DIY in the Sky: Murphy Aircraft

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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.”

 

Murphy Aircraft
Completed plane is ready to
take flight

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.


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