Cobalt in Detail - David Loury the Patient Dreamer

I recently wrote an article about the announcement of the Cobalt Co50 Valkyrie. It's a gorgeous airplane that promises to top the piston single market with a speed of 260 knots...and it seemed to appear out of nowhere as a working prototype.

I still had a lot of questions about it and hoped I might run into them at Oshkosh some day. Thankfully, I didn't have to wait so long. Cobalt's PR rep, Yvette, must have read my mind because she wrote me out of the blue and offered to set up a phone call with David Loury, the creator and CEO of Cobalt. Needless to say, I accepted the offer. I'd like to give you a professional question/answer format transcript of the call, but I was on the road and I'm not necessarily trained as a full-time journalist. That said, I want to share some of the highlights from our conversation because it was awesome!

In what follows, any answers I attribute to David are paraphrasing rather than direct quotes. You're not allowed to hold him to anything I say here. (Not that this will be a problem - I think his aircraft is going to impress us all no matter what.)

I didn't know where to start at first. I wanted to know why Cobalt has been able to go through five iterations of prototypes and is satisfied that they can offer customers a finished product...all without any past media fanfare. (The trend has been exactly the opposite. Think Icon, Terrafugia, etc.) I wanted to ask how he was different than Vern Rayburn, the man who wooed the aviation industry into believing that the Eclipse 500 would create a new class of Very Light Jet...and then fail completely failed to deliver on his promises. I started by asking David about his background and the course of the discussion ended up naturally covering most of that.

If you get a chance to talk to David Loury, one of the first things you'll notice is that he loves aviation! He worries that the media sees aviation as a terminally ill industry and that investors see it as a money pit. He feels like someone needs to prove them wrong, and believes that he has the power to do it. He sees aviation almost exclusively restricted to old white men, especially in Europe and wants that to change. He told me that the dream of flying is one of the most powerful dreams in humanity. (Here's me not disagreeing with him!)

So, in 2005 he started designing a new airplane. He doesn't use words like "revolutionize," "steal," or even "market share." He said he's out to make a compelling product. He believes that the best aircraft salespeople are pilots and mechanics. He believes that if he can get his airplane into our hands, it will sell itself.

I asked why he didn't publicize his project earlier and he had some great insights. He has spent a significant amount of time studying companies like Eclipse and Adam. He knew from the start that he needed to make sure his product was ready to go before he started promising people anything. I mentioned Icon's widespread media coverage. He seemed happy for Icon and felt like any success they have will be good for everyone, Cobalt included. He's been so focused fighting to get his aircraft certified that the timing just wasn't right to talk to the media.

He would have loved to fly and develop his aircraft in Europe, but the bureaucratic hurdles would have been so difficult that he didn't even bother. Instead, he moved to Canada and started work there. He spent three years working with Transport Canada (their version of the F.Eh.Eh.) and met every requirement in the aircraft certification process. His test pilot James Schwartz, a 25,000 hour retired Delta 777 Captain, said that he's never seen an aircraft prototype so well documented before he flew it. It sounds like TC certification would have been little more than a formality with FAA certification soon to follow, right?

Sadly, no. And herein lies the rub. David asked TC why, after three years of compliance and documentation, they told him that he was just about ready to get started with the certification process. The answer wasn't that the aircraft had failed in any of the technical or design aspects. It's that Cobalt, as a company, wasn't mature enough.

Yep, my first thought was also "WTFO?"

He'd received his first round of funding in 2008 and raised enough money to move to Canada and work full-time on certification for over three years, but apparently that's not mature enough for TC.

At that point, David realized that his last hope was taking his project to the US. He moved to California because it's a great area for aerospace development. Great weather, lots of potential customers, lots of like-minded companies. (We've already mentioned Icon. There's also Scaled Composites, and a host of other upstarts at Mojave. I should also mention Edwards AFB, the home of the USAF Test Pilot program.)

David decided that he needed to get his aircraft into the hands of some customers. He'd start selling it as a factory built experimental. Once his customers started singing the aircraft's praises maybe the regulatory bodies, media, banks and everyone else would stop their predictions of doom & gloom and get excited. His goal was to sell 10-20 aircraft with FAA permission and see how things go from there. I don't think his plan is working perfectly, because Cobalt just announced that they received more than $50 Million in aircraft orders in the first 90 days after opening their order books. By my count that's somewhere around 65-85 aircraft. So much for a limited initial release!

Unlike the Icon A5, the Cirrus SF50 and others who had their aircraft in the news years before they were anywhere close to delivery, the Cobalt was just about ready to go before we ever heard about it. David hopes to finish flight testing this summer and start deliveries this year. I asked him if the pending rewrite of 14 CFR Part 23 would make his life easier. He said he hopes, for the sake the the aviation industry at large, that the rewrite goes though...but it's too late to help him. His design is complete and compliant under the current version of Part 23.

He believes that once the FAA (and everyone else) sees how great his airplane is, that his company will get the credibility it deserves and certification will follow pretty quickly. He made the point more than once that the physics works. Yes, the design is different, but it had to be. He believes that in order to attract a young, diverse group to aviation we need some compelling new aircraft designs. He has nothing against more traditional airplanes (he's flown Cessnas, Cirrus, Columbias, etc.,) but he believes that the Co50 with it's gorgeous curves, canard, pusher powerplant, outstanding visibility, etc. will fit the bill. (He's me, once again, not disagreeing with him.)

After talking to him for a while, David started to remind me a lot of Elon Musk. He's passionate about doing something amazing. He's done his homework and his product is awesome. Despite regulatory and other hurdles, he's still working away. He has a long-term perspective that is about more than making the next magazine cover or putting up a favorable quarterly earnings report. I think that's exactly the mindset that the aviation industry needs to take advantage of rapidly advancing technology and keep aviation alive.

Keep a look out for David and the Cobalt Valkyrie. You're going to be seeing a lot more of them.