Sunlight gleams over the green pastures and thick woods hedging the airstrip. Yesterday’s rain clouds have vanished, and taildraggers are gliding in, as students from nearby Embry-Riddle practice their landings. It’s a perfect day for Forbes AAC President and CEO Clayton Smeltz to join one of his sales representatives on a client visit in Iowa, 1,200 miles from his hangar/office, which is located in Edgewater, FL.
Smeltz makes his callouts and steers the Cirrus Vision Jet onto the runway, the side stick in his left hand, and in his right, two custom-built levers – his own design – enabling him to activate the rudder and brakes without his feet (see sidebar).
Invention has been part of Smeltz’s life since he was young. As a boy, he built remote-control airplanes with his grandfather. As a teenager, he spent hours in the garage, repairing lawnmowers and rebuilding engines. And he’s used a wheelchair since a car injury in infancy, so he’s personally invented many modifications for daily life.
“I was always covered in grease, I was a fixer and a maker because my whole life has been adaptations,” said Smeltz. “I’ve had to figure out ways to do everything I wanted to do.”
Early in his career, Smeltz had the opportunity to design and build adaptions for others. He holds the patents on many of Forbes’ devices – modified touchscreens, wheelchair-mounted controls and audio equipment for people with speech difficulties.
“My whole life has been adaptations. I’ve had to figure out ways to do everything I wanted to do.”
Clayton Smeltz CEO, Forbes AAC
Voice to the Voiceless
“We manufacture the ProSlate and WinSlate speech-generating devices for people who can’t talk,” said Smeltz. That includes children with cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries and Down syndrome, as well as adults with ALS, Parkinson’s, brain injuries, strokes and other disabilities.
The ‘AAC’ in Forbes’ name refers to “alternative and augmentative communication” medical devices. Forbes modifies tablet computers, adding the firm’s proprietary technologies, such as the Enable Eyes® eye-tracking software.
“If they lose their voice, they lose their ability to communicate,” said Forbes AAC Regional Manager and Assistive Technology Specialist Whitley Bieser. “So, we give them a way to communicate through technology. We make an eye gaze bar that tracks pupils and activates buttons on the screen; we make a head mouse if you can’t move your hands.”
These devices are sold through distributors and sales reps nationwide, working alongside speech language pathologists (SLPs) and occupational therapists (OTs).
“We’re all clinicians ourselves [former SLPs and OTs], and we support clinicians in the field,” explained Bieser, “educating them on what our equipment can do. So, we’re often in hospitals, VA settings, pediatric clinics and schools.”
“Being out there in field and getting to my reps frequently is really important to the success of our company.”
Whitley Bieser Regional Manager, Forbes AAC
Shrinking the Geography
As Forbes AAC has expanded across the country, one of Smeltz’s greatest challenges is training sales reps. They need to be able demonstrate the equipment, work alongside clinicians, enter clients’ homes and meet with parents of small children.
“So, there’s a lot to know, and we learn from each other,” said Bieser. “Being out there in field and getting to my reps frequently is really important to the success of our company.”
Bieser is on the road 20 out of 30 days a month, meeting with her own clients and traveling widely to join sales reps on their visits. Smeltz sees her and his national sales manager as mentors to reps across the country.
“The aircraft takes this huge geography we serve and shrinks it down. It’s phenomenal, everywhere we need to go is just a few hours away.”
Clayton Smeltz CEO, Forbes AAC
“How do I replicate their talents throughout the country? That’s how we utilize the aircraft – to accompany reps on these important appointments,” said Smeltz. “The aircraft takes this huge geography we serve and shrinks it down. It’s phenomenal. Everywhere we need to go is just a few hours away.”
Smeltz and Bieser fly the Vision Jet almost weekly to reps in Colorado, Minnesota, Tennessee, Alabama and many other sales territories. “We’re often flying from this small airport to another small airport,” said Bieser.
Smeltz also flies back-and-forth to the company’s headquarters in Mansfield, OH, ever since he moved to Florida a few years ago to expand the southeast sales territory. He visits the Mansfield headquarters monthly, overseeing the engineering team, the medical billing department and fabrication shop.
“We manufacture everything right there in that facility,” said Smeltz. “We have machining tools, laser cutters, 3D printers, and we can rapid-prototype new designs.”
Inventing From Necessity
Inventing from necessity was always Smeltz’s vision, starting with his grease-covered days in the family garage. “I wanted to someday design products for handicapped people, and maybe have my own business,” he said.
While studying engineering in college, Smeltz got an internship with Forbes AAC, then led by its founder, Paul Forbes.
“He was an inspiration to me,” said Smeltz. “I started here as an intern, then I was hired, invented many of our solutions, and eventually I took over as CEO. In 2017, Paul made a way for me to acquire the company.”
From tinkering in the garage to inventing adaptations that enable a human body to overcome its limitations, Smeltz’s career has been all about adaptability. For example, when he learned he was going to become a father, he invented PediaLift® and launched a new company that makes roll-under accessible cribs so that parents with disabilities can care for their baby.
When Smeltz bought his Vision Jet, he set to work designing the brake and rudder hand controls.
“Obviously, I have a physical involvement. God gave me a little bit of mechanical aptitude and the vantage point to see people’s needs.”
“I learned to fly on a [Piper] Cherokee, because I hunted online and could find hand controls for it.”
With both hands needed to work the custom pilot controls, Smeltz focused on single-engine models as he moved onto higher performance aircraft and eventually a jet.
Smeltz selected the Vision Jet for its safety features, such as the parachute system, Safe Return emergency autoland and pneumatic boots for known ice.
“There’s also the autopilot avionics integration,” noted Smeltz. “The workload on a single pilot is much less, especially on approach. I feel so much safer flying this in IMC conditions.”
“With safety my priority, I set high personal minimums,” he continued. “I wouldn’t shoot an approach much lower than 600 feet, although I can. I wouldn’t fly four hours home after I’ve worked all day, especially in bad weather. And a lot of times when we travel, I always have a commercial flight booked as a Plan B.”
Even though they almost never use them, Smeltz buys refundable airline tickets for most trips he flies in order to take the pressure off himself as a pilot, so he can make good decisions just about flying and not about getting his passengers home on time.
“It’s good to have that backup,” said Smeltz. “If I don’t feel comfortable flying home, my employees can fly commercially. I’ll wait with the aircraft.”
Rudder and Brake Hand Controls for the SF50
The custom controls Clayton Smeltz designed for the Vision Jet are essentially two long steel levers and posts that clamp onto the existing pedal controls and are connected to two knobs at about the same height as the side stick. Smeltz and his brother designed controls that could accomplish all the possible maneuvers a pilot would ever need, while minimizing workload.
“We were adamant about not modifying the jet itself, because that would require a supplemental type certificate. If it just clamps on, all you need is a field approval,” said Smeltz. “So, we tried a lot of different ideas that didn’t work, before we came up with this idea that does work.”
Centrally located in front of the pilot, the left and right levers can be used independently to operate each brake or both. The two knobs where the levers come together can be twisted in one motion, enabling the pilot to steer down the taxiway or operate the rudder by twisting one hand.
“We looked at what tasks need to be performed during taxi, ground roll, climb out, and the same for landing,” said Smeltz. “For example, when you spool up the engine and start your ground roll, you’re steering down the runway with the brakes because you don’t have any rudder authority at low speeds. That’s a busy phase of flight until reaching this transitional speed (around 25 knots), where you can let go of the brakes and steer the plane with the rudder. Then you get to rotating speed and it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there.”
Snapshot: Forbes AAC
Aircraft: One Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet and one Piper Cherokee
Base: Based at Massey Ranch Airpark (X50)
Personnel: CEO Clayton Smeltz is the owner/operator and sole pilot