SEBRING Ultralight business is poised for takeoff from a cornfield
The company is looking for investors to help fund an expansion.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
SEBRING -- Nestled amid cornfields and cow barns of Smith Township in southwestern Mahoning County, the headquarters building of Theiss Aviation looks like a big storage shed.
Nothing much to warrant even a second glance, but behind those walls, founder Shawn Theiss is designing and manufacturing unmanned ultralight aircraft that could become one of the newest weapons in America's war on terror.
At 29, the young entrepreneur has already landed contracts with the Naval Research Laboratories to produce some of his small, unmanned planes. For security reasons, he said, he can't reveal how many of his Dakota-II planes the Navy is buying.
Theiss said the Army and NASA are also looking at his planes for two main reasons: Their unique hinged design makes them more portable than others on the market, and they're priced at a fraction of what competitors are charging.
The United States military has been using unmanned ultralight planes, also known as robot planes, for several years. The aircraft can fly ahead to give troops a look at enemy activities, forces and equipment, to help focus on a target or to deliver bombs.
They can be operated by remote control or set to follow a specific course, and they can be equipped with video cameras for a real-time view of their flight path.
Using unmanned planes is a way to protect human life, but the aircraft must be affordable enough to be considered expendable, Theiss said, because they're often destroyed when they're flown over enemy troops.
The Associated Press reported recently that at least eight robot planes used by the U.S. military have crashed in and around Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines since last fall.
Theiss Aviation's Dakota-II planes are 10 feet long with an 18-foot wingspan and sell for $70,000 apiece. In comparison, the Pioneer model the Navy is using almost exclusively for its unmanned flights sells for $667,000.
"Those things get blown up constantly," Theiss said, explaining that the unmanned planes in use now are frequently destroyed by enemy fire. "Ours cost about one-tenth of what our nearest competitor is charging. You can't argue with that."
Theiss argued that his Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are technologically superior to the Pioneer aircraft, which are made by an Israeli-owned company and manufactured in the United States.
"The technology the government is using is old. Those planes came out in 1984," he explained.
He designed the Dakota-II with hinged wings and a hinged fuselage which can fold up for compact storage and transport -- other manufacturers design their aircraft with parts that need to be fitted and bolted together.
He said the Dakota-II also outperformed six similar medium-size ultralight competitors in a multifaceted Navy testing program, setting two world records in the process -- one for altitude and one for down-range control.
The company's literature says the plane can be readied for flight by one or two people in less than five minutes and can be flown for surveillance missions of up to seven hours.
The federal government has been stepping up defense efforts and awarding more and larger contracts since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Theiss said, and it's showing a preference for midsize companies rather than very small manufacturers. Theiss wants to be able to fill that niche.
Now, with Theiss, his father, Richard, and nine employees, the company can produce only 10 handcrafted Dakota-II planes in two weeks.
He's working with an attorney and hopes to find about 10 investors who will help him fund construction of a second production plant about 21/2 times the size of the original on the same Smith Township site. The company already has a full-size runway on the property that is used for aircraft testing.
Theiss has been fascinated with airplanes almost since birth, his father said.
The younger Theiss grew up in Florida, where his father and his mother, Hope, were both pilots and air show announcers.
The youngest of four children, the junior Theiss built his first model plane from balsa wood, sticks, tissue paper and glue at age 5.
"He wasn't interested in plastic models or kits," his father said, recalling how the young boy insisted on building from simple raw materials so he could design the crafts himself.
At age 9, Shawn Theiss built his first flying aircraft using a solar-powered propeller. "I didn't think there was any way that thing was going to fly, and I said so," Theiss senior said with a self-deprecating smile. "I ate crow."
"He's always been passionate about designing and building aircraft," he recalled. "Even when he was a baby, he was fascinated by anything that went overhead."
Shawn Theiss was in his late teens when his father accepted a new position in the Mahoning Valley and moved back to his hometown of Salem. The younger Theiss earned an associate degree in commercial aviation from the Aeronautics Branch of the Community College of Beaver County.
He founded Theiss Aviation soon after, in 1991, planning to design and build ultralight aircraft for sport acrobatic flying. "I never considered military work," he said.
The business was a family enterprise from the start, with the younger Theiss serving as chief executive, and his father and mother serving as vice president and secretary-treasurer, respectively.
How business grew
Starting out in his parents' basement at first, Theiss found a way to use molded foam and thin strips of wood to produce a light, inexpensive and durable frame. He specialized in designs that resembled popular aircraft of the 1920s and 1930s.
Eventually moving the business to Salem, and then to Smith Township, he produced and marketed the small planes in kits and exhibited his designs at air shows across the country. His planes and his construction methods were often featured in aviation magazines.
In 1998, the company was contacted by the head of the Navy's Tactical Electronic Warfare Division, a section of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratories, after a Navy official read a magazine article about Theiss Aviation.
Skeptical at first, Theiss discovered that the military interest in his construction methods was sincere.
Within 90 days of his first meeting with Navy officials, Theiss had produced and delivered a prototype unmanned ultralight plane using his own molded foam-based design. Soon after, the company was awarded a contract for four more aircraft, and more orders followed.
Steve Taimen, a project engineer for the Navy Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., confirmed that Theiss Aviation has produced several UAVs for his department.
Since then Theiss has shelved his commercial plane kit production to concentrate on the more urgent busines of supplying the Department of Defense with comparatively low-cost, unmanned aircraft.
Theiss said he's also begun to market his company's aircraft to private businesses and to the government for nonmilitary purposes, including border control enforcement, narcotics investigation and humanitarian uses, including desert and water rescue.
He's been in contact with NASA and companies involved in research with electronic equipment. Theiss said the foam frame construction minimizes a plane's engine vibration, which allows for better performance of delicate aeronautical research equipment.
The company is also experimenting with prototypes of even smaller military planes designed to be compact enough for ground troops to carry in a case or backpack. All are tested on the airstrip that runs alongside the company's unobtrusive headquarters.
"Folks who live around here see some unusual items flying by," he said with a grin.