Darryl Murphy just wanted to fly planes. Instead, he built his own, and today heads Murphy Aircraft, one of Canada's most renowned kit-plane manufacturers.
If you take a detour off Highway 1 onto Lickman Road, just west of Chilliwack, you’ll see a large grey building near a dead-end street with a small sign on the door modestly identifying it as Murphy Aircraft. Inside, the eponymous Darryl Murphy, 56, dressed in a T-shirt and worn jeans and sporting a 1950s crew cut, seems equally modest as he welcomes you into an office that looks like a hobbyist’s garage.
Collectible model cars – the kind kids used to pedal down the street – are displayed along with large aircraft models on ledges and on the floor. Bookshelves overflow with books, models and stacks of papers. Awards and framed photos cover the walls. A computer rises bravely from a desk awash in paper. It’s not what you’d expect to find in the nerve centre of one of Canada’s most renowned manufacturers of personal aircraft kits – until you hear the story of the company’s genesis.
To hear the deceptively casual Murphy describe it, his company’s success taps the passion at the heart of kit-plane enthusiasts. “It’s your baby,” says Murphy during a tour through his shop. “There’s nothing comparable to flying a plane you have built with your own hands and being able to say, ‘I aced this.’”
Inside observers of this tightly knit industry say Murphy is very well regarded. Tom Poberezny, president of the Experimental Aircraft Association, a Wisconsin-based international aviation organization with more than 170,000 members, says Murphy’s secret is simple: he found a way to share his passion. “Over the past 20 years, Darryl Murphy’s designs have helped thousands of people enjoy the spirit of aviation as they can create their own airplane and fulfill their own dreams of flight,” he says.
But it hasn’t always been blue skies.
Like Ray Kinsella, the main character in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Darryl Murphy followed his dream, living by the homespun philosophy, “Build it and they will come.” However, achieving his heart’s desire took a bit more time and work than simply ploughing up a cornfield.
In 1985 Murphy was working for a Vancouver glass-door company when he was badly injured in a hunting mishap. A friend’s gun accidentally discharged and the bullet ricocheted off a rock, piercing the floor of a truck in which Murphy was sitting. The impact catapulted him up to the roof of the cab and left a hole in his back the size of a fist. He was immobilized in hospital for four months. Bedridden, Murphy had to find something to pass the hours. To keep from going stir crazy, he began doodling.
“I had a lot of time on my hands with nothing to do, so I got some paper, pencils and a calculator and designed an airplane,” recalls Murphy. “I had done some hang gliding before but was told I would probably never run again.”
Designing an airplane didn’t come completely out of left field for Murphy, since he had grown up in a Royal Canadian Air Force family and had been around planes since childhood. After a shot at the air force himself (he failed the eye exam), Murphy completed his high-school education at 21 and then went on to get a degree as a mechanical engineering technologist. He applied this training to his work at the door-manufacturing company, where he designed equipment such as hydraulic lifts for showers for disabled people.
Even though he had never flown a plane, Murphy was fascinated by the idea of designing a biplane. “The biplane seemed like a good choice because it’s just a big truss and a relatively simple exercise structurally,” he says.
He left hospital on crutches with his biplane design in his pocket and a stubborn determination to build his aircraft. He started in his basement, then graduated to his carport, crafting every piece by hand, including the wood-form blocks. By the time his plane outgrew the carport, Murphy had serendipitously met a man at the airport who let him use his hangar to put on the finishing touches. Not knowing how to fly, Murphy let any pilot available take his plane for test runs. They flew it and praised it.
“One day I said to myself, ‘I should be able to fly this plane.’ So I went up and down the runway a number of times until I felt reasonably comfortable with it,” he says. “And then I went flying” (without a licence, which he later obtained).
Before long, people began to notice his plane and started asking him to build them one. So he put out a shingle and Murphy Aircraft Mfg. Ltd. was born.[pagebreak]Over the span of more than 22 years, the company has produced just over 2,200 planes and has moved from Murphy’s basement to a 50,000-square-foot factory filled with expensive aeronautical parts-forming equipment. Murphy recently totally revamped his plant, streamlining operations and cutting staff from 25 to 14. When production was at full capacity and churning out a peak 90 planes a month, the company was doing $4 million to $4.5 million in annual sales. Now, with the need to build more complex aircraft, the company produces 50 to 80 planes a year.
Murphy Aircraft’s kits are shipped, via container or air freight, to about 33 countries (the U.S. is its largest market). Complete kits sell for between $17,400 for the two-seater Maverick and $42,300 for the 1.6-tonne Moose. The original Renegade biplane is still produced in a “quick build” kit priced at $19,391.
A Murphy Aircraft kit plane
slowly takes shape
The company has experimented with numerous models and settled on six. The Renegade is an open-cockpit biplane; the Rebel echoes a 1940s classic look and is a two-seat STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft; the Elite is a second-generation Rebel that’s more sophisticated and has more horsepower; the Maverick is a high-wing two-seater; the Moose is Murphy’s largest aircraft, with the biggest engine at up to 400 horsepower; and the Yukon, the company’s most versatile aircraft, seats up to four and has the most economical engine.
Kit planes are especially popular with North Americans who like the do-it-yourself concept – and like saving a whack of money. Most people who own small aircraft have built them from kits. “Twenty to 25 years ago, only a few companies were making kits, and builders had to use plans. People went down into their basements and didn’t emerge for 10 years,” says Murphy.
With the sophistication of today’s kits, most of the work can be done in a garage, with the final assembly completed in a rented hangar. Rather than “buying off the rack,” Murphy says, people who build their own planes not only feel a lot of satisfaction, but also end up with better performance. Since builders are familiar with every piece and rivet, they are comfortable doing their own maintenance of the aircraft. Generally, a homebuilt will cost a third or less of what a certified (factory-built) aircraft will, and the final price tag will depend on size, sophistication and the degree of “poshness” the builder includes. You can buy a basic kit for as little as $15,000, or you can spend more than $100,000. Even a lower-end kit can end up as a $100,000 plane when high-end avionics, communication equipment, luxury interiors and other frills are added. Murphy Aircraft also offers workshops, tours and what Murphy describes as “hand holding” through the construction process.
Impressive as Murphy Aircraft’s trajectory is, it hasn’t been without its share of bumps, shoals and gut-wrenching frustration. The first roadblock came almost immediately. “As soon as I put the shingle out,” says Murphy, “nobody wanted to buy an airplane. I think in my first six months, I only sold the prototype, and that was only so I could continue production.”
Completed plane is ready to
Orders came in dribs and drabs until Murphy decided to get some publicity. After being turned down by numerous magazines, he found a California editor who, by chance, would be in the area and agreed to take his plane for a test run.
“We ended up with an 11-page spread in his magazine including the centrefold, and after that we couldn’t keep up,” Murphy says. “We went from one plane in the first year to doing 196 planes in one month.”
Murphy faced his biggest obstacle upon opening his Chilliwack plant. The town mayor and council banned Murphy Aircraft from the local airport since the planes were registered as ultra lights, which were not allowed rights at the airport. The David-versus-Goliath battle caught the interest of two Vancouver television stations, which reported on the nasty confrontation with glee. Finally, the mayor capitulated. When CTV and CBC ran stories about the company 20 years ago, 22 communities across North America extended invitations to help the firm relocate, ranging from Abbotsford to Arlington, Virginia, says Murphy. “In most cases, they were actually willing to pay for our expenses to get there.”
Murphy faced more obstacles when he ran into trouble hiring trained workers. About three years ago, the company hired 11 students from the University College of the Fraser Valley’s aviation program. Six months later, every one of them had quit.[pagebreak]“The reason wasn’t surroundings, work or wages,” says Murphy. “The Canadian government doesn’t allow the hours these apprentices spend in our shop to count toward their licences, even though they learn everything about airplanes, from building the parts to assembling them from scratch, right to the finished product.” The reason given by Transport Canada for the rules is that the aircraft built in the factory are “non-certified” airplanes.
“They can go to another company and put the same rivet into the same hole for a year for eight hours a day, and they would be able to use those hours as credit toward their licence,” Murphy says. “Here we actually teach them something, and they’re in high demand elsewhere because they’ve been trained reasonably well. It’s just not logical.”
Darryl Murphy (r) watches as
employee Chris Wilson
prepares parts in the Murphy
Like many Canadian exporters, Murphy Aircraft saw an appreciable decline in business following the attack on New York’s World Trade Centers in 2001. Immediately after the disaster, there were flying restrictions all over the U.S., and, for a four-month period, all recreational aircraft were banned from entering the States. Sales plummeted. Before 9/11, in an effort to bring costs down, the company contracted an American factory owner in the Philippines to build or partially assemble planes. From receiving five planes every month from the Philippines, deliveries fell to zero.
“Part of the reason for this was that 9/11 resonated all over the world,” says Murphy. “The quality-control people working in the factory, non-Filipinos, started getting death threats not only from the Muslims but from the Communists as well who saw an opening.”
The increasing strength of the Canadian dollar has also had a serious impact. Before 9/11, orders were placed for planes at $0.63 on the U.S. dollar, but, because of flying restrictions, the planes couldn’t be delivered for 18 months. “We delivered at $0.85, so we took a huge kicking there,” says Murphy.
With the dollar now at par and the psychological pressure on the American client base to “buy American,” Murphy says that if he’d had a crystal ball 10 years ago, he would have moved to the U.S. Aviation is a highly competitive business; of the 200 small aircraft companies that existed 20 years ago, Murphy is the only survivor (others have appeared since). In the past, the company has explored the possibility of a move either to Mexico or the U.S. – the Americans, particularly, have thrown tempting offers his way. Murphy has also looked into the European market, which is providing serious competition in the light-aircraft field.
“I went over to the Czech Republic on one trip to see if we could get airplanes built there and found that the operating cost was seven dollars an hour – that includes wages, all the overheads, everything, even buying lunch for the employees,” says Murphy. “It’s phenomenal. We can’t compete with that in Canada and the U.S.”
Murphy is now exploring a more diversified business, with investments in companies that complement the factory, such as his recently opened facility to produce parts for certified aircraft and helicopters. He has just returned from an intensive training course in Massachusetts, learning to operate a sophisticated laser to manufacture parts for the company. The machine, now housed in a building facing Murphy Aircraft, turns out customized parts not only for the aviation industry, but also for other vehicles. Murphy hopes this easy access will ensure he meets the demand for parts faster and more efficiently. Murphy says businesses that service aircraft have huge difficulties finding parts and often have to wait six months or more to get what they need. Having a helicopter out of commission for long periods can be crippling for a small enterprise. In the past, when people came to Murphy insisting that they needed a part desperately today, Murphy would pound something together by hand. With the new laser rig, he is now able to do twice the work in half the time and with much better quality. It’s custom work, but the new machine will enable the company to expand its reach, doing everything from sheet metal work to creating parts for the automotive industry.
In some ways, Darryl Murphy is like Alice in Wonderland, who had to run twice as fast just to stay in the same place. He has continued to build airplanes and has managed to survive while so many of his competitors have gone under.
Mark Cook, editor-in-chief of Kitplanes Magazine in California who has known Murphy for almost 20 years, notes, “Darryl is one of the true survivors in an industry that can chew up people and spit them out, and his success is largely because the man is the airplane. Darryl is a very straightforward person and his aircraft reflect a man who is no-nonsense, a straight-talker and doesn’t fall into fads or gimmicks.”
Even though Murphy has had two very serious offers to leave Canada, he has opted to keep the plant going in Chilliwack. “In the end, both times, I said, ‘Well, we’re Canadian.’”
What will he do when he retires? “I would like to walk away from this desk and just design airplanes. I’ll build a plane that I want to build for myself. Maybe I’ll build two. That’s a designer’s dream – you just design what you want yourself.”
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