More than two decades ago — in 1994 — the Sherpa made its Oshkosh debut.
Heralded as a “Super Cub on steroids,” the airplane drew a lot of attention.
But not much action.
The first design, a five-place STOL aircraft powered by a Lycoming IO-720 400-hp engine, morphed five years later into an eight-place version that saw an increase in gross weight and horsepower with the use of a twin turbo TIO-720 474-hp Lycoming engine.
As the company tried to make this combination work for the next six years, it was finally determined that the power was simply not enough to produce the STOL performance company officials were after. Once again the aircraft underwent a complete redesign and was introduced at AirVenture 2009 with an 840-hp Honeywell turbine engine.
In all that time, just two aircraft have been delivered — and no one is more frustrated by that than Glen Gordon, the force behind Sherpa Aircraft.
“It is as if there were land mines planted in the development process because we have run into so many different hangups,” he said.
For instance, finding the right engine took at least eight years. Then there was the two years spent trying to strike a deal with some Chinese investors. Twelve years into the development process, the original investors were ready for a return on their investment, so they took ownership of the first prototype. The second turbine was sold to an owner in Alaska and is undergoing changes to help improve the CG range.
But through it all, Gordon maintains his belief in the airplane.
“We have developed the most usable, efficient, off-airport, backcountry aircraft, from the benevolent side of it for missionary work, to first aid or medical help, to the hauling of supplies — all of the things that you might need to fly into backcountry areas where nothing else can reach except a helicopter,” he said. “The difficulty with a helicopter is they’re very expensive to run, they’re slow to run, and they can’t pack the payloads that we are trying to do.”
That’s a 3,000-pound payload in an aircraft that can takeoff and land at distances ranging from 100 feet to 250 feet, according to Gordon.
“It has the ability to cruise at more than 200 mph and still land normally under 40 mph,” he said.
He also notes that the planes are like a “flying greenhouse” with large windows that give not only the pilot, but passengers, the ability to see all around them.
Gordon says he’s not the only one interested in finally getting the Sherpa certified and to market.
He says he’s working with people in countries ranging from Russia to India, South Africa to Brazil, who are interested in “trying to get this aircraft going for their area because of its ability to go pretty much anywhere.”
He noted he’s also had some good feedback from the FAA, especially the FSDO in Alaska.
“I could not have had more better, more interested and supportive effort by the FAA,” he said. “They want this airplane certified. They saw the need for the airplane, especially the group up in Alaska. They came down to visit us twice, which is basically unheard of. They came to our facility to say, ‘Hey, what can we do to help here?’”
“They were really, really trying to support us,” he continued. “We’re the people that really didn’t come through because I finally ran out of finances to the point where I need help. I’m looking for a good partner to keep it moving.”
After investing more than $19 million, the 83-year-old Gordon knows it’s time to find some help in getting the Sherpa certified.
He’s hesitant to put a firm figure on how much is needed to go through the certification process, but when pushed said it would take a lot less than people might think.
“We think that our plan is a manageable plan to get it certified and it’s not $30 million,” he said. “The fact is I think that the whole process could be done by building two aircraft.”
One is already under construction, he notes, with the second aircraft the one that will go through the process of Part 23 certification.
“The whole project could be done for about $10 million,” he estimated.
He notes that certification for the Sherpa will be a lot easier than for a composite airplane.
“We’re going back to practically the Wright brothers as far as materials,” he said. “We use 4131 steel. Our fuselage is steel and basic materials, such as fabric. When we go for certification, we are able to qualify for what’s called as ‘known construction.’ It’s not a new concept as in some of the construction that’s being used in some of these complex aircraft and airframes.
“It’s great to see the new technology, but we’re right back to tube and fabric, simple and easy to field repair, and not complicated as far as building aircraft,” he continued. “That all combines to make it a beautiful aircraft to use in the backcountry. When you’re in Africa or somewhere else and you’ve run into a post, it’s not difficult to get out the duct tape and do some patching and keep going.”
Even better, he says, is that the plane is custom-made for backcountry and short, unimproved landing surfaces.
“I have a fellow I’m working with that was bragging about the 2,400 feet of runway he’s building, which he says will be great for the Sherpa,” Gordon recounted with a laugh. “He showed me pictures and I said, “Well, why don’t you just cut out 400 feet of it for us? You can do whatever you want with the rest. We’ll take 400 feet of it, please, and that’ll put us in business.”
“The truth is this airplane has the ability to pack so much and have the speed control down so slow so that it can get in and out, plus be protected by being a taildragger so that you’re not going to tip over if you hit a rut — and yet cruise at the high speeds we have. It’s pretty unusual,” he said. “Let me take that back. It’s very unusual. There is actually nothing on the market that will compete with what we do. That’s our Sherpa.”
Experimental versions of the Sherpa sell for around $1.5 million, with all the “bells and whistles,” including a full Garmin avionics package, an infrared system for night vision, oxygen for all eight seats, and more, according to Gordon.
He estimates the selling price of the certified version will be about $2 million.