BD4 Opener

Jim Bede's High-speed Packing Crate: the BD-4
A classic, fast mover

Text and photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, March, 1991,

Because John Holland's airplane is always in the process of being used, most of us ground-bound souls only got to see the plane coming or going. During one of these comings, I was able to corner John to talk a bit about an airplane that most of us have relegated the design to the dark corners of homebuilt history. Since he's a real user, therefore a real believer in the airplane, he was only too happy to give me a few hours to fill in a blank spot in my aeronautical knowledge. Most of this information exchange took place on board N469JH as I got to know the airplane first hand.
Although John has used his airplane in every sense of the word, walking around it revealed no areas of deterioration or anything that indicated any of the new concepts Bede was trying had begun to fail. There were no cracks where the wing sections were epoxied together, nor was there any-thing which indicated the fuselage skins were either deforming or loosening from the fuselage structure. So apparently everything works.

BD4 Square Color
Carl Pascarell peaks around the wing to fly formation with us.

Boarding the BD-4 was unique because it's not often you get into an airplane by just backing up and sitting down on the edge of the seat with your butt and then swiveling your legs inside, putting one of your knees up to your chin to get around the control stick. Once inside the doors were closed and the three latches (two at the top corners and one at the bottom rear corner) were pulled into position to make sure the door didn't try to spring slightly out of the opening, ruining part of the airplane's aerodynamic efficiency. I glanced around trying to figure out where everything was and was amused to find what appeared to be a bicycle handle sticking forward from behind our heads and above our shoulders. This was a flap handle, which was simply pushed to one side and pulled down to gain whatever notch of flaps was wanted.
The trim system consisted of a fat, round gnarled knob that sat between the seat and a rudder trim which was a Vernier coming 45 degrees out of the floor under the instrument panel between our collective knees. The wide flat panel was impressive and although the fuselage confines appeared to be approximately C-152 in terms of room, the instrument panel said this was anything but a 152. Not only was the airplane equipped with dual nav and comm systems, but it also had a two-axis autopilot, which John uses quite often on his cross-country trips — especially when shooting approaches to minimum in the klag.
It was patently obvious when walking around the airplane that the nosewheel was free swiveling which meant all taxiing was done with the brakes. While glancing at that unfaired nosewheel, it appeared out of character with the slick pants on the main gear. This, John pointed out, was the result of cracks found in BD-4 nose gears and he wanted to have his out where he could see it every time he did a walk around. Incidentally, in case anybody has forgotten, there was a time when Jim Bede offered the ultimate in retrofitting retractable gear — he put doors on the wheel pants so the doors came down around the tires and closed them in.
While I was strapping in, John lit the fire on the 180 Lycoming and pointed us toward the runway. When approaching the end of the runway the seating position mid-way between the wing made for limited visibility to clear final. However, the gentle tap of a brake and the BD-4 neatly turned on one wheel, courtesy of its free-swiveling nose wheel, giving us a panoramic view of anything that was or wasn't out there. Out in the middle of the runway the throttle started in and the airplane felt like it was accelerating quite quickly when, in actuality, we weren't. And it took a longish amount of time for the BD-4 to work its way up to the 75 or 80 mph lift-off speed. In all probability the nose could have been held off and the airplane flown off a little earlier but with those stubby wings the BD-4 would have a tendency to mush a little. The 75-80 mph speed John normally used gave a real positive break and instantly put us into a rate of climb of approximately 7-800 feet per minute. The takeoff run was long enough that the question entered into my mind as to how well the plane got off with four people on board.
Best rate of climb seemed to be between 120-130 mph, which put the nose high enough that it was a serious stretch to try to see over the top. We were sitting fairly flat in relationship to the top of the cowling and it just felt more natural to climb out a little faster just in order to have better visibility.
We leveled out at 3000 feet to test out the controls and found the airplane to have a feel that is a little hard to describe. This is definitely not to be construed as a negative comment: Just that it's a unique feel that can't be compared to anything else. In the first place, I was prepared for the lack of dihedral to make itself known in lack of roll stability, but this was absolutely not the case. In doing roll stability tests, it turned out the airplane was average if not even a little bit better than average in both static and dynamic. Pitch ability was also better than average. Although it took four cycles to damp out, more than half of the speed and altitude differential was damped out in the first cycle alone.
If there is one sore point to the aircraft's controls, it is the lack of harmony in regards to the rudder. The rudder is very powerful— so powerful that at first it is difficult to coordinate smoothly and also tends to get a little loose in yaw, which would undoubtedly be tightened up by converting part of the rudder to this area. In all probability this characteristic is less noticeable on those airplanes using a smaller engine. On our two different flights in the airplane, I had a chance to sample the airplane's cross-country capabilities and, while it did have an unusual control feel, the BD-4 was stable enough to hold altitude and heading almost unattended — even in the slight chop we were running through. The visibility as would be expected was Pacer-like because of the wing, which is not a serious problem and the seating was good enough to not even be noticeably different from what you expect in most small two-place airplanes.
In doing the stall series we unloaded in the low 60s. As would be expected, the stall was a little sharp and tended to roll in one direction or the other. I had to be very careful and actually study the ball to keep it in the middle because of rudder sensitivity. However, try as I may, I couldn't get the airplane to unload straight. The airplane has a very slight feeling of being either out of rig or slightly out of line. I couldn't absolutely credit that feeling to anything concrete, but the feeling was strong enough that I didn't want to do any. accelerated stalls for obvious reasons.
Running at about 23 square, the airspeed stabilized on 152, which is almost exactly what John uses for cross-country planning. That's nowhere close to the 175 or 180 mile an hour figure often banging around about the design. Couple that number with the ability to file IFR in practically everything except known icing and feel comfortable, and the airplane is indeed a serious cross-country mount.
We shot a number of landings and I was impressed to see how speed stable the BD-4 was in approach and found the two notches of flaps used were primarily useful for get ting the nose down since they didn't seem to do much to the actual approach characteristics. Holding 100 mph on final and then bleeding down to the 90s on a short final, seemed to be a little bit fast but gave us plenty of time to set the airplane up for a reasonably smooth touchdown. The pitch rate during flair is very easy to control and made finding the runway almost fun considering visibility over the nose was gone, making it necessary to look out to the side as if landing a Cessna 210 with half flaps. Once the airplane was on the runway it rolled nice and straight and the rudder was plenty effective until we got down to a fast walk, at which point the brakes easily kept things straight.

BD4 BW big
The nose pant is missing because the front strut has been known to crack and the owner wanted it out where he could inspect it better.

John built his airplane in 1975 and it's instructive to look at his machine since probably very few BD-4s are going to be worked as hard as this one. Considering the design is well over 20 years old and there are very few, if any, old wives' tales about the wings coming apart or the skins delaminating on the fuselage, it had to be said that Jim Bede's concept does work. However, one has to wonder where all those BD-4s are since we don't see the type very often. Is it possible they died a lingering death in the back of someone's workshop, or that they are one of those airplanes that just quietly go about doing their job and never raise much of a profile?
Whatever the BD-4's story is, it's interesting to stop and think this is a kit machine that predates any of the kits we usually discuss. And the plane is usable in the extreme. Although the structure is unique, if Holland's airplane is typical at all, it obviously appears to hold up and offers an interesting variation on today's super-smooth composites.

Jim Bede has left his mark on aviation. As controversial as he may be, it has to be said the reason he is controversial is because he didn't run and hide and go through life in a passive, non-interacting manner. Whether the rest of the world agreed is neither here nor there, but at least Jim broke lots of new ground and the BD-4 may well be one of first original postwar kitplanes. By the time he worked up through the BD-5, the Wichita munchkin had absolutely proven there was a strong market for kitplanes, which led to the development of so much of what we now know as sport aviation. For that alone, we have to thank him. BD

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