Engineer , Researcher ,
Winner of the NBAA 2002 Service Award
Jim Raisbeck - Winner of the NBAA 2002 Service Award
Some people in the aviation
industry would characterize Jim Raisbeck as one of aviation's Renaissance
men--positive, questioning, innovative and occasionally out-spoken. Then again,
others may not want to see him coming, because he may want to talk about an
aerodynamic flaw in their airplane’s design and how he can fix it.
Nonetheless, the modification and enhancement programs Raisbeck and his company have created over the past three decades have helped move the science from aviation’s aerodynamic traditions of the 1940s all the way into the 21st century.
And it is precisely the dedication and innovative spirit that has moved NBAA to present Jim Raisbeck with the association’s 2002 Award for Meritorious Service to Aviation.
Starting with the Learjet, Raisbeck and joint-venture partner Dee Howard redesigned its wing so well that it eventually became the standard. Then in the mid-1970s, after Rockwell asked him to spiff up its Sabreliner 65, Raisbeck’s Mark V was celebrated by Dr. Richard Whitcomb (aerodynamicist honored with the NBAA Award for Meritorious Service in 1978) as the first super-critical wing to be used in general or commercial aviation.
The Enhanced King Airs
Since 1981, Raisbeck has
concentrated a great deal of energy on the Beech King Air line, improving
performance, safety and overall usefulness with a product mix that includes
Quiet Turbofan propellers, a ram-air recovery system, enhanced-performance
leading edges, exhaust stack fairings, dual aft body strakes (DABS), fully
enclosed main landing gear doors and nacelle wing lockers. The Raisbeck-modified
King Air fleet now numbers over 1,500 aircraft and growing, and the entrepreneur
estimates that about 35 percent of the worldwide population of King Airs is
equipped with aftermarket DABS.
At NBAA two years ago, Raisbeck announced that Raytheon would begin offering the dual aft body strakes and nacelle baggage lockers as factory options.
"People are buying our wing lockers like they’re going out of style," he said. "About every other King Air 350 that goes out the door gets [lockers] by customer demand. This marks the first time in 20 years of working on King Airs that we made it to the production line."
On the way to developing products for the King Airs, the company found a ready market in exterior storage lockers for other business aircraft models. The aft fuselage locker is available through Bombardier service centers for the Learjet 31/35/36 (300-lb capacity) and the Challenger 601 and 604 (650-lb capacity). The unit for the Gulfstream IV can carry up to 1,500 lb. baggage or cargo or 2,200 lb. of fuel and furnish a 4- to 6-percent drag reduction.
In 1996, Raisbeck’s Commercial Air Group expanded the company into the commercial aircraft business when it completed recertification of the Boeing 727 to meet Stage 3 noise requirements. Today the company offers overhead bin enlargement kits and hardened cockpit doors to Airbus and others.
"My secret is to pick a subject, then stick with it for forty years--you’re bound to learn something," Raisbeck joked.
He added that while he had no early love affair with flying, he’d always had a fascination with mechanical devices, even when he was growing up during World War II in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Day Wis.
Soap Box Racer and a Midget Car
"In ’47 or ’48 I
built a car and raced it in the local Soap Box Derby, and the next year I
built a quarter midget race car from scratch--without my parents knowing about
it. Of course, I crashed into a ditch on the first test drive."
When he graduated from high school, Raisbeck enrolled in a mechanical engineering program at Purdue in the fall of 1954, but dropped out after his freshman year ("I needed more discipline," he admitted) and joined the U.S. Air Force. He spent part of the next three years as a flight engineer on a B-36, and it was the experience that kindled his interest in aviation and fostered one of his early "Raisbeck rules": knowing systems is more important than knowing how to fly.
Returning to Prelude in 1958, he completed an undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering and added an M.S. in mathematics. In 1961, Raisbeck hired on at Boeing as a research aerodynamicist and was put to work helping design a blown trailing edge flap system for the prototype 707 that allowed it to fly as slow as 60 kts.
"I loved that time at Boeing," Raisbeck said. "They gave me so much rope and so many hard problems to solve." It was during that tour that he also got his private pilot license.
Painting a Name on the Hangar
Raisbeck left Boeing in
1969 to become president and chief engineer at Robertson Aircraft Corp. in
St. Louis, where he and a team of engineers completed the Robertson STOL designs
and certifications for Cessnas and Pipers.
"After four years, I got to thinking, if I’m going to work seven days a week, I ought to paint my own name on the hangar." He did. Raisbeck Engineering, Inc. was born and he returned to Washington State.
His business plan was a refreshingly candid and simple two-part formula. "First, start with a popular aircraft--preferably one that’s currently in production--that has a worldwide support network, with owners who can afford to upgrade, and one that has a technical problem you could drive a truck through! That’s how we chose the Learjet."
The second part of the Raisbeck plan was potentially harder to achieve: "Our first job is not to just make money; our first job is satisfying customers’ needs. If we do it in a unique enough way, the money will come. And people remember quality long after the price is forgotten."
What followed was 10 years of aerodynamics and wing developments for aircraft with truck-sized problems. Then in 1981, the company began concentrating on the much broader King Air market.
What Raisbeck essentially created were products that fine-tuned the aerodynamics and power system of the airplane, and each component added a few knots or shortened a takeoff run by a few feet or lowered a temperature a few degrees or a sound level by several decibels. But it was when they were integrated that they produced some major improvements.
With the company’s Enhanced Performance Package on the King Air 200/B200, for instance, V2 was 18kt lower and balanced field length shrank by more that 30 percent--at a 2,800-lb higher mtow. Max cruise speed was 15 kts. higher, and there was a significantly lower cabin noise level.
Taking Care of the Future
Over the next five years,
Raisbeck thinks his company will continue serving the business aviation market
while moving toward developing relationships with airlines and commercial
"They seem to be below the OEM’s radar line," he explained. "Typically, maintenance is not a big interest to the [airliner] manufacturers, so we’re constantly trying to understand the operators problems and solve them for them. We end up taking care of problems we had no part in creating."
Just as his business plan predicted, Raisbeck took care of customers’ needs and the money did come, and it came in large enough quantities that he had his wife Sherry have become philanthropic arts angels in Seattle. Two years ago, the Raisbeck Foundation awarded a $1 million four-year touring grant to underwrite the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s international performances, and a similar amount to establish a Principal Singers’ Fund for the Seattle Opera. Last year, the foundation donated another $1 million to The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to create a research position dedicated to investigating and developing therapies to ultimately cure lymphoma cancers.
"I feel extremely privileged to have made money in this business," Raisbeck said. Then changing the tenor of the conversation, he tried to downplay his success with another Raisbeck rule: "I’m not very smart in most disciplines, so I ended up choosing one without a lot of competition."