You can’t just walk into a dealership, pick from a hundred models and choose your favorite color. It becomes even more complex if your needs are as specific as flying with birds.
Over the last decade or so, weight shift aircraft like ours have become more efficient, which generally equates to faster. You can now buy a trike that will cruise at 80mph. Bigger engines are common, along with much more instrumentation, back seats, ballistic parachutes, navigation light, brakes, beefier suspension and even heaters, all of which adds to the weight.
Our primary need is slow speed. Birds fly at 38mph or thereabouts. When they are climbing just after take-off, the birds fly slower than that and often, we get ahead of them. That means we need to slow to 30 MPH or less. There are times when we would like to slow to 25 but a wing needs airflow over its surface in order to generate lift and we can’t expect miracles. On the other hand, there are times when we need to catch them and 50 or so miles per hour is the minimum we need at the top end.
When the Wright brothers first took to the air, they flew at 45 mph and it has been getting faster ever since. Because everyone seems to be in a hurry, there isn’t much call for slow speed aircraft so there are not many from which to choose.
Nor are there many manufacturers to choose from – especially within the United States but we needed to be able to see the trikes and work directly with the designers. That meant travelling and flying out of the continent was cost prohibitive so we picked North Wing Aviation. They are based in Washington State which is about as far away from us as you can get but they have been very cooperative. We have been using their wings for 5 or 6 years now so we have a history with them.
We have been using Experimental Light Sport Aircraft or ELSA’s, which are designed strictly for recreational flying and can be maintained by the owners or the pilots. The FAA required that we get Special Light Sport Aircraft, SLSA, which are designed for the only commercial use in this category which is to be paid to provide training. To provide an extra degree of safety, these aircraft must be maintained by a licensed aircraft mechanic.
Because of the havoc a student pilot can cause on an aircraft, like bad landings and general misuse, these trikes are designed with heavy suspension and lots of back seat controls so the instructor can override his student’s mistake and hopefully, save their lives. All of that extra protection adds weight. So Kamron Blevins from North Wing had to reverse engineer one of his SLSA designs to make it lighter. Richard van Heuvelen had to redesign our prop guard and all of that custom work had to be approved by the FAA.
Kamron Blevins, Designer and owner of NorthWing Aviation alongside Joe Duff
Just like the buying experience between aircraft and cars is different, so too is the flying. You don’t just hop from one to the next with the ease of a valet parking attendant. Each one has its own characteristics and those differences have consequences. The pilots need some hours of flying to become so familiar with these aircraft that it becomes second nature. That allows them to concentrate on flying with the birds as well as flying the aircraft.
After two trips to Washington State, the fitting of all of modifications, several meetings with the FAA and a number of inspections, our new trikes are ready to fly. Now begins the process of getting the birds familiar with them and the pilots comfortable. I do wish the Ford Dealer down the street sold airplanes.
A test flight in Washington