Business

Pasco's Zero Gravity Builders Studio makes space for invention

PASCO -- Scott and Dan Hanchette have a passion for bringing ideas to life.

The brothers, who own Pasco-based Viper Aircraft Corp., launched their business based on an idea for a sporty twin-seater jet that owners could build from a kit.

That led to another idea: a business that would share the knowledge and expertise they gathered chasing their aviation dream. For more than two years, the Hanchettes also have helped owners of experimental kit aircraft to assemble their planes at Zero Gravity Builders Studio.

And last fall they started Idea Studio, a division of Zero Gravity that helps inventors put their ideas into a definite form. The studio helps inventors design and develop prototypes of their visions, "from aerospace parts to medical devices," Dan Hanchette said.

The studio also can manufacture parts, particularly parts made of fiberglass and carbon graphite, he said. "We are composite experts."

The Hanchettes recently moved the builders studio into a 14,000-square-foot facility at the Richland Airport from its former location adjacent to Viper Aircraft in Pasco.

The new facility is more than four times larger than the previous space, said Rob Huntington, general manager for Zero Gravity.

Huntington and his staff currently are assisting three Viperjet customers assemble their planes, while also working with two entrepreneurs to develop new products.

The studio's other project involves work on adapting a drag chute now used in land-speed cars for use in a Viperjet, Huntington said. The chute would help the plane slow quickly after landing at airports with smaller runways, he said.

"We're not a big company. We can take on smaller projects," he said.

People often come up interesting product ideas but a majority don't pursue them because they don't know where to turn for help, Huntington said. Zero Gravity has the resources, contacts and the expertise to guide innovators, he said, and "It won't cost them an arm and a leg."

The Hanchettes set up the build center after getting calls from customers who had purchased a Viperjet kit but weren't satisfied with the build center they had hired.

"They would call us to find out about the status of their project," said Dan, but they couldn't help them.

That's when it occurred to them that buyers of Viperjet kits may have a use for Zero Gravity Builders Studio, he said. He said the business provides a one-stop shop for customers while also allowing the Hanchettes and their staff to control and guarantee the quality of work in assembling the aircraft.

Viper Aircraft so far has sold about two dozen kit planes. With the build assistance, a Viperjet costs about $1.1 million.

Idea Studio is a natural extension of the work done at Viper Aircraft, Huntington said. For example, the Viperjet kit resulted from work on developing more than 100 prototypes, he said.

That experience is useful for anyone trying to bring an idea from paper to production, he said.

At the builders studio, customers learn about working with different materials that go into making a composite aircraft frame, assembling components and understanding safety issues, said Huntington, who's helped build about 40 planes.

He uses the human body as an analogy for the complex systems of an aircraft. The airframe is like the body, avionics is the brain, the electrical system is the nervous system, hydraulics is the muscle and fuel is the blood, Huntington said.

It takes 4,000 to 5,000 hours to assemble a kit aircraft and the Federal Aviation Administration requires that owners do at least 51 percent of the construction on their plane. The builders center maintains a log of construction activities for the FAA.

Once the plane gets an airworthiness certificate, it is flown by a test pilot to make sure it's safe. Testing may last up to 50 hours, Huntington said.

"You don't want the plane to fall apart at 28,000 feet," he said.

Zero Gravity also has a training program for Viperjet customers, even those who are adept pilots, he said to train them to fly the plane.

The business also assembles kit planes from other manufacturers. For instance, in late spring Zero Gravity's staff will work on a customer's Lancair Evolution, a kit plane made by a Redmond, Ore.-based company.

The national recession has slowed the U.S. aviation market, Hanchette said, but he's optimistic for the future.

Given the hassles of security at commercial airports, he said, businessmen may be tempted to buy a kit plane like the Viperjet and change the face of aviation.

-- Pratik Joshi: 582-1541; pjoshi@tricityherald.com; Business Beat blog at www.tricityherald.com

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