Even when learning to fly, Ken Krueger was already interested in aircraft design. Interview by Yayeri van Baarsen
How did you get into aviation?
Both my parents were pilots – my mother was pregnant with me when she learned to fly – and being exposed to aviation from a very early age, fostered my fascination. I learned more through building and flying model aircraft as a child. Even today, I still wonder sometimes how something that big can be carried by air.
How did your flight training go?
I started training at 16, in California’s High Desert region. We had very good flying weather and lots of open space, so I learned a lot about flying in the mountains and aircraft performance. Bishop was a large airport, leftover from WWII, and almost deserted. There was no control tower within 100 miles and I usually had the traffic pattern to myself.
My instructor was a friend of my father who was kind enough to pass his knowledge onto the next generation. For me, the most challenging aspect was to be aware of many things simultaneously. You have to keep your focus constantly moving, inside and outside the cockpit.
Tell us about your solo?
It was a nice calm morning, and I felt ready – the flight itself was uneventful. My mother, who was watching, was in tears – for her, it was such a big deal. That’s what I love most about flying, being able to share your achievements and frustrations. No matter the age or experience, there’s a feeling of camaraderie between pilots.
Back then, I was already interested in aircraft design. The homebuilt aircraft revolution had just started, which was inspiring. I think flying and designing complement each other very well. In the early days, most aircraft designers were also pilots, which made aviation’s rapid development possible. As Igor Sikorsky said: “At that time (1909) the chief engineer was almost always the chief test pilot as well. That had the fortunate result of eliminating poor engineering early in aviation.”
What’s the most challenging aspect to designing an aircraft?
Balancing simplicity, functionality and good looks. You need to keep it simple in order to keep the costs down, yet you have to make it nice looking with good performance. With kitplanes, you don’t have to count the building hours, but these costs add on with factory-made aircraft. Achieving a good looking aircraft that flies well and is easy to build isn’t easy, but I think we struck a good balance with the Vashon Ranger.
“I want aircraft to be used as platforms to bring people together”
Any new projects since Ranger?
I’ve been working on some new designs of my own; the SKY-4 Cloudtrekker, a four-seat high-wing, and the SKY-6, a low-wing two-seater. These are aircraft the world needs. A Cessna 172 costs about $400,000 – far too much money. With easy transfer of information and computer-controlled machines we can build these aircraft in any place on the globe, which provides development and educational opportunities. In the USA, aircraft are toys. In remote parts of the world, however, they can be lifesavers.
And your hopes for the future?
I want aircraft to be used as tools, and as platforms to bring people together. For me, working alongside others is the most satisfying part. The person running the machine that’s building the aircraft parts has a wealth of knowledge that he’s willing to share if you’re willing to listen. This team aspect is so important. It might sound cliché, but one person alone can only achieve so much. Together, we can achieve so much more.
Is there another aircraft design that you admire?
Pipistrel. I’m amazed at the way they have grown over the years, innovating, producing electric aircraft and now cargo-carrying UAVs. I’ve always admired them for their vision and their great team of people.
What does flying mean to you?
Bringing together the technical aspects and experiencing the world. When test flying here in Washington, I am focused on the task at hand, but there are moments where I look out over the snow-capped mountains, the ocean with its islands and the trees below. Science, physics and the world we live in, when they come together, that’s magical.
Former Head of Design at Van’s Aircraft and designer of the Vashon Ranger, Ken Krueger is currently designing aircraft the world needs at his company, Sky Designs Engineering.