John McGinnis always dreamed he’d fly. He was five years old in 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and that made him want to be an astronaut more than anything. He saw in the “The Jetsons” the promise of a flying car and a colorful Orbit City built for a flying population. Like most of us, he marveled at the galaxy far, far away in the 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope filled with swift TIE fighters and X-wings.
Lots of people dream of flying, but besides boarding a jumbo plane now and then, the dream goes no further. McGinnis is different. He’s building an aircraft in a garage in Kalispell. It’s a small plane called Synergy, a cutting-edge, original design that he’s creating with the intention of it becoming the minivan of the skies. It’s an aircraft meant to be assembled with relative ease, flown in the same way one drives an automatic car, and affordable enough to be attained by the average household. It could be the minivan of the skies, except it would have better fuel efficiency and an engine that’s as quiet as the clouds.
John says the whole project will cost $1.5 million.
It sounds far-fetched, and maybe it is, but McGinnis says that defeatist line of thinking is part of the problem. Airplane technology hasn’t come very far over the years because there’s little incentive to make better aircrafts. The Federal Aviation Administration deserves some of the blame for its cumbersome rules and regulations; aviation enthusiasts like to poke fun at the agency with a fake slogan that reads, “FAA Mission: We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”
The average age for most planes is about 35 years old. The designs are 50 years old and based on 1930s technology and 1950s aerodynamics. Planes haven’t changed, McGinnis says, they’ve just quadrupled in relative cost.
“There has been a vacuum for the innovation—the necessary breakthrough innovation that would change the paradigm and bring money to the process of producing and selling airplanes,” he says. “I know why. It’s a very difficult market to enter. It’s highly regulated, it’s full of risk.”
With so few breakthroughs, aerospace investment is hard to secure. With such little investment, change can only happen through nontraditional measures and extreme ingenuity.
Building a plane in a garage in northwestern Montana just may be the perfect plan to changing an entire industry—and how we live.
Pat McGinnis, John’s father, lives on a pastoral piece of land in Kalispell. Bird houses nestle in the trees and a blind squirrel, which Pat rescued, scurries around in the home Pat built for it. A rustic wooden shop on stilts hosts a gallery of tools Pat has carefully refurbished. All this countryside beauty doesn’t prepare you for the futuristic vision inside the large garage next to the shop. The pod-shaped body of the Synergy aircraft sits partially constructed in the center of the room. The front canopy curves across the cockpit and five minivan seats act as placeholders on the craft’s floor before new seats are made. The landing wheel props up one end. On the smooth side of the plane, a small hatch that looks like the fuel compartment door on a car opens to reveal the aircraft’s door handle. Next to the craft is a CAD/CAM machine, a computer-controlled milling machine, which John uses to precisely cut the parts that he’s designed with high-end engineering software.
On any day of the week you might glimpse John and Pat—plus John’s wife, four kids and a myriad of volunteers—working on parts of the aircraft. Pieces of it in various stages—from its early stage in aerospace foam to the later stage of carbon fiber—cover the table tops. The walls are cloaked in ear protection gear and masks, the benches to the side of the room colonized by several laptops, the screens lit up by data testing his aeronautical ideas. Pictures of classic aircraft like Hellcats, Sky Raiders, Hopper Hurricanes and Spitfire wallpaper one side of the room. Above the plane-in-progress is a fully-developed one-fourth scale version of Synergy attached to the ceiling, its nose pushing up into the air like it’s about to bust out of its chains and take off.
scene may evoke Doc Brown’s mad scientist shop from Back to the Future, but it’s a mistake to dismiss the engineer as merely an eccentric chasing a dream in a garage. John, who also runs his own three-dimensional modeling company, MC Squared Designs, started building Synergy in 2009. Since then, his ideas have generated buzz from articles in Wired, Popular Science and AeroPunk magazine. NASA has a profile page for the Synergy company on its website. John gets calls daily from people wanting to order planes—orders he can’t fulfill until his original is completed. Designers from large companies inquire constantly as to his design, which remains largely under wraps. Curious professional engineers and engineering students from MIT and Stanford have traveled on their own dime to work on the aircraft with him in Kalispell.
Here’s what the buzz is about: all airplanes encounter turbulence during flight, which can cause friction and makes the plane less efficient. Every part of Synergy—the body, wings, engine, etc.—is designed to reduce drag. In fact, with the help of its low-powered propeller, Synergy actually reduces drag to the point of producing “negative drag.” John says the plane has 10 times the fuel efficiency of a small jet.
Many of the particular design features that make Synergy so efficient are hidden in its core or revealed only through complex equations, except for one: its sci-fi-looking double box tail wings. They look like rectangles and are made to glide in a way that keeps the plane from ever stalling.
“When we describe how much power it takes to move something through fluid, like a ship through a canal, we talk in terms of horsepower,” says John. “If you use some of that horsepower differently—not just to make thrust but to overcome drag—you only need half the horsepower. So, on 200 horsepower we’re going to set world records. In fact we’re going to set world records every time we fly.”
Pat McGinnis has a word to describe his son: “Tenacious.”
“He always had a really inquisitive mind,” Pat says. “Even as a very young child he was looking for ways to do something better. He wasn’t really satisfied with the way things [were made].” He recalls that when John was just barely four, he bought him a train set with cars that hooked together. John, who had already learned a little about magnets, suggested that the train set would do well to use magnetic coupling rather than latches.
“He amazed me later on, too,” Pat says. “I knew he was always driven—especially in science and physics—to look at new ideas. He never let the latest publications get off the shelf before he had read them. He knew all the big names in science.”
When John was a boy, Pat bought him a styrofoam aircraft carrier with a motored helicopter for Christmas. John would fly the helicopter off the ship and zip it around to rescue pretend astronauts that had just returned from space, and bring them back to the ship. “That was a multi-educational toy for me,” John says. “It taught me how things fly. It taught me about controlling those things that fly—hand-eye coordination, that sort of thing.”
Pat, an electrical power lineman, built a tire swing in the McGinnis’ yard in Kalispell with a pulley hooked through it so John, or any other little kid, could be raised up to the top of a large pine tree. When the swing was released, the pulley would send it sailing through the yard and to another set of tall trees where their feet would touch the highest limbs. It was like flying. “Kids came from miles around for it,” says Pat.
By junior high, John was flying control line airplanes (“Or smashing up control line planes, I should say,” he says, laughing). When he got his own job in high school he could afford radio control planes. He worked at a hobby shop and started building model planes. He often dreamed up his own designs.
“I knew I was going to be an aeronautical engineer and I was going to go design airplanes for a living [and] fly fighter jets,” he says.
A couple of things veered John away from that path. The cost of becoming a pilot varies, but it’s somewhere between $40,000 and $100,000, depending where you get training. John started his training at 16 and earned 200 student pilot hours before he realized he could no longer afford it. Private jets are for the rich. High-end planes built from a kit are also expensive. All of them require significant amounts of money to fly and maintain. It bothered him, he says, that it was called “general” aviation when it was really an elite pursuit.
“I had some questions that weren’t getting good answers,” he says. “I think the main one that was bothering me was, ‘How come we can’t make an airplane that has an engine as efficient as an airplane that doesn’t [have an engine]? And that question was always there, bumping around in my brain.”
John seemed destined to pursue his dream by attending some institute of technology and working his way through the aerospace industry, but he had a problem: school left him “bored to tears.” Although he graduated high school with honors, college never appealed to him. Instead, he continued to build models of unmanned aircraft and read books on design. In 1997, he founded MC Squared Designs, making three-dimensional designs, including a concrete Japanese garden, a Star Trek-inspired staircase, a golf bag caddy and a fireplace screen “for a biker” that resembles the sprocket and chain of a bicycle. He also started working on composite manufacturing, designing and making snowboards.
In 2003, John and Pat started up Garage Snowboards in Pat’s garage.
“It was going like gangbusters,” says John, “but we knew [to keep it moving] we would have to respond to demand, raise capital, have a business plan, the whole enchilada.”
Snowboarding companies often rely on stylized ad campaigns to make a name, but John preferred something that was both more interesting and, in his mind, a smarter use of money. Instead of an ad campaign he decided to return to his childhood dream and build a plane. He figured the thousands of dollars he was about to spend on marketing could go toward a $75,000 plane kit. John imagined flying to conventions and ski hills, transporting snowboards and snowboarders, and standing out from the competition. “The message was clear,” John says. “If we can build [an] airplane, we can build your snowboard.”
They picked an airplane kit from a company called Velocity. It looked like something Luke Skywalker would have flown. “We didn’t want to do it with a Cessna 172,” says Pat. “We wanted a really sexy airplane that would really grab attention and get these young snowboarders all excited.”
But trying to build the plane was frustrating. The Velocity was up to par for any modern model, but it didn’t matter. All the parts and the overall design didn’t inspire John. In fact, none of the planes he found were all that exciting. He told Velocity if they gave him the kit, he’d help them improve it. They agreed before eventually telling him, as John recalls, that if he was going to go through all that trouble, he may as well design his own.
It had been a long time since John had worked on aircraft design in the mid-’90s. He was responsible for his own business and the world had changed. For one thing, the internet had come along. He told Velocity he’d think about it, and he started doing research, comparing published papers written by designers and scientists about flight from every decade he could find—the 1930s, the 1970s, the 1990s—detailing the work of aviation luminaries such as August Raspet, Fabio Goldschmied and Burt Rutan. He was amazed by the work that had been done and also the gaps where aeronautics had fizzled, particularly with private aircraft that travel between 110 and 450 mph.
According to John, the paths that led up to modern aircraft design were fraught with technological and theoretical baggage. There were brilliant ideas, but somehow aeronautics had lost its way.
“We use representative equations that have kind of killed off a lot of promising aircraft developments,” John says. “People think we need super computers and CFD software and a genius NASA panel of engineers to design airplanes when the guys that designed every airplane flying used graph paper and a slide rule.”
John decided he would design and build his own plane—on his terms.
The upside of being a man building a plane in your garage is that you don’t answer to anyone. At a big company, you’re one of a hundred engineers—not designing a plane, but figuring out how ready-made parts fit together and don’t break. Even a plane designer at a big company is expected to stick to prescribed design language and the accepted science.
“So few individuals in the entire aerospace industry have the freedom that I have, which is to say I can work on anything I want to,” says John. “I was free to go down the rabbit hole quite a ways with this.”
There are downsides, too. In 2011, John unveiled a one-fourth size radio-powered version of Synergy at the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation electric aircraft symposium in Windsor, Calif. He had hoped to finish the full-scale plane in time for CAFE’s 2011 Green Flight Challenge, which requires participants to fly 200 miles in under two hours on just one gallon of gasoline. But it wasn’t to be. Even with family and volunteers, the building process has been slow. Running his own business means time away from working on the plane. With such a small operation, there’s also no room for error or setbacks. During a lightning storm last summer, a tree fell onto the garage and broke his CAD/CAM machine. The damage suspended work for two months.
As with any project of this size, managing the money is a challenge. John says he’s on budget to finish Synergy, but he’s still regularly on the phone with potential long-term donors and investors. Pat McGinnis invested some of his retirement savings to keep things running early on. John launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year that earned him a modest $95,000, but it took considerable effort to run it. John admits that the financial side of the operation takes time that he’d prefer to spend finishing the plane.
While he hustles to finish the plane, John is also feeling pressure from other companies. He applied for multiple patents on his technology even before he started building, but knows of conceptual designs similar enough to his to make him sweat. Bauhaus Luftfahrt, an aeronautical think-tank in Germany, has been showing off a new wing design. It’s not a box-wing, but a c-wing located in the same spot as Synergy’s. Another company, Airbus, is even more aggressive with getting close to the Synergy design with a half-box wing.
Both designs have been ridiculed on online forums and the companies’ own websites. John says that’s because neither idea will work. “It’s an overture,” he says, pointing out that all you have to do is close the wings into a box shape and you’ve arrived at his plane’s most prominent feature.
“I guarantee you that tacked to that engineer’s wall, they’ve got the [Synergy] design and they’ve run it through the computer,” he says. “They know that’s the future.”
John knows time is of the essence. If he wants to see this project through, if he’s going to be the one to make his plane fly, he’s got to work fast and keep those who want his design at bay. “This is the kind of multi-trillion dollar opportunity that gets a guy like me beaten to a pulp, so we’re not going public with that right now,” he says.
For that reason, the image of an eccentric guy tinkering away in his garage serves him well. “If you’re just some crackpot they’ll leave you alone,” he says. “The big players don’t think we’re going to pull this together and be any kind of threat. That’s what we want them to think for the whole time.”
Synergy is a plane, but it’s also a demonstration of a better way to build any plane. It’s the smallest aircraft John could possibly build that would showcase his breakthrough technologies. But it’s the largest that he felt comfortable building on his own in his garage. As he sees it, his design could translate all the way up to Boeing scale.
But for John, bigger isn’t necessarily better. The size of plane he’s designing harkens back to his frustration with the aviation elite. He wonders what it would be like if everybody had access to a plane like his.
Once John finishes Synergy—if he finishes—he has a second dream: He wants to put together a team to make Synergy kit aircrafts. Kit aircrafts make up 50 percent of the aircraft economy—that’s where the market is, he says—and, down the line, production could even grow to the point where a Synergy airplane is as common as a Toyota Prius. One day, maybe even soon, John envisions ordinary people flying planes from Missoula to Spokane in 25 minutes, without a worry in the world.
Of course, there are all kinds of questions that come with this vision. How do you manage a population of people navigating the skies?
“Come outside,” John says. He points up into a perfect bluebird day. A road is a two-dimensional surface, he says. The sky has layers of pathways—like a parking garage—“to the moon.”
Won’t we collide with each other?
“No,” he says. NASA research actually shows that mid-air collisions are rare.
Won’t we need more airports?
“No,” he says. There are small airports in every town that are totally unused. Plus, he adds that Synergy isn’t nearly as noisy as a standard airplane so increased air traffic won’t bother neighbors.
Flying is better than driving, he says. He recalls flying from Kalispell to the aviation center in Oshkosh, Wis., for an aeronautics conference. On the way he spotted just seven airplanes in the sky, “and those were around the busiest airspace in the universe,” he says. When he landed back in Kalispell he had to make a drive with his family to Kennewick, Wash.
“I started having heart palpitations,” he says. “I was stressed out. I thought, ‘Something is really wrong here, what’s up?’”
He realized that in the car he felt more consumed by the dangers around him—dangers that up in the plane he had forgotten.
“Here I’m driving inches by 150-miles-per-hour closing velocities, down the highway,” he says. “And we think nothing of it. That is crazy. Driving a car is insane when you have the perspective of flying.”