Alan Klapmeier daydreamed in his childhood about building airplanes, first models, and then a kit plane, collecting thousands of aviation magazines along the way. In 1979, while attending Ripon College, Alan began the design of what became the VK-30 – the first Cirrus. Joined by his brother Dale and college roommate Jeff Viken, they formed Wisconsin based Cirrus Design in 1984. The Klapmeiers’ parents were entrepreneurial and knew about starting a business, and were very supportive of their dream and enterprise. Also, the hard work and risk required was no surprise.
In 1999, after moving their operation to Duluth, Minnesota, Cirrus began producing its signature product, the FAA certified compos- ite, SR series single-engine piston, four-seat aircraft with its unique built-in parachute. The goal was to build an airplane that would excite a new General Aviation customer. The concept was dismissed by many, but with this easy to fly, sleek-looking compos- ite aircraft, with an oversized, futuristic, two-door design, Cirrus soon outsold Cessna and every other four-seat aircraft manufactur- er in the world. The Cirrus SR-22 continues to be the bestselling aircraft in its class.
Of course designing and certifying a new technology airplane is not “easy”, but the team at Cirrus did just that in about 4 years. Accord- ing to Alan, the “glass cockpit” was a most important change in the industry, the piece of technology that caused the industry to grow. The Klapmeiers also decided to put the airframe parachute on their aircraft long before it had ever flown.
Financing the project was a huge challenge. “Raising money was harder for us than designing, certifying, building or selling our airplanes,” Alan said. Cirrus used a combination of family invest- ments, economic development, and finally, outside equity investors to pay for the cost of design and certification. Even more money was necessary to ramp up production.
Alan is generally considered the creative “vision” with Dale the
practical problem solver. “We design with the mind of an engineer, but the heart of a pilot. We design products that are more intuitive; to do what you expect it to do, opposed to what you’re taught it should do.” They both have a passion for aviation and have been doing this all of their lives. Clearly they love airplanes, love flying and care deeply about aviation.
Both Alan and Dale Klapmeier were recipients of the 4th Annual Living Legends “Aviation Entrepreneur of the Year Award” in 2006.
As an update, the Klapmeier’s slowly gave up majority control of the company to investors, eventually resulting in voting Alan out of the company in 2008, causing a messy family split. Cirrus was sold to a Chinese company, but still manufactures airplanes, with Dale as CEO, here in the U.S. at their Duluth Minnesota factory.
In 2010, Alan partnered with Farnborough Aircraft Ltd. to form the Kestrel Aircraft Company based at the former Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Maine. Raising capital and getting partners to get the plane into production is the continuing challenge. In 2015, Kestrel and Eclipse combined under a new holding company called ONE Aviation.
“A truly great entrepreneur, the missionary ones, as opposed to the merely mercenary ones,” as John Doerr of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins put it, “is that setbacks, failure or even betrayal does not defeat them. They have a mission they believe is important to accomplish, and they are willing to take the long view, or even the long road if necessary to get there.” Knowledge and experience elevate transformative aviation technology.
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