The Airplane Factory’s success is down to just one thing: the passion the team has for flight. “People ask us why we still fly to Oshkosh and around the world; they say we don’t have to prove the aeroplane anymore,” says Andrew. “But our answer is we don’t do it to prove the aircraft, we do it because we love doing it.”
– This story first appeared on Media Club South Africa.com on 15 May 2014.