Dreams die hard. Over the last two decades, there has been no shortage of new entrants into the turbine business aircraft market. Most fall woefully short of success. This is particularly true when it comes to makers of single-engine turboprops—and no wonder.
Demand for new business turboprops has been remarkably steady, according to data from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), with annual sales of new single-engine models averaging 475 units between 2012 and 2016; but when you break down those numbers, you see that most of the sales are being made by a small group of manufacturers.
In any given year, Air Tractor and Thrush—which make crop-dusting aircraft—collectively account for about one-third of production. Take that away, and you’re left with approximately 250 to 300 new turboprop singles a year—virtually all from just five airframers: Textron Cessna, Daher, Pilatus, Piper, and Quest. Collectively, those manufacturers accounted for 299 of the 467 singles produced in 2016, according to GAMA.
To break into a market that’s dominated by so few companies, you need a compelling product and an attractive price point. Epic Aircraft sought to provide both in 2004, when it introduced the sleek, all-composite six-seat LT as a kit, saving much of the time and expense that goes with marketing a certified aircraft.
I had an opportunity to fly one of the early builds shortly thereafter. It snapped off the runway, climbed like a banshee on fire (around 4,000 feet per minute), and offered extremely smart styling and a nice, comfortable cabin, all—at the time—for around $1.5 million. Granted, some assembly was required by the owner/builder per FAA regulation—one that was being widely abused as numerous firms popped up to “help,” meaning they would do almost all of your kit building for you.
The LT was a 338-knot rocket, and speed aficionados began lining up in small but sufficient numbers to buy kits for $1.4 million to $1.8 million each. Had Epic focused its attention strictly on this model, chances are the company’s story would be far less interesting. But Epic’s founder, Rick Schrameck, had dreams of building a company that made everything from light sport models to twinjets—and a production target of 400 aircraft per year. He actually built prototypes of some of these other models.
Where the money for this came from…well, the story appears to be more than a bit naughty if you believe the government. While the case has yet to be tried and Schrameck has pled not guilty, a 2014 federal indictment charges him with 18 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. The indictment suggests he was not going to let legalities dash his dreams of an aviation empire or interfere with his “lavish lifestyle,” which were both allegedly fueled by deposits for LTs. By the time it was over and Epic filed for bankruptcy in 2009, LT customers had lost more than $14 million.
Since then, Epic Aircraft’s designs and physical assets have changed hands several times; and since 2012, the U.S.-based remains have been owned by Russian maintenance, repair, and overhaul company Engineering LLC. Under its control, Epic announced an end to kit production and an intent to pursue manufacture of an FAA-certified variant of the LT, christened the E1000; and the company began taking orders, which now stand at more than 70. The first E1000 prototype flew in 2015, the second in January 2018. The company claims the $3.25 million E1000 will be certified later this year.
The production E1000 will differ from the kit LT in subtle ways in appearance and substantial ways in equipment and capabilities. The wing and the engine cowl intake have been redesigned to improve efficiency, the latter for the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-67A engine (derated to 1,200 shaft horsepower). The production aircraft will feature the three-screen Garmin G1000 NXi glass-panel avionics system and Genesys digital autopilot with radar, radar altimeter, and Iridium satellite transceiver options. The sculpted cockpit and the cabin both take the latest automotive styling cues and offer all the modern conveniences, including USB ports for carry-on electronics. Entry is via a rear airstair door, up a center aisle through the facing club-four passenger seat array. The 15-foot-long cabin offers more space than a twin-engine King Air C90.
On paper, the E1000 slays the TBM 930, its nearest competitor, in virtually every category save maximum cruise speed (the TBM is five knots faster). And it promises to be nearly $700,000 cheaper. Notably, the E1000’s 34,000-foot service ceiling is 6,000 feet higher than the LT’s. The E1000 is expected to deliver fuel burns of 60 gallons per hour at cruise speeds of 300 knots down low, and 40 gallons per hour at 300 knots up at 34,000 feet. Time to climb to maximum altitude is just 15 minutes. Full fuel payload should be 1,100 pounds with a range of at least 1,650 nautical miles, according to the company. The E1000 is projected to be a short-field champ, needing just 1,600 feet of runway for takeoff.
Performance like that is the stuff of dreams. For this dream to fly, of course, the E1000 needs FAA certification and sufficient resources to achieve serial production. But those goals appear within reach.