The Klapmeier brothers, Alan Lee Klapmeier (born October 6, 1958) and Dale Edward Klapmeier (born July 2, 1961), are American aircraft designers, aviation businessmen, and entrepreneurs who together founded the Cirrus Design Corporation in 1984. Under the leadership of the Klapmeiers, Cirrus was the first aircraft manufacturer to install a whole-plane parachute recovery system as a standard on all its models—designed to lower the airplane (and occupants) safely to the ground in case of an emergency. The device is attributed with saving over 140 lives to date. Cirrus was also the first to use all-composite airframe construction and glass panel cockpits on production aircraft, which many say revolutionized general aviation for light aircraft pilots.
Forbes magazine named the Klapmeiers' highly popular single-engine SR-series (the Cirrus SR20 and SR22) Best Private Airplane, saying "the Klapmeier brothers built the first genuinely new plane in the sky in years", Time magazine regarded them as "giving lift to the small-plane industry with an easy-to-fly design", and Flying magazine ranked Alan and Dale at number 17 on its list of 51 Heroes of Aviation. The Klapmeier brothers were inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame on 4 October 2014 in Dayton, Ohio.
The brothers started Cirrus in the basement of their parents' rural dairy barn near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Their first design, the VK-30 homebuilt aircraft, had its initial flight on 11 February 1988 and kit deliveries commenced shortly thereafter.
Alan left Cirrus in 2009 and became CEO of Kestrel Aircraft in 2010, which in 2015 was merged with Eclipse Aerospace to form One Aviation. Dale has remained at Cirrus serving as the company's CEO since 2011.
Alan and Dale Klapmeier grew up in DeKalb, Illinois. Their parents bought a second home in the early 1970s on a small farm near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Aviation was a part of the brothers' lives from a very early age; Alan told Airport Journals in 2006 that when he was a baby, the only way his mother could get him to stop crying at times was to bring him to an airport and park the car at the end of the runway so he could watch airplanes. The brothers constantly built model airplanes as infants and Dale was known to repeatedly pester their father into letting them build real ones. When Dale reached the age of 15, he learned to fly in a Cessna 140 before learning to drive a car. While still in high school, Alan joined the Civil Air Patrol at age 17 as a way of getting cheaper flying lessons. He would often go around visiting small airports to talk to pilots and even told his friends that he wanted to design aircraft, speaking about how he and his younger brother would one day compete with Cessna.
Alan and Dale are two of three children born to Larry and Carol Klapmeier. They come from an entrepreneurial family. The eldest brother, Ernie Klapmeier, opened his own accessory store of military reenactment goods and regalia in Aurora, Illinois and has managed the shop since its founding in 1997; their uncle, Jim Klapmeier, and grandfather, Elmer Klapmeier, were both entrepreneurs in the boat manufacturing industry and started as a small, two-person company building pontoon-like houseboats on Rainy Lake, Minnesota throughout the 1950s. Elmer ran a second business flying a single-engine 'puddle jumper' plane around Wisconsin delivering parts to dairy farmers, while Jim later moved the boat project to a facility in Mora, Minnesota where he grew and retained it for several decades, transitioning into the market of luxury yachts. Larry and Carol were also entrepreneurs who founded a successful nursing home near Chicago, of which the three brothers worked at as kids doing janitorial chores during the 1960s and 1970s.
Alan graduated in 1980 from Wisconsin's Ripon College with degrees in physics and economics. While a senior there in 1979, he began developing sketches of an airplane that would become the Cirrus VK-30.
In 1979, Dale discovered a wrecked 1960 Champion 7-GC flipped over and abandoned at an airport in northern Wisconsin. The brothers then bought the plane from its owner with the very little money they had and rebuilt it in the shed at their family farmhouse. This was their first experience tinkering with an aircraft as a self-taught restoration project, followed by the making of a Glasair 1 they saw introduced at the 1980 EAA Convention and Fly-In (now called AirVenture) in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. David Gustafson of Aircraft Spruce reported that the only way the Klapmeier brothers' parents would lend them the money to buy a Glasair was if they wrote up a business plan explaining why constructing a homebuilt would further their professional lives.
After Alan and Dale both graduated from college they formed an aircraft company in 1984, which they named "Cirrus Design" (now known as Cirrus Aircraft) in remembrance of a summer drive the brothers had a few years back where they saw cirrus clouds on the horizon and wished that they were flying. Once they formed the company, the Klapmeiers called upon Alan's old college roommate, Jeff Viken, to help out with their new design: the VK-30 (VK standing for Viken-Klapmeier). Viken was an aeronautical engineer who eventually married another aeronautical engineer, Sally Viken, and the unpaid Cirrus staff grew to four volunteers (with occasional help from the Klapmeiers' high school friend, Scott Ellenberger). The Cirrus VK-30 was a four to five-seat composite pusher with conventional wings and tail. Alan and Dale moved into the family farmhouse to be closer to the project, and began work on the airplane in the basement of the barn "down where the cows were". They all pitched in with the designing and balanced that with hands-on labor. Jeff designed the airfoil while Sally designed the flap system. The four of them would finish designing a part or a system, build it, and return to designing. Experimental aircraft innovator Moulton Taylor gave the Klapmeiers and Vikens technical advice surrounding the VK-30.
The Klapmeier brothers would often fly their Champ from the farm up to their uncle's boat-building business in Mora to borrow tools and other supplies—such as polyester resin—for building the plane and molding its fuselage. To reduce cost, they went to different junk yards around Wisconsin and bought what they needed: a control system out of a wrecked Piper aircraft, a Cherokee nose landing gear to weld parts onto it and convert it to a retractable gear, and an O-540 (290 hp) engine they got off a scrapped de Havilland Heron. The first VK-30 slowly took shape.
In 1985, near the Sauk-Prairie airport shortly after takeoff, Alan was involved in a fatal mid-air collision where his airplane lost a portion of its wing, including half of the aileron. The other plane spun into the ground killing the pilot, but Alan was able to maneuver a landing back on the runway by keeping high airspeed and using full aileron deflection. From surviving this incident, Alan sought to make flying safer—ultimately leading to the brothers' pursuit of implementing a parachute on all their designs starting in the mid-1990s.
In 1986, the Klapmeiers hired their first paid-employee, a talented welder and aluminum component designer by the name of Dennis Schlieckau. They then borrowed money from friends and family in order to build a hangar on the Baraboo-Wisconsin Dells Airport, and moved the VK-30 project from the barn to their new Baraboo headquarters with now only three other people helping out (a few years later they would build a second hangar for the production of more prototypes).
Their first display of the VK-30 was at the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh airshow in 1987, before the plane had taken its first flight. The brothers set up a small tent with the aircraft out front and were prepared to greet potential buyers as they approached. Still young and new to the industry, the two of them anticipated large crowds at their booth after printing several order forms, but zero kit orders were received then and only a few pilots expressed serious interest in making a purchase.
In 1988, the Cirrus team was gradually beginning to grow with now over a dozen paid employees. That year the Klapmeiers hired a couple of their most vital employees to date: Patrick Waddick, Cirrus's current President and Chief Operating Officer (originally hired as an intern sweeping floors), and Paul Johnston, the company's Chief Engineer, also known as one of their most gifted designers. After stress testing the wing countless times the first VK-30 prototype was ready to fly. Both Alan and Dale wanted to make the first flight but their mother insisted otherwise. Jeff Viken knew a test pilot from NASA Langley named Jim Patton, who made the first test flight on February 11, 1988. They sold their first few kits at EAA AirVenture that same year. Jeff and Sally Viken left the company shortly thereafter.
In the early 1990s, sales of the VK-30 were dwindling down; it became a market failure. By the time they discontinued production in the middle of the decade they had sold and shipped out 40 kits, of which only 13 were finished and flown. Towards the end of 1991, the brothers began to question their goals and started thinking about their lifelong dream of getting into the world of certified aircraft. Alan began making sketches for the ST-50, a four-seat single-engine turboprop. Dale wanted something simpler and began fiddling with a concept that was to evolve into the SR20.
Towards the mid '90s, Cirrus started designing the ST-50 under contract to Israeli aircraft manufacturer IsrAviation. The aircraft was configured like the VK-30 but was powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6-135, in place of the piston engine used in the VK-30. The prototype was first flown on December 7, 1994, by Norman E. Howell. During the beginning of that year, Alan and Dale moved the company from their headquarters in Baraboo to a 30,000-square-foot research and development facility in Duluth, Minnesota, bringing 35 employees with them and hiring another 15 at once. They began work on the Cirrus SR20, a four-passenger, single-engine, piston-powered composite aircraft. That's when Cirrus released its new marketing campaign: "Hangar X". It displayed a secret facility with nothing but a dim light and slightly cracked door. Inside was the "mysterious to-be-certified aircraft", but its unveiling would not come for a few more months.
Around this time, the brothers had the roles of Alan traveling around the country looking for investors and raising the capital Cirrus needed to get the SR-20 under production, and Dale staying back at the factory overseeing operations by keeping the design, testing and production moving.
The first prototype of the SR20 made its maiden flight in March 1995. The following year, the company broke ground on a 67,500-square-foot manufacturing facility in Grand Forks, North Dakota. In 1997, Cirrus started assembly of its first production prototype and added another 80,000-square-feet onto their Duluth facility for manufacturing purposes.
Through the Klapmeiers' vision, the SR20 became the first of many production advancements within light general aviation aircraft, including glass computer-monitored flight-displays instead of round analog dials (which would boast flat-panel avionic utilities such as satellite weather, traffic awareness and GPS steering), side-yoke flight controls instead of traditional yoke or stick consoles, all-composite construction instead of aluminum, and, most popularly known, the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS). The Cirrus team spent several weeks during the summer of 1997 in the high desert of southern California testing the parachute. They would drop barrels of sand out a C-123 Cargo plane and flip a switch that would deploy the chutes when the barrels reached nearly 200 mph. By the summer of 1998, they were ready to try the tests with an actual SR20. Chief Test Pilot Scott D. Anderson, a Stanford graduate and "Renaissance man" who was known as a beloved and charismatic figure in Duluth, successfully made the first deployment of CAPS, and would go on to make all seven of the inflight test-deployments for development and certification of the SR20. The airplane became FAA approved and type certified in October 1998.
On March 23, 1999, tragedy struck Cirrus when Scott Anderson was killed in a crash near the Duluth International Airport as he put the first production SR20 through torture-test maneuvers before it went on sale. The plane Anderson was flying had an aileron jam and was not yet equipped with the standard ballistic parachute that would come certified on every aircraft. Dale spoke at his induction into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame on April 24, 2010, saying, "Scott was an exemplary pilot and person… To date, 17 CAPS deployments have saved 35 lives due to Scott's pioneering work." Despite the tragedy, and the Klapmeier brothers losing a close friend and their most talented test pilot, Cirrus fixed the problem that killed Anderson and continued on to deliver the first SR20 in July 1999—receiving 400 orders by the first year alone.
In the early 2000s, sales of the SR20 were steadily rising. This led to the Cirrus SR22, a faster, higher and more powerful version of the SR20. Production on the new aircraft started in 2001. In August of that year, Cirrus sold 58% of the company for $100 million to Crescent Capital, the US arm of the First Islamic Investment Bank of Bahrain (now called Arcapita), making the Klapmeier brothers minority stakeholders in their own company.
By the middle of 2003, the SR22 had become the highest-selling general aviation aircraft in the world, beating out even that of Cessna Aircraft and achieving the brothers' lifelong dream. Cirrus had more than 600 employees then; two years later that number would reach to just over 1,000. The company was quickly expanding. Success for the Klapmeier brothers continued when they received the prestigious 2004 Ernst & Young Entrepreneurs of the Year Award for Manufacturing.
In 2006, Cirrus accomplished all-time record sales and deliveries, celebrating their 3,000th SR-series aircraft in only seven years of production. Thirty-five special edition SR22s were released that same year. They were entitled "Signature Editions", and came with several additional features including the signatures of both Alan and Dale imprinted on the plane's cowling. In June 2007, the Klapmeiers—along with Vice President of Advanced Development Mike Van Staagen—unveiled their next design, "The-Jet by Cirrus" (now known as the Vision SF50), a single-engine, low-wing, seven-seat very light jet aircraft, also intended to be equipped with the company's CAPS parachute. The first flight of the jet occurred on July 3, 2008.
In September 2008, the global sales slump in piston-engined aircraft impacted the company and they laid off 100 workers, 8% of their workforce. This included 79 people at the main plant in Duluth, Minnesota, and 29 employees at the composite construction plant in Grand Forks, North Dakota. After this round of layoffs, Cirrus had 1,230 employees remaining. Alan, the then-CEO, announced in October 2008 that due to the economic recession and resulting lack of demand for Cirrus aircraft, the company was moving to a three-day work week. He reported that sales were down 10% over the same period in the previous year. Compared to the industry average in that same period, sales were down 16%.
Cirrus eliminated 208 employee positions in fall 2008 and cut aircraft production from 14 to 12 aircraft per week in response to the economic situation. In November 2008, the company announced that it would lay off about 500 production employees for one month to allow for reductions in excess stock of aircraft produced.
On December 18, 2008, it was made public that Chief Operating Officer Brent Wouters would replace Alan as CEO effective February 1, 2009. Alan continued as Chairman of the board with Dale as Vice-Chairman.
On June 26, 2009, Alan announced that he had assembled a team to acquire the aircraft manufacturer's Vision SF50 single-engine jet program from majority owner Arcapita Bank and produce it under a new company. Dale came out in support of his efforts. Over a month later the attempt failed and Wouters announced that Alan's contract as Chairman would not be renewed when it expired at the end of August (a decision Wouters said Alan had known about for "several months" prior). Alan left Cirrus soon after this while Dale stayed with the company.
At the 2010 EAA Oshkosh Airshow, Alan introduced his new venture, the Kestrel Aircraft Company, and would serve as its CEO. Kestrel is to produce the Kestrel K-350, a single turboprop-engined all-composite six-seat aircraft. Some of his ex-Cirrus colleagues join him in the project, including Steve Serfling, Cirrus' former Director of Product Development. The company was originally set to locate its headquarters in Brunswick, Maine, but after complications with state tax credits, Alan decided in 2012 to move manufacturing operations to Wisconsin where they received a better financial package; the total value of loans, grants and tax credits was $118 million, $112 million from the state. Kestrel is now based in Superior, Wisconsin, right across the border from Cirrus, and employs about 60 workers. A smaller workforce resides in Brunswick creating composite components for the plane.
In early 2014, it was reported that Kestrel had fallen months behind on loan payments to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) due to financing delays. Alan spoke on the matter saying, "We're obviously still very excited about the program. We've made a lot of progress on the design, what we expect to build, what we expect to do with the FAA, but there are other frustrations. Certainly financing the project has been slower than we had hoped and expected." It was also reported that the delay in financing had impacted hiring, causing the company to reduce its staff in Superior. The WEDC and Kestrel agreed upon new terms that would defer the payments until November 2014.
On 15 April 2015, Kestrel was merged with Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Eclipse Aerospace to form One Aviation, with Alan appointed CEO. The company plans to eventually certify both the K-350 and the Eclipse 700 very light jet.
On September 19, 2011, Cirrus announced Dale as the new CEO, and that Brent Wouters "is no longer with the company". A few months later, in April 2012, the company informed that its Vision SF50 jet program, with a major investment from their newly acquired owners China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Company (CAIGA) (an acquisition that was initially met with much local skepticism), was fully funded through certification and initial production. Dale called the investment a "tremendous milestone" for the company and that the new owners "are actively partnering with Cirrus while providing substantial resources for us to meet and exceed our shared goals."
In 2013 and 2014, Cirrus had its strongest years in sales and deliveries since before the 2008 recession, naming its SR22/22T model the best-selling general aviation airplane for the 12th year in a row. The company flew three new Vision SF50 conforming prototypes and employed over 800 people in 2014, having hired more than 300 of them in the past three years alone. In May 2015, Dale and Chief Customer Officer Todd Simmons announced that Cirrus will be expanding to an additional facility in Knoxville, Tennessee, called the "Vision Center", where all customer activities for the company will take place.
Professionally, Alan is known as more of the talkative, risk-taking "dreamer" out of the two, whereas Dale has been known to be the more taciturn, hands-on "practical one". Many say this is partly what made the duo so successful—Alan would think up creative ideas and Dale would figure out how to get them done.
Dale told the Duluth News Tribune in 2009 that, "The difference between the two of us is that Alan is a dreamer, and he's extremely aggressive in what he wants. I'm far more conservative than he is, and I've always loved the hands-on stuff"; and Alan told Airport Journals in 2006 that, "Dale is more practical [than me]—unbelievably practical, in fact. Dale figures out how to make [the design] work."
Throughout most of the brothers' early career, Alan administered as President at Cirrus with Dale as Vice President. In a 1999 IndustryWeek article featuring the Klapmeiers, Alan joked that he was President simply "because he is the older brother"; and in an article published by Aircraft Spruce in 2012, about the Klapmeiers' homebuilding efforts throughout the 1980s, Dale credited Alan with being the "inspiration, the driving force" behind their goals.
The Klapmeier brothers have both served on numerous aviation boards and programs. Alan served on the board of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), AOPA's Air Safety Foundation, and the Small Aircraft Manufacturers Association. He currently serves on the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) board, and the advisory board for MVP Aero Inc. Dale served on the Red Tail Project (now Red Tail Squadron), EAA's Young Eagles Program, and NASA's Aeronautics Research & Technology Roundtable, along with the founding board of the Scott D. Anderson Leadership Foundation. He is currently on AirSpace Minnesota's board and the advisory board for the Aircraft Kit Industry Association (AKIA).
For much of the 2000s, Alan was part-owner of Bluewater Yachts, a central-Minnesota boat manufacturing company that the brothers' uncle co-founded in the 1950s, with the slogan "Different By Design".
In addition to his SR22, Alan owns a Piper Meridian and a 1950 DHC-1 Chipmunk. Dale has the reputation of being into "fast toys", and has owned a sport bike, Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a 2003 Corvette. Both brothers are avid snowmobilers. For their business and personal travels, Alan flies an Eclipse 500 SE and Dale a Cirrus SR22T.
There have been rumors of personal controversy between the brothers since Alan's departure from Cirrus in 2009. Alan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2012 that he had not spoken to Dale in several years, but would not discuss the reasons why on record.
In March 2014, Alan brought Cirrus to court over a violated non-disparagement clause involving a 2011 interview with former Cirrus CEO Brent Wouters, in which Wouters allegedly criticized Alan's ability to lead a large company during times of "economic downturn". A Minnesota jury awarded Alan $10 million in lost profits and out-of-pocket expenses. Cirrus appealed the verdict and the state Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in a 2-1 decision, stating that the calculation of damages was "too speculative" and failed to demonstrate the amount to a "reasonable degree of certainty". The Minnesota Supreme Court denied to hear Alan's appeal and the lawsuit was settled in December 2015.
Alan was married to Sara Dougherty from 2002 until their divorce in 2016. Together with his first wife, Patti Graves, whom he was married to from 1987 to 1999, he has two daughters: Kathryn (born 1989) and Sarah (born 1993).
Dale has been married to Patricia Meyer since 1984 and together they have two sons: Ryan (born 1988) and Blake (born 1992).
Dale said in a 2008 interview that one of his main incentives behind co-designing the Cirrus SR20 was that it had to be an airplane that Patricia "would want to fly in more than drive", which helped change the direction of the company in the 1990s.
The Klapmeier brothers have been referenced several times in national articles and columns such as The Atlantic and The New York Times by journalist, author and former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, James Fallows. They were also a central theme in Fallow's 2001 book, Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Travel.
Aviation communities have often compared the Klapmeier brothers to the Wright brothers, giving them the nickname, "modern-day-Wright-brothers". Some say this gave more public sentiment to Cirrus' 2003 release of the "Centennial Edition", an SR22 that celebrated 100 years of flight with a mural of the Wright Flyer coating the tail of the plane. The story of Cirrus has also garnered comparisons to Apple Inc., while Alan and Dale have been called "aviation’s equivalent of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak".
The first time the Klapmeiers gained national exposure was in 1998 when radio commentator Paul Harvey spoke positively about Cirrus and the SR20 on his syndicated program. In the 2004 vice-presidential debate, former Vice President Dick Cheney indirectly mentioned the Klapmeier brothers, calling them and Cirrus "a great success story". The Klapmeiers have also been praised multiple times for their efforts by former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. After a visit to the Duluth Cirrus factory in 2003, Pawlenty thanked Alan and Dale for their foresight in creating a new aircraft, bringing it to the market, and the associated risks they took to make it happen. The late 18-term Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar was a strong supporter of the Klapmeiers as well, and was one of the main proponents behind bringing Cirrus to Duluth, Minnesota—along with Cirrus Vice President of Business Administration Bill King and former Duluth Mayor Gary Doty.
In 2003, Alan and Dale donated a fully operational SR20 to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, as a learning tool for school students. Ten years later, Dale donated an SR22 to Minneapolis-based AirSpace Minnesota, a STEM learning center that gives young students the chance to experience aviation firsthand.
The Klapmeier brothers received the Living Legends of Aviation award in 2007 at a ceremony in Beverly Hills, California. Among the attendees that year were aerospace pioneers and celebrities such as Bob Hoover, Buzz Aldrin, Steve Fossett, Michael Dorn, Patty Wagstaff, Cliff Robertson, Chuck Yeager, and many more.
Alan worked closely with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2012 to reach a financial incentive agreement that would bring the Kestrel Aircraft manufacturing and assembly plants to Superior, Wisconsin. Back then it was forecasted that the company would employ around 300 workers by 2014, and an additional 300 by 2016, the most new jobs in Superior since World War II. In response to local criticism, Alan later indicated that Kestrel's resulting lack of economic and developmental progress "never would have happened if the state [of Wisconsin] had come through with the financing on time."
Besides Lance Neibauer of Lancair, who delivered nearly 600 Columbia-series aircraft, the Klapmeier brothers are the only kit-makers to ever successfully transition into the design and production of certified aircraft. In both separate cases, the EAA served as a crucial "training ground" for Neibauer and the Klapmeiers to stimulate their ambitions.