Zenith Aircraft sent along a detailed remembrance of company founder Chris Heintz, who passed away last week.
Aeronautical engineer Chris Heintz was a life-long advocate for the advancement and promotion of recreational flying, to make flying accessible to those who had the dream and desire to pursue flight. Through his light aircraft designs and the company that manufactures them, Heintz has had a huge impact on the sport aviation industry.
Chris was the first of four children (2 boys and 2 girls) born to Erwin and Magda Heintz in Strasbourg, France. His father was a pioneering scientific researcher and his mother an ophthalmologist (no small feat for a woman in that day and age). Surrounded from early childhood by strong personalities, exploring minds, science, creativity, a Waldorf education and a natural desire to help others, Chris’ adventure-filled childhood and youth is full of fun anecdotes of him trying things out and of building things (i.e. canoes that sank, go-karts with no brakes, etc.). In those simpler times of no television or internet, but of war and other hardships (the region switched between France and Germany twice in that period), Chris and his family had to relocate several times and to learn French and German in addition to their Alsatian dialect (like the rest of the local population). Chris therefore learned how to adapt at an early age, a capacity that would greatly help him in the future when he would move to Canada and have to master English as well as North American standards and culture.
With the war over, Chris was barely out of his teens when he was first introduced to the wonders of flight. It was just a quick introductory flight in a two-seat aircraft, but that was all it took! From that point on, his dream became to design and build airplanes that anyone could own and fly! This was in the mid-1950s and that first flight (“Young Eagles” of the time) set the stage for Chris’ long and successful career as a light aircraft designer & kit manufacturer spanning two continents.
Chris completed his professional aeronautical training at one of Europe’s most prestigious engineering schools, the ETA in Zurich, Switzerland. Remarkably, he helped pay for his studies by performing magic shows on city squares that included daring sword-swallowing feats as well as fire-eating routines! His first job as an aeronautical engineer found him at Aerospatiale, as a member of the top-level design team working on the Concorde jetliner. The experience was of great personal and professional value to Chris, but the supersonic Concorde just wasn’t the “fun and affordable” aircraft he longed to design for recreational pilots.
As a next step on his career path, Chris accepted a position with Avion Pierre Robin, a well-established and reputable manufacturer of wood & fabric low-wing aircraft (Jodels). Within a few years, Chris had designed two new all-metal designs that would be certified and produced for many years to come. Hundreds of these aircraft (HR 100 and HR 200) would eventually find their way into flying schools and aeroclubs throughout Europe. This was getting closer to Chris’ original dream, unfortunately, at that point, flying in Europe became more and more controlled and restricted, while at the same time, the company (spurred by its success), asked for ever larger and faster designs from the engineering department he was by then heading.
For Chris, the “every-man” airplane could be neither large nor fast; the time had therefore come for him to look elsewhere. Having designed and built his own personal two-seater (the “Zenith” CH 200) during his spare time at Avion Robin, and having noted the keen interest in fellow pilots who saw it and flew it, he recognized an opportunity. Shortly thereafter, Chris and his wife, boldly, sold everything they owned and took their five children (and the Zenith) to Canada – a land of wide-open spaces, fewer rules and many pilots…
On arriving in Canada in January 1973, Chris worked for two years at De Havilland Aircraft of Canada (in Toronto) with the engineering crew for the Dash-7 (tail section). While there, he noticed a number of fellow employees with a particularly elevated passion for aviation. After work, they would meet to tinker, design, build, and even fly their own creations! The group even had formal meetings: it was the local Chapter 41 of EAA, the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Chris flew his prototype Zenith CH 200 to his first Oshkosh Fly-In that summer. Again, the high level of interest in his all-metal design greatly motivated him and he immediately began translating the drawings (blueprints) and construction manuals for the aircraft. It wasn’t long before plans-owners (“scratch-builders”) called again to ask about the availability of selected parts to help them build their own Zeniths. So Chris began cutting and bending aluminum parts in the basement of his family home in Richmond Hill (northern suburb of Toronto) while his good friend Gerry Boudreau started welding steel assemblies in his garage nearby. When Chris’ basement got too crowded a year later, he re-assembled a recycled two-car garage of his own in the backyard, to work in (see photos).
When Chris first attempted to incorporate the start-up venture as Zenith Aircraft in the summer of 1974, the “Zenith” name was deemed “two-widely used” by the clerk processing the application; Chris then simply took the first letters of both words and re-submitted “Zenair LTD” … That was 47 years ago!
When Chris and Gerry had both outgrown their respective garages, they found and rented a commercial building in the town of Nobleton (north of Toronto), midway between the two partners. This would become home to Zenair for the next ten years, and the birthplace for the CH 100 series, the CH 300 and the Zipper ultralight series. Wooden Zenair propellers were manufactured there, as well as the first all-aluminium Zenair floats. The first CH 600 “Zodiac” was also built in Nobleton, as was the prototype STOL CH 701. With regular parts production ever increasing and all these prototypes being developed under the same roof, shop space soon got very tight – again!
With the unfortunate passing of Gerry Boudreau (from cancer) and the advent of new ultralight regulations in Canada (which allowed the manufacturing of ready-to-fly aircraft), it was time to look for a new, larger home for the company, preferably on an airport… Land was found on the Huronia Municipal Airport (in Midland, Ontario) and Chris immediately set out to design and build the structure that, to this day, houses Zenair’s manufacturing main facilities as well as engineering, bookkeeping and sales offices (and more).
Throughout the company’s growth and development, Chris made sure to always remain true to his original dream: To offer a range of simple and affordable, easy-to-fly (kit) airplane designs suitable for amateur builders and recreational pilots. Over the years, Zenair produced kits for several single-seat aircraft, two, three and four-seat aircraft, low-wing and high-wing designs, ultralights, and more recently, certified and LSA (Light Sport Aircraft) aircraft. When his son Sebastien launched Zenith Aircraft Co. in Mexico, Missouri (1992), he too adopted his father’s vision, and focused on designs that fit the new Light Sport (LSA) category for Sport Pilots.
For the next 35 years (until his retirement), Chris attended the world-famous Oshkosh fly-in every summer to display and promote his latest designs and innovations. First, as a guest of Steve Whitman where he stayed at his runway-side house during the fly-in; then in the campground (Camp Scholler) with employees and his children, then (after too-many rained-out/submerged campsites) at the university dorms in town. At the show, Chris gave daily educational forums (sometimes two!), led hands-on workshop demonstrations, flew demo flights and answered thousands of questions from builders and potential customers on the flight-line and at the Zenith display booth, introducing many to the world of homebuilt aircraft.
Not only did Chris do this every year in Wisconsin (EAA Oshkosh fly-in), but he also did the same in Florida at the Sun ‘n Fun fly-in. And also at Arlington (WA), Copperstate (AZ), and at Orillia (Ontario), and Sherbrooke (Quebec), and so on… Simply-put, for Chris and his family, the fly-in schedule set the calendar for the year. These events created opportunities for him to meet the builders and flyers of his aircraft; meetings that Chris always found informative and gratifying. He listened to the feedback and often integrated suggestions into his next models. Over the years, he considered many of the pilots and builders he met again and again at fly-ins, air-shows and EAA meetings as friends.
To demonstrate his passion in developing “quick and easy-to-build” airplanes, Chris pioneered the concept of assembling an entire aircraft during a one-week event – and flying it on the last day! Amazingly, he and his team accomplished this and “wowed” crowds a number of times at the Oshkosh Airventure Fly-In (first in 1974) and also at Sun’n Fun and at several other venues – all with different models of his designs.
Under Chris’ watchful eye and guidance, the brand he founded and developed has today become one of the most reputable in the industry, and his family-run business is one of the best established and most experienced light aircraft kits manufactures in the world, with many of his designs produced in the U.S. by Zenith Aircraft Company. In recent years, Chris Heintz (CH) designs have become the number one brand of light sport aircraft (based on actual new aircraft registrations in the U.S, and Heintz designs continue to be popular around the world, as kit and light sport aircraft, especially well suited for short runways and “off airport” operations.
Over 10,000 builders worldwide already have a Heintz-designed aircraft in their workshop, their hangar or on the flight-line. Chris has also reached and educated thousands more through his hundreds of lectures, magazine articles, newsletters, or his book “Flying on Your Own Wings,” first published in 2010, shortly after his retirement. In his book, Chris methodically outlines and shares the wide array of aeronautical knowledge needed to successfully design and build a light aircraft. Still in perfect alignment with his lifelong dream to allow common individuals to build and fly their own aircraft, he follows the noble adage that it is better to teach someone to fish than to just sell them a fish. It is this persistent and selfless dedication to promoting recreational aviation that led the government of his native France to recently award Chris the country’s rarely-given and prestigious Medal of Aeronautics: for his “lifetime of achievements and contributions to aviation”.
A life-long advocate for the advancement and promotion of homebuilding and recreational flying, Heintz worked closely with aviation authorities and organizations in developing new aircraft regulations, with the goal of making flying more accessible. In 1994, Heintz obtained FAA and Transport Canada type-certification for the Zenith CH 2000, a factory-assembled two-seat trainer still in production today, under new simplified VLA certification. Chris was an active player in the development of the FAA’s Sport Pilot / Light Sport Aircraft category, and was a key author of the earlier Canadian TP10141 “Design Standards for Advanced Ultra-light Aeroplanes” (which largely influenced the FAA rules).
Having retired from the business now run by his four sons, Chris spent the last ten years gently pursuing a more quiet and simple life with other interests by his artist wife’s side. Together with Annemarie, he found joy in painting and clay-modelling in her studio, and made music together on an almost daily basis. Until a few days before his death, he enjoyed reading and peacefully sitting outside in the sun in southern France, contemplating (while smoking his pipe). He always had a ready smile and a heartfelt greeting for his children, grand-children and the occasional visitor, and participated at weekly Zoom videoconference meetings with his five children during the past year.
After a short illness, Chris Heintz peacefully and quietly passed away on April 30th at home surrounded by his wife, his daughter and son-in-law.
Chris is survived by one brother and one sister, his wife Annemarie, his five children & their spouses/partners, and his 12 grandchildren. All are grateful for the love, the knowledge and the wisdom (gifts) that he shared with them.