Born in a garage, but now all the world is a market for Zenair Limited: A look at the Cold War era designs of Christophe Jean Heintz, Part 1

Christophe Jean Heintz at the controls of the Heintz Zenith. Anon., “–.” Aviation magazine international, 15 to 31 August 1970, cover.

Hello, my reading friend, hello. Yours truly would like to touch on this day the history of one of the giants in the design of homebuilt aircraft in Canada, if not North America. I will do this through a photograph which adorned the cover of the 15 to 31 August 1970 issue of an excellent French biweekly magazine which has since disappeared, Aviation magazine international.

This story had its origins in a decision taken in France in the early 1970s. This being said (typed?), yours truly prefers to start this story at its very beginnings, in November 1938, with the birth, still in France, of Christophe Jean “Chris” Heintz. Creative and inventive from his childhood, the young man took engineering courses at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich / École polytechnique fédérale de Zurich / Politecnico federale di Zurigo, in Zurich, Switzerland. After graduating in 1960, Heintz returned to France and worked for the Société nationale de constructions aéronautiques Sud-Aviation for some time, where he contributed to the preliminary concepts for a supersonic airliner which, many years later, became the Aérospatiale / British Aircraft Concorde.

Heintz subsequently worked as chief aeronautical engineer at the Société des Avions Pierre Robin. Over the years, he designed several very successful light / private aircraft. In his spare time, Heintz designed and fabricated a homebuilt aircraft, the Zenith, an anagram of his name, which flew in March 1970. His employer apparently made certain premises and materials available to Heintz during the fabrication of the aircraft, which lasted about 18 months by the way. The engineer soon sold a few series of plans for this single-engine 2-seat machine.

Unable to accept certain technical decisions and / or deeming the aircraft certification process in France too complicated, Heintz quit his job after signing an agreement prohibiting him from designing or manufacturing aircraft in Europe. He thought of settling in Brazil but soon changed his mind. The number of immigrants accepted by the United States being very limited at the time, this brilliant engineer and his family arrived in Canada in 1973. The Zenith accompanied them.

Heintz began to explore the possibility of designing new homebuilt aircraft that would be simple, robust, and easy to assemble while working for a well-known aircraft manufacturer, de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited of Downsview, Ontario, a subsidiary of the British aerospace giant Hawker Siddeley Group Limited mentioned in several issues in our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2018.

Somewhat annoyed / disappointed by the federal government’s takeover of this aircraft manufacturer in June 1974, Heintz, a staunch defender of free enterprise, left his job. He decided to launch the production of kits of the Zenith, renamed CH-200 Zenith / Zenith CH-200. Heintz may have founded a small firm at that time, Zenith Aviation Limited. Realising that he could not do everything alone, the engineer joined forces with a passionate aviation machinist, Gérald “Gerry” Boudreau, and founded Zenair Limited even before the end of 1974. Heintz thought of establishing himself in Sudbury, Ontario, but eventually gave up on this idea. He abandoned the garage at his home in Richmond Hill, Ontario, however, as well as that at Boudreau’s home, in Bolton, Ontario, in 1976, in favour of a small factory located nearby, in Nobleton, Ontario.

In 1974, the Experimental Aircraft Association of Canada (EAAC), an organisation unrelated to the American Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), awarded the Zenith the award for best new homebuilt aircraft.

In 1976, a small team from Zenair traveled to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to participate in the EAA Annual Convention and Fly-In, the largest air show in the world, organised by said EAA. Fifty inexperienced volunteers assembled a Zenith kit under the dumbfounded eyes of spectators and inspectors from the Canadian Department of Transport and the Federal Aviation Administration, the body responsible for civil aviation in the United States mentioned in a few issues of our you know what since June 2018. Having had the aircraft approved by said inspectors, Heintz took to the air aboard it after barely 8 days – a day earlier than expected. This performance attracted a lot of attention. The engineer allowed himself the luxury of returning to Canada aboard this “8-day wonder.” Heintz apparently sold it to a young woman fascinated by flight.

You will remember, of course, that both the EAA, the largest light aviation organisation in the world, and the EAA Annual Convention and Fly-In, today’s EAA Airventure Oshkosh, were mentioned in several / many issues of our you know what since September 2017. The EAAC, for its part, was mentioned in a November 2019 issue of this same you know what.

Zenair delivered its last Zenith kit around 1991-92. Some of these kits went far. Let us mention for example the Zenith completed in New Zealand by Ewen Nicoll in 1982 at the latest. This aircraft won the grand champion prize of the 1982 edition of the annual meeting of the NZ Amateur Aircraft Constructors Association Incorporated, today’s Sports Aircraft Association NZ Incorporated.

Over the years, several technical schools fabricated Zeniths as part of various training programs. In the summer of 1984, for example, 5 young unemployed Irishmen started building a kit with financial support from a government agency, the Youth Employment Agency, or Gníomhaireacht fostaíchta don aos óg. This Zenith flew in April 1985. Heintz went to Ireland to take part in a press conference to that effect. The young people soon received job offers from local firms.

I note that the Canadian and American civil aircraft registers mentioned approximately 40 and 5 (airworthy?) Zeniths in 2020.

Heintz subsequently designed a single-seat aircraft, the Mono-Zenith, or CH-100 Mono-Z / Mono-Z CH-100, his first Canadian project, in the hope of an order from the Air Cadet League of Canada, another group mentioned a few times in our you know what, and this since July 2018. A prototype flew in May 1975. Another aircraft having been chosen, Zenair offered the Mono-Z in kit form. The production of these ended around 1988.

I note that the Canadian civil aircraft register mentioned approximately 5 (airworthy?) Mono-Zs in 2020.

Heintz subsequently designed the 3-seat Tri-Zenith, or CH-300 Tri-Z / Tri-Z CH-300, whose prototype flew in July 1977, even if, at that time, Canadian regulations did not allow transportation of 3 people in an amateur-built aircraft. This aircraft was featured in the 1977 edition of the EAA Annual Convention and Fly-In. Zenair delivered the last of several hundred Tri-Z kits around 1992.

I note that the Canadian and American civil aircraft registers mentioned approximately 45 and 5 (airworthy?) Tri-Zs in 2020.

The Zenair Tri-Zenith / CH-300 Tri-Z / Tri-Z CH-300 piloted by Robin "Red" Morris during his nonstop flight between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. CASM, negative number 26919.

The Zenair Tri-Zenith / CH-300 Tri-Z / Tri-Z CH-300 piloted by Robin "Red" Morris during his nonstop flight between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. CASM, negative number 26919.

Heintz and Zenair hit the headlines in July 1978 when a former Canadian Armed Forces fighter pilot, Robin “Red” Morris, flew non-stop between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the controls of a Tri-Z built for this purpose. This journey of 22 hours 43 minutes 40 seconds constituted

- the first non-stop trans-Canada flight made by a homebuilt aircraft,

- the first non-stop trans-Canada flight made by a single-engine aircraft,

- the first non-stop trans-Canada flight made by a single pilot, and

- the longest non-stop flight made by a Canadian civil aircraft in its class.

Morris said he was deeply disappointed by the lack of cooperation from the Ministry of Transport in Ottawa. He has to fight for 4 months to get permission to fly from coast to coast.

Morris traveled to Oshkosh in 1978 to show his aircraft to aviation enthusiasts who visited the EAA Annual Convention and Fly-In. The jury examining the aircraft awarded him an honourable mention.

Also in 1978, EAA presented Heintz with its most prestigious award, the Dr. August Raspet Memorial Award, for its invaluable contribution to the progress of homebuilding.

It should be noted that the amazing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, includes the Tri-Z piloted by Morris.

It should also be noted that the aforementioned Boudreau flew to South America and the Caribbean in 1982 and 1983 at the controls of a Tri-Z – a first for a homebuilt aircraft registered in Canada.

Heintz began around 1979, or even 1977, the development of a four-seater, the CH-400, which he hoped to produce in small series. Zenair abandoned the costly certification process for this aircraft in 1980 due to the economic problems which affected the North American economy at the time. The firm resumed work around 1982. Presented at an air show held in the spring of 1983 in Windsor, Ontario, and flight tested the following year, the CH-400 was not put in production.

An economical single-seater, the Mini-Zenith, or CH-50 Mini-Z / Mini-Z CH-50, took to the air in 1979. It was seemingly not offered to Zenair’s large clientele, however. A single-seater designed for aerobatic flight, the Acro-Zenith, or CH-150 Acro-Z, flew in May 1980. The Super Acro-Zenith, or CH-180 Super Acro-Z / Acro-Z CH-180, followed around 1981.

I note that the Canadian and American civil aircraft registers mentioned fewer than 10 (airworthy?) Acro-Zs in 2020.

Although Zenair is known throughout the world for its homebuilt aircraft, it does sometimes go beyond this field of activity, however. And yes, I invite you to read a brief digression.

Gliding did not / does not hold a very important place on the Canadian aeronautical scene. In 1968, for example, fewer than 130 gliders were registered in the country. With very few exceptions, all of these aircraft were / are foreign in design. One such exception emerged in Alberta. David J. “Dave” Marsden then taught at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta. This glider enthusiast designed a high-performance 2-seat glider. Made with the help of 2 friends, the Gemini first flew in October 1973. Over the years, Marsden made many impressive flights aboard this aircraft.

In 1977, while in the United Kingdom at the Cranfield Institute of Technology, now Cranfield University, Marsden acquired a not too successful overall experimental single-seat glider, the Operation Sigma. Returning to Canada in 1979, he modified the aircraft and greatly improved its performance.

Drawing on its experience with the Gemini and Sigma, Marsden designed a high-performance single-seat glider. Zenair fabricated the wings of this UAVG-15 Spectre – UAVG meaning University of Alberta Variable Geometry. Shop personnel from the Department of Mechanical Engineering fabricated the rest of the aircraft. The Spectre flew in November 1983. Marsden and Zenair briefly thought of producing some examples. This project was soon to be abandoned. End of digression. You are welcome.

Aware of the discussions taking place in the United States concerning the development of new economical light / private aircraft, Heintz designed an economical version of the CH-200 Zenith around 1983. A prototype, the CH-60, flew around June 1984. It was produced under the name CH-600 Zodiac / Zodiac CH-600. Heintz oversaw the assembly of an aircraft by a team of homebuilders at the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication, or Expo 86, held in Vancouver. This work was spread over a period of 12 days.

A modified version of the aircraft, the CH-601 Zodiac / Zodiac CH-601, flew in October 1990.

Popular Mechanics, a well-known American monthly magazine, was so impressed by the Zodiac that it chose this aircraft for promote homebuilding in the United States. Two articles published in 1997 described the process by which one of the magazine’s editorial staff assembled a Zodiac kit.

Between approximately 1983 and 2010, Zenair delivered more than a thousand examples of the Zodiac kit to pilots from more than 60 countries. Sets of plans for the CH-601 Zodiac were still available in 2020.

I note that the Canadian and American civil aircraft registers mentioned approximately 110 and 190 (airworthy?) Zodiacs in 2020.

In the early 1980s, Heintz designed a training version of the Zenith, the CH-250 Zenith / Zenith CH-250, to meet the needs of the air forces of most of the countries of the Communidad Andina, namely Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. The Fuerza Aérea Colombiana deemed the aircraft excellent, for example, but the country’s financial and political problems made any order impossible. As a result, the South American purchase project, as well as another one, concerning the Força Aérea Portuguesa, went up in smoke. This being said (typed?), Zenair delivered kits to private pilots until around 1992.

I note that the Canadian and American civil aircraft registers mentioned approximately 20 and 5 (airworthy?) CH-250s in 2020.

Zenair entered the market for ultralight aircraft delivered in airworthy condition in 1983. Designed and fabricated in approximately 6 weeks, towards the end of the winter of 1982-83, the Zipper was fitted with folding wings – a rather unusual characteristic which made it possible to tow it behind an automobile, in a trailer designed for this purpose. This aircraft, tested in March 1983, won the award for the best newly designed ultralight at the 1984 edition of Sun’n Fun Fly In, a major American air show organized in Florida by Sun’n Fun Fly In Incorporated and known today as Sun’n Fun Aerospace Expo. The Zipper II was a twin-engine version introduced in 1984. Zenair produced a few examples of an agricultural version of this aircraft. The firm stopped producing the Zippers I and II around 1987-88.

I note that the Canadian and American civil aircraft registers mentioned approximately 5 (airworthy?) Zippers in 2020.

The next Heintz project differed significantly from aircraft designed earlier. The CH-701 was / is a 2-seat, single-engine, short takeoff and landing aircraft which made its first flight in June or July 1986. Máximo “Max” Tedesco, a Colombian aeronautical engineer who had carried out part of his studies at McGill University in Montréal, Québec, may, I repeat may, have contributed to the design of this aircraft. Heintz appeared to have designed the CH-701 based on an excellent German observation aircraft used during the Second World War, the Fieseler Fi 156 Storch.

It should be noted that Heintz also considered designing a much larger short takeoff and landing aircraft. This bush airplane did not see the light of day. Pity.

Presented to Oshkosh, during the 1986 edition of the EAA Annual Convention and Fly-In, the prototype of the CH-701 caused real interest. Heintz oversaw the assembly of an aircraft during the 1990 Sun’n Fun Fly In. Its owner, a Florida resident, was involved in the work. Heintz’s “Sky Jeep,” as it was / is sometimes called, proved to be very popular with missionaries working in South America and Africa. CH-701s eventually flew in more than 30 countries around the world.

I note that the Canadian and American civil aircraft registers mentioned approximately 190 and 325 (airworthy?) CH-701s in 2020.

Zenair did not multiply projects for the sake of it. Heintz realized very well that the interest generated by a new aircraft decreased between its introduction and the entry into service of the first examples completed by amateur pilots. Each new project helped combat this cyclical nature of kit manufacturing.

It should be noted that the Export Development Corporation, a federal agency, and Canada’s Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce offered financial assistance to Zenair in the late 1970s in order to increase export sales. The aircraft manufacturer also received a loan or loan guarantee through the Enterprise Development Program around 1983, as part of the certification process for the aforementioned CH-400.

Zenair also considered producing kits in the United States. This project launched in the mid-1970s had to be abandoned because of the economic problems which then affected this country. This being said (typed?), Zenair created 3 distributors in the United States before the mid-1980s, in Escondito, California; Gainesville, Georgia; and Seattle, Washington.

The firm left Nobleton in 1987 to move to larger premises located in Midland, Ontario. The new factory opened in the fall.

In 1992, Zenair transferred the production rights for the kits of some of its aircraft (CH-600 Zodiac and CH-701) to an American firm created for this purpose, Zenith Aircraft Company of Mexico, Missouri. By doing so, Zenair significantly reduced its transportation costs. Zenith Aircraft also offered to its customers aircraft kits designed by Zenair after 1991.

Zenair and Zenith Aircraft still existed in 2020, and…

If you don’t mind, my reading friend whose health and well-being concerns me, I will end this peroration until next week.

Take good care of yourself.

Profile picture for user rfortier
Rénald Fortier