Saturday, January 15, 2011

Notes about James Wiebe and Belite Aircraft

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I am a serial entrepreneur. I started a computer company, specializing in
storage devices. The company developed a very successful niche in computer
forensics, and I became heavily involved in selling and supporting our products
to the federal government. My largest customer was the FBI, although I had

direct contact with many other interesting agencies and customers. And I still

That company was successful (and still is). My wife and I sold that company 3
years ago. I am still involved with that company as a consultant, and I
frequently attend and enjoy computer forensic conferences, where I talk to
customers and lecture on forensic topics, such as encryption or hiding data on
hard drives. If you are interested in high performance storage devices or
computer forensics, you can see it at or you can come to a
forensics conference and meet me there. I will be at such a conference in about
10 days, in Atlanta, GA:

I learned to fly when I was far younger; I was working at Cessna Aircraft
Company as a college intern and I got to use their brand new 152 aircraft at
$9/hour wet. Those were the days.

I've owned several airplanes. The best was my Cessna T206H. I flew it about
900 hours over a course of 3+ years of ownership. It supported my business and
faithfully hauled heavy loads to and from trade shows. After I sold the
business, several months went by, and I noted that the plane hadn't flown but
one hour in four months. It was time to sell it. The T206 was a terrible
choice for personal fun flying. It drank 19 gallons of $5 gas per hour. The
annuals cost $8K. The insurance....

I started Belite because I am a passionate flyer, and I love the process of
starting and growing product lines. I originally started to design a carbon
fiber airplane as a clean sheet exercise, but I was diverted when the
opportunity to purchase the Kitfox Lite tooling came along.

If anyone wants to purchase Kitfox Lite clone from Belite, you can do that by
purchasing our "Belite 254". It uses the same aluminum spars and exact same
fuselage. Minor changes have been made (for instance, we use a lighter aluminum
fuel tank, instead of the unavailable custom plastic tanks), and we also use
wood or aluminum ribs. Another change is the engine. The 2 strokes available
today are far better than what they were 10 years ago. We use Hirth and CRE
single cylinder engines in our base product. The engines weigh about 44 pounds.
I don't want anyone to buy our more advanced carbon fiber products if what they
are seeking is a classic single seat ultralight, built from aluminum, steel,
wood and fabric, with legal weight and great performance.

I employ real people at real wages with real health and vacation benefits to
build these airplanes. I have calculated the costs fairly carefully. The
biggest cost is not aluminum or steel; it's people. I'm not trying to gouge
anyone, but I'm comfortable stating that most aircraft companies have failed
because they never understood their real Cost Of Goods, including the cost of
assembly. Aviation is littered with failures who prove this point.

I once had lunch a Cessna VP, and he told me that one of the strengths that
Cessna had was that they truly understood the cost of aircraft manufacturing. I
tucked that thought away, and I aspire to match it at Belite. Cessna is a
consistent performer in the aircraft business world. In better times, their
true bottom line profit was around 10 or 12% selling aircraft for prices between
$250,000 and $ManyMillion.

I observed a failure in understanding this very well back in 1996, when another
company that I started was forced to file for Ch 11 bankruptcy protection. That
company had grown very rapidly, because I had underpriced the products, and the
margins were very poor. At the time, it was a bitter lesson for me to learn,
but in hindsight, it was an invaluable business lesson. I got my 'MBA' the hard
way: through real experience, managing high growth technical businesses.

And so that is one strength many good entrepreneurs have: they've failed at
least once before they became successful. There are dozens of good examples:
Ted Turner, Donald Trump, Henry Ford, Walt Disney....

The changes that I have developed (carbon fiber spars, for instance) are offered
to those who want a lighter aircraft. No one is forced to purchase these value
added products if they don't want to. But so far, most of our customers have
chosen to purchase the more expensive options.

I have found that most manufacturers of uncertified aircraft (by which I mean
all experimental and all ultralight aircraft) don't publish any testing data on
their design. I've endeavored to change that with a sense of openness on my
engineering work, through my blog, and our corporate website.

I have seen that the very best business models for startup companies often focus
on early adopters --- customers who are willing to pay more, in order to have
the latest and greatest technology. These products tend to sell for more than
what people are used to.

In my computer experience, people occasionally critiqued some of my product
designs, saying that a market did not exist for the product. (A specific
example is WiebeTech's 'DriveDock'.) Many tens of thousands of units sold
later, I note that they were wrong.

I see some of these same themes in aviation. A great example is the nay-saying
I observe about the relative cost of carbon fiber.

I enjoy receiving comments from people who are trying to be helpful. In
Wichita, there are many people involved in aerospace. We're surrounded by
A&P's; and the occasional engineer. My background is a degree in mathematics
(with an emphasis in computer science) and I find that a lot of the engineering
math is very similar to what I learned in physics and calculus.

A good example of that math is stall speed analysis, using co-efficient of lift
and so forth to generate calculated stalling speeds for our aircraft. I've
posted on that topic.

Even so, that doesn't make me an aerospace engineer. Neither where Orville &
Wilbur -- they did lots of careful tests on the ground, in order to develop (for
instance) highly efficient propellers and lightweight structures. I only hope
to innovate in transparent ways that are useful to others, and to have others
find value in that.

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Please subscribe to James' Tweets here.  You'll get first notice when something's happening.

See you at Sun N Fun! It's coming soon.

Kind Regards,

James Wiebe

1 comment:

Talley said...

I loved the shots in the video where you are chasing your shadow. State Wrestling ends this weekend and then I will have time to get mine out and fly with you.

Terry Alley