By Ed Downs
A funny thing happened on the way to this month’s editorial view. The topic was going to be a treaties on words buried in the text of Title 49 of the United States Code of Federal Law. Title 49 deals with transportation in the U.S. and defines the fundamental responsibilities of the FAA. Within Title 49 is the Code of Federal Regulations Title 14, known by us aviators as the Federal Aviation Regulations. Title 49 contains five basic mandates with which the FAA must comply, including the need to “protect the right to navigable airspace.” Yes, flying in the U.S. is a right, not a privilege. Not all “rights” in this country are contained in the Constitution’s “Bill of Rights.” Many are buried deep within millions of legislative legal words, often lost and alone. The danger to aviators, and many others, is that these rights can be quickly, almost secretly, taken away by amendments added to almost any legislation working its way through congressional committees. This month’s rant was going to warn readers of just how important it is to actively support and understand this “right to fly,” remembering that the United States is the only country in the world that views their airspace in this manner. Then this writer’s cell phone lit up.
The caller was my twin brother, who has recently completed building a Zenith 601. He had been working on this project casually for a couple of years and got caught up in the major mods recommended by the manufacturer after several accidents occurred. Zenith has had a long history of good customer support and helped many builders get through a tough time. My brother had recently conducted a first flight, in which this writer had participated as ground crew and radio coordinator. As recommended by AC 90-89, the first several flights were monitored by ground crew so that critical engine numbers could be recorded by ground helpers while the pilot concentrated on flight characteristics. My brother and I combine well over a century of flying experience, much of it in flight test analysis, but still take every new plane very seriously. Our caution was warranted, as a number of engine adjustments were made over the next 10 hours of flying time in addition to flight control modifications coordinated with the factory. But back to the phone call.
My brother suggested that a beautiful day was in store, and asked if I would like to fly his Zenith 601. Would I mind validating his observations regarding the plane’s performance? Well, it has been over a year since this writer had done any flight evaluation work; I had never flown the 601 and was interested in evaluating the 130 hp Jabiru he had installed. But, this editorial was already late and my journalistic responsibilities are taken seriously by the Editor/Owner of this fine publication. After considering all options and commitments for about a nanosecond (the length of time it takes light to travel about 11 inches), I pushed away from the computer and headed to the airport. With just over 10 hours of flying time on the plane, which included many adjustments and flight control modifications, this would indeed be a test flight in a plane I had never flown before. Certified in the Experimental, Amateur Built category, the Zenith 601 meets the FAA definition of a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). In that the plane is still in its FAA mandated 40-hour “fly-off” period, no passengers may be carried (thus, no in-flight check out) and flight would be restricted to a rather generous geographical area defined by the local FAA.
The appearance of this Zenith 601 is as one would expect from a two time airplane builder and A&P mechanic. Painted white with tasteful trim, it would fit in with any line up of new production airplanes. The basic flight instrumentation is pure steam gauge technology, calibrated in old time MPH. The engine instruments are, on the other hand, represented by a highly capable, but hard to read electronic system popular in homebuilts. This electronic unit shows nearly 100 bits of information when all custom settings are taken into account and would be great if you have a flight engineer on board to manage it. A good com is installed and, of course, the mandatory GPS. A transponder is yet to come, and may end up being of the ADS variety. Given our combined experience, one might think this would just be a simple matter of “kick the tires and light the fires.” Not so. Our flight briefing takes well over an hour and a half, with a full understanding of every system being assured. Remember, no two homebuilts are exactly the same, and understanding electrical, fuel and flight control systems is paramount. All critical engine numbers are reviewed, written on paper, and taped to the panel. Climb, cruise and approach speeds, power settings, radio frequencies and traffic pattern information are also taped in plain view. These are not the kinds of things one needs to be searching your memory for if something goes wrong. Finally, it is time to fire up and get flying.
Given the thorough briefing, there are no surprises. Take-off acceleration is very rapid (less than five seconds to rotate speed, about 45 mph) and a 90 mph cruise climb nets a rate of climb pegged at 1,100 fpm. The nose is quite high and clearing turns are needed. While roll feel is a bit heavy, pitch is light, but not “twitchy.” The electric pitch trim is fast and effective. Very little rudder is required for coordination. The immediate impression is of high performance and reasonable stability. It takes just a bit of time to equate the high pitch attitude with a resulting airspeed. A lot of attention must be paid to the multiple numbers on the digital engine display, which are forever changing up and down. Some temperature management is still needed, using the carb heat … yes … carb heat. The Bing carburetor used on the Jabiru has an automatic altitude compensating system that precludes the need for a lean mixture. With the installed fuel jets still running a bit hot at some power settings, the carb heat enriches the mixture to help cool the engine. See what is meant by understanding the systems installed? This writer was able to verify numbers being recorded on other flights as the magic carburetor settings needed are getting closer and closer to being smack on. With a conservative cruise power setting the IAS is 117 mph at 5,000 ft, the true airspeed approaches 128 mph. These numbers have been roughly verified by flying a couple of GPS triangles, but more work needs to be done. A few coordination maneuvers are followed by turns and slow speed practice, including a carefully executed stall. All is well and fun. The short flight is followed by a standard pattern and stabilized final approach with full flaps and 65 mph over the fence. That speed may be a tad fast, as there was some float and a slightly high flare. The little plane politely “thumped” to the tarmac and is easily controlled with the direct nose wheel steering. Rudder pedal and brake pedal geometry are excellent. Pilot extraction is a bit more difficult than entry, but cleverly placed hand holds and reinforcements (designed by the builder) enable this 6’1”, 180 lb old guy to clamber out without looking all that clumsy. It had been a great flight, good info was gathered and safety was assured through constant radio contact with ground crew.
Now the guilt set in. What about this important legal topic I was supposed to write about? Then it occurred to me. This writer had just experienced the topic of our editorial comment. For more than 40 professional years, this writer has participated in aircraft and pilot certification issues in at least 40 different countries. The flight just completed in a “spur of the moment” could not have taken place in any country known to this writer, except the United States. Every other country would have required some kind of pre-approval, specific pilot training, pre-take off authorization, positive ATC control or, most probably, have been simply prohibited. Remember, this Zenith 601 is flying on a provision certificate at this time, a certification mechanism that does not even exist in most countries. The ability of Americans to conduct such flight is soundly supported by that one obscure phrase, “protect the right to navigable airspace.” In fact, this is the only country in the world that will allow a non-licensed pilot to fly a non-certified aircraft. We call them “ultra lights.” We need to keep watch on congressional amendments, like the one concerning warbirds that was just defeated, and support our “alphabet groups.” We need to acknowledge and defend the exceptional nature of American aviation. And one last thing, please don’t tell my editors where my priorities REALY reside!