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Today, November 21, is Chris' 78th birthday. While most of you know Chris or are familiar with him and his work, I know many new Zenith builders and owners are not as familiar (since his retirement about six years ago) so below I am sharing an article written by aviation writer and friend Jim Cavanaugh in 2011 for the "Zeniths to Oshkosh" celebrations honoring Chris Heintz at EAA AirVenture.
Recognition of designer Chris Heintz’ contributions to sport aviation
By Jim Cavanagh
This year, during the annual Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture convention at Oshkosh, esteemed light aircraft designer Chris Heintz was honored for his contributions to sport aviation. And we‘re not just talking experimental or homebuilt aviation. He helped write the rules for the Very Light Aircraft (VLA) category, and the Light Sport and Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) Category that will eventually save the sport and personal side of General Aviation from fading under myriad pressures and costs. In his adopted country, Canada, he was instrumental in the development of the Advanced Ultralight category, which was the blueprint for the American LSA category.
Chris Heintz is not a new name for serious sport pilots. If a generation equals twenty years, then two, and going on three generations of pilots are familiar with this engaging and approachable man. He has been one of the leading figures in bringing dependable, no nonsense, economical aircraft to General Aviation. His hallmark is designing aircraft that are affordable, easy to build for the first-time builder, easy to fly for the low time pilot, and, above all, safe. Over the years, he not only designed and built his airplanes, but worked tirelessly to promote and formulate the homebuilt aircraft industry and create timely, technologically advanced aircraft for a diverse aviation marketplace.
Back in the beginning, when the Experimental Aircraft Association was getting started, there were a few guys like Paul Poberezny, Curtis Pitts, Molt Taylor, Steve Wittman, and Frank Smith, who designed smallish aircraft that a man or woman could build in their basement or garage. They would sell plans via a simple little newsletter, over the phone, for a hundred bucks or so. The new builder would then go out and scrounge parts and materials to begin a multi-year project that would result in an airplane that performed better than a factory airplane at much, much lower cost. Besides beginning what they called the homebuilder movement, they created something on a much grander scale. They created a pervasive dream. Chris Heintz was infected by this dream. Even thousands of miles away from the center of the activity, he became enamored with the idea of an independent design, personal construction and the freedom and accomplishment every homebuilder feels. The son of a physicist and an ophthalmologist, Chris had always been creative and inventive, drawing and sketching his way through his childhood, designing and building canoes, and when applying at ETH Technical Institute, in Zurich, Switzerland, he was able to catch a ride in a Piper Cub, an incentive, or maybe bait, offered by the aviation department. He was hooked!
Immediately following his graduation in 1960, Chris went to work for Aerospatiale, working as a flutter engineer on their project that would become the Concorde. Later, after his mandatory stint in the Air Force, Chris went to work for Avions Robin, to update their “Jodel” line of wood and fabric aircraft and ultimately designed two all metal aircraft that were later Certified, the HR –100 and the HR-200. This set the tone for his model designations in the future.
Allowed to use the facilities at the factory during his off hours, Chris designed and built his first personal airplane, the CH-200. He completed it and flew in 1970. It was all metal and relatively simple, and was powered by a 100 hp. Continental engine. Chris realized that his forte was designing, not necessarily craftsmanship, so he designed the airplane for its simplicity to fabricate and assemble. This is a philosophy that has been a constant thread throughout all of his designs.
It wasn’t long before Chris and Annemarie had five children, and they began to consider moving to another continent where the family would have access to good schools, creative freedom and Chris could start his own small plane business. One of their first trips was to Brazil, at a time when the country was courting any and all businesses to invest. The aviation industry in particular was a key Brazilian Focus. Embraer was one of the companies formed there, but the heat and humidity just didn’t work for the Heintz’s. Canada, with its friendly people and much cooler climate, along with European flavor and language, won out.
Upon leaving Avions Robin, Chris had signed a “non-compete” clause, so he accepted a position with de Havilland where he was assigned the Dash 7 Regional Commuter, working on the Tail section. The CH-200 arrived in a container and Chris set about creating a set of plans and materials for it, and flying to local airshows to show the airplane and sell the plans. It’s growth in popularity and the requests by a number of anxious builders prompted him to provide materials and some parts, hand formed ribs being among the first, and suddenly he was an airplane factory; from his two-car garage; in a residential neighborhood! The growing demands resulted in Chris’ leaving deHavilland in 1974, and starting Zenair Ltd.
Any successful businessman knows that once you start a project it very soon takes on a life of its own. A successful design oils the machinery and soon more ideas begin to “pop” and new designs start to take shape. Sometimes these designs are market driven, like the Ultralight boom in the ‘80’s, that spawned the “Zipper” and “Zipper II” and “Mini-Z.” Initially, though, the impetus was on refining the CH-200 into he best airplane it could be and creating comprehensive detailed drawings and kits. Zenair Ltd. took off with great success, bolstered by Chris’s enthusiasm, his attention to economy, simple fabricating techniques and the resultant quick build time, resulted in a very attractive project for the first time builder.
Chris’s trademark is a long chord, thick, high lift wing. Forsaking high end speed, he has always opted for a wing that created a safety factor. With this wing, a modified NACA 64A515, all of his airplanes require minimal landing and takeoff space. This trait, along with all aluminum construction, the use of pull rivets, which has become an industry standard, and multiple powerplant options created a flexible and friendly family of aircraft.
During their first year of business, Zenair was awarded the Best New Design Award at Oshkosh, for the CH-200. The next year, the company won the National Assoc. of Sport Aircraft Designer’s award for best and most complete plans, as well as the Pazmany Efficiency Contest. This latter was a wonderful competition held annually at the Oshkosh event. It was a “Proof is in the Pudding” event that pitted all aircraft designs against each other for pure efficiency. An aircraft would fly two passes through a closed course, first at cruise speed and next at slowest speed above stalling. It was a simple yet effective gauge of an aircraft’s performance envelope. Marketing pressures eventually caused the demise of this event.
In 1976, the company performed an outrageous but very effective demonstration of the simplicity of its design. An aircraft was assembled and flown in just eight days. This “Eight Day Wonder” demonstration was and ambitious and highly successful, and was followed with similar feats in 1986, when a new Zodiac was built and flown in ten days, and later in 1993, with a Zodiac being built and flown in just seven days at Sun ‘n Fun, in Lakeland, FL. Today, even this extraordinary build time can be drastically reduced by the use of CNC matched holes and pre cut aluminum panels. Fifteen thousand drilled, deburred and riveted holes took a lot of time. The company was recently granted the FAA’s 51% endorsement for the newest build kits.
All the while, the company was putting out new or updated versions of their designs, including the Zipper, which won Best New Design in 1984, and in this same year, a second Best New Design with the iconic CH-600 Zodiac. The company was dabbling in STOL designs and even had time to develop a set of floats, both straight and amphib, that are very popular among its builders.
Chris’ STOL projects were more than a passing fancy. The first flight of the unique CH-701 was in 1986. Twenty-five years later, as this is being written, the design is virtually unchanged and is still in production. Initially considered boxy and rather homely as most aircraft designers were going for “sleek”, the –701 has developed a passionately devoted and protective horde of builders who are the adventurers of aviation. The airplane was designed for off airport, unimproved and exceedingly short landing areas, as well as water operations. Its full span flaperons and permanently slotted leading edges, combined with Chris’s trademark thick and long chord wing, offer takeoff and landing potentials that border on pure levitation. The Zenair Float Kit was developed for this airplane, no doubt through Chris’ repatriation to Canada and the country’s penchant for bush flying. Often called the smoothest flying airplane in the world, for control input balance, the –701 fostered the much larger, heavy hauling CH-801 in 1999, that doubled the lift and carry capacity of the –701 to 1,000 lbs, and the slightly larger, LSA category CH-750, to bring back country flying to sport pilots.
While this was going on, Chris’ family was growing and having families of their own. Sons Matthew and Sebastien decided to join the family business upon graduation from college. Matt stayed in Canada to oversee Zenair Ltd. while Sebastien started a new business, Zenith Aircraft Company in Mexico, Missouri, in 1992, to build and market Chris Heintz designs in the U.S. Here is where all of the kits are created and shipped and all customer support is handled. Builder seminars are held on a regular basis, teaching the basics of construction and assembly. Sons Michael and Nicholas are also involved in the family business at Zenair Ltd. in Canada.
Removing himself from the day-to-day grind of running a company, Chris returned to designing. Over the years he developed the CH-4000, a four seater that was placed on a back burner when the LSA market loomed. The neat little Ch-620, a low wing twin that had sport aviation all abuzz for a long time, is just one of two twin-engine homebuilt designs, Rutan’s Defiant being the other. The –620 may yet make it to the marketplace.
The company took the time to design and certify a four seat aircraft. Chris had worked on a couple of initial versions, the CH-400 and the CH-640, before developing the CH-2000 that was eventually configured into two aircraft, the AMD Alarus trainer (manufactured in Georgia) and the SAMA CH-2000 Military Tactical and Surveillance Aircraft. His latest accomplishment was being the lead writer of Transport Canada’s TP101.41 document that helped create the ASTM standards for building Light Sort Aircraft. Even industry giant Cessna uses Chris’s work.
In 2001, Chris was awarded the Light Aircraft Manufacturing Association’s President’s Award for Outstanding Individual in Light Aircraft, just one of many, many accolades he has received from both within and outside of aviation.
Chris officially retired in 2006, but is ever available to his sons when the need arises. He took the time to write a book, Flying Your Own Wings. It is a combination autobiography and primer on aircraft design and construction; a wonderful introduction to the man, his family and the art of designing airplanes that you will fly yourself. It is easy to read, entertaining, and except for some of the math, explains things in a way that any interested, intelligent person can grasp. He and his sons worked diligently to identify the causes of a number of accidents involving his designs, and while determining that they were unrelated, they developed kits and directions for builders to modify existing aircraft to totally eliminate any similar accidents in the future. And at a very small cost! This form of proactive response and consideration to owners is unique to aviation.
Completed versions of Chris’s designs are nearing the 4,000 mark. You can find Chris Heintz designs in most of the countries of the world, and this doesn’t count all of the pirated versions coming out of Russia, Brazil, Italy, and other countries. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say.
It is ironic that towards the end of his illustrious career, events and bureaucracy conspired to create the largest bump in the long, long road. A series of accidents involving the CH 601 XL, including factory built, kit built and plans build aircraft, drew unprecedented national attention from the NTSB and FAA, and in an example of bureaucratic malfeasance, the problem grew and spread, impacting the confidence builders had in their aircraft. Though retired, Chris dived into this problem with his sons, and worked countless hours gathering information and working in their shops. Any areas that were questioned (whether design, builder, or pilot related) were subjected to hours of testing and redesigning, if for no other reason than to let builders and owners regain confidence in the design. A comprehensive “upgrade kit” was developed and was sent to builders at cost, and addressed not one but all items in question. This hands-on concern is unique to aviation and a testament to Heintz’ dedication to his designs and his customers. (The FAA subsequently concluded that its thorough review of the accidents “did not indicate a single root cause, but instead implicated the potential combination if several design and operational aspects.”)
The company has developed two “next generation” light sport aircraft, the new Zenith CH 650 and the STOL CH 750, LSA certifiable aircraft. Both are refined designs, based on the –601 and –701, and are quick build kits (using CNC drilling extensively in the kit manufacturing process), with glass panels if the builder desires, and different cowlings and kits for myriad engines that have become available to light aircraft builders, including the new generation UL Power engine with full FADEC. These aircraft will usher in a new generation of pilot to keep sport aviation alive and growing.
Today, at 72 years young and now living in his native France, Chris sits back and watches the two generations of pilots and two generations of family continue to build and enjoy the aircraft he has designed. What greater legacy can a man hope for? What greater life could a man live?
The above article was written by Jim Cavanaugh in 2011 for the "Zeniths to Oshkosh" celebrations honoring Chris Heintz at EAA AirVenture. Today, Chris is 78 years old.