My search for a flying wing sailplane ended with the purchase of N86TX and its relocation to Hangar 115 in New Braunfels, Texas (my brother’s three-car garage). For the next several months he, with help from my cousin Rayford and my father Tom, did the remaining 30% of the work to get the sailplane to a finished state and ready for inspection.
I called the FAA and they sent an inspector over. For four hours, I answered questions from Mr. John Irwin on just about everything you could think of. “Where is the engine? Where is the fuel tank? Where is the nav system? Where is the EGT? Where is the rubber band to launch it?” Not really; he was nice and very professional and I appreciated every nut and bolt he checked. My brother Buddy passed and this is his recollection of N86TX. In his memory, I post his version of “Our Wing.”
I have known my only older brother all my life—TV producer, private pilot, sailplane pilot, Hobie Cat owner, AMX owner (a rare sport vehicle), and recently a flying wing owner. He lives about fours hours away by ground transport so he contacted me on a 30-minute communiqué via satellite. I got this excited and almost unintelligible conversation that conveyed the following, where I did manage to pick out the basics:
- He wanted me to travel about 50 miles to look at a “Mar-ski” flying wing. Yeah, right! I was thinking, “Not another radio controlled project!”
- Check it out to see if it is capable of being finished. (Now I knew the real reason for the call: I get to finish it).
- Send pictures so he can consider the purchase of same. This could be a profit center for me if I could just bill him travel time. I had all the mechanical aptitude and inventiveness, the workshop to support the project, and a massive Snap-On roll-a-round with all the required tools. I also had four years in the Air Force as a weapons system technician and a year in AC-130 Gunships—and big brother has a really big selective service number and the time and resources to fly. Ain’t it always the case!
I grabbed my favorite traveling buddy, Ray Silkwood, fired up the weekend road warrior (a 1972 Blazer with a more than stock power plant), and took to the road on the first free morning for all involved.
The backup reason for the excursion was a stop at several of my favorite pawn shops and secondhand tool stores, just in case this was another Piper Cub in need of several years’ worth of annuals, lots of navel jelly, and a whole lot of rat poison.
We located the correct driveway and rumbled in… There it was… .
There was this little bitty cockpit and these massively long wings and it was all supposed to be stuffed in this crafty little trailer.
My first thought was, “how am I going to get the entire 50-foot wing into that itty-bitty trailer?”
My second thought was, “if there is just a little bit left to do to make this bird flight-worthy, how come my brother said it was only 70 percent complete?”
My third thought was, “how come it was not complete and not flying?”
Ray and I tore through the inspection covers like a “Tim Allen modified Binford ten horse shop vac” and found almost nothing wrong with the interior of this really unique looking, stubby little flying wing. It did not have a motor or a visible means of pitch control but it did have a conventional stick and rudder.
I was thinking, “Maybe I can put in a Rotax and gear it to push a prop through the hand crafted gear reduction linear inter-digitized rectabular extrusion three-to-one… nah, maybe not!”
Paint was not great but adequate—basic white with a really poor red stripe job.
Again I was thinking, “Maybe some ghosted flames in neon green with a false flying tigers shark teeth in matching yellow along the canopy … nah, maybe not!”
The instruments needed a little TLC. The panel was really basic and the interior was pretty functional except for the bicycle handle grips on the spoiler and stick–maybe a porcelain gearshift knob would fit.
One thing had to go, though: those stupid looking trailer wheels. (Maybe a Boyd’s inverted-finger wing-three spoker with center covers… Yeah, that will do it!)
Sure as there is ridge lift in the Rockies, I didn’t get to stop off and see any of my favorite pawn shops.
I ended up with this little sweetie in my workshop and a promise from my brother to come down on the weekends to “help me a little” with the process of getting this bird flight-certified.
So with Ray, my dad Thomas M., and my only older brother and this Mar-Ski flying wing in my front yard, we started off what was to be a great part of life for me and my only older brother.
Next day was a wash job, complete inspection of every moving part, and an agreement that the PVC pipe bushings in the wing ribs (installed to ease the friction on the push tubes) had got to go. The noise of aluminum tubes and PVC rubbing when aileron was actuated was like a fingernail on chalkboard symphony!
Nine weeks later and with just a few hundred drops of red and white corpuscles on the shop floor, the FAA inspector was in my workshop and spending time with my older brother to determine if all of Irwin’s and my work was government-approved or not.
I watched with amazement as document after document and photograph after photograph were detailed with more conflagration of verbiage than the control tower at O’Hare has ever heard.
Sure enough, after an hour or so the inspector had to 10-100 and the pow-wow between me, my Dad, and my only older brother centered on how we were going to have to deal with this inspector to get the ticket we needed.
Back he came and he wanted to see the wing disconnected. Mind you, we had spent several hours in the early morning sweating the process of getting the wings all aligned perfectly and this guy wanted me to remove a wing!
So with a little banter about the time this might take and a raised eyebrow of disgust on my part, I agreed to allow this government inspector to view the ballet of professionalism required to dismantle a single wing.
I found out that when he spoke to me he was a pretty nice guy who really liked my workmanship and was fully satisfied with the inspection process – and signed on the dotted line and it was all over!
My little sweetie had official governmental approval for N86TX to be stenciled on my… my only older brother’s bird.
One early Saturday morning in mid-April of that year, I rolled over and asked my wife to attend the test flight of my flying wing. She was up and was ready almost as fast as I was. What a blessing to have such a cool and supportive wife!
We could read the thoughts in their eyes: “You’re not going to get me in that thing!” Several walked around to the rear of The Wing and one said, ” Where’s the rest of the tail? This thing can’t fly!”
I asked if I had any volunteers for testing. Immediately there was a mass exodus to the coffee lounge. With the parachute, we did another weight and balance check and all was well. As I walked to the FBO at 9am to use the facilities, I overheard one instructor telling another that planes without engines don’t fly very well. He continued, “You are too busy worrying about where to land to enjoy the flying.” Boy, is he wrong.
I have to admit that for many nights prior to the flight I had gone through the checklist over and over. I imagined every possible scenario and even wrote a detailed test program with emergency procedures that my brother and helpers could put into action if needed.
The day came and much of that got stored away to be retrieved only if really necessary. My brother Buddy had checked the wing over a thousand times. He had butterflies.
My dad handed me the canopy. The time had come to set her free! Butterflies were there, but I had explained to myself, “Self, it is a sailplane with many hours of hard work to build, a very, very good designer, Jim Marske, working out all the problems, and she’s just waiting for you to say, ‘Let’s go!'”
“OK, let’s go!”
Silently I said, “Now, Lloyd, shut your mouth! Go into the restroom and ponder.” So I pondered.
Ralph Thompson, a member of the airport board of directors, was going to fly chase with his 115 hp Citabria. He was also there to allay fears of the airport manager. Ralph found himself caught in a political squabble about my testing my flying wing glider at their airport. Thank you, Ralph, for all the Unicom and traffic advisories.
The airport manager had given me a really hard time prior to flight, including some guff about not letting me do my auto test tow on the airport. I did those at another airport. I wanted the runway length here for safety. Finally, he came around.
I had thought several times about letting someone else do the initial test flights. After getting my commercial glider pilot ticket and thinking about the wing and studying every article I could get my hands on and with the support of Jim Marske by phone over several discussions… I decided to go for it.
I wanted to take my time with these flights, but things quickly changed. The tow plane landed 30 minutes late. As he rolled up, the pilot told me he had a flat tailwheel and bad battery. We needed to go ASAP! Across the taxi way we went—crew, wife and Wing.
I had chosen the runway into the three knot wind. As I strapped on the parachute, out of the clear blue it hit me: “I am going to test fly this Wing?”
I stopped momentarily and had a quick conversation with my Heavenly Father to say, “Thank you. Please find the time to assign a few more angels to me today. And bless my family if anything goes wrong.”
I stepped into the cockpit and for some reason felt calm and warm.
Everything slowed down. Radio check… release check… control check… seatbelt check… kiss from wife… thumbs up from my brother on the wing after attaching the tow rope. He checked it twice and then once again. I was not sure the Super Cub pilot was sure what to expect towing this white custom sailplane down the runway.
The radio crackled, “N86TX on runway 17 New Braunfels for glider tow and test flight.”
With that the rope came taut and we rolled down the open runway. In the first 200 feet, I was focused on deciding if it was going to be stable. Jim Marske and Mike Hostage, who design and build wings, had given me all their words of confidence, but this was the true test. Lift off and in ground effect.
The Cub accelerated to 70 mph and we started to climb. The airport has three runways in a triangle so we turned left to always have a place to land if needed.
At 300 feet it was calm and The Wing was just beginning to relax. Me, I was sucking about 40 cubic feet of air so there was no way the canopy was coming off. “Fly the plane Lloyd!” I just kept telling myself that it is just like the test auto tows.
“Ah, right! It really is flying just like Jim said it would!”
Check roll carefully. OK, check airspeed. 70 mph, now at 1000 feet. If all went well, I had planned to go to 2000 ft. on the first tow to give me 100 ft. to just fly smoothly. The air was dead calm and very smooth. One circle of the airport and we were now at 2000 ft., northeast of the airport. I reached to pull the release and everything stopped for a second. I had done the dozen ground tows but now we were at 2000 ft.
A nice calm voice said, “I want to be free!” So, with a smile I pulled the release. For the next 20 to 30 seconds we flew without a single input. I slowed to about 55-60 mph and just flew.
I said to myself, “Lloyd, this is what it’s all about!” I just let her spread her wings without a single touch; she was stable and flew effortlessly at 60 kts with not a single hiccup. I opened up the NASA scoop more and what little noise there was disappeared and we just floated. The air was very calm and I just gave her time to breathe as well. What a rush. What a great time to be alive.
Slowly I turned to the left to overfly the airport and head south. It was as though The Wing was stretching its wings after a long, long sleep. No surprises, just very smooth. We did some slow turns, 45 degrees then 90 degrees at about 10 degrees of bank and no more. I was always talking on Unicom to ensure ground and chase knew my intentions. I took The Wing down to 1500 ft. and decided to slow down.
At this height, my mind turned to the pattern and landing. The tow plane was down and the chase plane was clear and advising traffic of the test flight.
I turned downwind and found myself at 1200 ft. for runway 17. Without even thinking “full spoilers” The Wing said, “OK!”
At this point I realized my toes were starting to hurt; I was trying to push the rudder pedals out the front of the plane.
Down we came, going crosswind at 600 ft. I had full spoilers while turning to base at 400 ft. so I retained full spoilers with plenty of room.
A small voice said,”Just watch this squeaky clean touch down. Coming in for a landing!”
I did not even have a second thought and I said “OK.”
We rolled to a stop about 300 ft. down the runway from the numbers and a wing touched the ground.
I had a few seconds after stopping to thank the Great Designer of Life for everything, to thank him for my wife and my family and the dream he gave me and also to tell my Wing, “Thank you!” before all the crew arrived.
The next tows were each to 4000 ft. We found a heavy mush to occur at 40 mph but we still had some nose weight to remove. The first 4000 ft. tow was quiet and peaceful. We did some 90 degree turns with the bank angle at 45 degrees and then 75 degrees with good response. The Wing had a tendency to slowly lift the left wing (we adjusted that later).
The Wing and I tried some stability tests on pitch. We increased speed to 85 mph, released, and did two cycles of pitch until The Wing stabilized at 60mph, maybe 58mph, in level flight. Then we tried several 360s left and right. The Wing wanted to turn better to the right but we would see after adjustment. We did some more stall approaches and there was no tendency to fall off.
The Wing was heavy with nose weight, parachute, and an overweight pilot! The landing was pleasant and very comfortable. My wife and the crew and the rest of my family rushed over to tell me how good it looked.
The joy of the successful test flights! Thanks to my wife, Denise who gave me the support needed to complete and fly the Pioneer!