CHIQUITA: THE FLYING BANANA
Reprinted with permission from the EAA Sport Aviation magazine, (c) 2000
There I was, in a box canyon of my flying career. On the right were my three teenage kids who detested the long trips, locked up in the back of a Piper Lance. On the left was my wife who preferred to do almost anything but fly. And straight ahead, racing towards the windshield, was a sheer granite face of boredom. After twenty years of flying, it just wasnt fun anymore: depart on the gauges, climb up, punch in the altitude hold, cruise for hours looking at numbers and needles twitching about, descend smoothly and . . .was this fun? Most high altitude trips resembled flight simulators, with me inside. I felt professional, but bored. So in 1997 I decided to either go into aerobatics or build a "low and slow" plane. I sold my Lance to my partners looked for an exit to the canyon.
National Geographic featured a wild looking plane called the Air Cam in their "Ndoki" issue and suddenly, aviation looked interesting again. What could be better in an area featuring ocean and mountains than two engines, each capable of propelling the airplane down the tarmac fast enough to take off? So I arranged a flight out of Watsonville during the factorys national sales tour. The appointed day came and I strapped myself into the front seat of the Air Cam, which is like sitting in the bow of a canoe. Youre out there, hip deep in aluminum, with absolutely nothing around most of you. I pushed the twin throttles forward and counted to three and we were gone, pointed up at a ridiculously steep deck angle. I remember wondering how a twin would handle a tail slide. But we continued to climb and in time, I removed my fingers from the depressions that I had dug in the fuselage. This was unbelievably fun!
We leveled out at 200 and started cruising the coast. Suddenly I spotted an otter lounging in a kelp bed beneath us. I looked down and suddenly we made eye contact. She (?) was curious about this bright blue thing purring over the water. All of this was happening at "human" speed, where I could see and comprehend. I was sold. As soon as we slipped back into my home airport, I vowed that Id buy an Air Cam.
Please understand that Im not a fan of detailed construction articles (unless its the plane that I happen to be building), so Ill hopefully spare you of that torture. But following is a brief description of the process. The Air Cam includes three unique constructions: the fuselage and vertical stabilizer are traditional aluminum held together with pop rivets, the horizontal stab and control surfaces are Stits fabric and just to keep it interesting and light, the wings are made of pre-sewn 10 oz. Dacron sail cloth formed with fiberglass battens. From the first step (fiber-glassing the tensioning rib in the wing) to the last one (wiring), it took exactly 18 months and 1,000 hours to build. The brochure promised 400-500 hours, but frankly, I would have been disappointed if it had gone that quickly? This is just a huge erector set and the building process gave me immeasurable joy. Id come home from work after a 10 hour, peek at the kit and say, "not tonight, dear." . But the lure was too strong and the next thing I knew, it would be two in the morning. I lived for a year on very little sleep because I was driven by this project.
As each piece was completed, I quietly moved it upstairs into my living room. The first surprise waiting for my wife was the vertical stab that is seven feet tall. I mounted it vertically on wood like sculpture and hung a sign on it that said, "This is an apparition and does not exist." Then the two 14 wing outboard sections were tucked in, followed by the horizontal stabs. Theres something rather reassuring about having a drink in your living room with friends, surrounded by your airplane. When the motors arrived, they took up residence on the coffee table.
The fuselage arrived in two large chunks and I proceeded to drill it apart during the next three months. A routine was established that went like this: drill, cleco, drill, cleco, drill, cleco, debur. Now repeat this on literally thousands of holes of varying dimension. Slowly, the fuselage was taken apart until nothing was left. Then, after an alodine and epoxy coating, it started to go back together.
It became necessary to find a new work space in order to put Chiquita on the landing gear, so I bought an inexpensive Costco tent that served me very well for the next five months. All of our cars were banished to the street and my plane commanded the entire driveway. This was absolutely the right call, because it eliminated the need to rent a larger space elsewhere and I could continue to work whenever the "honey dos" subsided.
Later came paint. I used a flat bed auto truck to take Chiquita down to the shop and back. Her wheel base is so wide that we had to extend the truck with plywood. I was very fortunate on the wiring front. My partner in the Air Cam is a retired electrical engineer from Lockeed and a pilot. If he could figure out rocket motors, he could do this plane. I had lots of volunteer work by friends like Jim Clark, who was with the project almost from the beginning and from my kids. During the construction phase, their allowances depended on hours of de-burring in the garage. Suddenly the thought of insurance dawned on me, so I called Avemco. I learned that I would need a twin rating AND five hours in type, to qualify for coverage. So I took a two day multi-engine class down in Las Vegas. Please dont ask what a 1963 Beechcraft Travelair and 1999 Air Cam have in common, but somehow Avemco thought it was relevant. I can say after the experience that if anyone would like to experience assymetrical thrust in a marginally safe twin, then this is a must do. The Travelair reminded me of the old joke, "if one engine stops, the other one will take you to the site of the accident."
The Air Cam factory in Sebring graciously loaned me their pride and joy for two days of racing trucks (I lost), dropping into little grass strips and hovering over wind-swept lakes (throttle back to put it into reverse). It was great fun and confirmed why I had spent so many nights drilling into a chunk of aluminum. Nothing in my flying experience prepared me for how to handle being too high on short final with an Air Cam. "Just point it down at the ground," said founder Phil Lockwood, "Theres so much drag, you wont balloon on the flare and youll end up where you want to be." It worked. Imagine trying that in a Mooney. With Phil at the controls, we did the unthinkable, flying between trees, skimming the orange groves at 60, stuff that would be rather foolish in a single. In the Air Cam, either of the two engines could keep us aloft.
Back in Watsonville, it was time to take the Rotax 912Ss out of my living room (where they had served as sculpture for five months) and put them to work. In lieu of a present for my birthday, Nick, my seventeen year old, volunteered to help mount the engines. They each weigh about 130 pounds and we figured that we would lift them onto the mounts. We quickly discovered that suspending sixty pounds at shoulder height and out two feet (over the flaps) is challenging and even a bit ignorant. We succeeded without using an engine jack, but both of us were sore for days after.
Now it was time to finalize the probes and wiring. I chose an AV-10 to monitor all engine functions. My logic was that an airplane that was built to go "low and slow" should allow you to keep your head out of the cockpit. Way out of the cockpit. It isnt smart to search down between your knees for a gauge when youre skimming the treetops at 300. The AV-10 takes up one 3 1/8" hole and receives input from the engines (as well as a remote temperature sensor), all through one RS-232 connection. But much more important, you tell the instrument the normal operating ranges and it watches them, even if youre distracted trying to find that other plane in the traffic pattern. When a limit is exceeded, a coos in your ear and says, "warning, oil temperature, right engine, high." And the same warning flashes on the panel. Im absolutely sold on this concept. We finished the wiring and it was time to fire her up.
We rolled Chiquita out and much to my amazement, the engines started right up. Over the next few days, I performed a variety of taxi tests, some planned, others not. Friends gathered and loved the melodious tone of the two Rotaxs at idle as I drove around. As my confidence in Chiquitas road handling increased, so did my speed. You can do some fairly incredible things with an Air Cam on the ground, because of the 8 ½ foot wheel base. I started high speed taxi tests on the inactive runway, gaining speed until I could fly the length of the runway with the tail raised. As I completed the final run of the day, I set the tail down and Chiquita started to exit the runway to the left. Instead of correcting it, I assumed that it would just end up being a high speed exit and let her go. What I hadnt counted on was the intensity of the crosswind. Chiquitas turn tightened quicker than I could react. Soon she was "hopping" sideways, struggling to stay level. I flashed on my 1,000 hours of work and investment about to be dashed by a dumb maneuver. We came to rest in a cloud of black smoke, pointed in the opposite direction. Looking back toward my hanger, my partner Don had his head cocked to one side and we didnt need a radio to communicate his thoughts.
Eighteen months after the first kit section was unpacked, it was time to get my FAA inspection. Or, shall I say, the first of THREE inspections. The first was really just an introduction and a cursory inspection. My inspector happened to be in the area and said that he wanted to take a quick look at my project first. As he entered the hanger, the first words out of his mouth were "I hate experimentals and helicopters. I would never fly in either one of those things and the only reason I do these inspections is because I have to." He walked and I followed, almost trotting around the plane. "Not enough threads showing there, these two hoses should be tied together, the wiring should be better shielded . . ." And as quickly as he arrived, he jumped back into his car and left. It didnt bode well.
A week later he returned for the real thing. This time I was prepared with a clipboard. I learned he had previously owned a certified repair station. And I also learned that he got his kicks from discovering "problems" during inspections. He bragged about a twin being worked on by an A&P that he had glanced at, pointing out problems that the guy had missed. As my inspection continued, I faced the facts. Here was a guy who was going to point out EVERYTHING and I should just say good-bye to the concept of flying away after the inspection. But on the other hand, I respected his experience and concluded that he was actually adding value to my plane by making it. By the end of the two and a half hour inspection, I had a list of forty items that would have to be fixed. Most were very minor, like showing an extra thread beyond the lock washer or painting the prop tips white.
Its hard to say if I was relieved or disappointed the following week when I called for a re-inspection. I had worked 16 hours through the weekend with friends, going down the punch list. Now I was prepared to show off on the re-inspection, pointing out all of the work that I had done. But my guy was busy and he would send TWO inspectors in his place. They went through the list just as carefully and by the end of the day, I finally had my airworthiness certificate. Chiquita was ready to fly. But was I?
I look upon flight testing like I do home birthing: you can do it, but is it smart? Wouldnt you rather have someone who knows what theyre doing ? So I called up Phil Lockwood, creator of the Air Cam. Phil graciously offered to come out to inspect and fly Chiquita on her maiden flight. I think that he was also curious, because mine was the first kit finished in the U.S. away from the factory. (There are numerous kits being built at the Sebring airport, where its relatively easy to see what the thing is supposed to look like.) After more final checks, Phil launched her airborne. Theres no way to describe the feeling of seeing your plane take off, after so many long hours of work. The only thing better was doing it myself, on the next flight. And just like staring at your first born child, I couldnt believe that it was actually happening. I was flying at 3,000 feet over the countryside, in something that I had built. And I was laughing and smiling. Crazy!
Phil Lockwood (left), Air Cam inventor & the author
My next hurdle was to get the flight testing done so I could share the experience with friends. Forty hours seemed like such a long time. It became a challenge: could I get it done before the end of summer? I took a week off from work and started floating (you dont zoom in an Air Cam) around my defined air space. Since Watsonville sits on the Pacific Ocean, I had three directions to travel every day. From one end of the county to the other I went, landing on grass strips, trolling the ocean at 150, skimming the mountain tops and chasing coyotes, waving at sea lions and tourists on the beach. It was great fun and by weeks end, I had hit forty hours, more than I normally flew in a year. My inspector team returned and now I got what I was waiting for: my final airworthiness certificate.
As I write this article, Ive enjoyed some 90 blissful hours in the Air Cam. I have great fun with Chiquita. At Palo Alto, the control tower recognized the plane and breaking away from formality, started asking questions as I approached the active runway. I said, "its a great plane, but unfortunately it takes up most of the runway trying to get off the ground." I was cleared for departure and spooled up the Rotaxs into the 15 knot headwind. By mid-field I was almost 1,000 feet over the tower and I could hear them laughing in the control tower as they said goodbye. Back at Watsonville, I showed Chiquita at a recent air show. On the information board, I wrote "fixed wing helicopter." No kidding, a pilot came up to me and asked, "how does it go vertical with just those two engines pointed backwards, I dont see anything on top?"
This past Sunday a friend and I flew sixty miles up the coast to San Francisco, roaming over the coastal waters and fields at 200 feet. Then we entered the bay between the towers of the Golden Gate bridge and watched as hundreds of sailboats flocked beneath us, their white sails charging in unison. We then continued up the coast to an inland bay, where we waved at kayakers and inspected oyster beds. Four airports later and after six hours of flight, we finished my best flying day in 21 years. Ive owned many airplanes, but the Air Cam is the only one that makes you want to get back in and go flying again, even after a long day. Its that much fun. Its everything about seeing and smelling and feeling the joy of flight. It has nothing to do with the world of watching digital gauges tick off as distance passes miles below the fuselage. If I want that type of flying, I can always play flight simulator on my computer. No, Ive just negotiated a 180 degree turn in the box canyon of my flying career, Im headed towards the open sky and Im loving it. Jeremy Salz Lezin