Sunday, December 6, 2009

Shearer

“Shearer”
© 2009 by James Wiebe

[Jason]
My friend Jason weighs 235 pounds. He is tall (nearly as tall as me) and strongly proportioned, far more so than me. If he was a football player, he would be a wide receiver. He used to wear a beard that made him look like Abe Lincoln. In fact, when he was pointed out to me many years ago, the mutual friend told me to look for the man who looked like Abe. I found Jason easily, and we became lifelong friends.

[1996 – summertime – at Shearer, which is somewhere deep in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness]
I am staring at Jason as he runs at full gallop across my field of view. Just like Indiana Jones, each step he makes is kicking up dust, and it is hard to imagine someone as large as him running as fast as he is. Why is he running so fast? He is running from my left to my right.

Further to my left is a blue and white Cessna, which is sitting near the end of a wilderness airstrip. Far off to my right is the Selway river. If Jason keeps running as fast as he is, he will run into the river. Jason is running from the airplane as fast as legs can carry a man. I have never seen anything like it.
He stops, and I jog over to him. He is looking at his hand. It has four stings in it. Even in the space of 25 or 30 seconds, the stings are forming considerable welts.

“I was last stung by wasps when I was a child,” he says, “and I may be allergic to these stings.” That’s not good news. We are miles from roads, trailheads, human beings, help, doctors, and civilization. We had just arrived in my Cessna Skyhawk, we had just gotten out of the airplane. Jason was in the process of twisting a tie down stake into the dry, sandy soil so that we could tie the plane down.
He had stuck the stake into a convenient hole in the ground, in order to save a little time, and the wasps had flown out and bit him. Only four made it in the instant of initial attack, and Jason’s quick run had left the balance of the wasp pack behind. But four stings in one hand!

We need a doctor – Oh wait, Jason is a doctor, and he tells me what to do in case things go poorly for him. There really is precious little we can do except watch his hand and pay attention to his breathing. My anxiety level rises.
He and I twist the remainder of the tie down stakes into the ground. We don’t put them into any other wasp nests; no more stings.

There is a small cluster of pine trees alongside the runway which provides an ideal camping spot. We set up our tent.

Jason’s hand is swollen and painful. We have the ideal solution to get his mind from dwelling on the hand: flyfishing. That’s what we are here to do. We can fish, and he can dip his hand in the river anytime to cool it off.

We proceed to fly fish in the Selway river. The wilderness fishing is remarkable; each spot of open water provides a new opportunity to catch more trout. Later, we find a deeper hole. Every time our fly hits the water, another round of fish race toward it. Only one wins; the others return to the depths to await another chance. We catch and release the native cutthroat trout, one after another.

The day wears on. Jason and I hike up and down the river, exploring the wilderness. We return to camp, make dinner, and sit around a fire. The sun sets; I see one hundred thousand stars against a flat black sky. Then it’s time to crawl in our sleeping bags.

The next morning, Jason’s hand is the size of small ham.


[24 hours before the wasp bites]
We had arrived in the small town of Salmon, Idaho, having flown 999 statute miles from Wichita, KS. We were thrilled. I took mountain flying training earlier the same year, and I am eager to deliver Jason and myself deep into the wilderness. Our destination, Shearer airstrip, has been carefully selected from a mountain flying guide. Although I’ve never flown to Shearer before, a qualified mountain flying instructor has agreed to take me specifically to this remote airstrip to train me on its intricacies. Like most good mountain airstrips, it’s in a valley, also along a river, and is a one way in, one way out strip. In other words, you can only approach from one direction for landing, because the airstrip ends in a side of a mountain or some similar impenetrable obstacle. Takeoff is in the opposite direction for the same reason. Prior instruction is a very good idea for the first time pilot. And I had arranged that instruction.

My instructor was used to flying large airplanes, and my airplane was small, and liked to glide well when the power was reduced. This would be a problem.
The approach to Shearer airstrip will fill anyone with awe, first because of the beauty, and secondly, because of the intricacy of lacing the aircraft through the valley and into the airstrip.

At a normal airfield, the proper pattern for landing is a rectangle. You enter the rectangle and trace its outline, you descend in an orderly fashion; you land. This doesn’t work at Shearer. As I mentioned, Shearer is in a valley. There are no rectangular traffic patterns at Shearer.

A proper approach to Shearer requires a descent into the Selway river valley. A good route is to come down Bear Creek, then turn left (upriver) to head towards Shearer, immediately after passing a private ranch, with a private runway; a small oasis of private ownership surrounded by the wilderness. The ranch briefly provides a glimpse of extraordinary wealth – causing an inflective thought as you consider the difficulty of access combined with the beauty of the location; the perfectly green grass runway, the solar cells for power generation. Who could afford to own this? How was it built in this remote location? The ranch quickly recedes behind you.

You continue to fly over the river valley at an altitude of perhaps five or six hundred feet off the water. You see crystal water rushing over boulders below you, and you see mountains on both sides of you. They move by with impressive speed; always that feeling of speed in your peripheral vision. Trees rush by. Mountains rush by. You keep the airplane roughly on the right side of the valley, because, an airplane may be around the corner, coming in the opposite direction, and there are right of ways which should be observed, even for airplanes. So you are a little closer to the scenery of the right side of the valley, and it is perhaps the closest you’ve ever been to a mountain, while moving so rapidly through the air. You have to remain observant, because the valley is making slight S turns as the course of the river, the mountains, and the trees moves around.

So here’s the next problem: even though the airstrip is close (perhaps two miles away, upriver), and you are rushing toward it, you still can’t see it. It is in the valley, but the river turns sharply, and that will require the airplane to make a sharp right turn as the river does likewise. The approach is therefore difficult and blind. When we get to the proper ridge, we will turn right, and only then will we see the runway. And it will be right in front of us. And when the runway is right in front of us, we’d better check for elk and deer on the runway. If they block our way, we had best apply power, climb out in a slight left turn, and gain altitude over the river heading upriver. This decision has to be made immediately, because when the airplane is committed to land, it will be impossible to change our mind. (A last moment climb out will simply cause us to hit a mountain which lies at the end of the runway.)

Remember, I’m with an instructor for this first attempt, right? Nothing can possibly go wrong.

The airplane has been slowed to about 65mph, and we have some flaps extended, even though we still can’t see the airstrip. We are fully configured for landing. The ridge appears ahead and to the right. I bank the airplane to turn over the ridge, and I see trees shooting below me as I cross the ridge line.

Sure enough, the runway is there. It is the narrowest, most unimproved slit of ground I’ve ever landed an airplane on. It looks exactly like a jeep trail. The only thing going for it is that it is straight. It rises slightly upslope towards the far end, then the terrain rises even faster into a mountain side.
It is also very short. This makes things a little trickier yet, simply due to the lack of room for error. Don’t land short (there’s no runway – just weeds and mountain pasture). Don’t land long (it’s a mountain, idiot.) Just land at the right spot, and do it the first time, everytime.

We are very close to the approach end of the runway. The instructor had me cut power to the engine, and so we are essentially gliding towards our touchdown point.
My little airplane is a Cessna Skyhawk, also known as a 172. They are fun, sprightly little flyers. They hold four people, and are also commonly used for instruction.

My instructor’s regular job is hauling passengers and freight in larger aircraft, such as the Cessna Stationair. A Stationair will not glide well. My instructor has forgotten that the 172 we are in is NOT a Stationair. My 172 is gliding very well. In fact, it is gliding so well that we are both realzing that the plane will not get onto the ground before we run out of airstrip. And there is a mountain beyond that.
About 2/3rds of the way down the airstrip, the wheels of the plane finally touch the dirt. The instructor and I both press the wheel brakes as hard as legs will press. The 172 wheels grab dirt and sink and skid as the mountain in the windshield gets larger. (We’re skidding towards it). Mercifully, about 75 feet of dirt and sand remains as the airplane finally skids to a stop.
I exhale. So does the instructor.

“I think we should try that one more time,” says the instructor. I agree. We turn the plane around, take off, head downriver, reverse course, and come back in and land one more time. With better speed control, the next landing is perfect, and my instructor tells me that I’m hereafter OK to do it in on my own. We fly back to Salmon, and I’m glad to be done with him.

Jason is waiting for me at our hotel room. He’s been shopping for food while I’ve been staining seat cushions. We will reload the plane and depart for our remote camping destination in the morning.

***

--- James Wiebe

PS I've been super busy working on stuff. Hope you enjoyed reading this little interlude from my past. It's basically an uncompleted true story -- I started to write a book about these experiences several years ago and this would have been one of the chapters. My friend Jason is awesome. We've done many adventure trips over the years.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Belite Aircraft Announces Kits!

I've been so busy getting our kits ready. Here's the release which was just posted a couple of hours ago:

Wichita, KS -- Belite Aircraft is now offering several kit configurations of its single-seat Part 103 compliant airplane at prices starting below $8,100, well below others in the market. These kits may also be built as a homebuilt, experimental aircraft. Subassemblies and components, many of which can be used on other types of homebuilt and ultralight aircraft, are also available so that builders can construct their aircraft in stages.

Kits and Parts can be purchased on the online store, accessible through the Belite website at www.beliteaircraft.com. Many different Part 103 and experimental aircraft can use the parts and subassemblies available on the Belite webstore.

Belite also concurrently announces its new carbon fiber ‘hybrid’ tailfeathers, which are lighter, stronger and less expensive than steel equivalents. Quoted kit prices include these new tail feathers. Original steel tailfeathers are also available at higher prices.

For those builders seeking to register their airplane as experimental, Belite kits are expected to comply with the FAA’s new experimental aircraft ruling, AC 20-27G. Belite expects a favorable ruling in the first quarter of 2010. (Part 103 assembly does not require compliance to the new FAA ruling.)

Kits include required parts and subassemblies for a Belite 254 aircraft, firewall aft. Carbon fiber wing options are available as well. “Belite’s pricing, which starts at $8,095, makes it one of the finest values in experimental or ultralight aircraft kits available today. A kit with a complete finish welded fuselage, along with an excellent VFR instrument panel, is available for a little less than $13,000, as well,” noted James Wiebe, Chief Executive Officer of Belite. “With some careful shopping of our kits and the used/new engine market, it’s possible to have a homebuilt taildragger for anywhere between $10K and $17K, depending on engine and panel,” Wiebe added.

Kit subassemblies are also available for Tail Feathers, Wings, Landing Gear, Fabric, Fuselage, Panel/Electronics, Flaperons, Windshield, Flight Control, Fuel System, Struts and Composites, as well as Powdercoating and Crating.

Specific features, pricing and availability, as well as additional features can be obtained by contacting Belite Aircraft at www.beliteaircraft.com or by calling 316-253-6746. Photographs and additional details of both versions of the aircraft are also published in James Wiebe’s blog, www.jameswiebe.blogspot.com, which may also be accessed through the Belite website.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Track 12

“Track 12”

By James Wiebe, CEO

Belite Aircraft

© 2009 James Wiebe

For reprint rights, contact the author:

James ‘at’ (that’s ‘@’) beliteaircraft.com

Chapter 1: Scrubbing a flight

I stare at the concrete ramp in dismay. There is a leak by the quick drain on the tank. Every 5 seconds, another drop hits the concrete, a steady drip, coming from the general area of the quick drain on the fuel tank. The day’s flight is scrubbed. The tank needs repair.

I could swap the tank for another, I have two more back at the shop. But those tanks either have no fuel sender installed (the device which determines the quantity of fuel), or their fuel sender is not compatible with the one installed in the panel of this particular plane. In other words, I’d be flying blind on fuel consumption, and I’m not eager to do that.

Been there, done that, it shouldn’t happen, but I’m cautious. So the flight is definitely scrubbed.

Chapter 2: Flint Hills, again

My mind wanders as I drive on I35 towards Emporia KS, to a fly in at the Emporia airport. The grass in the hills remains luscious and green even though the season is late September; the valleys that are within the hills fall into the distance, and the turnpike wanders around through it all. I see cattle, many ponds, and the crest of hills and fade of valleys. Even though the elevation gain and loss from the Kansas ‘flint hills’ is not large, the majesty and mystery of what I see in these hills makes me feel awed.

While driving, I consider a recent email I received from a potential dealer for our Part 103 ultralight, the Belite 254:

“My first ultralight was an eye opener! Training and reliability was a joke. If I wasn't already an experienced pilot (and pretty good at that time), I would have never survived. Several years ago, when I jumped back into the FAR par 103 ultralight word, much progress had been made. My new bird was incredible in many ways but still elementary in others.

One of the things I never could accept was the attitude of the management at the company I bought it from. This merits some explanation but please understand it is merely the opinion of one person, perhaps not the majority of their dealers.

The factory never showed any genuine interest or trust in their dealers. To even get a plant tour or basic product information took major effort on the part of the dealer... it was almost as if you were considered an outsider or even an industrial spy. No training or indoctrination was available from the factory. Even worse, they didn't even try to encourage dealer interaction.... we didn't have a clue who covered various areas or who to refer customers to other than the factory. Bottom line is this. It is impossible to take pride in something and work to continually improve when there is no team spirit or leadership from the company brass. Frankly, I have never experienced anything like it unless they were trying to fail.

Now that’s an honest email!

He’s describing one of the many bruises that the FAR 103 ultralight industry has taken over the last 3 decades. Manufacturers who fell into the role of being manufacturers, not because they planned and managed, but because they had a nice design, and regular guys said they wanted to buy it.

Obliging young businessman providing new ultralights to eager customers. Seems easy, correct, natural, right?

I’d been there, in my first major company, Newer Technology. I was young, the company had a hot product, we didn’t have a clue how to produce or build it reliably in high volume. We ended up taking more than 25,000 orders for a $200 product, thus selling the product at a pricepoint that could not reasonably be expected to earn us any money, and then we delayed product shipments for 6 months, just to make sure the customer base appreciated our incompetence.

We were incompetent. OK, maybe not all of us, maybe not everyday, but we blew it on the big decisions. I learned lessons, I changed as a result.

Newer Technology was occasionally called ‘Never’ Technology, and we deserved the unfriendly moniker. We ended pissing off our dealers and sales representatives. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Bankruptcy and failure. I like to describe the Newer period of my business career as how I obtained my ‘Masters of Business Administration’ degree, the hard way.

(Read more on Newer, written by my friend Roger Kasten: http://www.xlr8yourmac.com/feedback/NewerTechFarewell.html )

Chapter 3: Two cell phone towers

I’m still driving down the turnpike, and I see two cell phone towers. They are, in fact, the same two cell towers I had spotted from a distance several weeks ago, when my plane and I spent an eventful afternoon broken down. http://jameswiebe.blogspot.com/search?q=blue

This time, I’m seeing them from close up. They had provided the cell phone link which was my lifeline.

Back to reflections from the email:

“Aviation is an inherently risky venture, especially if you are not always working hard to do the correct thing and establish the right attitudes and habits. It is almost like the FAR Part 103 ultralight community knowingly sweeps mistakes and problems under the carpet (probably for liability reasons) rather than being open and above board to discover weaknesses such that they can be addressed intelligently. Even the FAA seems complicit in this regard with their hands off approach (especially in ultralights) even when they have reason to know negative trends exist in certain product lines. Getting valid information regarding accidents is especially hard to come by since many problems are simply not reported and are not appropriately investigated by trained personnel. Consequently, mum is the word so as not to hurt the reputation of anyone involved. Meanwhile, problems do not get addressed on a timely basis.

OK, I’ll think about FAR Part 103 accidents for a few minutes. No one is publicly talking about or reporting ultralight incidents or accidents (with my little flint hills experience apparently a rare exception) and no one in the FAA is paying attention. Really! No one is paying attention.

At Oshkosh a few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk with someone at the FAA who used to be in charge of a lot of FAR Part 103 paperwork. He said he’d see an application cross his desk every couple of days. This was years ago; eons ago. I asked him who or how many now in the FAA tracked Part 103 aircraft these days. Nada, Zilch. No one. He told me that the FAA doesn’t have anyone working on Part 103 issues. “That would be a Flight Standards issue… he says”. In fact, this FAA employee flies ultralights, and he’s hunting our booth, trying to find help getting some struts for his bird. I try and help him.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make any sound?

If an ultralight falls out of the air, does any part of the industry or government really care?

Hmm.

No, not really. No one cares.

When I started Belite, I bought a used Kitfox Lite ultralight, to help me figure out how to build a Belite.

That bird had its fair share of safety and regulatory issues: A) one of the rod end bearings had a serious bend, with the resulting upcoming failure certain to cause a loss of control. B) the engine reduction bearing block had six bolts, of which four were cracked and lying in a cavity in an engine casting. C) it was 40 pounds over legal flying weight. I considered how to publicize the first two problems to the community; I knew that plane had been flown regularly, but with neglected maintenance. ( As for the third point, the story of the weight reduction was the cover story for the September issue of Sport Pilot.)

Other anecdotes about old ultralights float through my mind. Thousands of planes with worn out sails; old engines, bad engines, coats of dust, no upkeep, mice living in the rear of the pilot’s seat, under the cracked fiberglass chair. Most of these old ultralight aircraft will never fly again.

Last weekend, I spoke with a gentleman who had a couple of ultralights, one needing repair before flight. He called the manufacturer, and was told to take a hacksaw to his plane and cut it up. (They were only partly serious; the parts he needed were available – with shipping costing more than the parts. He asked if that was because they wanted him to buy a new plane, and they said yes. Fair deal.)


Chapter 4: the Emporia fly in

I arrive at the Emporia airport. To my delight, another of my friends, Craig Sooter, is there. We exchange greetings; he has to leave almost immediately. (Craig took the photo of the Belite 254 CF which ended up on the cover of Sport Pilot magazine; he was in a Cessna 172 chasing my Belite. How he got slow enough to take photos is a story for another time…)

I head inside the hangar, and I find even more friends. Terry Alley is there, along with another friend, Paul Fiebich. Paul flew to Emporia in his Airbike, and Terry flew in his Kitfox Lite. The weather is perfect; very light winds; lots of sunshine. The temperature is in the 70’s, the pancakes, coffee and orange juice are less than four bucks. A nice lady take my money, and I join Terry and Paul over at a table. Terry’s $100 breakfast probably cost less than $20, roundtrip, including breakfast and gas.

I am disappointed by the turnout. I see maybe 70 or 80 people, along with maybe 3 dozen planes on the ramp. A group of powered paragliders are clumped together on the grass. All sport ‘for sale’ signs on them. Prices range from below $10K to $18K or $19K. I see ‘make offer’ signs posted as well. I am surprised that on such a beautiful day, the proprietor has chosen not to fly his inventory. None of the paragliders are moving. In fact, they look like they are huddled together, a little discouraged, talking about flying tales from 2 or 3 years ago.

A few more words from the email provide a counterpoint to the low crowd count:

“The ultralight crowd is usually a gregarious bunch of people with social ties. This should be encouraged and exploited in my opinion. Birds of a feather flock together so it makes sense to go with the flow rather than ignore the natural tendency. This can be done intelligently with training and skill building in mind (RV get togethers come to mind) rather than mindless partying and unstructured interactions. This can be a unique opportunity to differentiate one company from its less creative competition (RANS seems to work this angle well).

That seems obvious, I agree.

Musing to myself: In the last few days, I had the opportunity to walk around several private airstrips. I feel privileged. All are grass; one is a glider port, another is a strip mowed out of a hayfield, and the third is an airpark. The runway at that one is gorgeous, with manicured grass, generously wide active runway, homes on both sides, and a hayfield off the departure end of the runway. Power out on takeoff?? No problem… just coast into the next field. I see an older gentleman who is working on his airplane collection. At this level, aviation is clearly vibrant and alive!

I was oblivious to all of these hidden airport places, before I started flying ultralight Part 103. Each has a story to tell, each has some community. One of these places is a glider port, and it hides a couple of very small businesses; it has an individual building and selling helicopters, another restoring classic sailplanes, sailplane instruction, a dozen ore more sailplanes in storage trailers, and more.

Someone from the glider club is always at the local airshow, handing out brochures, encouraging rides, and generally talking up the joy of sailplanes.

I landed a new Belite there a few days ago. The A&P was working on the helicopter. He came out and looked at my very competent little plane, and so do several other folks. Everyone seems delighted. He notices a loose jam nut on a rod end bearing and scurries off to grab a wrench. A moment later, the problem is fixed.


Chapter 5: Track 12

On the drive back from Emporia, I’m playing my CD player; I like a couple of the tracks that I like and play them over and over. One is Track 12. It grabs my attention. It talks about ‘having a long long way to fall’.

No, I’m not musing about falling out of an airplane.

I am musing about how the ultralight aircraft industry had done so well, and is now doing so poorly.

I talked with one of my vendors. He recalled better days for Part 103, when volumes of aircraft sold were hundreds or even thousands of units. He mentions having supplied parts to one company in volumes to support 2,500 aircraft sales. I am pretty impressed. My sales goal for 2010 is a tiny fraction of that number.

Why so poorly now?

Quick observations:

1) Products were priced below the cost of production. Of course the product was a bargain – the vendor had agreed to ship dollars with each airplane. He just didn’t know it at the time, nor did the purchaser. The purchaser thought he got a great, but fair deal. A year or two later, the seller and his accountant determined the error in selling price (too low).

2) Factory support and dealer networks were abysmal.

3) The product killed a lot of customers.

4) Maybe, just maybe, the fact that you don’t need a pilot’s license is not a good thing. I talk this over with Kathy, my wife, and she agrees. We shouldn’t sell our aircraft to people who don’t have minimum training, and we’ve just concluded that means you should have a license. (But we’re eager to sell aircraft to folks who’ve lost medicals – we can put a grounded pilot back in the sky, legally, even with a denied medical, and with no rationale reason not to fly again.)

Even more from the email:

“Professionalism and competency seems to be inconsistent or totally lacking in much of the ultralight community. Many of the people I worked with didn't have a clue how to work on essential components of their aircraft. This should have been a major source of concern but to my amazement it didn't seem to be an issue. If I were trying to stake a claim in this arena, I would give this some serious thought and use it to differentiate my company from the others. It may help justify higher price points and highlight quality and performance issues without using high pressure sales tactics. Simply put, it is hard to promote the joy of flying (in your brand) when your customers are dropping like flies. Or put another way, I'd rather have a business plan based on thoroughness, quality & safety than one of low price and minimum involvement.

I realize I have some additional insight into the coma that Part 103 finds itself in.

I happen to own a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA): a delightful Flight Design CTLS.

I haven’t flown it in four months.


Chapter 6: Part 103 as a counterpoint to Light Sport Aircraft (LSA?)

LSA were supposed to make it possible for everyone and all to fly in cheap aircraft. These aircraft were supposed to provide performance superior to a Skyhawk, on half the fuel burn, and also with one-fourth the price point. All we had to do was agree to a modest performance limitation (120Kts) and two folks on board. No problem, right? This was supposed to be the end of Part 103.

Except a funny thing happened: LSAs ended up costing 75% of a Skyhawk (mine was nearly $150K) and most all of them sold so far have been high end versions with high end pricetags. The very lowest cost LSA that I’m aware of is $60K, and it’s a stripped ugly thing. (YMMV).

I had lunch with someone at Cessna. He told me what they went through to gather customer feedback on aircraft pricing. Fascinating! Most folks who want to buy new aircraft expect them to be less expensive than what they know they cost to build. Is that surprising, amusing, or both?

This suggests that the pendulum which swung hard towards LSA will swung hard in the opposite direction as the disenchantment grows. For that group, Part 103 remains the best choice.

Chapter 7: Red car

As I approach the turnpike entrance out of Emporia and back towards Wichita, I notice a small red car has pulled into the automated lane for entering the Kansas Turnpike. It’s called the K-Tag lane. They clearly don’t have the electronic tag, and the gate won’t open. I pull in behind them, and my K-Tag sensor causes the gate to open. They drive through, oblivious, and I follow. I wonder what will happen when they get to their turnpike exit, without a K-Tag or a paper turnpike coupon.

I pass them a moment later. I discover that there is a sole occupant, and she is talking non-stop on a cellphone, oblivious to the micro-drama she created at the turnpike entrance. 10 minutes later, she passes me. She is still talking on a cell phone. I really, really want to see what happens when she exits the turnpike somewhere down the road. Unfortunately, she eventually disappears.


The email continues:

“Many ultralights start out with some obvious strikes against them. Their pilots are likely not the most experienced or trained in any aspect of aviation. The aircraft itself may have deficits compared to its heavier brethren. Reliability, crash-worthiness, durability, marginal operating envelopes, low power-to-weight ratios are but a few areas of concern. Somehow all of this needs to be addressed successfully such that the participants can enjoy their passion for flying and live to tell about it. Risky sports abound but that is no excuse to accept loss rates brought on by complacency and ignorance.

Agreed, agreed, agreed, agreed, agreed, and more.

Epilogue

I like flying my Belite 254, but this morning, I’m glad I had a fuel drip. Slowed me down to think.

After I return to Wichita, I swap the leaky fuel tank out and fly the bird closer to home base. I fly for a total of 2.3 hours before I call it a day. It is a beautiful day, and I have absolutely total freedom to barnstorm. I am joined by a friend, and we fly formation. He slowly passes me, but I don't feel too bad because I'm flying one of the birds which has just 30HP. In a couple of weeks, I'll have a 45HP version done as well and I will pass him. The skies are beautiful, the cut grass fields are green, and it is a joy to be flying.

James Wiebe

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Magic Carpet Ride...


On Labor Day, earlier this week, I tried to fly our first production Belite 254 airplane for the very first time. The weather was great, the airplane was ready for its maiden flight.

My friend Terry had flown his faithful Kitfox Lite over from his home base so he could help and see the maiden voyage.

I started with taxi tests, and if those went well, I would proceed to a flight test.

Unfortunately, the taxi tests did not go well that day. We had a problem with the brakes, and so we had to get them fixed before proceeding to the test flight. And then for the next 3 days, the weather was terrible. In one day, Wichita had 5 inches of rain. Not exactly weather for first flights in an airplane.

This afternoon, the rain stopped, the wind eased and the skies cleared enough for a test flight. Terry met me at Jabara so we could give my FAR part 103 legal airplane another try. (FAR Part 103 -- google it! It means you or I can fly it anytime without a pilot's license, without a registration, and without even the need for a medical in this class of aircraft).

The pictures tell the tale. The very light airplane looks fantastic, taxied like a dream, and took off without hesitation. In fact, I got a little higher than what I planned. (This was supposed to be an up and down test hop, straight down the runway.)


I weigh close to 200 pounds, so this particular bird will provide spectacular performance for anyone around 180 pounds or less. Empty weight is currently 239 pounds. The cowling will add another 3 pounds.



We've still got a little work to do before this plane is ready for customer delivery, but not much. For example, one problem is that the airspeed indicator seems to be off by a large amount -- it was indicating far too slow a number. We'll check it against another airspeed indicator very soon.

Another minor glitch is that the cowling is not yet installed on this airplane. It doesn't need it, but it's supposed to be there, we're still a few weeks away from receiving them from our vendor.

I enjoy the feeling of flying right over the runway at a low altitude. It feels like a magic carpet ride. I also enjoy the open frame look on the rear fuselage of this airplane. I wasn't sure, but looking at it now, it looks so sharp!

Do you like to fly? This airplane provides a spectacular experience.

In a few days, we'll have an Inventory tab added to our website, with a complete line item description of this particular airplane. We'll be offering this one Ready To Fly, FOB Wichita, $29,995. It includes a few options that aren't supposed to be in the base configuration, but hey, they are already installed. (For example -- electronic fuel gauge with capacitive sender -- works great -- far better than sight gauge.)

Enjoy, fly safe -- James Wiebe

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Photos of our first production aircraft

I just posted photos of our first production FAR part 103 aircraft on flickr.

You can find them here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/beliteaircraft/

Have a look and tell me what you think!

The cowling is not yet installed on this airplane.

Thanks!

James

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sport Pilot Cover Story on Belite Aircraft; New Pricing

I am, in my heart, an entrepreneur. I like to take risks, innovate, market my ideas and see what happens.

At Airventure, I was privileged to introduce a new aircraft: the Belite 254 CF, which is a FAR part 103 legal airplane. This aircraft features a lot of carbon fiber, in a very delightful, small package.

This airplane caught the attention of a lot of people.

We had chosen to display it in the North exhibit area, far away from the rest of the ultralights. We chose to do this because we felt we had a fundamentally different idea about how an ultralight should be designed and marketed. We thought our potential customers might not be ‘ultralight’ enthusiasts. We were looking for people who appreciated innovative engineering, sprightly design, good looks, and a measure of taildragger conventionality, all while flying and owning an airplane that does not require an FAA registration, nor a pilot’s license, nor a medical. (Bad or declined medicals are welcome as well, thanks to the graces of Federal Aviation Regulations FAR part 103.)

Our friends at the Experimental Aircraft Association have chosen to publish an article about the Belite as their cover story this month (September cover) in Sport Pilot magazine. We are truly honored.

We have decided to streamline our product offering a bit. We created a new low cost version of our airplane, which we call the Belite 254. It looks exactly like its big brother, the Belite 254 CF, with the exception that the rear fuselage is not fabric covered. Have a look:

We were able to cut the price by using more aluminum and less carbon fiber, and by cutting out all of the options which add expense but provide no benefits to the patch flyer. As a result, it is available ready to fly for $25,000 less than the Carbon Fiber version!

Here's another pic (the windshield hasn't been installed yet, but will be later this week.)

We will be introducing a cost reduced *kit* as well, which will be available for substantially less. This is possible because we are paying careful attention to the options which people want, and we are also able to cut out some labor expense by tack welding the steel. Many of our potential customers want to do their own welding; we're happy to oblige. This revised kit pricing will be announced in September, and it will be big, welcome news for budget minded homebuilders! Stay tuned. (Send an email to us: info AT beliteaircraft.com, if you are interested in our kit pricing when it’s released.)

Here’s our new price list:

1) Belite 254, Ready To Fly, for $29,995. This plane incorporates a lot of goodies: Carbon fiber firewall; 28HP engine; full span flaperons; aircraft grade steel fuselage and cabin; 5 gallon detachable fuel tank; (for easy refueling); 5 inch wheels; brakes; electric start, full lexan windshield, fiberglass cowling, flight instrumentation, much more! Also includes a sharp looking paint job! We believe that this is the finest value in very light aircraft in the world. It looks like an airplane, it flies like an airplane, it’s economical, and the wings fold for easy storage and transport. It crushes FAR Part 103 weight requirements with a flying weight of about 235 pounds!!

2) Belite 254 CF; Ready To Fly, for $54,995. This version adds approximately 50 features, including carbon fiber spars and ribs; hydraulic brakes; wood instrument panel with lots of good stuff in it; ballistic parachute; the list goes on and on. You name it, the Belite 254 CF has got it as a feature.

3) Belite 254 KIT, price to be announced in September! Stay tuned.

Now the fine print bad news: Our delivery position availability is limited. A deposit of $2,500 holds a delivery position. First come, first serve. We reserve the right to raise prices at any time. Etc., Etc.

Specific details of each configuration are in the website, www.beliteaircraft.com

If you want to see it fly, look at http://www.youtube.com/user/BeliteAircraft#play/uploads/0/byy6qR8TB5w to see our demo video.

If you are looking for the very finest Part 103 legal aircraft, you have arrived. Enjoy!

Fly Safe and Have Fun,

James Wiebe, CEO

Belite Aircraft

P.S. We are looking for qualified dealers and international distributors for our aircraft. If interested, please understand that we require dealers to order a demo unit (to show) and one more aircraft. We have a similar program for international distributors. In return, we offer a generous discount and a territory.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Breaking a Carbon Fiber Wing!

EDITOR'S NOTE, added NOVEMBER 4, 2010:

1)  The stated load of about 1100 pounds, is loaded onto one wing in this test.  Multiply by 2 for the total load that the wing structure would 'see'.  It has come to my attention that this lack of clarity has confused some people.  Sorry!  1134*2 = 2268.  2268 / 4 = 567 pounds.

2)  We are now using an improved carbon fiber spar --  more carbon fiber than the one tested below.  We now have our spars made for us by Forte Carbon.

Original Post:

We received requests before and during Airventure to show actual G testing of our Carbon Fiber wing. I'd promised one person to post some photos shortly after Airventure. While I had performed testing on individual spars, I'd yet to test a wing as a completed assembly. So yes, I was working in the theoretical, and it was time to 'show me', as our friends in Missouri would say.

The timeline to do all of this was significantly accelerated by the fact that both wings took damage in transit to Oshkosh on the truck. To add insult to injury, we managed to pierce the fabric of one wing with a prop blade on the way home, and then bent the rear trailing edge beyond the point of easy repair. In other words, the wings were now ideal candidates for further destructive load testing, rather than repair and reuse.

As background, carbon fiber does not behave like any metal. Whereas metal, when highly stressed, will begin to deform yet still provide strength, carbon fiber will take loads nearly to 100% of strength without permanent deformation. Therefore, the testing of a carbon fiber structure provides a different set of insights into the construction and engineering of the wing than does an aluminum spar. Unfortunately, the test regulations cloud the issue a little, but then again, we're part 103, so those regulations don't apply to us.

Carbon Fiber has the nasty habit of shattering when it hits the load limit. We do our testing with an air of caution. We don't want to be under the wing when it breaks, nor do we want to catch splinters from the destructive force of all that tension as the wing shatters into piles of useless jaggies.

We wanted to demonstrate that our carbon fiber wing statically exceeded our stated spec of 3.8/1.5 Gs. I had mentioned to some that I thought the wing would sail past the requirements without difficulty. FWIW, if you're paying a premium for Carbon Fiber, it's nice to know that it's both lighter and stronger.

I was a little intimidated by the idea of flipping the airplane upside down to measure. So we started with the easy test: a negative G test.

This simply involves piling loads of weights on the top of the wing. The most significant thing this demonstrates is that the lift and jury strut assembly is up to the task of holding the weight.

So, without further ado, here's a pic of our Belite 254 holding 2G worth of weight off the ground. This is a negative G test.


You can see that we removed the wheels from the plane prior to the test.

I had a good look at the Carbon Fiber lift struts in our part 103 airplane. While it's hard to say in this kind of test, they didn't appear to be too stressed. (If they fail in this compressive load, it's fair to say that the disintegration would by quick and dramatic, as the entire load on the wing would tumble to floor.)

Now, on to the test that really concerned me -- the positive G load test.

We attached our wings to another fuselage, which was flipped over and held off the floor on the bolt attach points using concrete blocks.

We proceeded to lay foam over the wing, and then we started to pile the weight on.

When we hit close to 3Gs of weight, one of my employees began to have that stunned look on his face, as if we were demonstrating an impossibility. I knew that aerobatic airplanes went to +9 or even higher demonstrated G loads in their wings, and I mentioned that to him. He still looked stunned.

Now the first piece of bad news.

As we came close to 3Gs of positive load, the wing made a few popping sounds, but did not collapse. My employees thought I'd call off the test, but that's just not the way I do things. We
continued to load weight on, and the wing continued to make popping sounds. Then I realized what was happening: the individual ribs were failing under compressive loads coming through the fabric, but the spars were holding fine. We pulled the weights off, and the bottom of the wing showed crush damage into the wing. I cut the fabric open, and sure enough: the ribs had failed.

Well, I'd rather have it happen now than after delivery to a customer.

Several ribs showed crush damage, with the failure mode essentially being delamination of ribs under compressive load. (The load vector was from the bottom of the rib, through to the top of the rib.) Instantly the gears turned in my head: I needed to add some strength from the top to the bottom, which would always be in compression, never in tension. That characteristic immediately made me think of the use of plywood stiffeners, not carbon fiber.

A few days later, another wing panel was ready to test, with a slightly revised rib design. (The addition of the rib stiffeners added about 10 ounces of weight to each wing, while increasing the crush characteristics of the rib probably by a factor of 3x+...)

Weight remains critical to everything we do. This new set of carbon fiber wing panels were coming in very light in weight (we're getting better and more uniform), so we really didn't change our net weight on the wing. A quick run on the scales, and the numbers were confirmed: the weight of the wing panel was well under 14 pounds, even with the improved, heavier rib. Less than 14 Pounds!

Caveat: This wing panel wasn't yet covered (and covering adds strength) but I was eager to give the positive G loading another test. So the sawhorses were set up to catch the weight at the fuselage strut attach points, and at the spar attach points, exactly like attachment to the airplane fuselage and struts. The lift vectors would resolve differently (in flight, the main spar would be in compression, and this vector was not in our test; likewise, we didn't use lift struts, and they would be in tension through the strut attach points).

A few minutes later, the wing panel had a load of a little over 1100 pounds on it. 4Gs! So Cool!

I grabbed the camera and started to position myself to take a few shots.

And then it happened: a loud pop, and the wing visibly settled downward. I knew immediately that one of the spars had snapped in two.

EXCEPT I WAS WRONG!

One of the sawhorses had failed, causing the popping sound. The wing was fine, unbroken.

The wing was now suspended on the other good sawhorses, and on the remainder of the broken sawhorse, and on a 'safety' post which had been under the end of the wing just for such a situation.

In other words, the failure of the sawhorse caused the load to instantaneously shift from the design configuration, to some other configuration, and nothing in the wing was broken, even as the 4G load shifted around the wing. It was sort of like a lift strut failed in flight.

Very. Impressive.

I could see that an additional further failure of the broken sawhorse would be a catastrophic problem. I quickly unloaded 1100 pounds of sand from the wing without even taking a photo.

I rearranged the sawhorses, and made a couple of wood cross bars to spread the load from the wings to the sawhorses. Newly confident that the sawhorse configuration would now hold, the wing was loaded up again to 1134 pounds. Would our little wing, our very high technology carbon fiber, be up to the task for our part 103 ultralight?

I knew it would be.

Here's a photo of the resulting 4G load.



Facts:

1. The wing panel weighs less than 14 pounds.
2. The weight under test is about 1134 pounds.
3. Deflection at the tip was 2.5 inches. (Would not include deflection due to lift strut stretching under tension, if any).
4. The first 5 rib positions have 200 pounds each. The sixth has 100 pounds. The seventh position, or wingtip has 20 pounds. The weight of the wing is just under 14 pounds. There is a clamp on the rear of the wing which weighs a pound or two. Total weight: 1134 pounds.

Opinion:

1. With covering, this wing design will hit an ultimate load of 5+Gs. How much, exactly, I don't know. But based on the deflection, and the characteristics of carbon fiber, someone smarter than I should be able to offer a guess.

Our stated strength is +3.8/-1.5Gs. We do not approve aerobatic maneuvers. :-)

Sunday evening: I've decided to add a bonus photo of the original test which failed the ribs.


In this earlier positive G loading test, the weight is 14*32.4 pounds + 6*50 pounds per wing for a total of about 1530 pounds across both wings, and as can be seen, the test was done with the fuselage inverted. As a result, all loads are resolved as if the wings were really being stressed in flight. We continued to load a few more bricks on the wing before we stopped the test, due to rib failures.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Price of Belite 254 too high?

I received an email from a friend, it had the following quote embedded within it:

"I was shocked and saddened by one plane that did a re-appearance. The Kitfox Lite is availabable again as a kit or flyaway. If you want a Part 103 fly away from them with the new carbon fiber wing it is $63,000!!!!!! What has happened to the logic in the market? Part 103 is supposed to be an entry level."

I'm sorry to hear of the negative response to the pricepoint, so I wanted to try and explain our point of view. (Also, we are not the Kitfox Lite, we are the Belite! :-)

First of all, we were offering bolt together airplane kits for $25K, including brand new engine, at the show. This price point resonated with many people. For another $1K, we would upgrade the engine from the 28HP to the 45HP. The only major task left for the purchaser is covering with fabric, and a good fast person can get that done in one week. (We quoted 250 hours of time, FWIW.) For that price, the fuselage and all metal are completely welded, and the wing is fully assembled.

Carbon fiber is AMAZING, and also ridiculously strong and light. With those benefits, there is a high price point to be paid, so we do have a considerable upcharge to move to carbon fiber. Commercial sites such as www.dragonplate.com sell carbon fiber tubing, suitable for spars, for around $150 per foot. (Their lengths are too short to be usable, we developed our own patent pending process for making spars in appropriate lengths.) It takes 48 feet of carbon fiber spars to make two wings. We charge an additional $7K for the carbon fiber upgrade at this time, although we may have to raise that price.

The airplane in question was loaded beyond belief -- carbon fiber everywhere, big engine, powerfin prop, full panel with built in transceiver, and transponder, electrical system, fuel gauge, much more. About the only thing missing was an autopilot (and we're talking to TruTrak about that!) It will soon also have a BRS parachute. The price point for that particular plane is aimed at people who don't have time to build, and want the very finest part 103 airplane possible. That is our carbon fiber airplane. We make the best part feature laden part 103 airplane in the market, period.

What I discovered at the show is that part 103 serves many purposes:

1) It is a low cost category, for those who want to build at the lowest possible cost. We service this market by providing kits including our 'classic' kit which is wood and aluminum, not carbon fiber. At this time, carbon fiber is not a low cost product, as I explained earlier.

2) It is a fun level category, for those who simply want to fly without hassle of medical, registration, or license. All of our aircraft variations fit this market.

3) It is the only alternative for those who have been denied a medical, yet still want to fly a real airplane. This class of customer is not looking for a part 103 aircraft which doesn't look or feel like a 'real' airplane. They want our airplane, which flies like an old fashioned taildragger. They love it! Many of these potential customers are interested in getting all of the aircraft add-ons that they can get, for instance, the full panel with transponder, the parachute, the better propeller, better landing gear, hydraulic brakes -- all things that add hundreds to thousands of dollars at a time.

4) It is a great area for technology exploration, which I am doing. Part 103 allows just about everything, within a very simple set of rules. We have accomplished in 6 months what takes years at other aircraft companies.

I have seen many companies make pricing errors on their products -- I believe that the aircraft industry suffers disproportionately from a stronger desire to fly than to ensure that jobs are created and companies are preserved. I tend to err towards the latter, for which I make no apology.

Even so, our $25K bolt together kit seems like a pretty good deal. If we substantially reduced the welding, we could substantially reduce the price. Perhaps I should do that, and I will consider it.

Yes, we did get feedback from others on lower cost kits. If I was in the market, I would carefully evaluate the additional work remaining on all of these before making a decision. I saw great products from many companies!

One of the other interesting pieces of feedback that I received was on people who had bought partial kits, such as tail feathers or a wing kit, from other companies. When they went back to get their next kit, the company was out of business. Hmmm. That would sure destroy the feeling of a bargain!

In 2008, I remember hearing about a lot of the same types of conversation of pricepoints in the LSA (light sport) market. Even as people complained about price, one dealer reported that 90% of the customer base was buying airplanes with most options.

I am very interested in your feedback! Please feel free to offer comments or email me at james@beliteaircraft.com

Friday, July 31, 2009

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

far 103 regulations - my comments

Hey, I'm still up so it's time for a second post.

One thing that I've noticed as we've talked to many people here is confusion as to what FAA part 103 (or FAR part 103) is.

We've had some people tell us that it specifically disallows engines with greater than 28HP on wings that have double covering. That's simply not so!

I've also had people tell me that FAA part 103 doesn't allow me to put "Belite Aircraft" on my wing, because that represents 'advertising'. I've carefully read part 103, and I respectfully disagree. There are parts that say an Ultralight can't be used for advertising. A careful reading suggests you can't take money to use the aircraft for advertising someone else's product, and I agree with that interpretation. Backing up that interpretation is another part of part 103, which the naysayers ignore.

Quoting part AC 103-7, specifically 103.14.d(4):

Receiving Discount on Purchase of an Ultralight.

There is no prohibition which would prevent you from taking
advantage of any discount on the price of an ultralight a company
might offer where its logo or name appears on a portion of the
vehicle. You cannot, however, enter into any agreement which
might specify the location; number, or patterns of flights contingent
on receipt of that discount.


Any operation under such an agreement could not be
conducted under Part 103.


This seems pretty straightforward. I, as the manufacturer, can put my logos on my aircraft anywhere I please, including the wings. You, as the customer, can receive a discount if you agree to accept an eggregiously large number of logos in many locations. Heck, let's put them on the tail, the belly, the cowling, the door, the upper wing, the lower wing, the landing gear, the left tire, and just for grins, on the windshield. However, I can not enter into an agreement with you where you agree to fly your plane for my benefit, for a specificed number of flights, or over a specified location.

That's a good thing, because I'd want you to fly over a congested location. ;-)

Fly Safe,

James

6' 8" man sits in Belite and fits!


Just a quick update after day 3 of Airventure / Oshkosh. What an experience talking with people! We're having fun describing our airplane, and today I found time to walk around the show. We had a man stop by our booth yesterday, he's 6' 8" tall. He took a seat in the Belite, and that's what he looked like. Thanks Jake, for taking a look at our plane!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Oshkosh / Airventure and Belite, Day 1


It's the end of the first day of Oshkosh. I'm the only one in our group of five who's still up. I just got done creating a 38 slide .ppt document for my presentation tomorrow, "How to reduce weight in ultralight aircraft". It covers 4 major areas: engines, carbon fiber wings, wheels & brakes, and miscellaneous things like our fuel tank design. All in all, it explains step by step how we cut over 50 pounds out of the weight of our aircraft design. Cool! By using a different (lower HP) engine, we could have cut 80+ pounds. Very cool!!

In hindsight, it appears that it would have been possible to fly our bird with a weight of less than 210 pounds. We could have done it, but we focused on improving it and using our weight budget wisely.

Pricing: We're offering the airplane at the show with a free engine and free wing assembly, so you can end up with a 'bolt together' kit that includes just about everything except paint and propeller, all for $25K. This would be for what we call the 'classic' kit, which uses wood and aluminum in the wing. The Carbon Fiber option costs $7K more. We'll build and cover it for you for $19K more; We'll upgrade the engine to 45HP for just $1K more. Lots of bargains, just at Oshkosh.

I heard some great comments today about our airplane -- many thanks! Here's what attracts people's attention:

1) The overall design.
2) The fact that it can be flown with no medical, or even a busted medical.
3) The visibility -- the rear window design.
4) The fishing rod compartment.
5) The lightweight engines.
6) Of course, people love the Carbon Fiber.
7) No FAA registration.
8) No pilot license. (We do strongly recommend tailwheel proficiency,... )
9) Very quick building. About the fastest build possible.
10) The steel fuselage (even though it only weighs about 42 pounds.) Because it's crashworthy!
11) The quick performance with the big engine.
12) Really meeting part 103's weight requirement!

There's a few other features that I haven't spoken about much. We have carpet in our plane, and the fuel tank is quick disconnect, so you can refuel it outside of the plane. The battery is quick clip removable as well, so you can start the engine, and remove the battery, should you desire. This can save weight, too.

I now have a new email address as well: james AT beliteaircraft DOT com.

I'm also pleased to report that it looks like we are getting some significant media coverage: I'm expecting a great article on the airplane, and I did two great interviews today as well.

The picture I posted at the top of this post is from our photo shoot, a few weeks ago at Jabara.

We repainted the cowl just before we left for Airventure, it looks fantastic. I'll try and get pictures posted tomorrow.

See you tomorrow,

James

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Blue Highways; Flint Hills


“Blue Highways; Flint Hills”


(c) 2009 by James Wiebe; all material and photos are copyright. Please link to this blog and to www.beliteaircraft.com


1. 20 Miles.

I can see for up to 20 miles, depending on which way I look. Looking south, an expanse of prairie grass heads downslope, along my impromptu runway, to a line of trees which look to follow a creek. For my miles beyond that, the terrain slowly rises and eventually disappears in a flint hills ridgeline.

To my east, far in the distance, are what appear to be cell phone towers. They are perhaps four miles away, at the top of a ridgeline. I can also see continuous green pasture between me and the cell towers. The landscape is typical of the flint hills. It is beautiful, and alive. I hear the constant buzzing of insects. Earlier, after my airplane came to rest, a group of cows stared at me. They wondered if I had brought Alfalfa pellets. No, I hadn’t, and they wandered off.

Just a couple of hundred yards to the north, the land forms a grassy knoll and then the terrain disappears behind the back side of the knoll. The cows went that way.

The terrain to my west is grass, with a road far off in the distance. I see a car on the road; it is visible because it is traveling rapidly and raising a ball of dust. Later, I will decide to hike towards that road.

I have a Garmin GPS, which is very helpful. It tells me that five miles away, is the Kansas State Turnpike, I-35. To my south, about 1.5 miles away, is county road 50. A line of trees that I mentioned in that direction, and I’m not sure if the road is before or after the trees. Is that creek over there as well? I have no idea, and the GPS doesn’t offer that clue.

Now I am attempting a hike northeast, towards county road 70 on the GPS. I can’t get to the road; I am stopped by another creek. The creek was slightly flooding as a result of heavy rains a day or two ago. I could have crossed it, but it would have meant soaking my ankles. I see a tree which has fallen perfectly across the creek. Considering giving it a try; but NO, I don’t want to risk soaking myself, my Nikon D300 camera, my GPS. So I head back to the airplane.

I am in the middle of the flint hills. I am sitting on the wheel of my airplane. It is sitting at an odd angle, with the left wingtip 6 feet above the ground, and the right wingtip one foot above the ground. I’ve pulled the seat pad out of the airplane, and I’m using it to keep some cushion between me, the wheel, and the grass.

There are no roads here. There is no airport. I am here. My airplane is with me, sitting, wounded.



2.
Formation flying.

The day started with last minute details for a flight to Airventure, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. We wanted to fly our demonstrator airplane up, as a promotion for our new aircraft and our new company, Belite Aircraft.

My friend Terry Alley and my coworker Gene Stratton had been working with me at Jabara airport (KAAO) to make some last minute tune-ups to the bird. We’d installed a rudder trim tab because of nagging right foot pressure, and that had solved a problem. The plane had been loaded. The electrical system on the plane was acting up, probably due to a bad voltage regulator. In a fit of disgust, I had disconnected the voltage regulator. Electric operation is not a necessity in an ultralight.

Our demonstrator airplane was flying nicely.

Terry and I took off in a formation flight towards Emporia. It was an extraordinarily beautiful morning! Blue skies. Occasional radio calls. A little maneuvering for photographs on the part of Terry. As we reached Cassoday, KS, I no longer hear from him, and decide that he has headed back home. He’d told me he’d break off there.

The plane is remarkable, and has a gas gauge which shows my fuel quantity. It showed a full tank at the start of the flight. I had ‘tankered’ an additional 2 gallons of fuel so I could land and refuel anywhere, if necessary. (FAR 103 regulations prohibit a tank capacity of more than 5 gallons).

My fuel gauge hung on full for a while, then started to descend a little too quickly through ¾, ½, and down to ¼ tank. Over the flint hills, there are few options for roads, but many options for pastures. Even though only 8 miles short of the Emporia airport, I determined that the smartest thing to do would be to make a landing, refuel, and finish the leg. (Why was the fuel consumption so high? Probably an incorrectly set carb. We’ll figure that out after Oshkosh.)

I decided that instead of staggering into my Emporia on fumes, I’d make a precautionary landing and resolve the issue.

You are probably thinking that the airplane broke on landing, because of a rock or cow turd. Not so… the landing was silky smooth; the plane floated onto the field of grass as if I had edged onto a down pillow. It was smooth.


3. Landed on the prairie.

I’m grinning. I don’t even shut the engine down; it idles smoothly as I refuel the plane.

After adding two gallons of fuel from my spare tank, I tried to take off.

Trouble; I can’t get enough airspeed. The grass is a little high and I may have a touch of tailwind. I try to takeoff twice; it doesn’t get airborne. However, I’ve got several degrees of downslope on the hill, and I can taxi up the hill for a long ways; no problem! I can resolve the takeoff speed issue.

Turning around, I headed up the hill. As I approached the spot to turn around and try again, my right main gear axle sheared off. In a quarter second:

The right landing gear collapsed as the tip of the steel, now without a wheel, punched into the dirt, and bit hard.

The propeller disintegrated. All three blades snapped off.


Dirt was thrown on the plane as the propeller augured through the ground.

The engine quit, now.

The right wingtip of the plane hit the ground, bending a clip.


“Well, that’s that”, or something to that effect went through my head.

Stunned.

Unhurt.

Bewildered.

The plane is completely undamaged, except for the prop, the right gear (it looks like a pretzel), the bent clip and unknown engine damage, if any. There is absolutely no damage to the fuselage. The gear attachment points are unharmed.

Already considering what’s and why’s.


4. Cellphone service.

I pull out my cell phone and call my wife. Over towards the northeast, I can see the cell phone tower which is almost certainly carrying the signal to my wife. The connection quality is perfect.

I’m bright and cheery as I talk to her. She asks if I'm at Emporia. No... I carefully explain the sequence of events. She is not angry, (for instance: why did I try and take this trip in an ultralight?!) but seems just pleased that all has ended well. She and I begin to strategize about how to get the plane back to Wichita, so it can be trucked to Oshkosh. We agree to leave the retrieval task to our able helper Gene Stratton, also my friend Terry Alley.

A weird thing happens. A few moments later, my cellphone rings. I look at the caller ID, and it is someone calling from CRU-WiebeTech, my old company. She is of course completely unaware of my circumstances. She has a marketing question. I answer it, I consider telling her what has happened, I think better of it. I say nothing about my where and why I am.

4 hours pass.

I took a hike. I got sweaty. I rue my decision to not pack any more water in the airplane. I had one diet Dr Pepper, and it is long gone.

My daughter calls me (my cell phone service continues to be perfect.)

To quote Bill Curtis, “I found the internet!”. My USB dongle and my laptop computer works great, and I get caught up on my personal email for the first time in a while. I send an email to Don Hackett, at Wichita State University, hinting that I am in the middle of the Flint Hills with a big story to tell. He emails me back, saying he can’t wait to read it, that it will certainly entertain my grandchildren some day.

Since I am back at the airplane, I work on the computer while I am sitting either on the airplane tire (the good one, not the snapped one) or by sitting on a cushion on the ground. I consider that if I had to spend the night, I could do so, as I brought a sleeping bag. But I do not consider the ticks. Hours later, when I was safely back home, I look at my ankles and see that they are covered with small ticks. Dozens of ticks; even smaller than a pinhead.

I’m told by my wife that Gene and Terry are coming, also my daughter, Jennifer. If they can get in the pasture, we’ll have no problem dismantling the wings and loading the plane on a trailer.

There they are, driving across a sea of green grass.

Please hand me a bottle of water.


5. Those last two italicized lines were a fantasy.

Gene, Terry and Jennifer are not here yet. It is late afternoon, and I am very thirsty. My cellphone continues to work great. Kathy and I continue conversations on marketing and logistic issues related to the upcoming Airventure show.

Jennifer calls and texts me, they are very close to me. I have picked a flint hills pasture which is several square miles in size. They have found a locked gate. They want to know if they should find someone with a key first, or hop the fence and bring me water and food. I ask them to hop the fence. I think they are about a mile east of me; if I walk towards them, and they walk towards me, we’ll meet, right?!

I’m eager for the water. I stupidly leave my cap and GPS at the airplane, but I do take my cellphone. I start hiking east. My wife calls again, and I explain what we are trying to do.

About 20 minutes later, I see two dots far away. One is wearing a bright orange shirt – that’s got to be a Belite T-shirt, which is one of our corporate colors. The other is my daughter. I call Gene. He can’t see me, but I can see him plainly. I tell him to turn left 45 degrees and walk towards the sun. He proceeds to do so, then his image dot disappears as he descends into a gully. I also descend into another gully. 15 minutes later, we are both out of our respective gullys, and finally in sight of each other.

When we finally meet, he and Jennifer are on one side of a barbed wire fence, I am on the other. He hands me a bottle of water. It is gone inside me immediately. He hands me a Diet Dr Pepper, which is still cold, and a cheeseburger.


6. What does an Angel look like?

We have to figure out how to get the trucks and trailer from the locked gate, across a pasture, a mile to the East, over to the barbed wire fence, through the fence, to the downed aircraft, a mile or more behind me.

My friend Terry remained at the locked gate, then went looking for someone with a key.

While all of this is being considered, Gene spots a pickup truck driving slowly across the flint hills, inside the pasture which contains my airplane! He hands me his hiking pack, and takes off quickly towards the truck.

Jennifer and I walk at a more leisurely pace towards the truck.

Gene catches the truck, when Jennifer and I arrive a few minutes later, Gene is sitting in the cab with our Angel. His name is Calvin, he works for the landowner, and he is here to feed the cattle. He was unaware that a broken airplane is in his ranchland. He is eager to help.

Calvin helps us – taking us through a gate in the barbed wire fence, then to the locked gate beyond the next pasture. He reaches in his glove compartment, pulls out a key, and a moment later the gate is open. Our aircraft trailer is sitting there (it’s actually Terry’s) but Terry’s truck is gone. We can’t get him on the cellphone. He’s out looking for a key; but we already have the gate unlocked. Gene and Calvin drive off, looking for Terry. Jennifer and I get in the company pickup truck, which we turn on and crank up the AC. We talk. We smile. Jennifer is so glad to see me.

Eventually everyone returns. Terry has found some other people, who were trying to get ahold of Calvin. (We already found Calvin.) We all head back towards the downed aircraft. There are three pickup trucks and one aircraft trailer heading across a cattle road in the flint hills. Calvin knows the pasture extremely well. He tells us they recently had heavy rain; he keeps us from heading down gullys.

Soon the work begins on dismantling the aircraft.


7. The cattle watched, and a plane went back to Wichita.

The landowner and his wife show up. Another lady shows up. A child is along with the couple, cheerfully tossing alfalfa pellets from the back of yet another pickup truck to the cattle, who have also showed up. There are a great many cows, all milling around the pickup trucks, the airplane, and the people.

There isn’t a great deal of work involved with disassembling this airplane. The wings unbolt, the flaperon cables unclip, the flaperons also unbolt. In about an hour and a half, the airplane changes from wounded to disassembled and stored on the trailer and one of the pickup trucks.


3 hours later, we are back in Wichita, at our workshop.


8. Grateful.

I had the opportunity to muse on things which I am grateful for, and people rose to the top of my list. First of all, to my wife, who shares this adventure with me. To Gene, who has become more than a coworker. I value his counsel and ability to get any job done. To Terry, who quickly has become a great friend. And of course, my daughters, who are intelligent and loving. Thank you Jennifer, for your insistence on being part of the rescue squad.

I am especially grateful to Calvin and the others who helped us get the plane out of their grazing land. Thank you! I’m sorry I didn’t get all your names. Your cheerfulness and desire to help made an indelible, wonderful impression on me. I was worried that I had landed in your pasture. You were simply pleased that I wasn’t hurt.

Finally, I am grateful to God, whom I believe in. The gear was destined to fatigue and shear off, sooner or later. It could have happened while landing on concrete, or it could have happened while taxing around in the flint hills. My demonstrator plane will be at Oshkosh, hardly the worse for wear, but it’s not flyable until the engine is torn down. The shaft still turns freely, but there clearly is a raspy feel to it. Cracked bearing? Bent crank? We’ll see. Also, we'll redesign the wheel axle shaft immediately to improve strength.


9. Final thoughts?

Whose fault was this? I’ll stop the debate right now – it’s entirely mine. Inadequate fuel planning; perhaps improper carb setup; inappropriate landing location. The plane handled the situation with sweetness amidst difficulty.

I WILL NEVER FORGET THE FEELING OF SITTING IN THE AIRPLANE, SUCCESSFUL, AFTER SOFT UPHILL LANDING, WITH ENGINE IDLING, ON THE FLINT HILLS PRAIRIE, SOAKING IN TO ME...

William Least Heat Moon writes of Blue Highways. This was mine.

--- James Wiebe, written somewhere in the flint hills near Olpe, Kansas, and completed the following day. Wednesday, July 22, 2009, and Thursday, July 23, 2009.