Entrepreneur trying to get seaplane manufacturing facility off the ground
Kit producer seeking Transport Canada and FAA approval to go into mass production

If you ever need to visit Richard Silva at his company's St-Jean-sur-Richelieu plant, don't bother asking him for directions. He's not too familiar with the roads in the area and won't be much help.

"Whenever I come to Quebec, I fly my plane to the St-Jean airport and walk across the runway to my office," said Silva, president of Seawind Inc., which manufactures kits that hobbyists use to assemble their own seaplanes. "I'm really not to sure of the street names around here."

Kit-plane hobbyists are a breed apart. They can be doctors, lawyers or businessmen, and are often in their mid-50s and semi-retired. But they are willing to spend months and sometimes years of their free time in a garage, meticulously assembling a personal aircraft from a container full of parts that manufacturers like Seawind dump on their doorstep.

Unlike commercial aircraft, kit planes don't have to be certified by transport authorities, as long as more than 51 per cent of the assembly is done by the hobbyist. They can thus be sold much cheaper than commercial aircraft.

During the last ten years, Seawind has sold about 160 kits. Of these, about 60 aircraft are now flying, and 100 are in various stages of assembly in garages, old hangers and barns across North America.

According to Silva, the company's flagship Seawind 300C model has several competitive advantages. Conventional seaplanes are typically modified land planes with cumbersome floats attached, which significantly increases drag, and cuts down aircraft speed, range and efficiency.

The Seawind 300C has no floats, but does water and snow landings directly on its belly, making it far more aerodynamic. The plane cruises at approximately 200 miles per hour, and has a range of 1,400 miles. That means Silva can fly directly to Florida from Montreal, re-fuel and then head of to his house in the Virgin Islands for the weekend.

But statistics don't tell the whole story said one commercial airline pilot, whose parents are proud owners of a Seawind 300C, which she has flown a half dozen times.

"It's a fabulous airplane. It's very fast, has extra room and is very responsive," said Terri Lyman, a former U.S. Airforce pilot who flies Boeing 737s for a living. "The overhead prop design and the wing position mean that you get almost 350 degree visibility."

According to Lyman, the plane's styling is another big plus. "It's a real show stopper," she said. "Wherever you land, people just gather around. They don't look at any other plane." But Lyman isn't the only person who feels that way.

Silva has long sensed significant demand for a commercial version of the Seawind 300C. Although the precise number of seaplanes in North America is unknown, because many of them do not have to be registered, Silva guesses that there are about 9,000 currently in operation. Canada is a big seaplane market, because of all its lakes, and about half of all those planes are based here.

To meet the pent up demand, for the last five years Silva has been trying to get Transport Canada and FAA approval to take the company's flagship Seawind 300C into commercial production.

Like most aircraft industry entrepreneurs Silva is a perennial optimist. He expects to have regulatory approval by both Canadian and U.S. authorities wrapped up by mid 2004, and to be in full fledged commercial production the following year. By 2007, he forecasts annual production of 120 planes, at an average unit cost of about U.S. $290,000, and he already has a backlog of 14 planes on order.

But getting regulatory approval is a slow process that involves mountains of paperwork, years of testing and inspections and can cost millions of dollars. The process can be a huge drain on entrepreneurs like Silva.

"Selling planes to the public is serious business and the safety standards are very high," said Silva. "All the components, materials and manufacturing processes need to be tested and re-tested. But it's very expensive."

"There an old joke in our industry," Silva said. "The best way to make a small fortune in the aircraft business is to start with a big fortune."

But according to one industry expert, Silva's investment could pay off big time because the Seawind 300C fills a unique market niche.

"I do not see any real competitor in the same class of manufactured aircraft," said Mike Schade, a senior consultant with Mike Schade Technical Services.

"He is going after an excellent market, with good potential," Schade said. "If (Seawind) can get their production online at the price points they are talking about, they could have a winner."

Schade also commended Silva's decision to base operations in Montreal. "The city is blessed with an extremely skilled labour force, and high tech manufacturers that locate here can benefit from significant government incentives."

Silva's major hurdle for the time being is overcoming the lukewarm environment that has been affecting the aerospace sector during the last two years. Although he will not be going into full-fledged production for at least two years by which time demand is expected to pick up again, he would like get new financing in place long before then.





Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Richard Silver is an architect and engineer by trade who got his big break in the aerospace industry when he was asked to design a high speed wind tunnel for Boeing during the 1960s. He later started his own construction and real estate firm, before forming Seawind Inc. in 1991.
o Seawind has sold about 160 kits for its Seawind 300C seaplane during the past decade. Of these, about 60 have flown, with the balance in various stages of assembly.
o Unlike commercially manufactured aircraft, airplane kits do not have to undergo regulatory certification as long as more than half of the assembly is done by the purchaser and the plane is not used for commercial purposes.
o Three years ago Seawind slowly began the multi-year process to get Transport Canada and FAA certification for the Seawind 300C. Silva expects the process to be complete by July 2004, and for annual sales to reach 120 units by 2007.



Photo caption: Richard Silva, president of U.S. kit plane manufacturer Seawind Inc. is trying to get transport Canada and FAA certification for the Seawind 300C so that he can set up a manufacturing facility in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu.


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