Canton Repository

April 12, 2006

Analysts skeptical of local businessman's prototype aircraft

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON - Aerospace analysts and other experts are skeptical of a plan by a Stark County businessman to build a privately developed military aircraft and sell it to Third World countries and the Pentagon.

But they aren’t totally ruling out businessman Ray Williams’ prospects for success with his newly designed turboprop, which is still under wraps.

“I’d prefer to spend money on lottery tickets myself,” said Richard L. Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, when asked to assess the chances for success.

Aboulafia, an aerospace and defense analyst, said it is “very difficult” to sell aircraft to Third World countries, which Williams sees as the prime market for the airplane. “They have very little money, and doing business there in general is extremely tough,” he said.

The analyst also doubts there would be demand among foreign allies and the U.S. government for the aircraft.

millions of dollars away

At the same time, Aboulafia said the fact that Williams has designed and built a prototype at his own expense “is a very good sign.”

“Building a prototype — that’s a serious commitment, that’s hard work,” he said. “Getting it to production, of course, is many tens of millions more.”

Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a defense industry-oriented think tank, agrees with Williams that there is a need among U.S. allies for cheaper, less complicated military equipment.

But he worries about the vulnerability of the aircraft to insurgents armed with surface-to-air missiles because of its slow speed compared to a jet.

“There has been concern for some time that the weapons the U.S. is buying are too complicated and too costly to be employed by many of its allies,” Thompson said.

“So there definitely is a large latent market for simple rugged military aircraft that this concept might be able to address.

“However, balanced against this is the fact that it is becoming easier for even poorly equipped enemies to obtain surface-to-air missiles that are highly agile and highly accurate,” he added. “What this means is that although it might be an inexpensive aircraft, there would be doubts about its survivability against most threats.”

Neither analyst has independent knowledge of the aircraft, which has been designed and built at an undisclosed location in Missouri. They draw their knowledge of the airplane from information provided to Copley News Service by Williams and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Jones, a partner in the venture.

The aircraft, which has a 35-foot wingspan and 1,200 horsepower Pratt and Whitney jet engine, is similar to existing military trainer turboprops such as the Raytheon T-6 and the Embraer Tucano. Williams said his airplane is more versatile than those existing aircraft, with the ability to fly 2,000 miles without refueling and land on rough as well as smooth runways.

Both the U.S. Air Force and Navy use T-6s for training. The Tucano, a Brazilian-designed light attack aircraft, is popular among foreign militaries.

little demand

Aboulafia doubts there will be demand for Williams’ airplane, even if it is superior to the T-6 and Tucano.

“I’m sure there are things about their airplane that are better,” he said. “That doesn’t put it in a different market niche or grow the market, which frankly has been very small.”

Thompson said the Pentagon has no interest in turboprops such as Williams’ craft.

“The U.S. military favors high-end, high-tech systems that are versatile across a range of challenging missions,” he said.

“This particular aircraft would be versatile, but it probably is too simple and of questionable survivability and therefore not appealing to the types of requirements the military generates today.”

Williams also faces a huge challenge as a small player in a defense landscape dominated by giants such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

As the president of U.S. Technology Corp., a privately held company in Canton, Williams’ background and expertise are in removing coatings from aircraft bodies. He has never personally designed or built an aircraft.

It’s unclear to either analyst how Williams might attempt to sell the project to the Defense Department.

Williams is eschewing the conventional route, which involves convincing the Pentagon of the need for an aircraft and competing with other suppliers in a procurement process that often takes years.

“The normal way that you market to the Pentagon is through a very protracted and laborious process of generating a military requirement and then competing to satisfy that requirement,” Thompson said. “Normally only the biggest, most well-endowed companies have the patience and the resources to do that.”

taking a different route

At the same time, Williams said he is not seeking funding through a congressional earmark, a route employed by influential lobbyists and contractors who are able to persuade a lawmaker to put funding for their project into a spending bill.

Although he is not ruling out an earmark, Williams said he is looking at a different funding mechanism. But he declines to say what it is, explaining that it is “part of our strategy that we would consider confidential.”

Thompson is at a loss as to what Williams has in mind.

“You can short-circuit the (regular) process by getting congressional backing, but that means earmarks,” he said.

Copley Pentagon Correspondent Otto Kreisher contributed to this story.