When you use an aircraft to lead Whooping cranes on their first migration there is a lot to worry about. As you drift off to sleep for the night, the list starts with concern for the bird’s safety and exactly what lessons we are teaching. As you toss and turn, thoughts of another delayed migration race through your mind with a speed of a September south wind. While punching your pillow, frets about team dynamics and WCEP matters pin your eyes open like toothpicks and fundraising issues pick off the sheep you just counted with deadly accuracy. Nothing however, ruins my four hours of sleep like thoughts of the new aircraft.
Delving into the manufacturing of LSA trikes and the FAA regulations becomes complex very quickly.
For many years, people who took to the sky for the simple joy of flying could do it in what was loosely called an ultralight. Mostly, they were open cockpit, made of tubes and fabric and were powered by small engines, often repurposed from snowmobiles or motorcycles.
When the FAA instituted the Light Sport Aircraft category in 2006, they required manufacturers to comply with construction standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Aircraft that were already flying, like our old Cosmos Phase II fleet, were grandfathered into the new rule.
That’s not to say that the old trikes aren’t safe but they don’t meet the new standards, so when the FAA gave us an exemption to fly them for a commercial purpose, they asked us to upgrade. To further ensure our safety they required us to use Special Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSA) which are maintained by a certified mechanic rather than by the pilot. Knowing this might not be easy and that it would add to our financial burden, the FAA generously gave us some time to comply. And we have needed every minute of it.
(Special) – Light Sport Aircraft are designed for flight instruction so the students have some assurance that the aircraft they are learning to fly is looked after by a qualified professional. They are also built to withstand the rigors of student flying including hard landings. That extra durability means more weight and that equates to more speed. The heavier an aircraft is, the faster it must fly to stay airborne. Alternatively, it can be slowed down by using a bigger wing to generate more lift. And that is what we have been struggling with for the last year.
Kamron Blevin, the designer and owner of North Wing Aviation built us a wing with 20 square meters of lifting surface. It did slow the aircraft down but it still had its abrupt stall characteristics. At the very slowest end of its flight envelope it would cease flying and begin to fall with little warning. And it required a lot of additional speed to recover. That means that just when the birds are starting to catch us, we had to blast ahead to remain airborne and that was discouraging for them. They would often turn back for the pen in frustration.
Armed with that new understanding of the problems we faced, Kamron returned to his factory in Washington State and redesigned that wing. It was shipped to Wisconsin the day before the birds arrived from Patuxent so there was little time for testing. Fortunately, the birds were not yet flying at that stage so we were able to use it for ground work.
In the interim, I kept the FAA informed of our efforts and worked with Kamron to further adjust and tune the wing. After a hundred texts back and forth and many short flights to test the changes, he got it to fly slow and straight.
As the birds began to increase their flight endurance, we made incremental changes to the wing until the stall recovery was vastly improved. Recently, the birds have been flying for 20 minutes or more at a time and managing to keep up with us. As they mature, their speed increases and we are now past that critical period when we need to fly as slowly as possible.
So — after a big investment by our supporters, a year of hard work by North Wing Aviation and lots of cooperation from the FAA, we are finally able to fly our new trikes.
Now that our wing is working, Kamron is busy building two more for our other aircraft. If you have been watching the news, you know that most of the west coast is on fire. North Wing is based in Chelan Washington. It‘s a beautiful little town on the Columbia River that almost burned to the ground earlier this week. Many houses and businesses were lost and the fires came to within a block of their office and sail loft. It also burned right up to their hangar. Luckily, North Wing and all of their employees are safe — for now. But the heavy smoke has resulted in flight restrictions so he can’t do his final testing before shipping them to us. They are exact replicas of the one we have so all should be fine, but I might be in for another hundred texts.
I feel like a huge burden has been lifted from me and maybe how I can get my four hours sleep.