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John Stafford: Building a Hybrid-Electric, Unmanned Heliplane

The leader of Aerovel’s avionics design team, John Stafford, gravitates to small, informal companies

5 min read
Photo of John Stafford
Photo: Brian Smale

When John Stafford was growing up in Altoona, Pa., in the 1960s, a family friend invited him to help fix up a 1957 MG convertible. Stafford threw himself into the project, assembling a complete wiring harness for the car by hand. Not bad for a 13-year-old.

John Stafford

In gratitude, the car’s owner allowed his young assistant to drive the reconditioned roadster on local backcountry roads, and Stafford soon decided he wanted to make his living designing and driving race cars. Like more than a few young men coming of age at the time, he imagined himself as the next Bruce McLaren, the famed New Zealander who was then building and racing Formula One cars.

No, this isn’t one of those straightforward stories about a wunderkind who goes on to realize his adolescent dreams by dint of his single-minded focus. There’s nothing straightforward about Stafford’s career path, which has more twists and turns than the track at Le Mans.

For example, right now, Stafford is helping to construct a composite-body hybrid-electric vehicle. It’s as sophisticated as any Formula One racer, but it’s not a car—it’s an unmanned aerial vehicle that takes off and lands like a helicopter but otherwise flies like a plane. And it’s no big deal that the thing can’t burn rubber: Stafford long ago outgrew his ambitions to become a professional race-car driver and designer, when he switched his major at college from mechanical to electrical engineering. But in 1977—just two courses shy of an EE degree—he quit.

“I got tired of being in school,” says Stafford. “People were offering me jobs, and I had a pretty independent outlook on the world, and I just thought that [a bachelor's degree] didn’t matter.”

As it turns out, it didn’t. For the past 35 years, Stafford has done both mechanical and electrical engineering in a variety of industries. Along the way, he’s developed a fondness for small, informal companies, where managerial tasks are few and the focus is on solving technical problems with your own two hands.

Stafford’s current employer,Aerovel Corp., is so laid back that its 10 or so employees work out of what was until recently the home of one of the company’s two founders, located near White Salmon, Wash. Nestled next to a private airfield in the hills above the scenic Columbia River Gorge, which straddles the border between Oregon and Washington, the spacious former residence includes two separate two-car garages and a large sunken living room, now used as a general staging area. A broken-down single-engine plane rests in a nearby barn. An aging dog serves as receptionist of sorts, barking to announce the arrival of visitors.

From what used to be a back bedroom, Stafford leads the company’s avionics design team, although he does mechanical work as well, sometimes using the well-equipped machine shop in his home. “We don’t really have titles,” says Stafford, which is fitting given the scope of problems he’s handed. “I thought my first project in the door would be to design avionics, yet I spent most of the first three months testing rotor blades and working on a transmission to drive them,” he says.

Aerovel’s UAV, the Flexrotor, looks more or less like a small conventional plane, but it sure doesn’t fly like one. It lifts off vertically using the oversized prop on its nose and two small, motor-driven props on its wingtips to balance the counterrotation. Once airborne, the 3-meter-wingspan flier tips over and flies horizontally, supported by its slender wings. Stafford and his colleagues kicked off their testing of the craft by strapping it to the top of a Jeep—“a poor man’s wind tunnel,” as he calls it. They’re now flight-testing the design.

Although Aerovel has a grassy runway at its doorstep, Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit commercial UAVs from being flown in public airspace without special waivers. So Stafford and his colleagues conduct flight tests at a Navy bombing range about 160 kilometers away. There, Aerovel’s still-very-experimental vehicle can’t hurt anything on the ground should something go awry. But it’s a longish drive to the bombing range, so sometimes Stafford and the other Aerovelians bend the rules. “Believe it or not, we have free flown in the sunken living room for helicopter experiments,” he says.

Developing a vehicle that flies like both a helicopter and an airplane is more than a little challenging. One issue is that the fuel sloshes when the fuselage rotates 90 degrees. That’s the problem the engineers are kicking around on a recent Thursday afternoon while gathered for lunch at company headquarters—which is how Aerovel conducts most staff meetings. One of the mechanical engineers demonstrates a fuel-tank design he’s mocked up using 2-liter soda bottles. Stafford and others scrutinize the plumbing, then take off on a wide-ranging discussion of how vacuum leaks in the tank could be detected, how race-car fuel bladders work, and how nice a job the company’s carbon-composite fabrication guru did making the veggie burgers.

Stafford’s had his fill of stuffy corporate settings, having worked briefly at Bell Laboratories, in Murray Hill, N.J. just after leaving college and for three years during the mid-1980s at KeyTronic, then a fast-growing computer equipment manufacturer in Spokane, Wash. “I was managing the electronic controls portion of the company’s automation group and had about 10 people reporting to me and no longer was able to do any hands-on design. I spent my day doing e-mail,” laments Stafford.

So in 1986 he quit and joined MSM Design [PDF]—a company in the Idaho woods that had up to that point been a single-person outfit. “One of my primary jobs was to keep the woodstove burning,” he says. At MSM, Stafford helped build custom motion-picture cameras, including the ones Imax used to film Space Station 3D (2002). “That company eventually grew to 10 or 12 people, which was a nice size,” he says. But when the firm’s owners retired, they scaled back their operations, leaving Stafford without a job. At the time, shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, engineering positions were in short supply, particularly in rural Idaho, so Stafford took a job with UAV maker Insitu, in Bingen, Wash.

Insitu, a relatively small company when he joined, grew rapidly as a supplier of UAVs for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. But working for what was becoming a large military contractor wasn’t all that appealing for an engineer who had shunned big corporations throughout his career. Fortunately for Stafford, in 2006 the original founders of Insitu, Tad McGeer and Andy von Flotow, started a new UAV company, Aerovel, and recruited Stafford as employee No. 4.

Leaving a secure position for the unknowns of a start-up has obvious downsides, particularly as you approach retirement age. (At 57, Stafford is Aerovel’s oldest employee.) But with the gray hair comes wisdom about what it is that makes you love a job. For Stafford, it’s spending the workday tackling technical problems instead of managing subordinates or fussing with corporate bureaucracy. “So I once again left a large company to join a backwoods skunkworks,” says Stafford. “I’m much happier.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Avionics Maven.”

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