Bill Montagne has swagger. It comes with the territory. He's a self-taught aerodynamics engineer and test pilot who designed a plane for the Alaska bush that he says can fly circles...
PALMER, Alaska Bill Montagne has swagger.
It comes with the territory. He’s a self-taught aerodynamics engineer and test pilot who designed a plane for the Alaska bush that he says can fly circles around the competition.
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“Everybody right now is building planes with the same old technology. … You end up with the same old junk airplane,” Montagne says. “If you say I’m going to think completely out of the box, you can come up with something new and that’s what I did.”
The Mountain Goat looks like a Piper Super Cub, but that’s where the similarities end, Montagne says. His plane has a faster cruising speed and a lower stall speed and it’s more maneuverable than the Super Cub, loved by many bush pilots in a state where gravel beaches and mountain glaciers are frequent landing sites.
The Mountain Goat is not in production or even certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) yet. That lengthy, expensive process lies ahead, and Montagne is still seeking investor dollars to pay for it.
But the Mountain Goat already has its fans. Peter de Ruyter, an aeronautical engineer and a designated engineering representative for the FAA, said he flew in the Mountain Goat three years ago in Livermore, Calif. De Ruyter, who has no financial stake in the project, was hired by some New York investors to evaluate the plane’s performance.
“I know a good airplane from a bad one, and I was certainly impressed with the handling ability, just everything about it,” de Ruyter said of the Mountain Goat. “It is pretty remarkable. It’s faster. It is more maneuverable than the Super Cub.”
Some of the design innovations Montagne put into the Mountain Goat and its 180-horsepower engine were inspired by the motorcycles and sprint cars he used to race.
Montagne began racing motorcycles on dirt tracks in California when he was 19. He did a short stint at junior college studying engineering but quit to focus on racing. After motorcycles, it was on to sprint cars. He switched to planes after breaking his wrists and getting whiplash in a crash at more than 120 mph.
In the mid-1970s, he went to work in Silicon Valley and spent about 15 years making improvements in computer disk drives.
When Montagne decided to get his pilot’s license in 1980 he was already designing and building an aerobatic plane. While his homebuilt plane flew great, Montagne’s stomach didn’t like the rolls, twists and turns.
“I felt so sick doing that it was the wrong deal,” he said.
Montagne, 51, also had a love of hunting and fishing, and he decided he needed a bush plane to get to the wilderness. He looked at the Super Cub but felt it was outdated.
“The Super Cub has never evolved,” he said. “Right now you buy a new airplane with 60-year-old technology. … There’s something wrong with that.”
Part of that is because the Super Cub, first produced in 1949, went out of production in the mid-1990s. Pilots who want one either must buy one used or build one from a kit.
“The used ones are pretty well used up,” de Ruyter said.
Montagne decided he’d come up with something better. He sent out a few hundred questionnaires to other bush pilots asking them what they wanted in a plane. He started by improving the airfoil, the shape of the wing that provides lift. He said his design “has twice the lift and half the drag of anything in the world.”
He also used race-car technology to improve the plane’s exhaust system and air intake. A well-engineered air box allows the engine to breathe more air, which increases horsepower. To make the plane safer, the Mountain Goat has a roll cage and seat-belt harness, like in race cars.
Montagne finished the Mountain Goat prototype in 1996 and spent the next three years refining it. On its first flight, he determined that the Mountain Goat would fly 15 mph slower than a Super Cub before it would lose lift and stall. The ability to fly slowly is valued by bush pilots because it allows them to land and take off at slower speeds, using shorter runways.
On the other end of the scale, the plane cruised at 159 mph, about 75 mph faster than the Super Cub.
The plane can carry 1,250 pounds, including about 350 pounds of cargo behind the rear seat. That’s about seven times the cargo capacity of the Super Cub, Montagne said.
During testing of the plane, Montagne had exciting moments.
One was during a flight at Livermore, when Montagne tried a modification to put more feel into the control stick. He added a half-inch aluminum strip to a piece on the tail called the elevator horn. But when he lifted off the runway and accelerated, the test flight went haywire.
“The plane became uncontrollable,” Montagne said.
It began oscillating, pitching up and down wildly. On one of the upswings, Montagne fought the impulse to pull on the stick and instead locked it in position. He pulled the throttle back at the same time and the plane slowed and straightened out.
When Montagne moved to Alaska in 2002, he founded Montagne Aircraft. He estimates he’s put $4 million of his own money into the project, and needs $6 million more to get the plane certified and into production.