The Wright Brothers, Italian-Style
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Innovation in the aircraft industry is coming from an unlikely place.
By Shannon Sims
“We weren’t sure what to do, so we thought, ‘Why not build an airplane?’ ”
One fall afternoon in 2009 over coffee in Paris, 20-something hometown friends Luciano Belviso and Angelo Petrosillo came up with a bright idea. Their plan had been to create an engineering company dealing with aeronautics. ”But then we thought, why not make the plane ourselves?” recalls Belviso. The two buddies headed home to southern Italy, and with the help of angel investors, founded the company Blackshape Aircraft. Soon, they’d produced their first plane, the BS100, which last year won the title of the best ultralight aircraft in the world, thanks to engineering that has been called “an absolute novelty.”
What’s the trick? The young lawyer (Petrosillo) and the engineer (Belviso) developed the world’s first ultralight sport aircraft made entirely from carbon fiber.
Belviso, a 31-year-old aeronautics engineer with a techie pallor and a slender nose, looks like he could be Napoleon Bonaparte’s little bro. What began as a childhood love of Legos led the doctor’s son into engineering, which he pursued at elite schools throughout Europe. Despite his pedigree, he speaks with the sweet, hopeful tone of a southern farming town hero, a foil for his booming success. When OZY caught up with him by phone, he was sitting in a lounge at Los Angeles International Airport waiting for his flight back to Rome. He’d been visiting California to meet with potential buyers and suppliers; he says most component suppliers are in the U.S., the same consumer market he and Petrosillo have had their eyes on from the start.
So who wants to take that first flight? Belviso’s no fool. “I sent out our super-experienced test pilot first,” he says with a snicker. “Then I did the second one.” The two-passenger plane has an emergency parachute, but that didn’t provide much solace on flight No. 2. “Before the flight I was trying to mentally prepare myself,” recalls Belviso. “But then within 3 seconds, the time it takes for the aircraft to get in the air, all those thoughts just disappeared.” Instead, it was just the thrill of soaring in a machine he helped design and build.
He was flying, literally and figuratively.
With government contracts signed — they won’t disclose the value — and international distributors at the ready, Blackshape still needs a bit of name recognition. Its Canadian distributor told OZY that potential buyers choose between the Blackshape and the Diamond DA20 or the Cirrus SR20 (a four-seater), made by larger, better-known companies. When asked, a top representative of Cirrus said, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about with this ‘Blackshape’ — what is that, a UFO?”
While the competition uses carbon fiber for parts of their aircraft, Blackshape uniquely builds a full carbon-fiber frame. Carbon fiber is one of the strongest, lightest materials around, and even jumbo-jet manufacturers are looking to get it woven into more parts. The lighter a plane, the less fuel it needs. And that spells lower comparative operational costs for Blackshape plane owners. Still, manipulating carbon fiber is a difficult and expensive technology.
I’m not sure what you’re talking about with this ‘Blackshape’ — what is that, a UFO?
— A representative of aeronautical firm Cirrus
Blackshape says its base model, the BS100, begins at $250,000, considerably more than the Diamond DA20, at under $200,000. “Over the next four years, we want to increase value, and we want to triple production,” Belviso says. So far the company has sold more than 70 BS100s.
Of course, the market will always be a high-end luxury niche. Typically, potential buyers are flown to southern Italy to take the planes for a spin and meet the founders, he says. “We know our customers’ businesses, we know their families. We’re not typical engineers. We work hard to create an emotional connection with the client.”
We give our customers the feeling like they are infantry pilots in the Second World War. It’s a kind of fantasy for many.
— Luciano Belviso
And a spin in the BS100 — which can last up to five and a half hours and cover a little more than 1,000 kilometers — can be emotional. “We give our customers the feeling like they are infantry pilots in the Second World War,” Belviso says. “It’s a kind of fantasy for many.”
Back at fantasy factory, Blackshape’s 100 employees produce three advanced ultralight aircraft: its best-selling BS100; the BS115, a heavier and more expensive plane under development; and the BS300, a model designed for the Italian military for training purposes and optimized for aircraft carriers. The BS100 is distributed in Canada by Aircité Aviation, though the company has plans to market the BS115 as a “light sport aircraft” in the U.S. by 2016.
Blackshape is remarkable not just for the product it makes, but also for the unusual location. The founders set up the company in their hometown of Monopoli, a 60,000-population ancient Adriatic port, in the very south of Italy in the state of Puglia, where the spur of the boot might be.
For centuries, the southern region of Italy, called the Mezzogiorno, has lagged economically. While the post-crisis employment rate in northern Italy is just 64 percent, in southern Italy it’s a shocking 42 percent. More than 600,000 jobs have been lost in the region, sparking a wave of emigration to the north. Since 2008, regional industrial investment has plummeted 53 percent, according to Svimez, the Southern Italy Industrial Development Association. Estimates say that southern Italy now needs $80 billion of investment to catch up with the rest of the country or risk “industrial and social desertification.”
Blackshape might help. “Over the past 10 years, the region has completely changed,” Belviso says. “It used to be very provincial, but now there are conditions to make an industrial revolution down there.” He cites a welcoming culture and a high quality of life.
Belviso says that when he strolls through his balmy, faded hometown — between meetings with military captains and the Italian prime minister — things seem to be changing: “I suppose people might be beginning to recognize me.”