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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

American Builds His 'Flying Tractor'

For MTThe plane is called a"flying tractor," because it is outfitted with Chevy truck tires.
When American entrepreneur Glen Gordon decided to manufacture and sell his innovative "flying tractor," Russia was about the last place he thought he'd build it.

But over the last three years, Gordon and engineers from a young company based at Moscow's Khrunichev space center have struck up an improbable U.S.-Russian business alliance that is bearing fruit this fall in the form of 30 Russian-made Sherpa airplanes. This first shipment of planes, able to take off and land on a strip of land the length of a hockey rink, is on its way to the United States for sale. Hundreds more are to follow.

"We were told dozens of times: 'You'll get over there and the Russians will steal your project,' " Gordon said in an interview during a recent visit to Moscow.

He admits he was wary in 1998 when representatives from Khrunichev-Aviatekhnika asked if they could photograph the prototype Sherpa he was flying at an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. But he consented, and the Russians proceeded to tell him they wanted to manufacture his unusual plane -- in Moscow.

It took some convincing, but Gordon and Byron Root, his American partner and co-designer of the Sherpa prototype, agreed to the Russians' proposal.

A team of top aeronautic engineers began work on the plane three years ago at the Khrunichev plant in western Moscow, where the Soviets made spy planes and bombers in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, churned out rockets and ballistic missiles at the height of the Cold War and built the space station Mir in the 1980s.

A native of Portland, Oregon, Gordon said he has encountered none of the corruption or organized crime he would have expected from reading papers back home. He trusts his partners completely and delights in having sealed the deal with Khrunichev-Aviatekhnika with a handshake.

Khrunichev-Aviatekhnika was spun off from the flagship of the country's space industry, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, in 1997 as a private aviation technology company.

The firm furnishes Boeing's Moscow research center with 60 engineers and has a few other projects in the works. The company has financed the development and production of the Sherpa on its own and general director Yury Pervushin said the flying tractor ultimately will either make or break his company.

To date, Sherpa Worldwide Inc., a U.S.-registered company that Gordon heads, and Khrunichev-Aviatekhnika have operated under a buyer-seller agreement, with Sherpa purchasing completed plane kits from Khrunichev-Aviatekhnika. Gordon and his team then assemble and market the planes in the United States.

Gordon says he dubbed the plane a "flying tractor" because it is equipped with 42-inch Chevy truck tires. It can land in plowed fields and can carry up to 1,360 kilograms of weight.

The Sherpa may be useful for everything from gold mining in Siberia to emergency medical flights in the United States, Gordon said. One of the four models has room for two gurneys plus a medical team – and it costs a fraction of the price of a helicopter.

Three of the four Sherpa models are now on sale. The five-seat T-411 costs as little as $90,000, while the 10-seat, fully certified C-700T sells for as much as $895,000. Engines are not included.

The plane is an old tube-and-fabric design, and it takes its name from Mongolian guides who trekked the Himalayas burdened with heavy packs. The most rugged model can carry 1 1/2 tons of cargo.

"That's more weight than you want to put in your damn pickup. This isn't a little play toy," Gordon said, speaking in the lobby of the Proton Business Hotel near Khrunichev.

The hotel is named for the Proton rocket, which has become the Khrunichev space center's workhorse over the past 12 years of reduced state spending on the space industry. Despite commercial launches of the Proton, Khrunichev struggles to stay afloat. Spinning off private companies like Khrunichev-Aviatekhnika that take advantage of Khrunichev's facilities and intellectual capital is one scheme to bring in revenues.

Gordon is convinced the Sherpa venture will be a commercial success and he says he will make Khrunichev-Aviatekhnika a full partner with a 50 percent stake in Sherpa Worldwide once sales take off.

He said the engineers were skeptical that a Western buyer was willing to split revenues with them.

Today Pervushin, the sole member of the Khrunichev-Aviatekhnika team with a background in business, says Gordon's promise of a 50 percent stake is important, but he is cautious in his optimism. He cited an old Russian saying: "Don't divvy up the fur of an unkilled bear."

If U.S. sales are successful, Gordon and Khrunichev-Aviatekhnika plan to launch a Moscow-based company that will sell the plane in this part of the world.

The first models of the Sherpa were shipped as kits to the United States in July and went on display at the Oshkosh air show where Gordon first met his partners five years ago.

For Gordon, a self-employed businessman who lived through the Cold War, the Sherpa has become as much about U.S.-Russian friendship and being a part of Russia's transition to capitalism as it is about making money.

On their first trip to Moscow less than three years ago, Gordon and Root came with low expectations, asking only for a hotel room where they could take a hot shower, and bringing along three suitcases stuffed with food and bottled water.

These days, after six visits, one would be hard-pressed to find a more enthusiastic advocate for doing business in Russia than Gordon, who breaks into a broad smile as he talks about the friendships he has forged with the engineers. His eyes sparkle with excitement as he describes their clever design innovations. "The wing is a work of art," he says, adding that "these guys are working their tails off."