10/30/18 - Cartersville - A scale remote controlled model of “The Innovator”, which was used for testing. Richard Hogan is developing a new small airplane he plans to sell under the moniker “The Innovator.” Hogan, founder of Commuter Craft, plans for buyers of the $148,000 airplane to come to his facility and build the airframe themselves over a period of three weeks. He has gained attention in the kit airplane industry nationally, and says he plans to start production this fall. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Cartersville start-up Commuter Craft developing new airplane

Since Richard Hogan was a boy, watching military planes fly from the Air Force base not far from his home, he’s been drawing designs for new aircraft.

He dreamed of being a pilot.

But when he was 12 years old, his grandfather took him for ice cream and a frank talk.

“He said, ‘Richard, your eyes aren’t good enough’” to be a pilot. His grandfather suggested he consider airplane design, given all the sketches that occupied his time.

Hogan would go on to make a career in another field, while occasionally returning to his design hobby. Then seven years ago — when he was in his mid-50s — he decided to go all-in. He left a full-time job in facilities management to get Commuter Craft off the ground.

He’s now the man behind an unusual looking propeller plane called The Innovator, which utilizes a design that allows pilots to land at a slower, less-intimidating speed without stalling.

In a cavernous warehouse in an industrial area of Cartersville, Hogan employs about a dozen people.

“It actually began with a design I did in high school,” says Hogan, who grew up in the Fort Worth, Texas area. At the beginning, “we did a couple of radio-controlled models.”

His goal — once the airplane is fully developed and flight tested — is to sell the kit planes to pilots, who would build most of the carbon-fiber composite plane themselves at Commuter Craft’s facility over a three-week period. Then, he said, his professional aircraft builders will finish off the plane within three months.

“When he left, that was his dream, I guess, his goal. Aviation, — everything that surrounds it, and building his own airplanes and things like that,” says Ed Gee, founder and president of Duluth-based Ises Corp., where Hogan used to work. “He’s one of those unique guys that kind of grabs it by the seat of the pants and goes out and does it.”

Experimental aircraft

It’s a variation on the home-built airplane that falls under the Federal Aviation Administration’s experimental aircraft category.

If someone builds at least 51 percent of a plane, it can be registered as an amateur-built aircraft and licensed by the FAA as experimental.

There are more than 30,000 home-built planes registered in the United States, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association.

At the budget end of the airplane market, a small plane such as a used Piper Cub can be had for less than $50,000. A new Cessna 172 can cost close to half a million dollars, and a personal jet can cost millions.

The price tag for a kit plane can start even lower than a Piper Cub, but also can reach more than $1 million at the high end.

“It’s always fun to see the new designs come out,” said Dick Knapinski, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Hogan plans to sell his new planes for around $150,000 for the basic model and about $210,000 for a premium edition. He says he has already taken 55 orders. While early orders placed were discounted, Hogan is now charging $2,500 to reserve a position for the plane once it’s in production.

Risky business

It’s not easy to develop a new airplane. Many such start-ups have failed, even after years of growth.

Hogan has thought hard about the potential pitfalls.

“At some point in life, you say, ‘This is who I am. I’ve got to do this,’” he says.

There are benefits to developing a kit plane versus a full-fledged factory-built plane. It costs less to develop, because the plane doesn’t have to meet the standards, testing and regulations to be “type certificated” by the Federal Aviation Administration.

But kit planes still must be registered with the FAA and inspected, and must receive an airworthiness certificate. A pilot must fly 25-40 hours of test flights before he or she can take up passengers in an amateur-built plane, which is also subject to condition inspections every year, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Taking the kit plane route “was to reduce the risk” and cut the cost to bring it to market, Hogan says. But, he acknowledges, “It’s still risky. The economy could change.”

Steve Champness, who is senior associate publisher of aircraft buy-and-sell publication Trade-a-Plane and heads the Aero Club of Metropolitan Atlanta that Hogan is a member of, says Commuter Craft is fortunate to be preparing to enter the market with good timing.

“Any new company’s got the challenges of how to scale up operations,” Champness says. But “aircraft sales have rebounded dramatically in the last 12 months.”

With a strong economy, “there’s enough buyers that have financial resources that are needed to purchase an aircraft like this,” he said. Hogan has “an innovative design that is priced, I think, in a very buyer-friendly zone for new aircraft. … It has a lot of people that are very excited about it.”

Getting off the ground

It has been four years since Hogan first began traveling to aviation shows to unveil his vision for The Innovator, which has a futuristic look with an extra-wide fuselage, a high twin-boomed tail and canard wing at the nose.

“It being such a unique design, I wanted to see if anyone liked it,” he says.

In 2015, a prototype of the plane took its first flight with a test pilot in the cockpit.

The following year, Hogan was preparing to begin production, and general aviation publications wrote articles telling of the imminent debut of The Innovator.

Upon seeing a photo of the plane in a publication, “a friend of mine knew it had to be me, because it looked just like the planes I used to draw in high school,” Hogan says.

But the plans to begin production were ultimately put on hold, as the company worked on new features.

To continue, Hogan brought in an investment partner to help fund development.

The goal today: To produce about a dozen aircraft by the end of 2019, 40 in 2020, and 80 in 2021.

Folding wings

Hogan’s first customers will be what he calls “alpha builders” — experienced airplane builders who are helping to finalize the company’s builder’s guide.

So far, Commuter Craft has built two versions of The Innovator, improving on the design after the first model was built, with the second version aimed at being production compliant.

And the planes that will be sold to customers first are a bit different from what Hogan initially envisioned.

“When you come up to [The Innovator] you go, ‘Wow, this is like a Ferrari,’” Champness says. “It’s like the sports car of airplanes.”

In fact, The Innovator does look like a bit like a car with wings.

That’s no accident. In fact, Hogan originally wanted to design a “roadable” version of the aircraft — in other words, a flying car.

But many who have observed aviation over the decades — or watched a sci-fi movie or two — roll their eyes at the notion of a flying car gaining popularity.

Hogan put the flying car idea aside and says The Innovator he will launch first will actually be a traditional airplane.

The idea now is that future models could include a roadable version, including folding wings. Wings nearly 24-feet wide that can fold to just eight-feet wide also will be an option on the traditional plane, Hogan says. That makes it small enough to pull in a trailer.

“The aircraft was designed as a multi-vehicle platform,” he says. “We didn’t set out to build an airplane. We set out to build an airplane company.”

For the aviation world and for Hogan himself, apparently, “the flying car was one of the great undying dreams,” he says.

Knapinski said that’s partly because “everybody is looking for the answer how do we get more people involved in flying.”

“Something like the Commuter Craft design, “People look at it and say, ‘Wow, I can see myself in that aircraft,’” Knapinski says.

Depending on how you count it, less than 2/10 of 1 percent of the U.S. population that is certified as an airplane pilot.

Hogan thinks a plane that’s accessible to a broader swath of the population could help change that.

If 1 out of 700 people are pilots, Hogan says, “That means that the other 699 don’t know what they’re missing.”

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