A Double Eagle, Single Handed
By Jimbo Stephens, EAA 244911
Jimbo ready for takeoff
I build airplanes. Every builder has his own motivation. It may be financial, or perhaps a need to create, or the opportunity to engage the family in a spirited act of accomplishment. For me, it was the challenge, the chance to prove to myself and the world that “I can.” This need to be challenged came at the early age of 11. I lost a wrestling match with a riding lawn mower and my right arm in the process. Read more
I suppose that it would have been quite easy to throw my remaining hand up in the air and say I’m done, but that wasn’t an option in the Stephens household. It has been said that when God gives you a lemon, you should make lemonade. My parents wouldn’t allow me to settle for lemonade; I was expected to make a lemon meringue pie. The term “handicapped” was banned in our household, having been replaced with “moderately inconvenienced.” They made it their life’s mission to challenge me at every turn, having me accomplish every goal and defeat every obstacle placed in my path. I was encouraged to play basketball and football, and I even participated in most of the rodeo events in high school and college. But it was Dad who threw down the gauntlet when he purchased an old Cessna 150 and told me to go fly it – at the age of 15. And thus began my love affair with flying.
Much to Dad’s chagrin, I soon harbored the silly notion I could build an airplane that would actually fly, without a Cessna or Piper emblem on it. Thirty-five years later, I was ready to attempt this challenge, when a friend of a friend decided that he wanted to sell his Leonard Milholland-designed Double Eagle project and build something else. He had constructed the ribs and tail feathers and had started on the fuselage. The workmanship was exquisite. I was now the proud owner of a pile of raw tubing, spruce, and the beginnings of a great little airplane. We would later rename it Pouldeaux, the Cajun name for a coot (a puddle duck), because of mainly cosmetic changes which caused it to no longer resemble a pure Double Eagle.
This wouldn’t be my first attempt at building an airplane. Several years ago, I had assembled an all-metal kit plane marketed by John Monnett called the Moni. It was basically a case of joining point A to point B. The result was a neat little single-seater that I couldn’t fly. As it turned out, this design used a joy stick on the right side only – not a very good design for an exclusively left-handed pilot. The Double Eagle is a horse of a different color. It’s a plans-built aircraft with no prepackaged, preformed parts. And I was going to fly this bad boy myself, or at least that was my hope.
Now, you need to understand that having grown up in a farm shop where the answer to every repair dilemma is a bigger hammer and/or a blue-tipped wrench (cutting torch), building an airplane was a totally different animal. On a tractor or a plow, I could use my hook to beat and bang to my heart’s content. I could “guerilla” weld with my trusty Lincoln, even if I did weld myself to a project or two. Yes, I’ve been guilty of welding myself, that is, my hook, to a project on more than one occasion. That simply wasn’t going to work on this project.
The first order of business was to learn how to gas weld, a process I was familiar with but only vaguely. After several hours of trial and error and finally figuring out a way to hold the feed wire securely in my hook, I had conquered, sort of, the art of acetylene welding. The fuselage completion was fairly uneventful, having the benefit of copious amounts of clamps and vise grip pliers, as well as a 12-year-old son, Dakota, who refers to himself as slave labor.
It was the construction of the wings and the covering that proved most trying. While a hook or prosthesis is a wonderful invention, it simply can’t provide you with the sensation of feeling or touch. Thankfully, the good Lord blessed me with a loving, intelligent, beautiful, caring, and mostly patient spouse, Faith, who could and would provide me with the gentle touch necessary for working with wood and fabric.
Milholland Double Eagle completed and taxiing
It was during this period that I lost my mentor and inspiration. At the age of 76, myfather and fellow pilot passed away. He never had been keen on the idea of his elder-born son building and flying something as complicated as an airplane, but he encouraged me to the very end. Ironically, our last conversation centered around his desire to go up just one more time.
During the course of construction, certain concessions had to be made in the layout of the plane.
While I can steady the stick with my hook, positive control input is shaky at best. Faith and I surmised that we could make the right side of the split stick a semihook that could be nestled against my leg in the right seat, while the throttle and carb heat control would be located immediately above the stick at neutral position. This would allow for the shortest transition from throttle to stick with my left hand, and I could steady my hook against my leg. We also positioned the brake handles immediately below the stick for easier transition.
While the arrangement seemed a bit congested for most pilots, it seemed to be the best solution for me. Nine hundred-plus hours later, Faith, Dakota, and I had what we hoped was a flyable airplane. We called upon my dear friend of 40 or more years, Sammy Noble, to act as our guinea pig…I mean, test pilot. After several hours of taxiing and short hops on the farm strip, and with the 1835 VW performing perfectly, the Double Eagle lifted Sammy into the air in a few hundred feet. He successfully ferried my baby to the big airport in town.
Jimbo flying his Double Eagle
A few days later, it was my turn. I hadn’t flown a taildragger in almost 30 years, and to assert that the anxiety level was high would be a gross understatement. With hook firmly inserted in a special hole on the stick, I donned my official Red Chinese fighter pilot’s helmet, a gift from another caring friend, and trundled out onto runway 18 of the Winnsboro Municipal Airport in Louisiana. My initial intention was to make a few mid-speed taxi runs and get the feel for the rudder. I forgot that a Double Eagle takes off at about the speed of a bowlegged turtle. Before I could get the throttle all the way in, though, I was climbing like a homesick angel. I reminded myself that I was supposed to breathe and climbed to 800 feet at full power before leveling off, staying ever mindful of the location of the runway. With the power pulled back to 2,750 rpm, I settled into a 64-mph cruise and tried my hand at some turns. The controls were gentle and predictable, though slightly nose heavy. A tweak of the trim had her flying straight and level, “hand” off, in no time.
My first approach for landing came in a wee bit high requiring a cross-controlled slip to bleed off altitude. My homemade magic carpet handled the maneuver flawlessly. A few more stop-and-goes later, I was sitting on the tarmac with a grin that would make a Cheshire cat jealous. Leonard Milholland had designed the perfect airplane, for me anyway. One more challenge was met and completed with “flying” colors.
Looking back on the experience of scratch buildingmy own airplane, I can’t adequately put into words the sense of pride and accomplishment I feel. I’m certain that Dad approves, though Mom may be questioning her “challenge” approach to my upbringing right about now. Obviously, this project didn’t happen without copious amounts of help. I want to extend a heartfelt thank-you to Leonard Milholland and all the Eaglers Nests discussion group members for their support and input, without which I couldn’t have succeeded. And a special thanks to Jack Dernorsek up in Pittsburgh for his encouragement and assistance in writing this piece. I suppose that what I’m trying to say is, with the right attitude, determination, and friends, nothing is impossible. Would anyone care for a piece of lemon meringue pie?
Jimbo Stephens is a Louisiana State District Court judge who lives with his wife, Faith, and son Dakota on their family farm in northeast Louisiana. For more information about the Double Eagle, visitthe Leonard Milholland Double Eagle website.