Thursday, September 2, 2010

What's an ATP Like Me Doing In a Belite?? By Earl Downs

Editor's Note:  I've gotten to know Earl Downs, who used to help Skystar show and sell their Kitfox aircraft.  (Earl's brother Ed was President of Skystar, maker of the original Kitfox Lite.)  Recently, Earl had an opportunity fly both our ultralight aircraft Superlite Dragon, and our ultralight aircraft tricycle gear Belite, AKA the Trike. 

Earl has authored over 80 articles for various publications, including Sport Pilot, Sport Aviation, and other magazines.  Earl has written the following article for Belite, and I'm pleased to publish it here. 

"What's an ATP Like Me Doing In a Belite??"

A Guest Blogpost for Belite Aircraft By Earl Downs

Earl Downs, in Baby Ace
That’s right, I’ve been flying for 54 years and earned my airline transport pilot certificate 41 years ago. I’m still actively flying and flight instructing in all kinds of airplanes. So, it’s logical to ask, “Why is a licensed pilot like me flying an ultralight that does not even require the pilot to be certificated?” The simple answer is; I like the Belite because it’s fun and exciting to fly.

As it happens, I didn’t always have a passion for the ultralight style airplanes. When the ultralights first appeared in the late 1970s, I was one of those guys that said, “You must be crazy.” At that time, I was the manager of Boeing 707 and 727 pilot ground training for a large airline. However, when FAR 103 (the ultralight rules) was published in the early 1980s I was a little curious because the FAA was now involved.

In 1981 a couple of airline pilot friends of mine bought an MX II Quicksilver kit (that’s an ultralight style 2-place airplane) and built the plane under experimental-amateur built certification. I took them up on an offer to fly it and found a new way to “hang in the sky.” The early MX II did not fly much like a “real airplane,” but I got the hang of it and enjoyed it until the owners went their own ways and the MX II moved to another location. I wasn’t with the MX II for very long, but it changed my attitude about ultralight flying.

I was away from ultralights for about 15 years until I saw the KitFox Lite. It was an ultralight, but it had all the characteristics of a “real airplane.” I bought a kit in June of 2000 and it was flying in the spring of 2001. I loved my Lite! I found the controls harmonized perfectly; it flew with a light touch but was not “twitchy.” I cut a deal to lease my Lite to KitFox for use at airshows, and I would join their team to do the demo flying. I even found room for a 400 foot airstrip (Horse Apple Airfield) on my 10 acre homestead for backyard flying.

Earl Downs in his Kitfox Lite at Horse Apple Airfield -- 400 foot strip!

A few years ago I sold my Lite to move on to another project, and I was saddened when KitFox removed the Lite from their product line. Then, I heard that a guy in Wichita, Kansas had picked up the tooling and was going to produce the Lite again, under a new name, and with new improvements. As it turned out, James Wiebe not only had the tooling, he also had a background in a technology that could take this already proven ultralight in a new direction.

If the KitFox Lite had one challenge, it was to keep it light enough to meet the ultralight requirements of FAR 103. James’ unique expertise is in the area of lightweight composite materials, and he knew that carbon fiber was a key to opening up ways to bring more choices to the ultralight pilot. James formed the Belite Aircraft Company and used carbon fiber to expand the capabilities of an ultralight now named the Belite.  New engine choices and construction features allow the Belite to be tailored to what the customer wants.

James invited to me fly a couple of his Belite airplanes, and I jumped at the chance to see what his company had done to my favorite airplane. A 2-hour 45-minute drive from my home in Cushing, Oklahoma led me to the production location on the northeast side of Wichita. The 2,600 foot long turf runway in the Kansas countryside is the perfect location for fun flying.

The first airplane I flew is the hotrod they call, “The Superlite Dragon.”   (The paint scheme was inspired by dragons from the movie AVATAR -- Editors Note)

Belite Superlite Dragon

Equipped with a 50 HP Hirth twin cylinder, dual ignition engine, it still meets the FAR 103 requirements because of its use of weight-saving carbon fiber. Flying it was like flying my beloved KitFox Lite on steroids!  Just like I remembered, the light controls were in perfect balance, but the short takeoff and rapid climb far exceeded that of my Lite. An experienced pilot will feel right at home in this ultralight hotrod, and a new pilot will find that a first flight in this little single-place plane is exciting but not intimidating. Even though it’s a taildragger, anyone with a few hours in a Cub or Champ will find it docile on the ground and in the takeoff and landing phases of flight.

The next plane I flew was the tricycle landing gear version of the beLite with the smaller 28 HP Hirth engine. To be honest, I expected the performance to be a bit “wimpy,” but I was pleasantly surprised. It demonstrated what I call, “good ultralight performance” combined with the excellent controllability of a “real airplane.”

Belite Trike Climbing Out
Of course, the forward visibility on the ground is excellent and the takeoffs and landings are a typical tricycle gear non event.  For pilots intimidated by taildraggers, it provides a better option with perfect ground and landing manners.  It is also available with a larger engine.

The KitFox Light broke the code when it came to an ultralight that had the handling qualities of traditional airplanes. Through the use of modern technologies, the Belite Aircraft Company has expanded the versatility and capability of this captivating little airplane. All of this adds up to more flying for fun.

-- Earl Downs