You may think an airplane as complex as the Evolution doesn’t belong in the amateur-built world. But for a company like Redmond, Oregon-based Lancair International, which has decades of experience producing complex airplane kits, the concept makes total sense. With the Evolution, Lancair has incorporated Part 23 certification procedures into its successful kit business to produce predictable airplanes with the superb performance numbers Lancair customers have become accustomed to. And while the Evolution is the first Lancair designed without the company’s founder, Lance Neibauer, his tradition of producing fast-flying pieces of art continues.
The Lancair Evolution is a four-seat, all-composite, pressurized, high-performance, single-engine, turboprop-powered airplane. The Evolution brings a sleek carbon fiber airframe, benign stall characteristics, advanced systems and a powerful Pratt & Whitney engine providing reliability and performance.
The Evolution not only provides great speed — as fast as 300 knots at max cruise — it also has a wide flight envelope with a 61-knot stall speed, which is the FAA-mandated number for certificated single-engine airplanes. The benign stall characteristics have enabled the Evo to keep a clean accident record with at least 34 airplanes flying to date.
Being in the amateur-built category enables Lancair to provide all this at a previously unattainable price point, putting the airplane in its own niche. The catch is, the buyer gets to build the airplane — with a lot of help, it goes without saying.
The Evolution of Lancair
Since Neibauer launched his first Lancair airplane design in the early 1980s, the company has become known for its composite amateur-built kits. “They were out to build the best, highest-performing knots-per-horsepower airplane that they could build, and they did, absolutely hands-down,” said Lancair’s COO Tom Bowen. The pinnacle of that achievement is the Lancair IV-P, with a cruise speed as fast as 320 knots.
Although Neibauer’s family had a history with metal airplanes, specifically Meyers Aircraft, he was drawn to composites, perhaps because they enabled more streamlined, eye-catching shapes. Because in addition to providing speed, Neibauer wanted his airplanes to be beautiful, another goal he clearly achieved.
The early ’80s were the infant stages of using composite materials in airplane designs. Neibauer started his company in Santa Paula, California, but realized the environment for composite construction was optimal in the dry climes of central Oregon.
Lancair became very successful, with more than 2,000 kits sold and a long list of awards for Neibauer. Though Neibauer’s early days of kit production had little in common with the certified world, he decided to focus on certifying what later became the Lancair Columbia (now the Cessna Corvalis), and in 2003 the kit side of Lancair was sold to Wolstenholme Holdings and Joe Bartels, who also became the president and CEO.
The Evolution was introduced under the leadership of Bartels, but in the summer of 2010, Bob Wolstenholme took over as president and CEO. While Wolstenholme is clearly involved in the company’s decision-making process, Bowen, who came from Cessna/Columbia in 2006, manages the day-to-day operations.
Under Bowen’s leadership, operations have been transformed. “One of my biggest complaints when I first got here with the composite process was that very little was documented,” says Bowen. “There were almost no drawings of the parts, molds or ply schedules [the timing for the composite layering]. Everyone was doing it from memory.” Bowen drew from his extensive experience with Part 23 production, and the result is standardization and repeatability of production that enables a more predictable end product.
The materials that eventually become the Evolution fuselage arrive at the factory as sheets of pre-impregnated carbon fiber. Strict environmental conditions are crucial to the integrity of the material, which is why central Oregon, with its temperature and humidity profile and skilled workforce, is an ideal location for composite manufacturing.
Quality control is far beyond what you may expect from a “homebuilt” airplane factory. For example, all 355 composite pieces that make up the airplane are tagged with critical information and baked in computer-controlled ovens. Each piece is tap-tested, and if any potential flaws are found, ultrasound is used to troubleshoot the problem.