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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.