HOME-BUILT AIRCRAFT TESTING
Receiving the email with the hot rod Speedster Airplane depicted above reminded me of an exploit which I prevent myself from recalling often.
When I was at McDonnell Douglas about 1984, Ziggy, a retired long time engineer at MDC, asked me if I would test fly his new home built experimental aircraft. Still being a fearless fighter pilot, I said, "Hell yes!"
I met Ziggy at his hangar in a group of hangars at the east side of Long Beach airport. The rows of hangars had narrow taxiways leading to and from the main taxiways to the major runways. Ziggy was a skinny little guy about five feet three inches tall, maybe in his late sixties or early 70's. We uncovered the tarp from his pride and joy airplane and pushed the low wing fighter outside of the hangar. The streamlined, sleek plane was a classy looking little winged rocket. It was a beautiful sight for any aviation enthusiast and seemed to be inviting me to get it airborne.
We walked around moving the flight control surfaces and checking tires, rivets and safety wired nuts. I climbed into the small cockpit and went through the engine controls and the important gauges. I felt something cool on my left knee and upon inquiry was told by Ziggy that the gas tank was directly in front of me and had a slight leak. I checked that out a little further but figured it would be all right since the leak was aft of the engine. Besides this was to be the all important first flight and we had to get it airborne if only for a quick downwind and landing. Only after the test hop could the plane be flown slow flight for the required 25 hours of engine break in.
Ziggy pointed out the heel brakes installation which was all the little hummer had. He told me how the flight controls worked and I played with them quite a while as I watched the reaction of the control surfaces to the inputs from the stick and rudders. The elevators worked correctly as did the ailerons so I felt the first flight would be manageable enough to keep me alive for a short test hop.
We cranked up the engine. All systems appeared OK for taxiing out to the runway, so I told Ziggy to kick the chocks, then step aside and I would be off. Ziggy said he wanted me to taxi it around the small hangars for a few minutes to get used to the throttle and the heel brakes. I didn't like the idea but it was his plane and I said "Ok."
I toiled along doing some "S" turns, using the small rudder and the heel brakes which had no feel in the small, vertical brake activators below the rudder pedals . It was hard to tell if I was deflecting the the brake pedal until the brake grabbed and slowed the left or right activated wheel. The narrow taxiway had a raised center rather steeply sloped for drainage. I started a U-turn to the right at a walking speed to return to Ziggy's location about 50 yards back up the taxiway. After 90 degrees of turn and as I crossed the raised centerline of the taxiway, the right wheel suddenly released and the aircraft continued straight across the taxiway with no effect from heeling the right brake. I realized that I was now along for the ride. I heeled the left brake and shoved the power up to get the full left rudder reaction to my demand to turn hard left. The left wheel grabbed momentarily and then released. I was headed down the side of the taxiway toward the wide garage type door of a hangar and rapidly picking up speed. I quickly turned off the magnetos and the electrical key. The prop stopped rotating about two feet from the hangar door. "WHAM!" The nose of the experimental aircraft punched through the aluminum hangar door and continued forward until it ended up near the canopy windscreen. The aircraft had made a silhouette of the aircraft nose and horizontal prop blades in the hangar door.
I released the lap belt and shoulder straps from the seat and climbed out. Ziggy was running toward me screaming "Why! Why!" with tears coming down his cheeks. It was like I had just killed his favorite child.
I checked the propeller blades. Both were bent maybe ten degrees aft. The damage would require repair that would be quite a job or replacement . Ziggy arrived still wailing about his beautiful airplane. I looked into the cockpit and checked the heel brakes. Plastic 1.5 inch pulleys! The cables had been running through plastic pulleys the width of the cable but were either too flimsy or inappropriately aligned to handle the high pressure applied with full braking. The cable on the right had popped off the pulley and then when full pressure was applied to the left brake the pulley bent in the direction the cable was tightened and that cable popped off its pulley too. I had used far better heel controls on a Lowery organ.
I said, "Ziggy I'm sorry about your aircraft. I'm also sorry you used plastic cable router pulleys instead of hardened aluminum or steel. That plastic pulley proved to be a costly substitute." I shuddered as my mind pictured the flight control pulleys being made of the same malleable plastic and routed in the same manner as the brake cables.
I helped him pull the airplane out of the hole in the hangar. The punched out silhouette stood out darkly in the center of the gray aluminum door. Ziggy and I pushed his plane back to his hangar. We returned it to where it was stored at the beginning of the episode, covered it with the same dusty tarp and left the area.
Ziggy called a couple of times wanting my aircraft insurance policy number. I refused to give him my policy number because it only covered my C-150 and C-182. I said, "Ziggy, I regret that you will have to assume the cost of repairs to the garage door and your prop."
Later, I thanked my luck at having a brake cable pulley failure in that restricted taxi area rather than continuing with the first flight on Ziggy's prized plane. Dan Colburn, an MDC DC-10 pilot friend, told me that he had aborted takeoff when he attempted to get Ziggy's little homebuilt airborne several months before. He said the struts punched through the bottom of the wing while jarring up and down on the runway abort. I figured that is how the bird ended up with a fuel cell over my legs. It was then that I wondered about the CG location with the fuel weight so far forward! I decided that Be No was my plan for the future. There would Be No test-flying of home built planes unless on my own aircraft.
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