Maule celebrates its 50th — this year and next

Maule Air is gearing up to celebrate its 50th anniversary — twice. This year the company is celebrating the 50th anniversary of founder B.D. Maule receiving the Type Certificate for the Bee Dee M-4. Next year the company will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first delivery.

So how has Maule survived 50 years in the turbulent general aviation industry?

“By the grace of God, for one thing,” said Brent Maule, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, the third generation of the company to head up sales. He notes that being a family business and building a quality product also contributed to its success.

“My grandparents grew up in the Great Depression,” he said. “They knew about tough times. We have a heritage — a legacy — that we all stick together no matter what.”

M4180V Cargo The beginnings of the company actually go back much farther than 50 years, when founder Belford D. Maule — known as B.D. by everyone — designed his first plane, a single-seat midwing monoplane powered by a Henderson 27-hp motorcycle engine. Just 19 at the time, Maule called it the M-1. Starting with the airplane on floats, and later on wheels, he taught himself to fly.

About five years after he married June Alderhold in 1934, he designed and built “the Hummer,” the first mechanical starter for light aircraft. The couple move to Jackson, Mich., where they formed Mechanical Products Co. to manufacture the starter. That was followed in 1941 by the B.D. Maule Co., which built a light aircraft tailwheel B.D. designed. In fact, the steerable, full-swiveling tailwheel is still being manufactured by Maule, in an improved form, officials note.

During the war the tailwheel business took off, while the starter business waned. Following the war, B.D. set his talents to a few other inventions, including TV antennas and towers and a thrust bearing for the antenna rotor, and a non-destructive aircraft fabric tester that the company still produces today.

But it was in 1953 when he began developing the line of aircraft that led to Maule Air. His vision was to design a high-powered utility aircraft for aviators like himself — serious pilots who fly for the love of it. He wanted a four-place “go-anywhere” airplane that could be used for many missions, including bush flying in unimproved and rugged environments. The design evolved as a high-wing monoplane taildragger with a welded steel tube truss fuselage, metal spar wing, STOL characteristics, and good range and speed. The first prototype was completed in 1957 and took an award for design and workmanship at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual convention. Testing for certification of the new plane was started that same year.

BD Hangar Takeoff

Most pilots are familiar with this photo of BD taking off from the hangar to demonstrate his aircraft's STOL capability.

The ruggedness of Maule airplanes is legendary, with some posters on Internet forums saying it is one of the most “manliest” airplanes around. “I never heard that,” Brent Maule said with a laugh. “I’ll have to remember that.”

Over the years, the company continued to innovate, introducing new models and refining every aspect of the design. It wasn’t uncommon to see B.D. and his son, David, working late into the night at their new factory in Moultrie, Ga., where the company moved in 1968. Performance has been enhanced through those efforts with various engine, flap, aileron, wingtip, and landing gear changes. Other changes have been minor, usually to improve the aesthetics, interiors, paint jobs, and the overall versatility of the airplane, officials note.

In 1995, when B.D., passed away, Maule was the third largest producer of single-engine aircraft in the U.S. His widow, June, took over operations of the company, running it until her death in October 2009. She was often quoted as saying: “I’ve done everything involved in building an airplane except welding. I’ve sewn the upholstery, helped with covering, run lathes, and even helped with the forming of windshields when we still made them in the factory. That’s how Mr. Maule and I did it. We worked together.”

And the family continues to work together. Brent’s father, Ray, and his siblings, head the company, while his mother, Rautgunde, runs Maule Flight, a company founded in 1970 by Ray that not only sells and repairs Maule aircraft, but also provides training for the company’s customers. Also counted among the company’s 36 employees are two aunts, an uncle, and a couple of Maule cousins. In fact, when June was still running the show, there were four generations at Maule Air, according to Brent.

IMG_9399 Customers like dealing with people who have the same name as the company, Brent said, noting they also like the fact that his father continues to do the test flights on all new aircraft coming out of the factory.

“People are sometimes shocked to be talking to someone with the same last name as the airplane,” he said. “You can’t call a Cessna or Piper.”

He acknowledges that he finds that “weird” since he grew up in the business. “I don’t understand the cool factor.”

But his customers do. There are pilots out there who have flown Maules for “years and years,” he said, telling the tale of one customer who grew up flying Maules who actually stayed at Brent’s house during his flight training. “He wrote yesterday saying he was looking for a new plane,” he said.

Brent then recounts the story of another long-time customer had bought five or six Maules — “he kept coming back because he believed in the Maule” — but was enticed by a salesperson for another plane to try one of theirs. Brent won’t reveal the other plane, but said “it greatly underperformed. He came back to us.”

If you decide to check out a Maule at an air show or at the factory, don’t expect a high-pressured sales pitch. “We don’t have a lot of the flash and pizazz,” Maule said. “We’re just kind of down home and approachable. We don’t put on airs — we let the airplanes speak for themselves.”

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And they are speaking loudly this year. So far this year, the company’s sales have already surpassed all of 2010. In typical low-key fashion, Maule says the increased numbers are fueled by “lots of foreign sales and the northwest U.S. is cranking up — we’ll have three or four planes going up there soon. I don’t know why that region is hopping, but I’m glad it is.”

He then mentions — again in that low-key manner — that the sales are boosted by a “big contract that I’ve been working on for two years finally came through.”

While the Maule offices are getting lots of calls from customers in the U.S., “the ones writing the checks right now are the foreign buyers,” he said. “Europe and Central America are big customers. And India is starting to buy, but they are buying used airplanes, not new ones.”

The planes are being bought for both personal use and commercial operations, he added. “I just got an email from one of my customers in Europe who is using his Maule to tow gliders.”

Since its founding, Maule Air has delivered 2,500 airplanes to customers all over the world. “Each one of them is handbuilt,” Maule said. “We don’t have a mass production line.”

So how does Maule Air plan to celebrate its golden anniversary?

“We want to celebrate our 50th year by offering a lot of new things to people,” he said, noting they are “very close” to a 300-lbs. gross weight increase on the 235 and 260 models. “This will take the 235 and 260 to whole new levels of utility — and they are known for their utility,” he said.

The company also is “hopeful” that its diesel airplane — introduced in 2003 as the M-9 powered by SMA’s 230-hp SR 305 engine — will be approved by the end of the year, Maule said.

The company also plans to reintroduce the M-4 — the plane that started it all — as a two-seater, which will give pilots “utility at a great price,” he added.

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With all these projects, the company has shelved its Light Sport Aircraft, also introduced in 2003. “Some of these other projects have taken precedence,” he said, noting that the company’s prototype shown off at Oshkosh was “a little heavy.”

Maule Air will, of course, be exhibiting at this year’s Oshkosh, as it did at Sun ’n Fun. The company’s Sun ’n Fun exhibit was typically low-key, with just two planes which, as it turns out, was a blessing, as both planes were directly in the path of the tornado that ripped through the fly-in. Both planes were damaged, but Maule said they were able to fly one of them back to the company’s factory in Georgia. The other didn’t fare so well. The MX-7-180B was blown down the flight line by the tornado and would have hit a TBM if a big sign hadn’t stopped it, he reported.

“That plane was gorgeous,” he said with a sigh. “It was the first one with a new paint scheme we had just designed. It was really sharp and it was really showing well. It was a head turner.”

The customer who was supposed to take delivery of the plane was able to see it the day after the storm. His delivery is, of course, delayed as they are building a replacement aircraft, but the folks at Maule didn’t let the setback stop them at all. It’s all part of the lessons learned from being part of a family-owned business that’s lasted 50 years.

“I’ve learned a lot from those who came before me,” Brent Maule said. “I learned to never give up, even when things look rough. That if we keep that ‘we can do it’ attitude and press forward, we can make it happen.”

Being innovative is also key. His grandfather, obviously, was an innovator and Brent says his father, Ray, “is a real visionary.”

“We started with a great base plane that my grandfather designed and we continually innovate to make it better and better, so that 50 years later, it is always fresh and still new.”

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  1. Steve Bickham says

    I took lesson at Ray Maule’s airport in Napoleon Mi when I was 12 yrs old (I rode my bicycle over 3 miles to the Napoleon Airport) and I worked sorting potatoes and cleaning and taking out the trash for airplane lessons. I now live in Columbia TN and own my own airplane (a Cessna). Ray was kind enough to give me a job and let me work at his place (no pay, just lessons) . I guess I never knew the history of who the guy was, I just wanted to be a pilot. I wish he would have took me under his wing (no pun intended) back then. He gave me one short plane ride with this guy down past sandusky Ohio (I got to fly but mostly just ride along). I was young and stupid and I guess I didn’t like working for nothing and feeling like the guy was gonna give me the shaft so I quit. I called him one day and asked him why he stiffed me for all the work. He said come down their and he’d make it right. I just gave up and became a pilot when I was older. This is one of those childhood memories that was very significant. It’s a shame it turned out the way it did. I think the guy had good intentions, but back then, Ray drank alot.

  2. Paul Peterson says

    I would love to read a flying review of the Maule M-4. The M-9 with the SMA diesel doesn’t get much attention or mention anywhere. The fuel savings and fuel burn rate should be a real incentive for many. It would be nice to hear and learn more about the M-9. Glad to hear it may be approved this year.

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