They say there's a homebuilt aircraft design for every pilot, if you just shop around enough. Some like 'em fast, some like 'em slow. Big or little, one wing or two - you name it, you can find it.
But now and then a pilot comes along who wants something very special, not quite like what he sees at the big EAA fly-ins but something he can envision very clearly. That's what happened to John Shipler, of Huntington Beach, California when he met a pretty girl named Lucea back in 1972 and took her for a spin in the sky on their first date. John already had bought himself a set of plans for a Pitts S-1A single-seater aerobatic bipe and dreamed of doing solo airshow routines. But, there was Lucea...
When he showed her the plans and told her about the fun he was planning to have all by himself up there in the wild blue, he saw a storm warning in her eyes that said: "Hey, buddy - what about me? Where do I figure in your plans?"
That cinched it. He would build a super two-place aerobatic ship so he could take her along with him. Then he heard about LaMar Steen, who runs a business called the Steen Aero Lab at 15623 De Gaulle Circle, in Brighton, Colorado [The current address is 1451 Clearmont St NE, Palm Bay FL 32905 - ed]. Steen had designed a school project biplane called the Skybolt. It was very lovely, just what John wanted!
But what about those Pitts plans he had purchased from the Pitts Aerobatic factory (P.O. Box 547, Afton, WY 83110)? As everybody knows, the Pitts is a champion-caliber airshow machine with a long string of competition victories to its credit, thanks to the splendid work of Curtis Pitts, its designer.
| Nine inches were cut from the overall length in the area of the fuselage bay to make the measurement 20ft-3in from spinner to tail. Wing span was also shortened. |
Torn between two loves, Shipler decided the best way to go would be to merge, or consolidate his holdings, as they say down at the First National Bank. Lucea thought it was a super idea, and so was born the Super Skybolt project, a one-and-only biplane that naturally carries the name Storm Warningl The name had a little added significance because of a family legend about storm warnings somewhere in Shipler's American Indian background.
The man/machine relationship, that close identity of one with the other, is something in which the individuality of the man becomes a part of his machine, and vice versa. Lindy wrote about it in his book, "We," in passages that told of the intimacy of his soul with that of the Ryan Spirit of St. Louis. There were other famous soul mates, like AI Williams and his Gulfhawk IV; Wilbur and Orville and their Kitty Hawk; Howard Hughes and the "Spruce Goose." In the same way, John Shipler's Super Skybolt would become a part of him, something he would proudly fly to West Coast airshows, with Lucea up front, sharing his pleasure.
Shipler got his first taste of flying back in 1955 in the U.S. Navy where he started in school as a Machinist's Mate. Later he worked his way up to Flight Engineer in the Korean War, flying 240 missions, mainly photographic, and incidentally hauled out the first returned POW, an Australian GI.
| In flight, Storm Warning has a compact look due to its shortened fuselage and narrower wingspan than stock Skybolts. |
Back home in Iowa he began renting planes, and when he moved to California in 1962 he continued flight training at Meadowlark Airport in Huntington Beach, obtaining his multi rating in Cessna 210s, with financial aid from the G.I. Bill. Working at the same time as shop foreman at the local Datsun dealership, he added to his store of knowledge about metalworking and bought a set of Pitts plans.
After Lucea came along and he decided on a custom combo creation for two, Shipler got busy building the framework of his special, doing all the work himself except for the fuel tanks, which he farmed out to George Evans' shop at nearby Flabob Airport. Construction began in May 1972, when he actually built the wings in a mobile home he was living in at the time! The fuselage wouldn't fit, so he and Lucea turned her garage into a factory.
Numerous changes were made to the Skybolt design, such as shortening the wingspan from 24 to 22 feet and cutting nine inches out of the fuselage bay to make it only 20 feet 3 inches from spinner to tail. He used the same Skybolt airfoil recommended by LaMar Steen but moved the ribs one inch closer together, to give it a smoother surface, and he shortened the length of the ailerons.
| The Super Skybolt without engine, fabric skin and wings. Two fuel tanks will be added behind the firewall and in the center section of the upper wing for 49 gallons total. |
Shipler picked up a good Lycoming O-540 of 260 hp, but felt it should be raised five inches, providing better propeller clearance from the ground and improving the flowing lines. While it looked great and flew beautifully, the higher engine position played havoc with forward visibility, so he learned to become proficient at forward slips on final approach.
In May 1978 the Super Skybolt was ready for her maiden voyage at Corona, after he'd worked six years, 25 to 30 hours a week, for a total of 5000 man hours. Better make that people hours -- Lucea was right in there rib-stitching, building ribs and doing other chores, such as designing the color scheme.
At last John was able to take Lucea up for some touch-and-goes. All went well until, on one approach, while stretching his neck to see the runway, he started porpoising and banged the tailwheel hard enough to jar his bones. A pal, Dick Bradford, hopped into his plane and flew formation with Shipler. He took one look and yelled into his mike: "John! You lost your tailwheel!
Everybody got excited, and they called out the airport fire department to stand by for a crash landing. Lucea cranked up her movie camera, but cool as a cucumber, John wheeled Storm Warning onto the deck and coasted to a stop, no sweat.
| Shipler raised the Lycoming 0-540 engine five inches, giving better prop clearance but playing havoc with forward visibility. |
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| John Shipler and his wile flew down to Ramona from Corona Field in their sharp Super Skybolt with clipped wings. || Rear panel of Storm Warning is neatly laid out with flight gauges at left, engine gauges mounted at right. |
Since that thriller, all has gone well and John and Lucea have put in many enjoyable hours of cross-country cruising. The Super Skybolt has two fuel tanks, one of 38 gallons behind the firewall and another of 11 gallons in the center section part of the top wing. Cruising along at 143 mph IAS at 24 square, or 75 percent power, they burn only 16 gph, for a range close to 350 miles. Firewalled, the Lycoming puts out enough power to get a Vmax of 155 mph IAS, or close to 160 true, which is plenty for the kind of flying the Shiplers enjoy.
While there are purists around who think a Skybolt should be a Skybolt and a Pitts Special a Pitts Special, others see nothing wrong with making a few modifications to a good design by combining it with another good design. But before you decide to join a J-3 Cub with a DC-3, or some other weird combination, join your local EAA Chapter and get yourself some good advice. Generally speaking, veteran homebuilders do not recommend changing a proven design, and if changes are to be made, they should be done only by someone who is basically a skilled craftsman with knowledge of aircraft design problems and how to resolve them.
So far, the Shiplers have encountered no problems with their Super Skybolt, other than the forward-visibility situation mentioned above, but our recommendation is to steer clear of any major alterations in a homebuilt project. It's fine to change a paint scheme, put on new brakes, install different instruments, and make minor alterations like that, but any work which involves structural modifications or weight-and-balance changes should be approached cautiously.
With that warning, we conclude with a salute to the Shiplers for creating something excitingly new and utilitarian, a homebuilt tailored for two that turned out well.