BD-5 Pirep

Air Progress, November, 1974

The BD-5 Actually Flies

Okay all you skeptics out there (and I was one of the strongest), let it be known here and not that, not only does the BD-5 fly, but about 90 per cent of us owe Jim Bede a gigantic apology. He has managed to build a tiny little wing stability platform that shows more thought ingenuity and out and out genius than anything general aviation has seen for years.

It still has some bugs to iron out in the engine department but, other wise, the BD-5 , as we flew it, represents the first quantum leap forward in light aircraft design since WWII. As I was hoisting my fanny up out of the little cockpit after flying it, all I could think of was, "Jim Bede, I'm sorry for all those rotten things I said about you and your airplane." He's made a believer out of me.

You have to be a yak-herder in the Himalaya boonies not to know the saga of the BD-5 by heart. Every magazine with a circulation of more than 15 has run at least one story about the BD-5 and its rotund, hyperactive designer-builder-promoter, Jim Bede, and therein may lie one of the original seeds of the great Bede controversy, as it now rages. Too much was said too early in the game, promises were made, performance figures quoted and money taken. So, when things didn't go like clockwork, the BD buying public got a little bit ticked off (Witness the lynch mobs lurking in dark corners at Oshkosh, lying in wait for him.).

There is no doubt that many early Bede claims were optimistic. No they were more than optimistic, they were outlandish (270 mph was promised at one point).

I sat in the bleachers with the rest of the aviation community and watched the whole Bede experience develop. I booed and hissed right along with the others. I can clearly remember receiving a three-view of the very early Micro and my first impression was that Jim Bede was absolutely and irrevocably out of his tree. The entire thing just wasn't possible. All of us sidewalk engineers gawked at the early V-tailed fiberglass prototype and nodded knowingly. It was generally agreed that, if it did fly, it would have the inherent stability of a bongo board and the handling characteristics of a Whiffle ball.

After a while the old "it will never fly" crowd changed their tune to "it may fly but only a NASA test pilot can handle it," You see, we had to find something else to gripe about because that chainsaw with wings was flitting around at far too many airshows for us to maintain credibility in the face of fact. It did fly and appeared to fly well.

Naturally, there is only one way to find out if "Joe average pilot" can fly it and that is to snuggle down into it and go aviating, so we asked, "Can we fly your airplane?" The answer was, "of course."

First Bede had to check a few things out. Next month maybe. When it was next month, the answer was in a few weeks, then it went back up to months. This went on for over two years. It looked like a classic holding action against a press that might leak the news that the BD-5 was nothing more than a cylindrical coffin with retractable handles.

At Oshkosh the word came down: we could come down to Newton and fly his airplane at our convenience. At our convenience, really? We didn't begin getting excited until we called him and he said, "Sure, how about tomorrow?"

The second I stepped off the plane at Wichita, I knew it was trouble. It was blowing about 35 knots in the middle of the night. They were probably chaining the cattle to the ground. The next morning Les Bervin, BD test pilot, confirmed our suspicions and allowed as how it wasn't the best day to be flying the BD-5 for the first time, but it was okay to fly the BD-5T trainer.

Their two-ton Tinker-Toy trainer is almost as ingenious as the BD-5 itself. Using a systems of springs and booms, they have hung a clapped-out BD-5 (early victim of a journey through a ditch) on the front bumper of a Dodge pick-up truck. The springs counterbalance the weight of the boom almost exactly, so any lift generated by those ridiculous little wing panels will lift it off the ground and let you shoot touch-and-goes and make gentle turns to your heart's content.

Looking at the truck, the airframe and the rail-straight windsock, I suggested we draw straws. I lost. The other two guys locked themselves in the truck cab, leaving me to be the first to find out what a Dodge-powered BD-5 was like. Rich strapped me into the trainer and explained rotation speeds and offered a few helpful hints as he was putting the headset down over my twitching ears.

My first flight in the trainer was sort of hop, jiggle, bounce, scrub. I over-corrected, over-rotated and over-wound just about everything. The side stick initially seemed incredibly sensitive, then, magically, about half way down the runway things seemed to smooth out. The second run had me hopping off the ground like a frog on a hot rock, but by concentrating on the runway in front of me and forgetting where my hand was resting, I could even keep the wing down and cancel out the crosswind, which by this time was a solid 40 knots. The third time around I rotated off almost like a normal airplane. I was flying big gentle S-turns all the way down the runway while I called out my height to Rich in the cab to see how close I was. The fourth run was unnecessary; I felt like I knew what I was doing. The rest of the guys had very nearly the same reaction.

If Jim Bede had any sense, he'd forget about airplanes and market these trainersas grown-up circus rides. What a kick!

What the BD-Dodge combination showed me was, first of all, takeoff happens very quickly and it is easy to over-rotate. then it was even easier to over-rotate the rotation, which caused a little bit of saw-toothed flight for a while. The most important thing I learned was that by focusing my eyes straight ahead and flying it like one of those fly-by-wire games in the bus depot, I could eliminate most of my over-controlling difficulties. It is strictly a visual affair because there is absolutely no feel or pressure in the control stick.

We each had a chance to look through the flight manual, but Les sat us all down and went methodically down the list so each of us knew what to do when. Besides all the usual numbers, there were a few things I found even more important to remember. The first was, if the engine quit, we couldn't restart it. This particular bird had the starter ring gear removed and they had to fire it up with a pull-cord. Also, the clutch and the drive system is such that the prop freewheels when the engine isn't running. Even though the prop is turning, the engine isn't. That didn't sound too bad, but then he mentioned that if we touched zero G for even a second, the float-type carburetor they had temporarily installed would choke the engine deader than a mackerel. Well, if nothing else, I realized that kind of information would make me tiptoe around while doing aerobatics.

There aren't a whole lot of airplanes around in which you can actually retract the landing gear while sitting on the ground for cockpit check, but then, there aren't too many airplanes six guys can pick up and put on sawhorses either. That is where we sat while familiarizing ourselves with the cockpit.

From the instant I stiff-legged myself down into the cavern underneath the panel I was knocked out by the logic of the cockpit. Everything is in the right place, easy to use and figure out. The fuel controls are ahead of the left console and all the electrical stuff-mags, master, etc. on the right one. The landing gear is a healthy looking T-handle affair that would look more at home in a jacked-up GTO. It juts up between your legs about where the control stick should be and the flap handle is right next to it. The control stick is shaped like a hot Baby Ruth you had squeezed in your hand, and sticks up out the right console. Only the trim, which is right next to the throttle, and the stick appears or feels anything but perfectly placed.

Once up on the sawhorses, we amused ourselves with the landing gear. It takes a healthy tug to get it started up, but more than that, you have to keep it moving so the inertia of the gear helps to get the handle over center. If you don't keep your shoulder behind it, it will stop halfway and you'll never get it up. When you pull, and keep on pulling, you are rewarded (or surprised) with a healthy whack on the bottom of the fuselage. There is absolutely no doubt that the gear is up or down. When it slams into position, the airplane practically jumps off of the sawhorses. It's like being inside of a giant switchblade. Les had us do it without moving the stick so we wouldn't be jumping around in the air when retracting the gear. It was good practice, but, in my case, it didn't work.

We figured the way to beat the wind was to get up before it did, which still didn't work. At 5:30 the next morning, with my eyes clamped shut to keep my precious bodily fluids from leaking out, I staggered to the door to see that it was still blowing up a mini-storm outside. We thought we'd had it, but Les stuck a finger into the breeze and said, "Roll it out; let's go flying."

A few minutes later I found myself fiddling with chokes, mixtures and mags and hopping over expansion joints in the taxiway as I wended my way down to the runway. In taxiing, the engine idled at nearly 3000 rpm; it sounded like a lawnmower trying to run me down. I pressed the transmit button on the top of the throttle and said, "I'm ready to go." My headphones answered, '"Good-bye."

Looking back at it, I'll have to admit to not remembering much about that take-off because it all happened so quickly. The engine revved to about 5000 rpm immediately and the 52 hp behind me started kicking me down the runway at an astonishing rate. At 50 mph I started picking up the nosewheel, which skipped a couple of times; as I rocketed to 60-65 I was up and away. The take-off was almost toy-like. I bobbed around a bit, more from surprise than from anything else. As soon as I started watching what I was doing and got out of ground turbulence at 10 feet, it settled down and felt almost as solid as a Cessna 150 would have in the same wind.

At around 75-80 I reached down for the landing gear, completely forgetting the keep-on-pullin' retraction technique. I gave it a cursory jerk. As the handle came to a halt in the midway position, I called myself a few choice names and rammed it forward to lock it down again. While I was busy jamming the gear handle, I forgot where my right hand was and unconsciously tweaked the stick. This caused the airplane to jump around. When I gave the gear a healthy pull it obediently leaped into the wells. As the gear came up and I let the flaps up slowly, the speed wrapped up to 100 mph pronto.

The best-rate-of-climb speed was 90 mph, but I was keeping it at around 100 for cooling. We climbed 1200 feet per minute with 52 hp blatting away behind, the tach working its way up to 6500 rpm and the 182 camera plane disappearing fast.

The most surprising thing about those first few minutes of flight is that everything seemed so normal. I didn't even bother to look out at those tooth-pick wings or marvel at the incredible visibility. It just felt that was the way airplanes should be: this was an airplane and it just flew like one. I wanted it to feel strange and exotic, but things fit together too well.

Set your hand on the chair next to you right now and make a fist. Now wiggle it left-to-right while keeping your elbow stuck to the chair. If you don't move the top of our fist more than half an inch or so, you'll see what it is like to fly a BD-5. There is no noticeable resistance and practically no movement of the stick. If you twitch your hand an inch to the side, you've just done a roll. Move it an inch or so back and you loop. Now, that sounds like it's sensitive, but for some reason or another it doesn't work out that way. It's got to be the most natural way to shepherd an airplane around I have ever seen.

Les had sworn that the stalls were nothing to write books about and he was right. In any configuration it would shake, buffet, leap and groan as you crept up to the stall, One wing would unload as it would roll off in one direction of the other. I'd keep the stick completely back and porpoise ahead, using aileron and rudder to keep everything square with the world. The instant-I mean the very instant-the elevator was released, the little beastie would be flying again. Clean it was stalling at about 65, and dirty at about 55.

I cursed the zero-G carburetor as I sucked the nose up and tweaked my hand left to watch the sky and ground swap places. With just a little inverted capability–just a couple of seconds–you could drag the rolls out into long, sensuous affairs over which you'd have infinite control. I'll have to wangle another flight when they put the new carburetor on, I guess. you can roll fast or you can roll slow, four points or eight, left or right, and barely move your hand.

To the right, rolls are just a little more difficult, because your wrist works more naturally inboard than it does outboard. Full aileron deflection is only about a 2-inch twist of your wrist, but you almost never need it. The roll rate is fast, about 150 degrees per second, which is just a tad slower than a roundwing Pitts. I can't begin to describe the total precision of these controls. They don't even come close to being sensitive, but they put more control in the palm of your hand than any other airplane I've flown.

Now, almost nobody reading this is going to believe my next statement, yet it's absolutely true: the BD-5 is one of the most stable little airplanes flying. When I'd set it up hands-off and then pulse the stick–just bash it forward or back–the nose would come up and then–bam–come back to level and not move again. There was almost no sign of oscillations of any kind. The same if true of yaw: punch rudder, and the nose snaps back as soon as you let go. In roll it seems just a little more neutral. The wings stay pretty much where you put them. I tested all this stability out by grooving around for a while while I used both hands to adjust my headset and boom mike to eliminate some communications problems (which turned out to be my inability to read "volume" one the radio face).

The BD-5's high thrust line means a nose-down pitch with power. (the nose comes up when you back off the throttle). Speed and power changes do give a fair amount of trim change, but I had been flying for a while before I noticed that I had been unconsciously moving the trim control with the thumb of my throttle hand all along.

I knew Bede had done complete spin tests and Les had told us to go ahead and spin it, but I'll admit that I put spins off until I worked up my nerve. Finally, I got the power back, got the stick back, and kicked rudder as it stalled. Instantaneously it snapped over on its back and twisted downward into a near-vertical spin. the first turn was more of a snap roll, the second turn was very oscillatory, with the nose coming up fairly high. Then the nose dropped to about 60 degrees and stabilized in a very fast spin. Sixty degrees, by the way, looks like you're going straight down.

Les had said that the airplane had a distinct stick-free spin mode, here the reduced drag of neutralized controls caused the speed to increase and the spin to wrap up very tight. That's why it needs a classic NACA spin recovery: bash the stick well forward and nail opposite rudder hard.

Naturally, I managed to botch up the recovery. I moved the stick forward too slowly at the end of three turns, and it immediately cracked around in two more lightning-fast turns before I got the stick far enough forward. I recovered in less than half a turn, going absolutely straight down. I instinctively loaded a slight positive G on it to keep that carburetor happy, and, in so doing, got a slight secondary spin in the other direction. But that topped almost immediately. the second time I spun it, I did what Les had told me to do, and it popped out instantly. It's a very predictable-spinning airplane, but you have to move like you mean business to stop it where you want it.

On the way back into the pattern, I made a couple of speed runs at 5,000 feet AGL. (9,000 feet density altitude for that day). I was showing an even 155 mph cruise, and that works out to 177. Later, Peter did the same thing down lower, at 1,000 feet, and got a solid 175 mph indicated, which works out to 188.

I knew I couldn't stay up all day and avoid the landing. I flew a wide 360-degree overhead pattern, coming downwind at 100 mph and base at 90. It had taken me forever to get into the pattern, because power off, at 85 mph, I was only showing about 380 fpm descent. I was beginning to wonder about getting down before lunch. Les had said the gear worked like spoilers, and when I dropped it, I saw what he meant. With gear and flaps down I had to use just a tad of power to fight the wind as I turned final for the taxiway we were using the land. (It was smoother than the runway.)

The pitch stability came in handy for holding 85 right on the money as I jockeyed the power just a little to stay on glide path. I kept reminding myself what the view over the nose in the trainer had looked like as I came closer to the ground. The wind tried to goggle me around but a tweak here and a tweak there kept everything perfectly lined up.

As the pavement started to get closer, I gently (very gently) started to flare. The second I moved the nose, the airplane stopped coming down. So, I relaxed a bit and started feeling for the ground. Lower. Lower. Lower. Suddenly I knew I was only a foot or so off and I started a game with the wind. I tried to hold the airplane up as the wind tried to bat me around. Plunk, and the mains were on. I tried to hold the nose gear up, but the flaps were too much for it and it dropped onto the pavement anyway. We were on the ground at around 60 mph. The roll out was easy to control with the rudder and I didn't need to use the brake at all until I was ready to turn into the parking area.

Well, I think we've discovered what kind of pilot it takes to fly the BD-5. Any proficient 150-hour pilot could learn to handle it, but only if he had already developed certain skills and mental attitudes. He'd better be an accurate pilot. He can't make vague, unmetered control movements or be only fuzzily aware of what he sees over the nose. The airplane is capable of absolute precision, and to make consistently smooth landings and takeoffs, the pilot must use that precision. Most pilots are sloppy; they'll have to de-slop themselves before the fly the Five. The guy who takes great pride in making nothing but squeakers right on the centerline won't have any trouble at all. This type of mental attitude is totally independent of flight time, and can be present or absent regardless of how fat or skinny the logbook may be.

Flying the trainer would be the best bet for transitioning into the Bede. There you get the super-low ground attitude, seating position, and control response all in one package. Otherwise a glider–especially something like a Blanik or a 1-34–will give you a perfect learning situation for the supine seat and ground-hugging landing attitude. An older Yankee would give you the basic control responses, the brake-only directional control, and similar stall characteristics., (the BD-5's are far better.)

Asked how I feel about it, I can only say that now I wish I hadn't let my skepticism keep me from putting down my $400 deposit for a production model. Oh, well . . . Bede probably has something else up his sleeve, and you can bet I'll put my money where my doubts are this time.