So Your Plane's Ready to Fly?
By Wayne Norris
Wayne Norris is no newcomer to first flights in an experimental aircraft. With five builds to completion in the past 13 years, all with successful first-flights, maybe he's doing something right that we can learn from. Although it's not possible to write a comprehensive article that covers all possible situations with all possible homebuilts, this short list of advice might be one that we can all use as a starting point from which we build our own list.
So your plane's ready to fly? You built it using a set of procedures and organized schedules, so it stands to reason the test flight should go the same way.
There have been far too many builders who during high-speed taxi testing, get it just light enough to feel the controls - and lose it, resulting in a broken plane and broken ego. I think there is very little to be gained by trying and even completing high-speed taxi runs. Maybe if you are at an old airbase with 200-foot wide by 12000-feet long concrete runway it might help, but still it is better to either fly or not.
Don't let the weather press you
Wait for a forecast for good VFR in the morning so you'll have all day. It took years to build your plane, so take your time - this is when you can get hurt. I've waited as long as a week after the FAA signed off our Mustang 2, (waiting for my building partner to get home so he could be there for the first flight) and I waited just long enough to followed the Feds requirement to "not fly it till we get out of your driveway" with our Rans S7s. They did see me fly over their car anyhow. So go when you are ready.
Who should fly the maiden flight?
When I was 14, I spent all winter building my second-ever remote-control model airplane. Being a novice, I went with the advice of having a more experienced pilot do the honors. Well after he "tweaked" the carburetor's needle-valve on the new engine, it went lean during climb. I wanted to leave it rich. After the engine seized, he tried to return to the runway but the classic stall-spin-crash resulted. I decided that I could have done that by myself, so henceforth, I will fly my own planes - thank you very much.
Are your skills on par with your new plane?
With full-scale models there is a bit more at stake. Before I started building 12-inches = 1-foot scale models (1:1) I have been fortunate to log many hours in a wide variety of airplanes, so my decision that I was competent to fly was easy. Hopefully you were reasonable with your build choice; if you are a Cessna 152 pilot, you may not want to test fly that Harmon Rocket. If you have some tailwheel time, your new Rans S7 will be a pleasure. If your flying skills are appropriate for the plane, and you are current, then you are probably the best person to take the controls for the first time. You built the thing - so who else is more intimate with all of the systems? Plus you already have hundreds of hours in the cockpit. An independent or "test pilot," even one with time in type, doesn't know everything about your plane. But definitely do an objective evaluation of your piloting skills. Insurance may enter into the equation, too. They may cover you but not someone else in your plane.
Photo by Wayne Norris
If you decide to do it yourself, it's imperative that you get some time in type if possible before that first flight. When I built my DR109, I had been flying a Pitts Special. I went up with a friend in his Extra 300 for some inverted spins and touch-and-goes before I took it off the ground.
Before that big day, have a couple pilot friends come by to give it a look-over with the cowling off. Have them check all the hoses, bolts and safety wire, and have them ask "stupid" questions, i.e. is there oil, fuel, brake fluid where there should be?
Form a first flight plan
It might not be a good idea to have 20 people cheering (distracting) you on, as it just adds to the pressure to go when maybe you should slow. You should have helpers though. On my test flights, I brief my CFR crew on what I plan to do and what I want them to do. I fly off of a 2500' sod runway, so I plan that first takeoff to the east where an off-field landing is more friendly.
Photo by Wayne Norris
Look the area over ahead of time and consider your options at various times during departure, if the engine quits or another situation arises. I have a crew member near the end of the runway with a fire extinguisher, tow rope, shovel, ax, cell phone and a handheld radio. There is also a 4x4 pickup truck with crew and same equipment on a road about a half mile off the end of the runway. I brief them not to worry about fences or crops if I go down, and to drive through them if need be. Knowing that help is only seconds away if things go south is a good thing. Same goes for your personal attire. No shorts and flip-flops. If a surplus Nomex flight suit isn't available, wear denim jeans, leather shoes, long-sleeved cotton shirt and long nomex gloves. If you have a parachute, wear it! You will eventually be flying up to redline (flutter) speed just not on the first flight.
Now climb to 4-5000' agl and follow the engine break-in procedures for you powerplant. Can't talk on the radio? You should have brought a small bottle of water for that cotton mouth - been there. A chase-plane would be nice to have so your buddy can look you over in case fluids are leaking or if something important fell off. But ground folks might spot it with binoculars. After an hour and you have settled down, get an airspeed check with the GPS at cruise and a slow speed. Do a clean stall then with flaps. Note the speeds. Add 30 percent and use that for your approach speed. Have your ground crew reposition for the landing, one near the runway and one off the approach end.
Congratulations, it flies!
Let things cool down and check over everything once again. Now the fun begins as you do the shake-down flights and burn up the flight-test time. Some airplanes will tell you everything in the first five hours some might take you 100 hours to get the bugs worked out. A small, slow, simple aircraft won't have the same flight test card as a high-performance, complex aircraft so have fun and be safe. At least for the first few flights, be sure to tell someone when, where and how long you will be up. Better yet, also have them close for your take-off and landings, monitoring a radio. On the tenth hour of flying my first plane, the oil cooler broke, streaming oil back over the canopy while I was 10-miles from home. I called my wife on the radio so she could play CFR if needed. But everything turned out well.
Be safe and enjoy the fruits of your labor,
Since 1998 Wayne and Kathy Norris have built and flown a DR109, an Express 2000, a Rans S7s, a Zenith701 and a Mustang 2 from Norris Field, 8II2 in Liberty, Indiana.