Sequoia 300 First Flight:
During this time, I was heavily involved in working on the Falco design. Literally years went by during which I would finish supper and go back to the office to work out design problems on the Falco, and I would spend odd hours working on the Sequoia mold. I got to hate the damned thing. You'd get covered with Bondo dust, and you could sand for months and not seem to get anywhere.
Gar wasn't able to proceed with the Sequoia project until he had the fuselage shell and cowling mold, so he had to put Butch's airplane in a mini-warehouse until I finished it. He kept pestering me, and I kept working at the plug in dribbles and spits. This went on for a long time, much too long, until finally one day Gar's wife, Mary Alice, laid into me something awful with heaps of ice in the tone of her voice.
Thank you, Mary Alice, for giving me that well-deserved, well-placed kick in the butt. I was so embarrassed about the situation, that I resolved that I was going to finish the damned thing by Oshkosh, two months away. And finish it, I did. I spent nearly every evening of the next two months sanding Bondo, spraying gel coat and slopping West System epoxy. I eventually used about eighty gallons of the stuff, making the molds for the fuselage in six large pieces and the cowling in four pieces. I hated every minute of it, but thank you again, Mary Alice, for blasting me.
With the cowling and fuselage shell shipped, I was no longer the one holding anyone up. Gar and his crew made good progress on the fuselage and completing the wing. Gar had been planning to close his shop when he reached retirement age, but a couple of things forced this on him earlier than planned. One of his employees died, another got sick, that sort of thing. Gar finally wrote Butch that he wasn't going to be able to finish it.
Butch found a couple of guys in Tennessee to take over the project. After picking up the fuselage, they started going over it and called Butch to come out and look at it. They had all kinds of things they didn't like about it. The canopy frame was "all wrong." The fuselage shell was attached "all wrong" and was going to "blow off on the first flight." (Mind you, Dave Thurston, Gar and I had spent a lot of time talking about how to attach the shell.) Lots of other things they wanted to change. All this without a glance at the drawings or a single call to me. I called Gar and we both agreed that these were not the people who should be finishing the plane, and that they were over their heads. Butch said he had begun to suspect that as well, and you'll be pleased to hear that Charles Gutzman has agreed to finish the plane. He'll do a great job.
Meanwhile out in Spokane, Jim Baugh kept up a steady pace. There were many difficulties along the way, and Jim would call me to talk about these. We delivered a canopy bubble and both Jim and Gar used the Falco canopy frame/track design, but they beefed the canopy frame up a little. We never got a windshield made, but Jim adapted a Glasair III windshield.
Jim Baugh had the airplane essentially finished in November, but he had a little fiberglass work left to do on the cowling. He decided to let that wait until warmer weather. There was also another problem. After years of working on the airplane, suddenly the idea of flying it started to look like a rather scary proposition. The enthusiasm that carried Jim through much of the early years started to wane.
John Harns, who lives nearby and who has followed the construction of the plane for a long time, had agreed to do the first flight. Good thing, because Jim Baugh is a relatively low-time pilot. He has about 300 hours in things like Cherokees, and he was painfully aware that he fit the profile of people who have had accidents in high performance homebuilts. In fact, it was worries about Jim Baugh that drove me to write "How to Kill Yourself in a Homebuilt Aircraft", just as concerns about Richard Brown drove me to write the Falco Flight Test Guide. I'm pleased to report that Jim has the right attitude, is getting checked out in Bonanzas and is proceeding slowly.
The weight and balance turned out to be something of a problem. The airplane was heavier than expected, and more worrisome, was a bit tail-heavy. It's a mystery to us all why this has happened.
For one thing, it has been a constant source of amazement to all of us how accurate Dave Thurston's plans are. Even though it was a new design, Dave's original drawings had fewer errors than the Falco plans have now. It's not a difficult thing to estimate the weight of a metal structure, and we've weighed the various pieces and assemblies and have found them to come very close to Dave's numbers.
As we went along, we began with an initial design estimate of 1,800 lbs, and then as Dave designed parts, he would work up an estimate of what the part should weigh. Then when we made parts, we weighed many of the completed assemblies, tail surfaces, landing gear, welded fuselage, completed wings, etc. There was some growth in weight and our final estimate was for the airplane to weigh about 1,900 lbs. That includes 170 lbs for the fuselage, which is what Butch Harbold's weighed, and 75 lbs for the fiberglass shell. The shell components weighed 49.5 lbs as shipped.
The empty weight includes only 15 lbs for instrumentation, so radios would add to that. Jim Baugh used some rather heavy seats and added an intercooler to the engine compartment. Where the extra weight came from is something we don't understand. In any event, the airplane required 30 lbs of lead to be installed on the front of the engine to bring the CG range within Dave's recommended limits for the first flights (18-26% MAC vs the Falco's limits of 19-30%). That brought the empty weight to 2,202 lbs and allows for two pilots to fly and still stay within Dave's suggested limits.
There were lots of calls leading up to the first flight. Finally, one Sunday evening I got a call at home--collect!--from Jim Baugh. I was not happy about this, and finally agreed to accept the charges only after arguing with the operator for a while. Then Jim came on. "We've got a very serious problem with the Sequoia. Are you sitting down." Yes, I lied, standing in the kitchen with Meredith looking on. "We had a main wing spar failure."
"Was anyone hurt?", I asked.
"Fortunately not. It happened on takeoff. Why don't I put John on? He can tell you about it."
"How's your insurance?" barked Harns, and I was beginning to smell a rat when he chuckled a bit and then said "She flies fine." Cute guys, just trying to rattle my cage. It didn't work, but it sure rattled Meredith. Jim later admitted it was all his idea and apologized.
John Harns congratulates Jim Baugh after the first flight.
The first flight was on April 26 from the airport at Spokane. John Harns took it up for about ten minutes and quickly landed because the oil temperature was nearing the redline. "It's going to be a fine airplane", said John.
They ordered a new oil temperature sender, and later concluded that the problem is something about the sender being right next to the return line from the turbocharger and that the temperature gets hot on takeoff and then calms down in flight.
On the following Friday, John took it up for about 45 minutes with the gear down the whole time. He took it to a full approach to landing stall with moderate power, 30° of flaps and gear down. It broke sharply to the left for about a quarter turn.
From the beginning, we all took solace that every airplane that Dave Thurston designed flew well on the first flight, and the Sequoia is no exception. John reports that it is "very responsive in all controls, even more responsive than the Falco."
At this time, three people have flown in the plane, John Harns, Jim Baugh, and Randy Dalstram, an instructor who has taken over John's role as lead pilot during the test period. Randy has quickly become comfortable in the plane and loves it.
Once the bugs are worked out, there's really no question that this is going to be a wonderful plane to fly. Everyone reports that it feels very solid in the air, and it's an airplane that goes where you point it. It rolls from 45° to 45° in two seconds without even full aileron deflection, and it's "rock solid when you turn the controls loose." Jim reports that it's noisy in the cockpit, but otherwise is comfortable to ride in.
"It's going to be a dream to fly", he says, although he admits to overcontrolling on his first takeoff. "It was a double handful and then some." He was a half-step behind on everything and finally came to understand that with maneuverable airplanes you use a gentle touch on the controls.
There are inevitable problems with a new design. John Harns reported that the plane feels very short-coupled on the gear and that you really have to stay on top of it, like a tail-dragger. Jim Baugh has since come to think that it was a matter of over-controlling on the part of the pilot.
The brakes are fairly weak and won't hold the plane still when you do a full power run-up. Jim used a couple of Mac trim actuators in the elevator, and these seem to work too fast and take the trim tabs twice the travel we'd like. Doubling the length of the control arm will cure these things.
On Randy Dalstram's first flight, the engine went rough. He quickly landed the plane and found that a loose injector line was dumping raw fuel over the top of the engine. Not a pleasant thing for a turbocharged engine. Then a couple of weeks later, they received an emergency AD from Lycoming to tighten the injector lines and supports. Others, apparently, have had the same problem.
The landing gear is hydraulically actuated, and it takes 18 seconds to get the gear up and 16 seconds to extend them. There's no pitch change with gear extension, but the airplane pitches nose down when the flaps are lowered.
Jim has set the gross weight at 3,200 lbs, empty is about 2,200, and with a 300 hp turbocharged engine, the airplane accelerates, climbs and flies quickly. It will climb with full flaps, and with the flaps up and gear down, it climbs at 1,100 fpm at 110 mph indicated. With two on board and 85% power, it will climb at 2,000 fpm through 8,000 feet. This makes Jim say things like, "Man, that mother climbs!"
They haven't really opened it up yet, but at 4,000 feet, they've seen 180 mph indicated with 21"/2300. At 10,500 feet and 51°F, a power setting of 26-27" and 2300 produces 181-182 mph indicated. It appears that the airplane will come out fairly close to the estimated numbers for cruise and climb. It burns about 35 gph in a climb and then settles down to 14-15 gph at cruise.
At this time, they have about six hours on the plane, and they're in no hurry to explore the ragged edges. Instead, they plan to spend a lot of time getting used to the plane, and in late July, we hope to get Al Aitken out there to open the envelope and get some engineering numbers on the handling, CG limits and performance. Once he flies it, I hope to get someone like Peter Lert to take it up and give us his evaluation so that we can figure out what sort of tweaks might be in order.
There are many similarities between the Falco and the Sequoia. Peter Bacqué, a writer for our local newspaper, said the Sequoia looks like a "Falco on steroids." The simple fact is that two designers, particularly conservative classicists like Thurston and Frati, with similar goals will design similar airplanes. Thurston, of course, did a great deal of engineering work on the Falco after we took it over but, amazingly, Thurston and Frati have never met.
There are several obvious areas for improvement. The airplane could use a windshield that was designed to fit properly with the windshield bow. It wouldn't be any faster, but it would look nicer. The exhaust pipe came right out of a Piper that uses the same engine, and it requires a big hole in the right side of the cowling. There ought to be a more elegant solution. And finally, a good paint scheme design would do wonders for the airplane. Jim Baugh just painted it with a temporary, get-it-flying coat of white with a few stripes on the tail.
In all, it took Jim Baugh eleven years to build the plane. There were, of course, the usual motivations to finish the plane, but Jim had an additional one. About a year ago, at a time when his wife was none-too-pleased with him, he overhead Marilyn tell a friend, "If he doesn't finish the damned thing, he'd better learn to make love to it, 'cause he can forget about me!"
What lies ahead for the Sequoia? I'm not sure. At the time when we started on the airplane, there were essentially no high-performance retractable gear airplanes offered for amateur construction-now, of course, there are many. One of the great lessons for me has been the absolutely stunning amount of work that's necessary to bring an aircraft to the point where it's not only a flyable airplane, but there's also a complete kit and builder's manual available. I've done this on the Falco, and partially on the Sequoia, and I just don't have the energy or interest to pursue the Sequoia design by marketing it again.
I expect that there will be a flurry of interest in the airplane as a result of this first flight. My intentions are to continue to support the builders that we have. For many years now, we have refused requests to sell additional sets of plans for the aircraft because we were not prepared to offer the kind of support a builder needs, and also because the initial goal of sharing tooling and intial kit costs had been achieved. We would like to concentrate all of our energies on the Falco, so we would consider selling the entire Sequoia 300 project-design, tooling and all components-to the right party, but I would be very selective.
Based on my experience, I think that what should happen is that the fuselage should be redesigned in aluminum. It would probably be lighter, and I doubt there would be any difference in speed. It would be much more buildable, either as a production aircraft (the airplane was designed to FAR Part 23 standards) or as a kit. But we've got enough to say grace over with the Falco, and we'll leave it to someone else to do it all with the Sequoia.
Jim Baugh will have the Sequoia at the West Coast Falco Fly-In in September, and Dave Thurston is even mumbling about coming. We'll have more reports in future issues, but don't look for Jim and the Sequoia at Oshkosh. He's going to take things slow with the plane and get to know it before he takes it that far.
At the end of it all, I look back at the process and wonder what it all means. Part of me says that it's a neat thing and shows what someone can do when they put their mind to it. It's kind of embarrassing that I didn't finish mine in record time while simultaneously doing all the Falco design work but, hey, life doesn't always work out like you think it's going to, and maybe it's more interesting that way.
There's also part of me that says in a quiet little voice--and this is the uncomfortable part--as I look at the photos and think about the effort and expense of it all, that maybe--just maybe--we're all certifiable.