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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.”