Flying with Dale Klapmeier

The one and only Dale Klapmeier, general aviation entrepreneur, innovator, game changer… (‘Airtime’ vidcap | © ELIXIRR Consulting Limited)

I’m sure Dale Klapmeier needs no introduction here. However (or perhaps ‘And so’) the chance to spend 40 minutes with the co-founder and now ex-CEO of Cirrus Design Corporation is not to be missed.

The treat comes to us courtesy of London-based management consultancy ELIXIRR Consulting Limited, whose own founder and CEO, Stephen Newton, is an enthusiastic pilot himself. That, by default, puts him in the special category of people who move in three dimensions, put their faith in invisible forces, and see the world from a different angle.

ELIXIRR CEO Stephen Newton and his Cirrus SR22T. (‘Airtime’ vidcap | © ELIXIRR Consulting Limited)

From there, the idea of creating a video series that takes notable entrepreneurs for a flight over the places that influenced their lives and shaped their success seems an obvious way to explore innovative thinking… et voila! – Elxirr’s ‘Airtime’ series.

Straight off the comms

Given Klapmeier’s game-changing success in the General Aviation sphere, and the fact that Newton’s personal ride is a Cirrus SR-22, filming an episode in Duluth Minnesota was almost inevitable. 

It may even have been the original idea… Newton’s excitement and slight apprehension as they fly to meet one of his heroes  is almost palpable. However Dale Klapmeier soon proves relaxed and outgoing, and the result is an enjoyable interview recorded straight off the SR22’s internal coms. Cool!

For most people, this is what Cirrus is most famous for – the CAPS ballistic parachute. But it’s a small part of a much bigger innovation story. (NASA Photo)

Right off the bat, Klapmeier sets out the critical difference that gave Cirrus its edge – they are a lifestyle company, not an aviation manufacturing company. Their goal is to make GA a first choice for the passenger (read ‘spouse’ in 9 out of 10 cases), and that way the pilot will get to fly more.

As he says: “It’s easy to sell a pilot a slick new airplane but every pilot …has somebody else that they answer to.”

A barn in Baraboo

Dale and Alan spreading resin on a VK-30 mold, in the basement of the barn at Baraboo around the mid-1980s. (WindRider26 | wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

From Duluth, the team fly down to Baraboo, WI, to the Klapmeier family farm where Dale and elder brother Alan first dreamed of an aircraft company that would take on the incumbent giants of GA. With a mix of on-site commentary and rare personal photos, Dale tells the entire story from being driven to the airport as a baby (so his mother could get a break), learning to fly before he could drive, buying a wrecked Champ without his parents’ prior permission or knowledge …right through to the long years working on their radical VK-30 design, and how that experience tempered and steered them toward the aircraft that would become the Cirrus SR-20.

I have a theory that the very best aviators are those that rode their bikes to the airport when they were kids. It was heartening to learn Dale Klapmeier was one of those! 

Back to the Cirrus factory

From Baraboo, we’re taken north to Oshkosh and the EAA museum, as Dale recounts his and Alan’s last minute decision to buy a Glasair I kit over the Vans RV-4 they’d gone to Airventure to purchase. Looking ahead to the sleek all-composite Cirrus line, Vans’ loss was GA’s gain. 

Great location for an interview… Klapmeier (left) and ELIXIRR CEO Stephen Newton (right) chatting on comms as they fly over Wisconsin. (‘Airtime’ vidcap | © ELIXIRR Consulting Limited)

Next, the flight heads back to the Cirrus factory at Duluth, where the interview continues over the highly distracting eye-candy of racked Cirrus components and Vision Jet fuselages. The Cirrus history is there, but the Cirrus product tells its own story.

‘Airtime’ isn’t edited in a strictly chronological sequence, so you have to pay attention. The upside is that there are no ‘slow spots’, and the connections between Klapmeier’s background and his later achievements is drawn much more clearly. 

‘Airtime’ series

Overall, it’s awesome to watch an in-depth interview with both a Collier Trophy winning entrepreneur and a list of locations to die for: Cirrus cockpit, Klapmeier farm, EAA musuem, Cirrus factory… What’s not to love?  

Not all the action is in the air – or in the past, Vision Jets take shape in the Cirrus factory at Duluth, WI. (‘Airtime’ vidcap | © ELIXIRR Consulting Limited)

Officially, this is Episode 2 of the ‘Airtime’ series, Season One, which will be distributed globally on Amazon Prime later this year. Meanwhile, the first three episodes and background content are on the official Airtime website. Other guests include Alan Barratt of the UK’s Grenade and tech entrepreneur Michel Feaster of Usermind. 

They each join Newton for a Cirrus flight back to the places that made them. So there’ll always be that fundamental aviation connection, and I’m sure the quality will make them all easily watchable.

But obviously a trip with Dale Klapmeier is always going to rank above the rest!

Plenty to learn

Alan and Dale Klapmeier’s bold VK-30 kit aircraft – the first Cirrus product. (‘Airtime’ vidcap | © ELIXIRR Consulting Limited)

That said, if you’re a management student looking to gain business insights from a notable entrepreneur – they’re here. There are also immutable life lessons, as so often happens with aviation. But for me, as an aviation enthusiast, this is a superb aviation documentary first and foremost.

With all due respect to the army of YouTubers out there, it’s still rare to find content with this level of subject matter and the production values to do it justice. 

My only complaint is that I wanted more. Lots more. It’s such a great concept, and an interview with such a great aviator, I’d happily settle in for a feature-length version. Unfortunately, I’m not everybody, and 41 minutes is all you get. 

Inspiring future generations

Dale (left) and Alan Klapmeier speaking to EAA members during Airventure 2008, Oshkosh, WI. (WindRider26 | wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

Then again, one of the very best things about the video is waiting quietly in the credits:

As part of the program, Elixirr makes a donation to the charity of their guest’s choosing. Dale Klapmeier nominated the EAA’s Aviation Foundation, so this episode is also helping the EAA with ‘inspiring future generations, changing opinions, altering regulations and building The Spirit of Aviation’.  

Amen to that.

Enjoy ‘Airtime’ with Cirrus and Dale Klapmeier…

(Click here if you don’t see a video frame)

6 thoughts on “Airtime

  1. I don’t know where you find such high quality content, but I’m constantly thankful that you do. Great series, one I look forward to following. Hopefully it doesn’t go the way of so many other promising programs on aviation (and GENERAL aviation, no less).

    I’ve been flying and instructing in the SR series since they were introduced. They’re great airplanes, especially for the mission for which they were designed: long distance travel. One of the few bright spots in an otherwise declining bread basket, sad to say. Although it’s fascinating that the other big success story in GA aircraft is the very Vans line you referenced. Cool to see how the two stories intersect!

    1. I can’t really claim detective credits for this one – they came to me. And I’ll be honest, it’s more of a business series than an aviation one. Although I watched the Michel Feaster (Usermind) episode yesterday, which was all quite informative until she turned the tables and asked Stephen Newton why he learned to fly. His reply was that it’s just in the human spirit to want to do the impossible. I got goosebumps.
      On a business and product front, it’s clear the secret of the Klapmeiers’ success is their mission clarity. It’s a lot easier to get somewhere if you actually have a destination in mind. That’s true for Vans too, even though the mission, and even the target markets (passengers vs builders) are completely different.
      What amazes me is that none of the big incumbents ever caught on. Cessna keeps building as many Skyhawks as people will come to buy. Even Mooney just keeps adding horsepower and glass and sticker price. I guess they see the big money in business jets where, ironically, it’s largely about following the Klapmeier approach of appealing to passenger!
      So, when electric power makes the cost of air travel an infinitesimal fraction of a penny per passenger mile, will the builders and airlines pivot onto maximising their passenger-per-captain’s-salary number, or actually start building planes people want to ride in?

  2. Well, this is just a little out of my league aviation-wise I think, but I can relate to it at ground level. Where Dale talks about Cirrus not being an aircraft manufacturer but a lifestyle company. That approach is actually what saved Harley-Davidson years ago and what continues to keep them where they are. In their case, they had a couple of choices: Compete with the Japanese head on; which would have been futile. Or, build something people actually wanted to buy INTO! A Harley is very much a lifestyle choice, one centred around a very distinctive and frankly unique motorcycle. Or, for half the cost, you can go out and buy a Honda. Or a Suzuki. Or a Yamaha. Or a Kawasaki. What’s the difference in the last four? As a mechanic I once knew once told me: “A Harley is a MACHINE. The others are APPLIANCES”. Same is probably true with Cirrus. You could go out and buy a Cessna, or a Piper, or a Beechcraft, all of whom will gladly take your money. Or, like Dale says, you could buy into owning a Cirrus! I like his style!

    1. Ahem. As an advertising writer and strategist this is totally in my league – and I can tell you it takes a special kind of courage and vision to define a company’s mission with both clarity and imagination. Sir Richard Branson positioning Virgin Atlantic as an entertainment business is another good example. The strategy that people will fly on planes, but they should want to fly on *your* planes isn’t that far from the Klapmeiers’ approach.
      Linking the point back to Elixirr Consulting’s main objective, that’s the difference between leadership and just managing. Pun intended.
      To be fair, Cirrus aircraft are brilliantly designed for their physical mission too – as Ron Rapp pointed out. Proof that you can “sell the sizzle not the bacon”, but only so long as you have some actual bacon to back it up!

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