Tony Fox: The Man Who Would Have Been King
By Elliot Borin, Air TaxiFlights.com
ATF: And then what happened?
Tony Fox: Then? What happened then was Bill gave me a check for $250,000 as a down payment on the first Foxjet.
ATF: Seriously, what was the first real step after you tossed out that remark about making a six-passenger, efficient jet that could access regional and community airports?
Tony Fox: Williams Research (now Williams, International) was building small, high-bypass turbofan engines for the airlines to use as auxiliary engines to run air conditioners and for the Pentagon to use in unmanned drones and Tomahawk missiles. The engines being built for the airlines were very small and very light, but they only developed about 500 pounds of thrust, which wasn't enough for the plane I had in mind. On the other hand, based on specs -- which was all I had to go on at that time -- the engines Williams was making for the Defense Department seemed a perfect match.
I went up to Sam Williams' plant in Michigan but they wouldn't let me past the reception desk. So I went home and talked to (former vice-president) Hubert Humphrey, who'd been my home state senator for decades, and was still politically influential back in the '70s. I told him what I wanted to do and how I was trying to launch an aircraft company in Minnesota.
I said I thought I could build a commercially successful jet around a small turbofan engine and asked him to see if he could get me an appointment with Sam Williams.
Not terribly surprisingly, I got the appointment, went up there, talked to them about the aircraft, and they said "Are you sure you can build an airplane around this engine?" I said I at least wanted to try it and they said "go ahead." About a year later I took the airframe up there and they loved it and agreed to give me an engine core to experiment with mounting systems and fittings and so on. It didn't have a starter or other accessories because it hadn't been modified for use in a passenger aircraft yet, but I took it and the airframe to the show in Oshkosh.
I also showed it to Bill Lear and he flipped over it. That's when he gave me $250,000 for position number one on the waiting list. At the time, that was 50 percent of the estimated final price. We also estimated that with fuel at the current price -- 56 cents a gallon -- the direct operating cost would be nine cents a mile, excluding upkeep and maintenance. Shortly after that, Bill and I made a 45-minute film talking about the future of the aircraft and the industry in general.
ATF: Could you tell us a bit about that first prototype?
Tony Fox: It was designed to fly at about 40,000 feet with a maximum speed of 350Kts, land and takeoff on a 2500-foot runway and be able to skip over a 50-foot tall object at the end of that 2500 feet.
Since the Foxjet, as a very small corporate jet, was different from anything that had ever come before, we knew we had to make it as comfortable as larger corporate jets ... at least as comfortable and more comfortable if possible.
To construct a small fuselage that people could enter and exit without almost having to crawl on their hands and knees and sit in without feeling crowding or uncomfortable, I knew we had to reclaim the space usually wasted on a middle aisle. To do this, I patented what I call "zip-rail" seats, which roll right up to the fuselage door, which is only seven inches off the tarmac, then roll back into place and lock.
ATF: Can you explain that a bit more and will that kind of seating be available on the Foxjet II?
Tony Fox: Yes, zip rail seats are standard on the II and they are responsible for its outstanding seating space to fuselage width ratio. With our swiveling, slide-rail seats you sit down with your feet on the outside of the clamshell door, swing your legs in, push a button, slide your seat into place and a light comes on and tells you it's locked. Everything glides back to its proper row after a passenger is in the seat, there's even room for the co-pilot to get out of his seat anytime he wants without disturbing the captain.
You can also snap the seats out very easily and use the space to hold cargo.
ATF: Getting back to the Foxjet timeline for a moment. Is it safe to say the crowds at Oshkosh were impressed when you got up there with your sleek little airframe and the Williams micro-jet engine?
Tony Fox: People were so impressed that one of them ripped off the engine.
We had our exhibit on a stage in a big tent and I kept the engine out on display during the day and locked it up in the cockpit after the show closed. Come to open up one day and somebody had smashed the cockpit lock and stolen the engine. First thing I did was call the police, the second was to call Sam Williams who got, to put it mildly, a little excited because the engine had been financed by the Defense Department and, to put it in Sam's own words, which I still remember clearly, "If this gets out they'll kill us.".
Anyway, I hired private detectives to augment the local police and a couple of days went by without any clues whatsoever turning up. Than one afternoon a guy said "Have you looked under the stage?" and so we did and there it was ... that suggestion kind of saved us because no one else had thought of looking at a hiding place that obvious. I figure whoever stole it was probably planning to go back and get it toward the end of the show when everybody was moving out and there'd be a lot of confusion.
ATF: You mentioned that your initial design goal was to produce a small high-comfort, low-operating-cost corporate jet. Did you, back than in the late '70s, envision an air taxi role for the Foxjet?
Tony Fox: We not only envisioned using the Foxjet as an air taxi, we started a company to deliver that service. Flying on a major airline in those days was, of course, nowhere near the horror it is now, but it was still far from a picnic most of the time. You had the long commute to the airport, standing in line to buy a ticket or check your bags, not being able to get the seat you wanted, not being able to fly anywhere close to your ultimate destination, not being able to return when you wanted.
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