To say that Jim Bede was controversial is an understatement. Some called him a visionary, others had descriptions that were not so kind. The undisputed fact, though, is that Jim Bede excited and then disappointed a lot of pilots in the 1970s. He was a hard guy not to like and he exuded infectious enthusiasm even if he didn’t always deliver.
Bede had started his company in 1961 to develop the BD-1, a kit airplane. This evolved in to the AA-1 Yankee which was produced as a certified airplane by American Aviation in Cleveland.
Bede put numbers on other BD designs including the BD-2, a powered sailplane he used to set a distance record and the BD-4, a rather conventional four-place kit airplane that met with some degree of success.
Those aside, the one that got the most attention and created the most excitement was the BD-5. It was a diminutive single-seat airplane. It was a low-wing, with a canopy. It came as a piston-powered airplane and a pure jet (BD-5J). The promise was a low price and high performance.
The BD-5 started life with a fiberglass fuselage but that was quickly changed to metal to better strengthen the area where the tail attached. Everything else was metal and was designed for easy building.
The total size of the airplane was best summed up by a comment from Burt Rutan’s mother. Burt was working with Bede in 1972 when I visited Bede’s facilities at Newton, Kansas. He invited me to try out the “cabin” for size. You reclined in it and when I got settled in Mrs. Rutan said, “Richard looks just like he is in a coffin.” That was about the size of it.
Rutan was joined by Les Berven, another engineer who had been working on Air Force projects at Edwards. Berven was the chief test pilot and was the only pilot who had flown the BD-5 well into the program.
Bede also hired Herb Sawinski, a respected avionics executive to better organize the operation and it didn’t take Sawinski long to make great strides. In 1972 Bede had finished putting together a team that he thought would see the project through to a successful conclusion.
There were three camps when it came to Jim Bede and the BD-5.
The true believers ordered as many as 11,000 kits and made a deposit. That is the highest number I saw but I don’t think it was ever verified.
The skeptics hoped that it would work but had plenty of doubts.
The non-believers thought it was some kind of hoax.
I spent quite a bit of time with Bede and vacillated between the last two camps. Even at that early time in my career (twelve or so years in) I had seen a lot of things that didn’t work. There were many false promises in general aviation. I quickly recognized that Jim Bede would share his vision with everyone who would listen before he fully understood his vision. Grains of salt were in order.
As with so many projects, the BD-5 was initially offered at a price that was hard to resist. The deposit started off at $200 against a total kit cost of $1,799. I think I recall the deposit increasing to $400. I am sure the total kit cost also increased but I couldn’t find an exact final number for that though I did see at least $3,500. The deal was that the full kit cost would be due when the first parts shipped.
The BD-5 assembly line was to be in the basements and garages of the builders. Bede had suppliers who would fabricate the various parts and where the indication was that it wouldn’t take a lot of tools to build, the final list of desirable tools was both long and expensive.
Bede estimated that 600 to 800 hours would be required to build a BD-5 but most observers put the number at or above 1,000. Later, some builders who actually completed a BD-5 reported build times of up to 3,500 hours. It apparently wasn’t so simple to build.
It was obvious from the start that everything about this airplane would be different. You can tell by looking that it certainly was not designed to be powered by any existing aircraft engine.
The heart of the airplane was to be a two-cycle Hirth snowmobile engine from Germany. It had to turn at 6,500 rpm to develop the roughly 65 horsepower that Bede wanted so a reduction system was required to make the prop turn at the desired speed. The snowmobile engine sold for $240 and the goal was to adapt it to airplane use without spending too much money. I saw an estimated price of both $480 and $640 for the engine with dual ignition and other mods. Bede ordered 5,000 of these engines.
Concurrently, Bede was developing the BD-5J, powered by a small jet engine that produced 200 pounds of thrust. A lot of eyebrows arched when Bede invited some journalists to fly the BD-5J before anyone other than Berven had flown the piston airplane.
I was working for FLYING at the time and we selected colleague Jack Olcott to fly the BD-5J. Jack’s aeronautical engineering background and test flying experience made him the best man for the job.
Bede had said that when it came to stability and control and structure the BD-5 would be tested to the same standards as Part 23 production airplanes.
Virtually everyone though the short-coupled little airplane would be a handful to fly. Jack met the reality of the matter right before Christmas, 1973, at Bede’s Newton facility.
As part of his preparation for the flight Berven wanted him to accelerate to Vr, rotate, and then quickly abort before the airplane flew. By doing that Berven felt like Jack could get some feel for the pitch sensitivity of the airplane before actually flying away.
The event didn’t follow the script because when Jack rotated, the BD-5J hopped into the air. Jack had to then land and a pilot-induced oscillation that developed right after liftoff complicated the touchdown. The nosewheel was damaged but the airplane was simple and a new nosewheel was in place in short order.
The next day Jack flew away in the BD-5J and in a relatively short flight he came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a bad airplane to fly. I was flying the photo airplane and he formed up without a bobble. A minute later he asked to be excused for a moment. The BD-5J accelerated, pulled up into a beautiful loop and, presto, at the bottom of the loop Jack was right back in formation with us. I’ll never forget that.
I was relieved when Jack’s flight ended with a quite nice landing. I am godfather to Jack’s oldest son, David, and I sure didn’t want to go beyond the birthday present part of that role.
It didn’t take much imagination to understand why they were letting people fly the jet and not the piston. Rumors were flying about the trouble they were having with the Hirth engine and, as we later learned, Berven got a lot of forced landing practice in the airplane.
By this time, Bede was shipping airframe kit parts with word that the engine would follow soon.
As an aside, the structure of the BD-5J got a severe test when famed aerobatic pilot Bobby Bishop had a canopy fail and depart the aircraft. As you would imagine, there was a lot of startle-value in that and Bishop inadvertently applied quite a bit of back stick. The result was a 15-g pull and after he had been talked through a successful landing everyone marveled at the increased dihedral of the wings, 24 degrees in one wing and 19 in the other. The stick force had been calculated at 3 pounds per g in flight testing. That is lighter than anything most of us have flown but it still took a bit of a pull to get to 15-g.
About six months later Jack Olcott got a call from Bede telling him that the piston airplane was ready, to come on out and fly. Jack would be first to fly that airplane for a pilot report.
Because of the light pitch forces, Bede had come up with a unique simulator to break pilots in gently on the landing characteristics. They had a BD-5 airframe suspended from a trapeze in front of a pickup truck. The trapeze had springs that kept it from having any effect on the BD-5 except to keep it tethered.
The throttle in the cockpit controlled the speed of the pickup and the drill was to accelerate down the runway to 55-60 mph, rotation speed for the airplane, where the pilot would then rotate and climb to as high as ten feet. The airplane could also be rolled 10 degrees in either direction. Then the throttle could be retarded followed by a landing. An instructor in the truck could communicate with the pilot and give appropriate advice.
Jack passed his truck check ride and graduated to the real airplane. Because this one had no starter, it was cranked with a rope pull, much like the power mowers of old.
Jack put the airplane through its paces, including spins. The climb was good and he reached 10,000 feet in 12 minutes to begin those spins. In level flight, the best indicated airspeed he saw was 152 mph which was short of what was advertised. Earlier, Jim Bede had shown me a projected speed readout on one of the relatively crude computers of the day. It showed over 200 mph. I asked Jim Bede who programmed that computer. Grinning from ear to ear he said, “I did.”
On Jack’s last spin the engine quit. With no starter he got to join Berven in the ranks of those who flew to a successful forced landing in a BD-5. Jack hit the spot on the airport perfectly.
Because of reliability issues the Hirth engine had been cut back to about 50 horsepower but was still unsatisfactory. They started looking for another engine but ran into delays on a Japanese design.
According to one account, Bede shipped 5,100 kits. I don’t know whether they were full or partial kits but it probably didn’t matter because by this time the company was insolvent and headed for bankruptcy.
A number of people figured out how to power their piston BD-5s and more than a few of the jets were completed. The BD-5J was on the air show circuit for a long while and I think one of the last uses was as a cruise missile simulator for military training purposes.
The great Richard Bach built a BD-5J and had quite a love affair with the airplane. It drew such crowds everywhere he landed that he made a sign he put in the cockpit for people to read. The information was realistic, not promotional, and reflected the true ability of the airplane. He gave the high cruise as 250 mph, stall speed as 82 mph with a range of 300 miles. He reported it had been as high as 18,000 feet where it was still climbing 400 fpm.
Some of the early kits were shipped with short wings. A longer wing was also available and after some flying it was decided that all piston airplanes should have the long wings. The jet’s wing span was somewhere between the long and the short.
The Bede bankruptcy was not final until 1979 but activity had ceased long before then. During the bankruptcy hearings there was some question about money being diverted from kits to other projects. The only legal fallout from this was said to be a Bede agreement not to take deposits on aircraft for a period of ten years.
I have seen estimates that as many as 150 piston BD-5s were completed with a wide variety of engines. Because of the power requirement and the center of gravity an engine of under 100 pounds that developed from 60 to 70 horsepower was an absolute necessity. One Rotax fit the bill and in fact a BD-5 with a Rotax 74 hp engine set a weight class speed record of 218 mph. The original promise turned out to be possible in that case.
It goes without saying that a lot of people felt betrayed when the dream turned into a nightmare. That has happened in this business more than once and I wonder if there is anyone out there who made a deposit on a BD-5 and later made a deposit on an original Eclipse jet. An old saying comes to mind: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Jim Bede was never a person to quit smiling and trying and has worked many projects since the BD-5.
According to an article he wrote in FLYING, Richard Bach had this to say at the conclusion of the information he placed in his cockpit for viewing by the public: “There is a lot of controversy about the promotion and sales of the BD-5 aircraft. The pilot of this plane does not have many facts or answers to give. The airplane itself, however, ranks among the very best flying machines ever built.”
Richard did love his BD-5J. And who could ever forget Corkey Fornoff flying a BD-5J through a hangar in the Bond flick Octopussy. I think it is safe to say that the pilots who did complete and fly BD-5 and BD-5Js had fun. Too bad more weren’t able to do it.