Mark Stucky writes:
If I was to characterize the first flights in one word I would be forced to say, INCREDIBLE. Hereís the story:
The team was pushing hard for flying on July 31st, but I wasnít very confident the glider would really be ready. I was probably more surprised than anyone when the 31st came and we were heading out to El Mirage Dry Lake to fly.
The team had made the decision that the LightHawk would not be completely production representative for this initial flight test. One thing Danny was pushing for was the installation of a rather large and robust fixed landing gear assembly (instead of the production retractable gear). He really wanted to avoid damaging the LightHawk in what might be a relatively minor landing incident. The team ran out of time and didnít get the temporary brake on the flight test landing gear fully installed but I wasnít concerned (that was one reason why I had suggested El Mirage in the first place).
Galen Fisher (the initial owner of LightHawk #1) was planning on installing his own sailplane instruments but for this first flight they were only going to install a temporary airspeed indicator for me.
The canopy latching mechanism was also not complete although I would have jettison capability and was wearing a sailplane reserve parachute (a planned ballistic chute for the entire LightHawk/pilot combo is being installed shortly). Because of the temporary canopy closure arrangement, we would limit ourselves to what I judged to be moderate speeds or less.
Lastly, the latest simulations had only been done with the full-span flaperons at angles between 0 and +10 degrees so we would limit ourselves to that range of flap positions.
We planned two low altitude (5-10 feet AGL) tows at El Mirage Dry Lake to verify the basic stability and control as well as the operation of the dive brakes. Then, if the team was satisfied, we would tow up to altitude for the third flight.
For training us all, Mike Sandlin had brought along his Basic Ultralight Glider (BUG), which is kind of a cross between an Icarus II and a Super Floater. I had a quick flight in the BUG, initially flying it at low altitude (as we planned for the LightHawk) and then pulling it up and climbing out on tow. After 15 minutes, Danny reminded me that I had a LightHawk waiting for me.
The LightHawk looks incredible, it is a series of beautiful curving arcs -- there isn't a straight line on the glider anywhere. Soon I was strapped in and the canopy fastened. Everyone passed a series of "thumbs up" and we were off.
I had my hands full on the first low tow as the glider was yawing all over the place. I immediately released and was relieved that things immediately smoothed out. During the tow I noted the inline drogue chute was rapidly darting back and forth across my nose. I realized the drag of the LightHawk in ground effect was insufficient to provide enough tension to keep the drogue streamlined. Floyd Fronius clamped down the skirt of the drogue and the second flight went smooth as silk.
We had a team meeting and everyone agreed that flight #3 should go as planned to altitude. I had a bunch of flight cards that had a sample of maneuvers designed to get a quick feel for the static and dynamic stability, control, performance, and stall/departure characteristics.
One of the things that didnít take place until that last morning was the temporary quick and dirty installation of the airspeed indicator. I watched it being installed and was concerned about a hard bend in the plastic tubing behind the rudder pedals. I recommended the tubing go along the floor in front of the rudder pedal but Floyd and Ric Fritz thought I would step on it. I figured I normally use the ball of my feet on the pedals but didnít argue the point.
The launch and climbout for this first real flight was very smooth and for the first time I had time to look at the airspeed indicator (which was partially hidden behind the control stick). I noted it was reading far too low (barely above 10 mph) and knew the airflow was restricted. I had never ground towed in an enclosed sailplane and it was a little disconcerting not being able to see the tow vehicle and not having any good indication of airspeed. I stayed on tow until I felt the climb rate decreasing, pulling the release at a little over 1000 ft AGL. I had strapped a handheld GPS to my leg as a backup for altitude and groundspeed and as it turned out, it and my miniature audio recorder were the only instrumentation I had.
Within a few moments of release I had completed a quick inventory of the basic stability and control of the glider and knew I was at the controls of a fine-crafted machine. The LightHawk flew like any other high performance sailplane I had flown only better. Within our restricted flap and speed envelope, the LightHawk exhibited incredible stability, control, handling qualities, departure and spin resistance, and apparent performance.
I say apparent performance because after about fifteen minutes of doing maneuvers, I realized I was not descending so I actually started trying to thermal. In a few short minutes I topped out at 9,900 ft MSL on the GPS (a 7,000 ft gain under mid-level broken altostratus cloud coverage). Realize that I canít quantify the performance I did not have an airspeed indicator or vario all I know is the LightHawk appeared to fly around horizontally.
Immediately after topping out I flew for twenty minutes without doing any turns in lift or losing altitude. After an hour of fun (to include numerous stalls with full cross-controls at bank angles up to 60) Danny radioed to me that the winds were really picking up and I should try to land. It took me over twenty minutes of flying as fast as I dared, while maintaining full cross-controls and a spiral dive to get back down to the ground. I set up my approach with a base turn as close to the downwind power lines as I felt comfortable and turned final, flying past the ground crew at about 15 ft AGL. I honored Dannyís request to make as slow of a touchdown as possible, to rollout without braking, and to keep the tail wheel off the ground for as long as possible. I eventually landed at walking speed about half a mile upwind! Danny chased me in the truck, hopping out and jogging alongside me as I stopped.
I started hang gliding 28 years ago, began flying sailplanes 22 years ago, and paragliding 10 years ago. Every time Iím in a sailplane and encounter a good thermal I find myself wishing I could somehow transport myself into a hang glider. During the 87 minutes I spent soaring the LightHawk, not once did I wish I was in anything else.
Danny asked me if I thought we had a micro-lift glider. I canít say but Iím looking forward to finding out.