The Little Yellow Lancair
David Roach’s High-Time Lancair 235
Story and photos by Patrick Panzera, EAA 555743, firstname.lastname@example.org
A lot of us get fussy over the advertised TBO (time between overhauls) of an engine not being high enough, but how many of us will actually put 2,000 hours on a new engine? Dave Roach is one such individual who 23 years ago put a fresh O-320 in his new Lancair 235 and will hit TBO early next year, if not sooner. But this article isn’t about engines and TBO; it’s about a builder who did things right.
Like many of us who hold aviation as more than a hobby or career, David (Dave) Roach was totally enamored by flight for as long as he can remember. It certainly didn’t hurt any to be raised by a father who was a 16,000-hour professional pilot, flew in the Army Air Corps in World War II, and flew as a corporate pilot for many years after that.
Dave’s first flight was with his father, Ed “EC” Roach, at the age of 12, igniting a love affair that has endured for over half a century. The flight, however, was more than routine, taking place in a spankin’ new twin Apache that Dave’s father was flying for the first time. The flight wasn’t uneventful either; it ended with the gear stuck in the up position and Dave’s father softly landing it dead stick in the grass adjacent to the runway. The plane was back in the air in two days, thanks to his exceptional piloting skills and cool head. An adventure such as this might turn some people off to aviation, but it had the opposite effect on Dave.
Dave accompanied his father on many business trips, especially during the summer when school vacation allowed, pestering him with every possible question. The answers came freely and with the loving patience a father might have with a son who shares his passion. Dave went on to the University of Tennessee, then straight to Pensacola, Florida, for U.S. Navy flight training, followed by five years of service during the Vietnam War. Dave served onboard the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) making two cruises into the Mediterranean (Med cruise). After time served, Dave went back to school to get his degree in architecture after which he moved to California and practiced architecture for 33 years.
During all this Dave still flew as a civilian, logging over 1,000 hours as a CFI. Now retired from drawing, Dave spends his leisure time flying corporate like his father did. But in 1985 Dave picked up an issue of KITPLANES magazine and saw a photo-realistic computer rendering of the Lancair 200 prototype, and to him it was the first homebuilt that not only had great looks but also great performance. (Soon after the Lancair 200 was introduced to the market, the 235 was launched.) So inspired was he by the photo, he rented a plane and flew to Long Beach, California, to see it in person and to meet with its designer, Lance Neibauer. At the time, Lance was working from a storefront in a strip mall. When Dave arrived, the prototype was roughly 80 percent complete, and that was all it took. Dave was smitten and wrote a check for the deposit on kit number 48.
Once the kit arrived at his home in Hanford, California, it took Dave and his friend Tom Sperry two years to complete, making it the eighth one to fly. Work commenced on a daily schedule, every night and every weekend – and this wasn’t a fast-build kit. They had to make and glass every rib, build all the controls, install the firewall, etc. The fuselage was of course two halves, two of 40 pre-molded parts, all of which needed final fit and assembly. Dave did most of the glasswork, but Tom being the mechanic of the two completed the more nuts-and-bolts operations, including the systems – fuel, hydraulic, landing gear, electrical, etc. An aircraft mechanic was hired to install the firewall forward.
Although Dave is currently an EAA member and a founding member of Chapter 1138, and was a national member back when he and Tom were building N17EC (N-number being a tribute to his father), builder support for EAA members wasn’t as easy back then as it is now. But as luck would have it, timely articles published in Sport Aviation came at just the right time for Dave to take advantage and incorporate into his build.
Dave’s petite but highly capable homebuilt nests neatly in the corner he sublets, sharing space with the hangar owner’s Bonanza and another tenant’s Citabria.
It’s a little hard to see, but just below the air/oil separator and connected to its discharge hose is an old rectangular Brasso can that’s used to capture escaping oil droplets. With this can in place, Dave has never had to wipe oil off the belly of the plane.
Although some of the info gleaned from Sport Aviation may seem insignificant to some, they still stand out in Dave’s mind as huge even 23 years later. One such item is a simple can used to catch the blow-by oil that exits the air/oil separator. Instead of it being routed overboard via a hose to the belly, leaving a mess to clean up, it’s trapped in a little can that’s emptied every annual.
At the wing-root fillet flap gap, Dave has installed a gap filler that acts as a fence when the flaps aren’t in trail.
Zigzag tape was applied to various areas on the landing gear doors with no appreciable improvement, but gap seals – acting like wingtip fences – help to keep the airflow from moving sideways, increasing (or probably in this case, maintaining) effective span. An immediate difference was noticed, especially with lateral control in slow flight such as landing, and Dave credits Sport Aviation for the idea offered by a fellow EAA member who reported that it worked well on his plane.
Since Dave is an architect and started his project about the same time that computers were being used to draw plans, he was able to design and plot his instrument panel full scale, cut the paper into sections, and tape it to the blank panel allowing accurate placement of all the pilot holes for instruments and the mounting screws as well as switches and lights. What resulted was a perfect panel the first time, with little or no changes since first installed.
O-320 in a Lancair 235
Dave and Tom did everything by the book; Dave doesn’t profess to be a test pilot. But at the time of the build, one member of the Lancair team had converted a 235 to accept the O-320 and was pleased with the phenomenal results. In Dave’s opinion, the 320 is a better match for the airframe. Lancair supported the conversion by supplying Dave with a cowl made from a mold pulled from the original 320 conversion, making Dave’s plane the second Lancair 235 to be flown with an O-320.
November 1987 was the first flight of Dave and Tom’s creation, and it’s been going strong for well over 23 years, logging over 1,900 hours…on the original engine with a 2,000-hour TBO. Plans are to replace it with a remanufactured engine once it hits that mark.
Twenty-three years begins to take its toll on anything manmade, and the little Lancair is no exception. Although the photos don’t show it, and most of us would be pleased if our planes looked as nice even after five years, Dave is contemplating a total repaint when the plane is down for its new engine. Automobile paint was used to turn the plane yellow and white, but when compared to today’s aviation-quality paint, it’s heavy and not nearly as durable. So Dave is looking forward to stripping it all off and applying a fresh coat of modern material.
Although typically painting a composite aircraft any color but white is taboo, Dave followed the designer’s recommendation and conducted his own test. Even on a 100-degree day, skin temps have never been measured much above 120. But it’s always been hangared when not flown, and it has never had to endure weeks or months on end sitting in the hot sun in Phoenix or Palm Springs. Dave reports the only bad thing about the color yellow is that, without fail, whenever he parks the plane outside for even just a short period, it will attract bees. But as soon as they figure out they can’t eat it, they disappear. We experienced this during the photo shoot. It also attracts people who just want to see the little yellow plane up close.
Dave tries to do at least one upgrade every annual, noting that the only weak point in his kit was the nose strut, having broken it twice early on – once on a normal, benign landing and another time while taxiing over a valley gutter breaking right at the fork. According to Dave, the original strut had only one elastomer, which in his opinion just wasn’t enough. It was too easy to compress and load the connection at the fork. So the plane was grounded for nearly a year while an oleo strut was designed, constructed, and distributed to builders by Lancair. The new strut delivered to Dave is still on the plane and has offered trouble-free service ever since.
An easy retrofit, Dave installed an oleo strut in his main landing gear, replacing the solid “donut” elastomer suspension system.
Some years later, one of the Lancair employees designed an oleo for the mains, eliminating the elastomers that came with the kit. This was an optional upgrade; the mains were functioning fine on Dave’s plane, but the new suspension gave a much softer, more comfortable ride on the ground.
In addition to the stock landing light location in the cowl, Dave added halogen lamps to the leading edge of his main gear struts.
Landing lights were added to the landing gear – halogens sourced from Walmart. Dave was tired of replacing the aviation light bulb in his cowl every 10 hours, each one costing $10, so he manufactured the ring to support the three tiny halogens he installed after buying 10 to have plenty on hand. To date, he hasn’t needed to replace any of the 50-watt lamps.
Dave and Tom decided to install dual rudder pedals, complete with brakes. With Lance’s help, they designed the crossover system that Dave eventually drew up and Lance made available to other builders. However, after 10 years of them almost literally collecting dust (most of Dave’s flights are solo or with nonpilots in the right seat), he removed them, mostly for passenger comfort (more leg room). But the plane is so well behaved, the rudder isn’t missed by passengers who do want to fly the plane (like Young Eagles). Simple coordinated turns can be made with no rudder input.
The Electroair ignition module and coil pack, with proprietary silicone sparkplug cables designed to use aircraft sparkplugs. Not shown is the MTH (magneto timing housing – a fancy term for crank position sensor) that bolts in place of the right mag.
But by far the best upgrade to date was replacing the right side magneto for an Electroair electronic ignition system, saving the left for backup and hand-propping in the event of an electrical or starter failure. Although he uses the left during normal operations, there’s no difference in performance with it on or off. The single electronic ignition is sufficient to operate the engine at an efficiency level greater than the dual mags that one could ever dream of. When doing the mag check during preflight, there’s zero drop in rpm when the left mag is switched off, and it’s as silky smooth as any four-banger can be.
The ignition can account for a half-gallon/hour fuel savings and enough added rpm that a new propeller had to be installed. And even with the new prop with its greater pitch, full throttle will still exceed redline. Dave likes to cruise above 10,000 feet (10,500 to 11,500 depending on direction). With manifold pressure indicating 19 inches, he’s seeing 2,600 rpm on the tacho, which is 100 below redline. Fuel consumption at this setting is a little under 8 gallons/hour (7.8), netting 170 to 180 knots by the GPS.
Click each photo above for a larger view.
Second best to the ignition change was the reworking of the cooling air intake. Upon installation of aluminum intake rings with an NACA airfoil cross section flight-proven by Dave Anders in his screamingly fast RV-4* and coupled with a pressure plenum, any and all cooling issues associated with the old inlets are gone. In the past, Dave’s engine would get a little warm, especially during high angles of attack. The probable cause is the inlet air stalling on its way in. With the new snorkels and the smooth transition from just about any angle, the engine might be running a bit too cool. If he had to do it over again, Dave would probably opt for smaller rings.
* Dave Anders’ RV-4
CAFE Triaviathon Champion
Vmax: 250.7 mph
Rate of climb: 3,308.4 feet/minute
Stall speed: 44.8 mph
Dave likes to actually fly his plane, so there’s no autopilot or wing leveler. Instead, fuel management is used for trim so he can fly hands-off. Dave is of course an instrument-rated pilot (as well as a glider pilot and an ATP) and will use his instrument rating on a regular basis; it’s nice to have a stable platform. By installing individual switches for the wing tank fuel pumps, Dave can trim the plane for whatever condition he’s flying by burning fuel from the heavy side first. Within the first few minutes of flight, enough fuel has been burned from the heavy side that the plane will fly level, and after that, all subsequent transfers from the wings to the header tank are done with both pumps running at the same time.
As previously mentioned, the instrument panel is as it was built two decades ago. But a recent radio upgrade brought it into this century, something important for an instrument-rated pilot. Along with a new audio panel, a Garmin 430 GPS with WAAS (wide area augmentation system) was installed. Otherwise every instrument and radio is as vintage as a 23-year-old installation permits, with nary a squawk on any item.
Although Dave’s first propeller worked very well, the manufacturer is no longer in business, so after the first nose gear incident, he went with a recommendation from Lancair to use a scimitar prop from Aymar-Demuth. Dave owns two and rotates them back to the manufacturer who tunes them up and makes subtle changes as needed.
When the plane was 10 years old, Dave took it completely apart during the winter, taking two months to go over everything. Removing the wings for the first time since the first flight allowed Dave to inspect areas of the plane he hadn’t seen in a decade. He was pleased to find everything just as he left it: clean, unmarred, and devoid of wear and cracks as he checked for any form of fiberglass failure.
Highest Time Award
For 18 years, Lancair has had an annual fly-in, usually in Redmond, Oregon (this year in Branson, Missouri), and of the three times Dave made the trip, his plane earned the highest time award. He’s not sure if his 235 has more time than any other Lancair out there, but for those specific gatherings, of which at least 50 to 60 were in attendance, his was the most experienced plane there. Additionally, he has also received the award for highest time logged in a Lancair each of the three times he participated in the gatherings.
The Best Vacation Ever
The plane has been an extremely reliable mode of transportation for Dave, a virtual time machine if you will. During a recent two-week vacation, Dave departed Hanford (right in the center of California) early one Saturday morning with sectionals of the entire United States and no agenda – he literally had no idea where he was going to go that day, only that he’d be back in two weeks. So he decided to pop in on a friend in Missoula, Montana, thus off he went. The next day, he headed east knowing he wanted to end up in New Jersey to spend a few days with his sister. Long story short, he picked places on the sectionals he’d never been; took the northern route out, the southern route home; and visited other friends and family along the way. Tennessee, St. Louis, Utah, and New Mexico were on his list, spending his two weeks as an airplane vagabond.
More than once he’d tie down his plane at an airport for an overnight stay and come back to find it gone. The FBO had moved it inside the hangar for him, gratis. They thought the plane was just too nice to leave out overnight.
The Lancair Design
Dave is very proud of the design of his plane and attributes the efficiency of it to drag reduction and attention to detail in the overall design. He walked me around the plane and pointed out the voluptuous compound curves and the low frontal area, as well as the nicely contoured intersections, stopping at the flaps to explain a little about them. With the flaps being allowed to reflex above trail (negative flaps), Dave reports that once the plane is at altitude – the trim and power set with the flaps at zero – bringing the flaps up one notch increases the airspeed 3 to 4 knots. Unlike so many other designs where adding bigger, more powerful engines is the answer to more speed, Dave credits Lance Neibauer for using his genius to simply reduce drag to have the same net effect, at a fraction of the cost.
Although Dave is retired from architecture and currently pilots a King Air for a charter company, he has a dream to build an IO-540-powered Lancair Legacy when he “retires” from charter. The allure of 240 knots and a little more interior room is just too much to ignore.
For those who might think that Lancair is just too far out of reach for those seeking “affordable” aviation, Lancair 235 projects come on the market on a regular basis at a price comparable to what a used Sonex might sell for. And they can be powered successfully with alternative engines such as the Subaru or even a converted ground power unit.
EAA Chapter 1138, Hanford, California
On the very day I got my private pilot certificate (January 8, 1997), earning my wings, EAA Chapter 1138 was formed and Dave Roach was elected president. Holding the title for over a decade, Dave flew virtually every Young Eagles rally ever held by our chapter. Flying one lucky kid at a time in his meticulously crafted homebuilt airplane, he has had the privilege of introducing flight to nearly 100 kids, with at least one (that we know of for sure) going on to be an F-18 pilot for the U.S. Marines. Oorah! Dave is also credited for being very generous when flying Young Eagles, giving second flights to those who show a real interest and hang around after all the others are done, and also taking up a parent or two. Dave is a talented and gifted instructor with the demeanor to make people feel comfortable; I doubt any of the kids or parents will ever forget their time aloft with Dave and his beautiful yellow Lancair 235.