Sunday, November 04, 2007

Viperjet Success Story

Scott and Dan Hanchette were called the Wrong Brothers when they decided a decade ago to build an airplane.

But, just as the Wright brothers silenced their critics, the Hanchettes' Viperjet MKII Executive has quieted those who questioned their wisdom to sell a profitable gym business to get into making aircraft.

Their passion helped them create a sleek, sporty, twin-seater jet from a kit they designed. Their experimental aircraft, which resembles a fighter jet, can climb 10,000 feet a minute, cruises at more than 500 mph and can reach altitudes of 28,000 feet.

The Viper can fly about 760 miles without refueling. And there aren't many like it in the kit-airplane market, which consists primarily of single-engine, propeller-driven aircraft, said Dick Knapinski, communications director at Oshkosh, Wis.-based Experimental Aircraft Association.

Monty Thompson, who recently came to Pasco from Aspen, Colo., to take a test ride, calls the Viperjet a piece of art.

"That plane just wants to fly and doesn't want to come down," he said after a flight. At an average cost of less than $800,000 apiece, the two brothers have already sold 23 Viperjet kits that are in various stages of being built nationwide. It costs about $400 to $500 an hour to operate.

Viper has made the kit modular so that customers can put it together without much hassle, said Dan Hanchette, vice president of the Pasco company, which gets about 20 inquiries a week about the plane.

There are about 50 manufacturers of kit aircraft in the country.

Viper, which has eight full-time employees including the two brothers and Dan's wife, Amber, soon plans to include a center to help customers build their planes.

And Viper Aircraft, the company the Hanchette brothers founded in the mid-1990s, also is working with a builder company to help assemble at its hangar at the Tri-Cities Airport a ready-to-fly plane with advanced avionics for export to Saudi Arabia.

Dan Hanchette said Scott, his older brother, has been interested in planes since childhood. He started taking flying lessons at 14 and wanted to be a fighter pilot. But he couldn't clear a color-vision test. That led him to turn his attention to building a plane that combined speed and style, Dan said.

"I thought that was unfair that only fighter pilots get to fly cool planes," said Scott, president of Viper.

Scott made drawings of a sporty plane on sheets of paper, and later collaborated with Mark Bettosini, of AirBoss Aerospace in Reno, Nev., to develop engineering plans for his vision, Dan Hanchette said.

The brothers had a background in business, having run an auto-detailing shop in downtown Kennewick in the 1980s and later a Gold's Gym. It's now called LifeQuest.

"I was into body building, but was bitten by the aircraft bug," said Dan, a 1982 Kamiakin High School graduate.

He said he never realized the things he could do before he got into the kit-plane manufacturing business. His ideas were translated into a three-dimensional reality by Scott, he said. And, it's been a lot of fun, Dan said.

"There were a lot of people who laughed at us," he said.

The jokes steeled their resolve. Often, the brothers ended up working 12 to 15 hours a day for weeks.

The progress was gradual until they learned their father had cancer. And, the brothers, who don't have college degrees, began working with greater intensity to show their dad before he died that their plane could fly.

The first prototype was ready to fly in October 1999, and the Hanchettes brought their dying father to see the spectacle. A radio problem delayed the first flight, Dan Hanchette said. A week later they fixed the problem, but their dad was too weak to witness his sons' best moments. So they shot a video of the flight and showed it to him.

After the Viperjet's inaugural flight, a man who had expressed doubts earlier about the Hanchettes' abilities told them, "If this were a bet, I would've lost everything."

Scott Hanchette says he doesn't blame the naysayers, because few would dare to do what they did.

Since 1999, the Hanchettes have constantly tweaked the Viperjet, investing several million dollars in it. They declined to give the exact amount.

Initially, the Hanchettes thought pilots interested in aerobatic maneuvers would be their primary customers, but after 9/11 — when long lineups at airports became common — the brothers thought of reaching out to business executives who preferred a smaller and faster plane.

Many of Viper's customers already own higher-end, manufactured aircraft that cost $3 million or more, the Hanchettes say.

The latest Viperjet has a four-times-more-powerful engine and is slightly bigger than the original version. Also, it has a pressurized cabin plush with Italian leather seats, burlwood accents and integrated flight systems.

"You can always make it better, but you have to draw the line on the sand somewhere," Scott Hanchette said.

The Viper MKII Executive is similar to a T-38, a jet trainer used by the U.S. Air Force, said Greg Bennett, a former Air Force instructor and commercial pilot. He has put in about 200 hours flying a Viperjet.

It has quick acceleration, and it loops and rolls in the air like a fighter jet, Bennett said. Because its streamlined body is made of composite materials, Viperjet doesn't encounter much resistance, he added.

"We need more brakes to slow it down," Bennett said.

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