An American finds success building aircraft overseas.
This is not a story about a Czech company. It’s about an American company in the Czech Republic, a distinction that makes this story different.
For months we have been hearing and reading about sport pilot and light- sport aircraft (LSA). The FAA’s new rule is creating plenty of excitement for some very good reasons. That excitement is not confined to the U.S. Overseas manufacturers are eyeing the new rule as a way to enter the U.S. market. One of those in the best position to take advantage of the new rule is Czech Aircraft Works (CZAW).
An American In Prague
Chip Erwin hails from Wisconsin. Today, he is an American who owns a company in the Czech Republic. His CZAW has become one of that country’s largest aircraft producers. He accomplished all of this during the single decade when the Czech Republic regained its independence.
Before the communists took over 50 years ago, the Czech Republic was one of Europe’s most vibrant economies, with industry and technology that ran ahead of many of its neighbors. The Soviet takeover scuttled that advanced state of development.
However, during Soviet occupation, Czech manufacturing skills were employed for building military and transport aircraft. When the Russians left a decade ago, the nationalized airplane builders were dumped into the capitalist cauldron. Most had to downsize viciously, and hundreds of experienced workers became unemployed.
These displaced engineers had university degrees and decades of practical knowledge. Many of these people can now be hired for a fraction of the wages commanded by their western counterparts. Over time the salaries may start to equalize, but meanwhile, the situation spells opportunity to Americans like Erwin with their free-market MBA degrees.
Sailboards to Aircraft
Erwin was a consultant to a sailboard company when an inquiry arrived from the Czech Republic. The newly independent eastern European company wanted to build boards for its client, so Erwin went to investigate.
As a longtime aviation enthusiast, Erwin quickly uncovered the aviation talent gold mine. Within months, he left the sailboard company and started CZAW.
The early venture employed eight aircraft industry workers to build Zenair kits like the CH-701. Erwin struck a manufacturing deal with Canadian-based Zenair boss, Chris Heintz. Zenair prefers to design aircraft and manufacture kits and parts. It was happy to let CZAW handle the building of the aircraft.
At first this was done only for the European market, but Erwin isn’t one to let moss grow under his feet. The business expanded to build more Zenair models, sell to markets outside of Europe, and continually employ more of the Czech Republic’s idled aviation workers. By 2004, CZAW expects to sell half its production to the U.S. through its dealer, SkyShop.
Using 85 production workers and 30 other staff members, CZAW built about 100 aircraft last year. Erwin believes he’ll have the capacity to manufacture at least 300 aircraft a year by 2004. More workers are available, and CZAW has generous ambitions.
The company has already branched out in several directions. One of the first was creating its own float system for the Zenair line. All-aluminum constructions, CZAW’s floats are available in straight and amphibious models of varying weight capacities serving a wide variety aircraft beyond the Zenair brand name.
Another initiative is supplying parts to other aircraft builders. The leading example of this took me to another shop within the CZAW complex. Here, workers built the wings, tail and control surfaces for OMF, producer of the Part 23 certified Symphony. I saw several airplanes’ worth of parts being assembled.
To supply its own production as well as those of other customers, CZAW imports tons of aluminum sheet metal and other parts. Most raw materials are sourced from the U.S., a reassuring fact to customers who may be willing to believe in Czech labor standards but have suspicions about the quality of local material.
A Look at the Planes
On my visit, I added a flight evaluation of the CH-701 to my earlier experience in Zenair’s CH-601. These two comprise the lion’s share of production by CZAW-each about 50%- and form unique products that are leaders in their aviation segments.
The 701 is a form of aerial jeep with bush tires and stout gear, STOL characteristics, and an uncompromising fuselage. Like many off-road vehicles, no one calls the 701 pretty. But the plane is highly functional and flies uniquely. Even at full gross, it leaps off the ground quickly and stalls so slowly you can’t believe the ASI readings.
Filling the niche for attractive, conventional-looking aircraft is the 601 series, a range of models built around the same Piper Cherokee-like fuselage. Larger or smaller wings combine with trigear or taildragger configurations and several engine selections to provide something to benefit most pilots. Used on more civilized airports, the 601 is faster and offers the sweeping visibility of a full, clear canopy.
Both aircraft will easily fit the LSA rule as presently defined. Either will fill the needs of many pilots. But what can you do until sport pilot becomes law? CZAW and SkyShop have the answer, especially if you like to travel.
A Trip Abroad
For $43,950, you can buy and fly a CH-701 that will include a ticket to the Czech Republic. Once you’ve made your way 300 kilometers south to Stare Mesto, you’ll work alongside CZAW factory workers to assemble your aircraft. SkyShop’s seven-day builder assistance program is a great learning experience and qualifies under the amateur-built rule, they report. Once you return home, your aircraft will arrive by container freight. SkyShop will help with the FAA details, and you’ll soon be flying your own N-numbered CH-701. A similar program is available for the 601 series for $2000 more.
Once LSA becomes law, SkyShop will supply ready-to-fly aircraft from its south Florida base to owners across America. Perhaps a Czech-built Zenair is in your future.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, contact Czech Aircraft Works, S.R.O., Lucni 1824, 686 02 Stare Mesto, Czech Republic; call (from the U.S.) 011-420-572-543-456; fax (from the U.S.) 011-420-572-543-692; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; web www.airplane.cz.
SkyShop, Inc., can be contacted at 1837 S. Federal Hwy. #200, Stuart, FL 34994; call 772/223-8915; fax 772/382-0607; e-mail zaneta@SkyShops.org; web www.skyshops.org.
An American finds success building aircraft overseas.