Money is a false motivator to James Raisbeck. For him, it’s always been about designing good products that improve airplanes. From there, he figures, those products will sell themselves—if they’re properly priced.
There must be something to his philosophy, because aircraft modification kits designed by Raisbeck Engineering have a reputation for making a good airplane even better. Take the venerable Beechcraft King Air, for example. Of the 7,000 or so King Airs built since the first one rolled off the line in 1964, approximately 6,200 are still flying. Among those, just under 4,000—or roughly two thirds—have at least one Raisbeck system installed, said the company founder.
Even more impressive is that Raisbeck Engineering’s aircraft systems have collectively logged millions of flight hours, yet have never been the subject of an airworthiness directive, an FAA service bulletin, or an adjudicated causative crash.
“My greatest satisfaction is improving the productivity and performance of an airplane that is owned by a lot of folks, where they appreciate the improvements,” Raisbeck, 79, told Skies in a recent interview. “You could have all the marketing and salespeople in the world but you’re not going to sell anything if you don’t care about your customer, and your product had better work!”
Indeed, Raisbeck Engineering has improved the performance of some of the most popular aircraft ever made. Besides the King Air, the list includes various Learjet models, the Boeing 737, and the Airbus A320.
Raisbeck himself has always been mechanically inclined, although his first love was the automobile, not the airplane. That wouldn’t change until he spent four years in the United States Air Force as a flight engineer. When he emerged from service in 1958, the Whitefish Bay, Wis., native enrolled in aeronautical engineering at Indiana’s Purdue University. Upon graduation in 1961, Raisbeck went to work for the Boeing Airplane Company as a research aerodynamicist and program manager. He was hired by Jack Wimpress, who was then the company’s chief aerodynamicist, and who later became the young Raisbeck’s mentor.
“I have such great respect for him. I don’t know what he saw in me, but I sure saw something in him!” recounted Raisbeck. “He’s 89 now, and he has never said anything to me that I don’t remember. In fact, we recently walked around the 787 [Dreamliner] at the Museum of Flight. We did a one-hour walkaround, and I learned from Jack Wimpress once again.”
Raisbeck worked hard at Boeing. He never took a holiday until he was promoted to a managerial position and was told to take a month’s leave in September 1969, in order to use up his accrued vacation time. “I just had airplanes on my mind,” he laughed. “I didn’t want to take a vacation.”
While on his mandatory sabbatical from Boeing, Raisbeck found another job as president and CEO of Robertson Aircraft Corporation, a small company with “12 employees, no work in the hangar, no money in the bank, and with $64,000 owing in back income taxes.”
With that, he transitioned from an engineering role to a management role, and the first lesson he learned is “never be in that financial position again—whatever energy it takes to avoid it is worth it!”
In the four years he spent at Robertson, Raisbeck was involved in designing the Robertson short takeoff and landing systems for single- and twin-engine Cessnas and Pipers. In 1973, he struck out on his own, founding the Raisbeck Group, which later morphed into Raisbeck Engineering in 1982. In its early days, the company was acclaimed for developing the supercritical wing for the Rockwell Sabreliner and the Mark II and Mark IV wing systems for the Learjet.
At one point, Raisbeck had his private pilot’s licence, but he hasn’t flown alone since 1965. He is realistic about the experience. “I scared myself pretty bad, and thought, ‘You know, Raisbeck, this isn’t where you ought to be. You need to be on the ground designing them instead of trying to fly them.’”
He also told Skies that his professional accomplishments can be attributed to what he’s learned from his mistakes.
“I think the biggest mistake I ever made was to think this company would be better if it was bigger,” he said candidly. “In 1979, we had over 700 employees at Raisbeck, and today we have 24. We had eight-and-a-half acres at Boeing Field, our own machine shop, metal shop—we had it all. But it wasn’t cohesive. I regrouped the company, and when it came out the other side it was Raisbeck Engineering. We took the consulting approach, and knowing when to bring in the experts has been key to our success.”
These days, James Raisbeck is down to working only 50 hours per week. He arrives at the office around 7:30 a.m. and leaves at 4 p.m., without taking a lunch. “I’m just a busy guy and having a great time at it,” he said.
As he gets older, Raisbeck has focused on mentoring others. “I’m trying to be a latter-day Jack Wimpress to the folks that work here, and to others at the aviation high school.” [The charitable Raisbeck Foundation is a major supporter of Raisbeck Aviation High School, located on the grounds of the Seattle Museum of Flight. It is one of the only college preparatory schools in the U.S. to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics within the context of a specific industry.]
Raisbeck and his wife, Sherry, have been big supporters of education, the arts, and healthcare research. The Raisbeck Foundation has gifted more than $20 million since 1996, with more to be distributed in the future.
“Education is where it’s at,” said Raisbeck emphatically. “None of us can be everything. If you’re lucky enough to be good at one thing, and get the corresponding education, that’s a real bonus in most people’s lives. I was very fortunate to find aeronautical design.”