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Simplex Aerospace’s 70-year legacy began with a single bilge pump. Founder Dorsey Liebhart was building Liberty ships in Portland, Oregon, during World War II, when he had an idea for an effective “lightweight” pump. He designed a 20-pound prototype and began shopping it around shipping yards. It didn’t catch on in maritime circles, but a local crop duster heard about it and inquired about its use on an airplane to efficiently spray fertilizer over fields. The experiment was a success and, in 1946, Simplex Manufacturing Company was born.
From its humble beginnings not far from the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation where Liebhart assembled wartime ships, Simplex (now Simplex Aerospace) has grown into an international multi-million dollar aviation equipment leader, offering close to 200 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) supplemental type certificates (STCs) for systems flying in more than 100 countries.
Although the company has moved from a family-run to investor-owned firm, Simplex has never lost sight of the innovation and customer relationships that led to its creation. Liebhart’s crop dusting customer was only the first in a long line of individuals and companies who came to Simplex with ideas that have developed into successful products.
“I believe the secret to our success is our commitment to the industry — working with customers to develop and certify new missions and better equipment — and [the] continued diversification of our products,” Mark Zimmerman, president and CEO of Simplex Aerospace, told Vertical during a recent visit to the company’s facility. “We’ve developed wonderful relationships with aircraft manufacturers and our customers, and recognize they are the best source for new ideas.”
For 70 years, Simplex has responded to customer requests, developing and refining products for agricultural spraying, firefighting, powerline and wind turbine cleaning and deicing, and cargo transport, maintaining much of Liebhart’s initial philosophy for the company. From the beginning, demand was high for spray equipment, but Liebhart kept production simple and manageable for a reason. “Dorsey ran the business to be small to assure quality and [a] customer-service focus,” said Larry Lichtenberger, Simplex vice president. “When his daughter Nancy’s husband, Dan Conti, took over the business in 1963, he maintained that philosophy. That is evident today as our systems from 50 years ago are still flying. Quality and durability are attributes customers know to expect from Simplex.”
Though the company has increased production substantially from its early days, this philosophy stays strong. Its FAA-certified carbon fiber tanks are crafted in-house under close quality control checks. Every part is tested and the final product goes through multiple quality control tests in the assembly plant. “Nothing leaves here until we’re satisfied it will last,” Lichtenberger said as he pointed out a fire suppression tank being tested. On the rig it struggled with one of its doors. “This one for instance will undergo several more adjustments before it’s ready for delivery to our customer. It won’t leave until it’s perfect.”
This philosophy has paid off in other ways, too. “We’re very proud of our outstanding safety record,” said Zimmerman. “We’ve never lost an aircraft as a result of our products. That dedication resonates with our employees and customers.”
The customer service dedication established by Leibhart is also a key element of the company’s success. “Dorsey knew the value of customer service,” Lichtenberger said. “This has stayed with us for 70 years and we’ve assured it remains strong for our customers all over the world.” Today, Simplex provides 24/7 aircraft on ground (AOG) support with seven service centers around the world stocked with parts ready to ship at a moment’s notice.
Building a Legacy
In the beginning, family-run Simplex developed pumps and other equipment for the fixed-wing agriculture spray industry. As helicopters came on the scene, Simplex received its first STC in the 1950s for the Bell 47 agricultural spray system — a system that continues to fly to this day and is still serviced by Simplex.
After taking the helm in 1963, Conti continued the legacy, building up the company’s product offerings and developing uses in new sectors of the industry that resulted in the company outgrowing its first home.
In 1982, Simplex moved to its current location, a light industrial building a stone’s throw from Portland International Airport, to accommodate increased growth and demand.
As Conti led the company forward, a growing market in helicopter aerial firefighting led to the development of Simplex’s notable Fire Attack tank system in the early 1990s. An original Korean order totaling 90 tanks for the Kamov Ka-32, yet another customer request that resulted in an innovative design, began Simplex’s path toward fire suppression system leadership. Not long after the Korean order, Japan ordered tanks for the Airbus Helicopters AS365 Dauphin, and U.S. firefighting agencies and companies began requesting tanks for the Bell UH-1H Huey. Available today with STCs for nearly 20 aircraft base models, the fire suppression systems brought a big jump in national and international business to Simplex, quickly outpacing agricultural spray sales.
“Our Fire Attack system is the largest portion of our business,” Lichtenberger said. “When it was first developed, it was a vast improvement over the current fire suppression equipment available at the time — a bucket on a 50-foot line. With a tank you experience better accuracy, higher effectiveness, and control over your release. You can release the load much faster than a bucket, or choose to spread it out. One big thing many operators like is the ability to fight fires at night, unlike a bucket system.”
In response to customer requests, Simplex certified their Fire Attack systems for night flight — essentially ensuring the tank did not obstruct landing and position lights and offering night vision goggle (NVG) compatible controls.
Further customer-led innovations have advanced Simplex’s dominance of the fire suppression tank industry. “As our systems became more popular, individual agencies and companies had specific requests to meet their operating procedures and policies, and we worked to accommodate them,” said Mike Finnegan, director of product sales at Simplex. “For instance, some operators only want to have direct visual contact with the tank, others want mirrors, and we even had requests for a camera system so the pilot can have visual [contact] via a screen.”
Additionally, Simplex has accommodated requests for dual pilot controls, ground fill ports on both sides of the tank to eliminate tailwind landings into confined areas, and a remote control in the passenger cabin for a fire boss.
One specific request, however, led to a considerable jump in sales and popularity of the Simplex systems, Lichtenberger said. When a hover pump (the hose used to draw water up into the tank) is installed, the aircraft is restricted to flight crew only. British Columbia-based Wildcat Helicopters requested a way to stow the hover pump, allowing passengers to be carried without removing the system.
Working with current customer Los Angeles City Fire and their Bell 412, Simplex developed and certified the FAA-certified Aft Hook, which allows an operator to secure the hover pump, permitting passengers to be transported in the helicopter while the pump is still attached. Once the STC was secured, Simplex received reciprocal certifications in other countries allowing Wildcat to use the system.
“The Aft Hook is available for the Bell 412 currently, but we will certify it for other models as customers request it,” Lichtenberger said.
There doesn’t seem to be an end to fire system demand in sight for Simplex. If anything, it’s increasing. In the ’90s, customers required 300-gallon tanks. As helicopters, fires and fire seasons grow, demand for volume is also on the rise. Typical tank needs now run between 800 and 3,050 gallons, Lichtenberger said. Orders for Simplex’s largest tank, a more than $1-million 3,050-gallon system for the Boeing CH-47, are on the rise.
Expanding a Legacy
In 1996, Conti sold Simplex, ending a 50-year family-held legacy, and the company changed hands one more time in 2000 to a group of investors who hired Zimmerman. In 2012, the name changed to Simplex Aerospace to more accurately reflect the company’s vision.
Since becoming president and CEO, Zimmerman has led the company through extensive growth, building the company to eight times its size in 15 years. The 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility the company has been in since 1982 is bursting at the seams, and the search is on for a new, more modern home that can handle increased volume, larger products, and an expanded engineering team.
Simplex’s last decade of growth is due not only to the growth of its Fire Attack systems (both in volume and size), but also to the company’s expansion into new sectors of the industry and foreign markets.
With the world’s growing demand for power, paired with both an aging power grid and new energy technologies, Simplex developed the aerial cleaning and deicing system for cleaning powerline insulators, and deicing and cleaning wind turbines. The system includes the company’s high-strength, low-weight composite water tank and high-pressure spray boom certified for the Bell 407, and the Airbus Helicopters AS350 (H125) and 355 series.
“With the growing appetite for power in the world’s middle class, there is a definite need to keep our current power equipment running, and our cleaner sources of power maintained,” Lichtenberger said.
Simplex’s newest product is an expansion of the Fire Attack system. The patented SkyCannon allows a helicopter to essentially become a fire truck on rotors; designed to fight fires on high-rise buildings, its high-pressure spray boom offers the same power as a hose from a fire truck.
“A fire truck can spray 160 gallons a minute up to 40 meters. That was our criteria and we met it when we developed this technology,” Lichtenberger said. “During our first customer demonstration, we were prepared to spray for about 30 seconds at the fire department testing center. The fire was out in about six seconds so we had to be creative in showing what it could do after that to fill the time. It was that effective.”
The SkyCanon works with Simplex tanks to deliver up to 1,000 gallons to the top of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. The SkyCanon’s launch customer in Toyko, Japan, has trained its aviation fire teams in preparation for the first high-rise fire, demonstrating the value of this new technology, Zimmerman said.
Simplex has developed a strong international presence and today conducts more than 80 percent of its business overseas. The company maintains 30 agents around the world and operates an office in China, where Simplex conducts robust business.
Lichtenberger attributes the company’s strong overseas presence to good relationships with the FAA and foreign agencies. Every STC must first be secured in the U.S., and then taken to overseas agencies for acceptance of the FAA certification. Having worked closely with most countries now on initial STCs, the process runs more smoothly and relationships are strong, Lichtenberger said.
“We have to credit the U.S. government for that,” said Zimmerman. “They’ve been very helpful in getting our STCs accepted abroad. As a result of that relationship, we’ve also developed opportunities to help other non-competing businesses enter foreign markets. Export-Import Bank of the U.S. has come to Simplex to learn about our positive relationships abroad and how to assist other U.S. businesses in expanding overseas.”
As countries develop their aviation industries around the world, Simplex continues to see exceptional growth opportunities.
“I see China’s aviation industry today where the United States was in the 1950s,” Lichtenberger said. “There are huge opportunities there, but also challenges. It’s a different regulatory environment. They lack the infrastructure — airports and heliports — as well as VFR [visual flight rules] and other regulatory oversight, but it will evolve.”
Simplex continues to keep an eye on the future. It is currently developing offerings in two growing helicopter industry sectors where such products are not currently available. Unable to share more details, Lichtenberger only said early customer response has been positive — and the company’s officers are optimistic they will be a success.