Three engineering siblings launch a company and the home-built airplane of their dreams
DarkAero, the company launched by the Karl brothers in 2017 after they all quit their corporate jobs and pooled their savings, has grown into a full-service provider of aerospace composites training, classes and consulting.
Growing up in tiny Frederic, Wisconsin, the Karl brothers were always tinkering. Always building something — “or taking things apart, probably more often than building things,” says oldest brother Ryley Karl, laughing.
Nobody’s laughing now. DarkAero, the company launched by the Karl brothers in 2017 after they all quit their corporate jobs and pooled their savings, has grown into a full-service provider of aerospace composites training, classes and consulting, in addition to manufacturing and selling its signature product: an experimental kit airplane called the DarkAero 1, which is headed into flight testing this summer and already has more than 150 preorders from interested customers.
“We built the DarkAero 1 initially as an airplane for ourselves, but we figured out that other people would probably want it if we did a good job of it,” says Karl of the two-person aircraft with a calculated cruising speed of 275 mph and a range of 1,700 miles. “So we made it into a company.”
Kit airplanes — officially known as “experimental amateur-built aircraft” or “experimental aircraft” — are planes that can be built from a set of instructions. To qualify as kit aircraft, planes have to be at least 51% self-built, and they are used strictly for recreational or educational purposes.
“There’s a whole industry built up around kit planes, or airplanes you can build in your garage and then fly,” says Karl. “There’s actually more kit airplanes flying than any other type of aircraft, but it’s not really well known, I think, outside of the aviation sphere.”
The Karl brothers didn’t exactly plan on founding an airplane kit design business together. All three majored in engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where their mother and older sister had also studied. Ryley Karl, 36, chose aerospace engineering. Keegan Karl, 34, opted for mechanical engineering. River Karl, 32, became an electrical engineer.
“Between the three of us, we have a nice coverage of different topics that blend well into building an aircraft,” Ryley Karl says. “It wasn’t planned, but it worked out really well with that background.”
After graduation, they each took industry jobs in and out of state. They also dabbled in flying lessons (which are ongoing for Keegan Karl), but only Ryley Karl became a pilot — and he soon began building his own plane in his spare time from a popular kit called the Cozy. When all three brothers found themselves back in the Madison area, they contributed to the hobby project when they could — just three siblings taking things apart and putting them back together again, much like they did as kids. But this time, they had the education and experience to tap into a larger mission.
From 2014 to 2017, they embarked on an informal side project of researching and experimenting, renting a hangar space at the Dane County Regional Airport and buying some shop equipment, even going so far as to build their own curing oven to cure carbon fiber parts. As they tinkered with the Cozy, all they could think about was how it could be better — faster, able to cover longer distances. In 2017, they decided to formally find out — they rented a second hangar at the airport, quit their jobs and launched DarkAero.
“And then along the way, we went to AirVenture, the biggest air show in the world,” says Karl of the annual EAA fly-in and convention in Oshkosh. EAA, he points out, stands for Experimental Aircraft Association, so the world’s biggest air show is hosted by an organization that is essentially based on build-your-own planes like the DarkAero. “We went there a couple times to show off our progress on our work and see if people were interested in this as a commercial product.”
They were. As of May, more than 150 customers had already put down a deposit on the DarkAero 1 kit. After the prototype passes flight testing this summer and officially comes to market, customers will be able to purchase their own DarkAero 1 kit for between $75,000 and $100,000 and build a full airplane for between $150,000 and $200,000. All manufacturing will continue to be done in-house by DarkAero, which is something Ryley Karl in particular is passionate about.
“One thing I want to communicate to our audience is that building stuff is cool, manufacturing is cool, and I think that’s been a little bit lost maybe in American culture, because we’ve outsourced a lot. People forgot that someone actually makes stuff,” he says, adding that as the company grows — they just moved into a new 6,000-square-foot location that quadrupled their space — they’ll hire technicians and ramp up the team. “We designed it; we will be the ones who build it,” he says.
That audience he mentions is already expansive and diverse. The brothers document their process on social media and have attracted a substantial following — their YouTube channel has about 70,000 subscribers, and their Instagram account has more than 12,000 followers.
It isn’t just industry wonks and aviation enthusiasts — STEM teachers regularly send emails, photos and videos of their students watching and learning from the Karl brothers.
“I’ve found that audience to be more intimidating than the senior engineers at Boeing or SpaceX or NASA, because this is the future generation of people who are going to create the world,” says Ryley Karl, laughing. “It’s almost more humbling seeing that we have the opportunity to influence the next generation of people interested in STEM.”
Most of all, say the brothers, there’s nothing more rewarding than running your own company in a field you’re passionate about. It’s admittedly stressful, but it’s freeing — much like flying a plane.
“It’s kind of the ultimate expression of freedom as a human, like taking to the skies … going where you want to go,” says Karl. “There’s probably a pretty good parallel with starting a company and the freedom to choose your own destiny.”
Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.
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