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Have You Ever Seen a Deere Fly? Part I

Jackye Reynolds, EAA 744120

Jackye Reynolds

Building what you fly is sometimes a tall order.Especially if your building spaces are limited to your carport and other small places where all your other stuff accumulates as well. I have veteran roots in hang gliding, beginning on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Through the years, I observed some of my foot-launched pilot friends transition to early ultralights, and I lost a few friends to what I refer to as a “go-kart attitude.” Read more

I had hopes our group of flyers would build a motorized Birdman sailplane kit, but the developer died in an accident while flying it. I’d flown an early weight-shift Quicksilver, tried a Lazair, a Wizard, and had seen some Weedhopper kits. I was intimidated by my own lack of knowledge of engine-related stuff, but I was continually watching to see new flying things come on the scene. Luckily I lived in a great location for simple foot-launched flight.

Time passes and we’re destined to relocate at least a handful of times in our lives. Foot-launched flight was becoming more of a driving ordeal with rising fuel costs, and just crashing at someone’s home until the weather improved for flying wasn’t really on my list of fun things to do. Mountain launch and landing zone sites were dwindling, and later the truck-tow or aero-tow flight park became the surer bet for multiple flights.

I again revisited the local Cessna Flight Center and spent some of my minimal savings getting an occasional “air fix.” Over the next 10 years, I had increased my general aviation flying time by 7 to 8 hours a year. Not enough to really say, “Yeah, I’m a pilot!” without having your fingers crossed behind your back, or others proclaiming, “Well, a hang glider pilot!” In rare instances, someone would add, “I thought I detected a crazy look in your eyes!”

I realized I wasn’t going to be able to fly my own conventional aircraft with my limited earnings, home mortgage, insurance, and all the things that keep coming up to torpedo dreams. I had personally flown back seat in a few trikes and pusher type ultralights, but that engine and prop thing behind me always made me anxious.

The new Internet revolution helped me get more in tune with other options and knowledge basics for developing a better understanding of what I would need to know to fly an ultralight aircraft safely. There were a limited number of ultralight – basic flight instructors in my area, and many were just weekend, part-time, weather-permitting, LLC entities, with the number of instructors decreasing rapidly.

I decided that my best fit for an ultralight aircraft would have folding wings similar to a trike, and could be trailered, but with the engine up front – all of which were exemplified in the stability and docile handling of the two-axis Weedhopper. These single-seat aircraft were also selling for considerably less than a trike. So I bought my first, low-hour, 40-hp Weedhopper on eBay for about $4,000. I found a great resource for Weedhopper builders and pilots on Yahoo groups and have a great kinship with these fellow enthusiasts still. In time I did a little bit of “movin’ on up” to a nicer Hopper with real hydraulic disk brakes, electric start, BRS parachute, pod, and Lexan windshield.

Jackye in her customized Weedhopper
Jackye in her customized Weedhopper

I learned more about maintaining my Rotax engine and aircraft from a great bunch of “coaches” both online and locally. It seems the ultralight community has an underground mystique to it which made locating it difficult at first. I have to thank the EAA chapters with their pancake breakfasts for helping with that. I enjoyed trips to some of the regional fly-ins I had to trailer my bird to, and I camped out in my van, sometimes with only a solar-heated hose and spray-nozzle shower in the grass.

Ah, but “trailering” to me meant all the work of properly padding and securing my baby for the road bumps and draft blasts from other vehicles speeding down the interstate, and a place to put that tail section that was still rather bulky. Setting it up and packing it up deterred me from going to all the fly-ins I’d contemplated. Over the years of flying my Weedhopper, I’d begun to hunger for a simpler way to fold up my bird and just be able to fly with a faster wing perhaps and maybe a little more storage space in my carport if I should bring it home for the winter. I was lucky to find a nice grass airfield only an hour’s drive from home with some shed hangars for less than $50 a month. 

Maybe I should have looked at trikes again, now that I knew who could train me safely nearby. And maybe with more experience, on a good morning or afternoon, I could have possibly towed up a few of my hang glider friends as well as an aero-tow pilot that never had any free flight airtime unless he jumped out of an airplane with his parachute. I found that trikes were still pretty expensive, though, when considering the newer topless wing choices, and the majority of them were for two-seat wing loadings. In addition there was this dull buzz about light-sport aircraft making some changes in the sport flight community.

I was just interested in solo flight, with little restrictions that really didn’t present any problem to me! I found a Tukan “stick trike”without a wing that needed some work that I thought would be a good candidate for my first trike project. I ordered a wing that was just a few pounds too heavy to make the ultralight weight limitations, but I felt I could do a few things to get the weight down overall.

I took a few hours of weight-shift-control instruction from the certificated flight instructors at TampabayAerosport in Zephyrhills, Florida. When I mentioned the lime-green Tukan I’d purchased, they remarked, “Oh no, you bought Grave Digger? [nicknamed after its monster truck color scheme] I hope you’re going to paint that thing, ’cause it’s ugly!” Well, my heart sank a bit, and then my reply just came out: “I’ve got a yellow wing now, so it’s going to become a John Deere trike!” I couldn’t afford all the pretty cool-looking things I was seeing on the newer breeds of trikes, but I remembered meeting Don Cooney and admiring his Prowler trike at one of the fly-ins I had attended years earlier. “If it had just a little more ground clearance for my farm field type flying, that would be for me!” I had told him. “Well, you could build it that way!” he had said. I had been under the impression that building a trike and wing probably involved some voodoo. Over that summer, I made changes and repairs and got my ultralight Tukan trike airworthy, and I was enjoying the confidence that the sturdy Manta 15 strutted wing was instilling in me.

Tukan ultralight trike
Jackye’s Tukan ultralight trike with Manta 15 wing

In the distance there were more rumblings about N-numbers and deadlines in the year to come, but that was for those guys that wanted to fly fast and far with two seats and passengers. I was just going to keep to myself and fly around the patch at 50 mph max. Maybe trailer to a fly-in or something, but I still had the Weedhopper for wintertime flights, too.

That October, I had an opportunity to make my first real cross-country flights with another Tukan trike pilot, Larry Wallace, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.We flew to and from the Outer Banks of North Carolina over a beautiful three-day weather window – that was literally monumental for me. We flew and landed at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Larry shares our flight and other great adventures with readers in numerous flight publications for the sport flyer, including stories such as “Slow Trike to Kitty Hawk,” “Poor Man’s Hangar,” etc. Naturally, my eyes were even more opened to the possibility that with proper planning and support I could really go places with a trike.

Well, I was spending more money on two hangars now, and twice the maintenance concerns for aircraft and hangars. I guess Angelfire, my Weedhopper, would be the easiest to part with now. (Not!) But I sold her semilocally anyway with thoughts I could fly my trike sometime to go visit her. I’ve not seen her since! (Sniff.) The sale was to be part of my debt reduction program, but it was also a temptation to spend my new earmarked reserves on more parts to completely rebuild a trike to my whims.

All too soon, that deadline date for U.S. ultralights to have applied for N-numbers and airworthiness certification was history. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my single-seat trike that would be just a bit fat because of the wing’s weight. Talk of uncertificated or fat ultralights being “yard ornaments” was everywhere. I figured, “Okay. I’ll get the lightest weight trike wing I can find and continue to fly my trike as an ultralight.” The 5 gallons of fuel capacity was no problem, and the single-place wing would still be within tolerances for maximum takeoff weight. But I wouldn’t be able to add the safety and comfort features I had hoped for with this trike.
I flew a few more times and was finding myself thinking about zooming off to places farther than my ultralight restrictions would realistically allow. I didn’t have the funds to buy a bigger engine four-stroke trike that I’d have to build a better hangar for or spend more of my flying reserves on county airport hangar rental if one was available. Ding dong! I was going to just work with what I have and what I could learn to do. So began the evolution or remodeling of my new trike. I was able to start making a plan for building my DeereFlytrike to be nearly the trike I had envisioned. Thanks go to Mark Gibson of Manta Aircraft who helped me build and assemble my own experimental amateur-built trike wing, the Orca.

DeereFly trike
Final product is the new experimental DeereFly trike with homebuilt Orca wing.

If you didn’t know you could build your own trike wing, read part two of this story in the next issue. And remember what Jackye always says: "Any time off the planet is a good time!”


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