Commander Aircraft back in business after owners group buys assets

Commander Aircraft is back in business, but with a new name and a new location.

A group of Commander owners acquired the assets of the bankrupt company June 29. The new company, dubbed Commander Premier Aircraft Corp. (CPAC), paid $1.7 million for the FAA type certificates for the line of four-place, high performance, single engine aircraft, as well as all jigs, tooling and other manufacturing assets necessary to produce new Commanders.

“When no serious buyer appeared to establish new manufacturing operations for the Commander, we decided to do it ourselves,” said Bob Tippens, a director of the new company and one of the original organizers of the Commander Owners Group (COG), a worldwide association of Commander aircraft owners. About 50 members of the owners group, from around the world, banded together and raised the money necessary to purchase the Commander assets.

The group also hired StoneGate Capital Group LLC of Farmington, Conn., to advise it on the acquisition and financing, as well as provide management for the new company. StoneGate, which specializes in startups and turnarounds, also is a company that tried — unsuccessfully — to buy the Commander assets earlier this year. After putting up $200,000, the company backed out of the deal, forfeiting that money.

Before that deal fell through, StoneGate’s officers attended a Commander Owners Group meeting last October in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a group of product owners actually commit to buy the assets of a defunct company and reestablish operations to produce the product they love,” said Joel Hartstone, a managing director of StoneGate and the new president and CEO of Commander Premier. “As a business, we begin life where most companies seeking to produce new aircraft find themselves after investing three to five years — and up to $100 million — in risky development and testing. While we are forced to relocate, we have everything we need to move into a new plant and start production, even a substantial amount of inventory.”

Commander’s former facilities at Wiley Post Airport in Bethany, Okla., were not part of the bankruptcy sale. The No. 1 task facing the new company’s officers today is finding a new location.

“We are just beginning to evaluate possible locations,” noted Claudia Horn, Commander Premier’s chief financial officer and a managing director of StoneGate.

The new company is hopeful that a number of former Commander employees will join the company, “especially if we are able to remain in the Oklahoma City area,” Horn said.

However, the company is open to locations around the country, as well as in StoneGate’s backyard, she said. “Of the dozens of companies operated by StoneGate principals over the last two decades, only one was based in Connecticut,” she noted. “As with those other companies, Commander Premier Aircraft will be located in an area so as to best position it for success. Proposals from Connecticut will be considered in the mix with proposals from all other areas of the country and compete on an even basis.”

The number of employees that will be hired has not been determined. The company is not accepting applications at the present time, according to Horn. “It will be several weeks before we will be able to accurately estimate when various positions will be filled,” she explained. “At this time we are preoccupied with the move, and until that situation is fully resolved, we don’t think it’s appropriate to be considering applications for employment.”

The Commander was first designed and manufactured by Rockwell International Corp. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. acquired the Commander line when it bought Rockwell’s General Aviation Division in 1981. In 1988, Commander Aircraft Co. was formed when the line was purchased from Gulfstream. The company implemented improvements to the Commander line, resulting in the Commander 114B, which received a new Type Certificate in 1992. Next came the 114 AT (All Purpose Trainer) and the 114 TOC (Turbo-Charged). In 2000, the company introduced the Commander 115.

The company’s revenues doubled from approximately $8.1 million in 1997 to $16.8 million in 2000, at which time it was profitable. However, its business was adversely affected by an ensuing stock market crash, recession, default of a credit line by an international dealer, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the subsequent march to wars. Consequently, on Dec. 27, 2002, the company filed for bankruptcy. While new production was suspended, the company continued operations with a skeleton staff. Operations ceased completely in February after two failed attempts to sell the company sent Commander from Chapter 11 bankruptcy to Chapter 7.

The new company hopes to begin production in 2006.

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