Building an airplane – MY first flight, August 30, 2017

Recap: Yesterday, within minutes of tightening down the last bolts and setting the last rivets, Chip Erwin took the newly built Zigolo MG12 out of the hangar at Verona Air Park (W19), started it up, taxied it to the grass strip and did a few crow hops to verify that everything was in working order. It was a thrill to see it fly, however briefly, but the major milestone that was still missing was for me to fly it myself.

I wasn’t at all sure when that would happen. Not only did conditions have to be just right – which basically means calm winds (for now), but I also had to have confidence that I could safely get it down on the ground again.  As they say, takeoffs are optional, landings are mandatory.  And landings are by far the most demanding of flying skill, relative to other routine maneuvers.

While I have made many hundreds of landings in Cessna 152s and 172s, ultralights are fundamentally different in multiple ways.  First, they are so light and draggy that they carry almost no momentum.  If you get the nose too high with too little power, you quickly bleed off airspeed until you’re not flying anymore, which is a bad thing if you happen to still be 10 feet or more above the ground. Second, because they have such large wings in comparison to their weight, they get tossed around by every gust in a way that heavier aircraft do not.  Third, your sight picture from the “cockpit” is completely different; you’re not looking over the nose of the aircraft and using the horizon as a reference to judge your flare; instead, you’re watching for grass to come up just below your feet.

In short, I didn’t want to take anything for granted.  My first flight would be made only under optimal conditions, and I told myself I  would approach it with extreme caution.

So I was pleasantly surprised when, at about 5:00pm today, I noticed that the breeze had settled down to almost perfectly calm, and I decided that at the very least, I could practice taxiing the Zigolo on the ground.   Among other things, this would allow me to continue breaking in the engine, a process that is not complete until it has burned through a full tank of fuel (about 5 gallons).  I would leave open for now the question of whether any actual flying would take place.

I drove out to the air strip, which is about 20 minutes from campus, opened the hangar door, and wheeled the Zigolo out onto the grass.  After checking that no nuts or other components had mysteriously worked themselves loose overnight, I fastened myself in with the harness, started the engine and let it idle until the cylinder head temperature was above 100 degrees Celsius.

The Zigolo has an unusual throttle arrangement (for an airplane) in that you squeeze and release a trigger on the joystick to add or reduce power. The engine responds immediately, very similar to squeezing the throttle on a chain saw. I carefully increased the engine RPM until the Zigolo began rolling through the fairly deep, damp grass and then used the rudder pedals to steer.  The aircraft was pretty responsive to rudder, especially if I goosed the engine to let the prop wash help move the tail around.

I taxied carefully to the southwest end of the grass strip and used the technique Chip explained to me for making the sharpest possible turn: hold the stick fully forward to take weight off the tail while adding a burst of power and giving full rudder deflection.  There are no brakes on the Zigolo, differential or otherwise, and the tailwheel doesn’t do much in the wet grass, so the rudder is all you’ve got.

Once turned around, I aimed the plane down the grass runway and cautiously added power.  I taxied slowly at first getting a feel for the rudder and for the handling on the somewhat uneven and, in some places, soggy sod. Reaching the end of the 1900 foot runway, I turned around and repeated the process in the other direction.  As I gained confidence with each pass, I increased the speed to the point that I could lift the tail with forward stick pressure and roll along on just the main wheels at just below the stall speed of about 25 mph, holding direction with the rudder.

Pretty soon I got comfortable with the handling on the ground and experimented with giving full throttle, backing off just as the plane seemed to want to fly.  I was holding the stick forward, so it wouldn’t have flown even well above stall speed unless I pulled back some, and I made numerous runs in both directions at what felt like a pretty good clip, bouncing over hummocks and splashing through soggy areas (there are now some mud splatters on the lift struts).

After at least an hour of this confidence-building exercise, I decided to accelerate to 50 km/hr according to the metric-calibrated Hall airspeed indicator that the Zigolo is equipped with; this translates to 31 mph, which is more than enough speed to get airborne (and about as fast as my bicycle gets going down Seminole Highway northbound from where it crosses the Beltline)!

The first time around, I kept it on the wheels just to feel how it handled on the ground at that speed.   The second time, I eased back the stick, and the Zigolo immediately lifted off the runway. I reduced power and settled right back down again, very smoothly and with no obvious tendency to yaw.  My first flight in the Zigolo! It probably reached an altitude of 1 foot and covered a distance of 30 feet, but it still qualified as the big milestone in the nearly two-year process of acquiring and building the Zigolo.

After a few more very tentative crow hops, I began to leave the power in longer and travel further down the runway before settling down again.  I also allowed the plane to climb higher. In all cases, I was extremely attentive to airspeed.  Keeping it near 50 km/hr using pitch while using power to control whether I climbed or descended at that speed seemed to work well.  In no case did I make a “bad” landing; as long as I kept the airspeed up around 45-50 km/hr and flew it back to the ground before leveling off and reducing power, it always touched down gently and under control, and it rolled to a stop fairly quickly on the tall grass.

In all, I probably made a dozen honest-to-goodness flights, the last few of which extended most of the length of the runway and reached the modest altitude of 30-40 feet before touching down again.  Had I gone higher, I would not necessarily have been able to land again without leaving the airport and flying out over forested areas, which I was not ready to do.

Around this time, I noticed dark clouds on the horizon about 10 miles to the north and simultaneously  realized that wind had abruptly come up – the outflow from what turned out to be an approaching (but still relatively distant) thunderstorm.  This was not part of the plan!  My final landing was made with a significant buffeting crosswind, and I had to fight a tendency for the wind to pick up a wing and push me off course as I tried to line up with the runway. The fact that the aileron action is a bit friction-y right now didn’t help; I’ll have to do something to loosen that up, maybe some lubricant in the hinges.

I got safely onto the ground but had to work hard to maintain directional control and to keep the wings level as I taxied back to the hangar. I was worried that if a stronger gust came along, there would be nothing I could do to stop the plane from tipping to the point that a wing tip would hit the grass (but better tall grass than asphalt or gravel)!

Fortunately, I made it to shelter without incident, but there was an important and timely lesson in this:  no matter how benign the wind for takeoff, be aware of the possibility that everything can change with little or no warning, especially if there is convective activity anywhere within a 20 mile radius. Weather that poses comparatively little risk for conventional airplanes, like the Cessna 172 that I regularly fly, can evidently be significantly more problematic for an ultralight.  It’s one thing to hear that message from someone else; it’s another to experience it firsthand.

In the future, I plan to always have a second person present at the airport whose job includes monitoring the area weather carefully and being ready to signal to me either visually or by two-way radio when its advisable to come down, since the signs of changing wind in particular aren’t necessarily obvious when you’re in the air.

All in all, an exhilarating and educational first experience with flying the Zigolo.  This calls for a glass of champagne.

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