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ABSTRACT:     An article about Steen Aero Lab during the Hale Wallace era. Includes a Budd Davisson pilot report on flying several Skybolts.
Steen Aero Lab and the Skybolt
A Study in Longevity
(From Sport Aviation, 07/1994, Page 89)
By Budd Davisson
Photography by Budd Davisson and Hale Wallace

Let's see...

Quality is the name of the game
Making it a lifestyle
Big Business in a small package
Professionalism isn't a function of size it's an attitude
Design your life style
Mountain handicrafts have sure changed
For all his joviality, he's a pretty intense guy

I've been sitting here for the longest time trying to get a handle on words that adequately paint a picture of Hale Wallace and Steen Aero Lab, the Skybolt people. I'm not usually known for being at a loss for words, but this time I could see the image and sense the feeling, but it eluded me until just now.

The word I'm looking for is "Geppetto" as in Pinocchio.

O.K., so it isn't actually a word; it's a name, but it conjures up the image of a happy man, toiling away in his quaint little toy shop, in a quaint setting, making unique toys for people who are serious about playing.

Hale Wallace is a happy man because he is doing what many of us can just dream about. He is living a life totally immersed in something he absolutely loves Skybolts. And he's doing it in an idyllic setting that looks like Walt Disney had a hand in creating.

Dean Hall's Skybolt (IO-360, Marquart gear), foreground, and Dave Ebershoff's Lycoming IO-540 (360 hp) powered airshow Skybolt.
Dean Hall's Skybolt (IO-360, Marquart gear), foreground, and Dave Ebershoff's Lycoming IO-540 (360 hp) powered airshow Skybolt.

There aren't many of us who don't dream of living in the mountains on a grassy strip where we do nothing all day but try to build the perfect airplane. The entrepreneurs among us stretch it one notch further and make a business out of that search for perfection. Our dream is of a nice little business, one that's just large enough to make life interesting, that's based on a daily love affair and continually tries to make that affair better.

That is Hale Wallace and Steen Aero Lab. It is also a fair description of his homebase, Shiflet Field in Marion, North Carolina.

Hale Wallace and the sturdy little Skybolt design are enjoying a revival, as more and more people try to scratch an itch a composite super-machine can't reach. If you're into wings and wires, serious sport akro and want to take a friend along, the Skybolt is one of the few choices out there. It is also one of the few that has a completely developed ("compulsive" might be a better word) customer service support system in the form of Hale Wallace, his ace do-everything guy Lynn Mace and Bill Arrington, who gets stuck with the stuff neither of the other two want to do. Bill is also just about the best cook in a three-state area and knows more bar tricks than anyone has a right to.

Wallace has been running Steen Aero Lab for four years, and things have changed a huge amount since he carried a couple of cardboard boxes into his house labeled "Steen Stuff" and found himself in business. It was a logical transition. Hale was an IBM manager who took early retirement when Big Blue was still big, and knew he couldn't sit around doing nothing. Nothing isn't even a word in his vocabulary. An ultra-serious modeler in every facet of the hobby, he was a member of the 1970 U.S. World Scale Model Team. Then he realized that for the time he put into building two R/C scale models, he could finish any homebuilt airplane ever invented.

A biplane buff of the highest order, Hale trekked to Oshkosh '71, which was also the year Lamar Steen debuted his new design, the Skybolt. Hale couldn't imagine a better match, especially since he wasn't crazy about shoehorning himself into a Pitts or something of similar minute dimensions.

Three and a half years later, Hale had his 180 Lycoming powered Skybolt in the air. He flew that for a few years and then devoted another three years to building yet another Skybolt ...this one with a 260 Lyc stuffed under the hood.

Ask any serious modeler and they'll all tell you scale model airplane freaks really are unique and Hale will be the first to admit that. Their obsession for detail borders on being scary, but when that obsession homes in on full-sized airplanes, things really begin to happen. Since they're used to such small parts, when they are whittling away on a full sized part, they don't have it in them to turn out something that to the rest of us looks diamond-perfect, but isn't. They see only the flaws so they keep pushing. That's the way Hale is.

There is, however, an interesting edge to the perfection Hale strives to bring to Aero Lab products. The correct word is probably quality, since "perfection" connotes an almost unusable condition that's best left sitting on a shelf. Wallace wants a part as perfect as the situation requires but is still highly usable. He simply strives for quality.

Left to right, Jerry Frank, Lynn Mace, Bill Arrington and Hale Wallace with the prototype of a Skybolt powered with a 260 hp Polish PZL AI-14R radial engine.
Left to right, Jerry Frank, Lynn Mace, Bill Arrington and Hale Wallace with the prototype of a Skybolt powered with a 260 hp Polish PZL AI-14R radial engine.

Hale came to be running Steen Aero Lab as a natural turn of events. Wallace and Lamar Steen, designer of the airplane and the seller of plans, had become good friends, as the result of Hale's building two airplanes. In the early 1980s Steen approached Hale about buying the business, but Hale was still with IBM and didn't want to go into it half way. It had to be all or nothing. Then, in the summer of 1989, Hale took early retirement and immediately reached over to his phone and punched in the area code for Boulder, Colorado, home of the Skybolt.

"Lamar only said one thing to me about the business," recalls Wallace. "He simply asked me to be honest and straight with my customers. That's the kind of guy Lamar was and that's the way I try to run my business."

Make no mistake, Steen Aero Lab is a business. It isn't a hobby. It isn't a tax write-off for a retired executive. It may not be the size of other aviation companies, but Wallace puts on his business hat the second he walks through the door at 0700 hours and keeps it on until he walks out 12 hours later.

The business of Steen Aero Lab is a wonderful combination of science and art, blacksmithing and needlepoint and good old fashioned elbow grease. The Skybolt is not a high-tech airplane. It is basic rag and tube construction which means a lot of hot steel and little bits of wood and fabric. What Steen Aero Lab offers the builder is a place to get the questions answered and a mini-mart for everything from cut tubing to completely welded fuselages or finished wings and everything in between.

"I also try to carry a working inventory of the bolt-on parts most builders need," Wallace says. "But, I hardly mark that stuff up. It is more of a service to my builders than a profit center for me."

Since much of Hale's business career was based on managing production lines and warehouses, it was only logical he should look at the Aero Lab business as being his own mini-production line and manage it accordingly. Since many builders are finding they have more money than time, he has catered to them by slowly building up a line of finished parts and components that now cover every part of the airplane.

Many of the parts he actually produces himself, but others, like wing fittings, he has produced by subcontractors which are specialists in the particular skill needed, whether it be stamping, laser cutting, etc. In all cases, lie owns his own tooling. Even the fiberglass molds for the nose bowls and pants are his. This also applies to the tooling down at Mooney Aircraft in Kerrville, TX, who forms his leading edges. He wants to have complete control over every aspect of everything made for him and wants to know a vendor can't hold him hostage because of tooling.

Not satisfied with the work ethic of some of his past vendors, Wallace has now brought all of the welded component production in-house. Components, such as tails or landing gears, are welded up in massive steel jigs that often dwarf the part being made. He is shifting over to TIG welding, with Lynn as his TIG expert, and they both are careful to point out that all parts are stress relieved after welding.

When we were there, he was in the process of building a steel jig for the fuselage, since demand for complete fuselages has continued to grow steadily. That's the last major component that hasn't already been hard-tooled.

It is interesting to see how much production can actually be done by three men and careful planning. His small cadre of trusted vendors keep him supplied with lots of small parts like cap strips already ripped, they plane his spars and even make the huge crates he needs for packing wing kits and fuselages.

His hangar and shops are set up like a tiny manufacturing plant in which one corner holds a suspended bag of packing peanuts and tape. This is the shipping department. A pin-router against the wall is the routed rib department, while the same wall holds the jig boards that make up the truss rib department, since the airplane can use both types. Two long (and expertly crafted and finely finished) birch plywood tables comprise the wing assembly area, while a pair of sawhorses holding a ridiculously long, flat shipping crate is the wing kit packing area.

Hale Wallace packs another Skybolt materials kit.
Hale Wallace packs another Skybolt materials kit.

The metal shop has roll-around jigging and tools carefully stashed under benches and in corners, waiting for their turn on the production line. It is all very tidy, in a workmans sort of way, with no wasted space or motion.

"We're tight, but better tight than wasted space. As it is, we can ship wing kits in three weeks or less, with most welded components, if we don't have them in stock, taking a little longer. The fuselages are usually special order," says Hale.

As a long time homebuilder, Wallace feels, as many do, that would-be builders are being left out because of the escalating price of kits. One of the side issues to his business is to encourage people to build his airplane, since it can proceed at a rate which is affordable, as defined by each individual's situation.

"Airplane's like the Skybolt are ready-made for cost control through scrounging," says Wallace. "The basic airframe, fuselage, wings, covering, etc. consume about $5,500 worth of material with all the rest of the cost being bolt-on items. Using new parts, the airframe will run about $12,500 in material, but with a lot of scrounging a builder can cut that down considerably."

Those costs don't include engine or prop and those are areas Wallace doesn't think scrounging applies.

He explains, "The best way to approach the engine is to buy a rebuildable core and have someone trustworthy rebuild it. It doesn't have to be a high buck shop, but at least if the engine is gone through, you know it will be reliable and you aren't buying a pig in a poke."

Skybolts have been built with everything in front of the firewall from 150 Lycomings to Chevy V-8s. Wallace feels the best bang for the buck is a 260 Lycoming with a fixed pitch propeller for simplicity, weight and cost reduction.

"Right now the 6-cylinder Lycoming cores are about a third the price of a 180 hp Lycoming and, if you're worried about fuel burn, just bring the throttle back," and he grins.

Besides his own super lightweight Skybolt project (routed spars, titanium fittings, shorter screws, etc.), Aero Lab has one of the most intriguing projects we've seen for some time going; a Skybolt with one of the 260 hp Polish Wilga radials on it.

"The Wilga engine is the same width as a 260 Lycoming, 38 inches, and only 20 pounds heavier," claims Wallace. "It's a geared engine and swings a gigantic prop so it is really pushing the air. That also means, however, the landing gear has to be a lot longer."

The fuselage for the airplane with the engine installed is an instant attention getter around the shop. It doesn't take much imagination to visualize the airplane fitted out as a sort of mini-Waco or Travel Air. Faceted windscreens, more angular lines to the vertical stab, a headrest ... it all fits. The Wilga engine is the same size as the now-plentiful Sukhoi engine, which means that 360 hp tiger could also be bolted in place. Really gets the old imagination excited, doesn't it?

About a million years ago I did a pirep on Hale's 180 hp Skybolt and on this recent trip he wanted to put me into some airplanes with different engines and by different builders ... to do sort of an "average" pirep on Skybolts. We wanted to do the report by flying a number of airplanes because a problem with evaluating any homebuilt, Skybolt or otherwise, is that even within a given design, the airplanes vary greatly in the way they fly. This is because every builder is different in skill level, so things like landing gear and wing alignment might be different and also because each builder wants to put a little of himself into the design. Consequently, the airplanes have all sorts of modifications to them, some major, some minor, some approved, some not approved. Also, in the process of putting a little of themselves into their airplanes, the airplanes almost always gain weight.

Glen Harr's 160 hp Lycoming powered Skybolt.
Glen Harr's 160 hp Lycoming powered Skybolt.

On airplanes the size of most homebuilts, even big ones like the Skybolt, it is the difference in weight that makes the biggest difference in the airplane's characteristics.

Hale got on the phone and found three guys ready and willing to bring their airplanes to his little mountain haven for us to play with. They were:

Jerry Frank, Vonore, TN, with an open cockpit version that was powered by a 210 hp Continental swinging a fixed pitch prop. His airplane was built by Lester Carter in Knoxville. When Jerry bought his Skybolt, it had never been flown. When he showed up at Marion for us, the airplane had only 47 hours total time.

Glen Harr, Piney Flats, TN, with an open cockpit 160 hp Lyc airplane he had built himself.

Gary Waugh brought his 200 Lyc powered airplane up from Aiken, South Carolina. His has a one-piece sliding bubble canopy.

Jerry's airplane was first in line and his was the first 210 hp Continental Skybolt I had ever seen. I was thinking about that as I slid down into the cockpit, noticing the builder had put covers over the aileron push tubes that usually lay exposed on top of the floorboards. If I had one of these things I'd glue a wooden heel block on the floor between the pilot and the tube to keep my feet off of it and protect it. The heel block would also help us old guys get out of the airplane easier.

Hale Wallace, left, and Lynn Mace working on a Skybolt landing gear leg.
Hale Wallace, left, and Lynn Mace working on a Skybolt landing gear leg.

Skybolt cockpits are really wide. Especially when compared to something like a two-hole Pitts. They are also just a little shallower, so you don't feel as if you are dropping into an open manhole when boarding. Because the airplane is not very deep and most Skybolts sit on the ground at such a shallow deck angle, the visibility is quite good. Jerry's airplane had a Haigh lockable tailwheel which was smaller than the usual Maule or Scott unit, so it sat on the ground at a steeper angle, but it still had good visibility out to the sides.

After a prodigious amount of priming, I finally got the Continental cranked and started down the grassy incline in front of Jim Clevenger's hangar where we hosted the little gathering. Incidentally, the Marion airport is neat. Besides having 3,500 feet of grass, Steen Aero Lab is at one end of the hangar row with Jim Clevenger's place (home of the Wedell-Williams and other exotica) at the other end. Most of the hangars in between are filled with sport type airplanes and really friendly people.

Jerry Frank's 210 hp Continental powered Skybolt.
Jerry Frank's 210 hp Continental powered Skybolt.

As I was taxiing out, I was feeling out the controls and noticed a higher than normal amount of friction in the elevator. The way the controls feel on the ground is one place homebuilts vary noticeably. System friction is a function of careful alignment and care in finishing so finishing material doesn't get in the hinges or bearings. The system friction in the three airplanes was different enough that they were studies in what attention to detail produces.

Jerry's airplane also had a builder-mod to the aileron slave struts in that they were attached to a builder-designed fitting mid-span on the aileron spars, rather than being fitted to the hinge fitting itself, as per plans. During flight, I couldn't tell that it made any difference.

As I lined up on the runway, I reached up and pulled the tailwheel lock that protruded from the instrument panel. I rolled ahead a little and tried to turn the airplane with rudder and found that even locked, there was just a little movement available right and left.

Throttle up, there was no doubt there were six rather than four cylinders up front. The Continental was electric motor smooth. Picking the tail up, I could almost feel the airloads smoothing out the system friction and I concentrated on the runway edges in my peripheral vision. Running on the mains, it was nearly possible to see over the nose, which isn't normally the case with biplanes. In any new tailwheel airplane, I'm always a bundle of nerve ends and do my best to keep the airplane straight. I'm also smooth and gentle with both the throttle and in bringing the tail up so I don't induce any torque or precession turns. With the Skybolt, all of the precautions were overkill. The airplane wasn't going to do anything anyway. It was tracking straight ahead and I had nothing to do with it.

I was loading the stick aft, when a bump launched me prematurely, but the airplane seemed happy and didn't want to settle back on, so we went flying. I had been told that 85-90 mph was a good approach speed, so I used that for climb as well. Checking my watch as we hit 1,000 feet, I timed the next 1,000 at about 1,200-1,300 fpm. I was solo with about half tanks, so I was a fair amount below gross and the temperature was in the low 50s F.

At full power, it took only a touch of rudder to keep the ball centered until 3,000 feet showed up and I leveled off. As the nose came down into level flight, I wasn't surprised to find I couldn't see straight ahead, but it wasn't nearly as blind as most biplanes. The airspeed stabilized at about 125 mph indicated, which later speed checks said was pretty accurate.

Coming up to cruise speed, I suppose I should have been a little more serious in my evaluation process, but it was a sunny day and I was up in an open cockpit biplane, so what was the proper next move? Nose down, 140 mph indicated, the nose came up and the stick went hard over. I wasn't sure if the airplane had an inverted system or not, so I kept the roll positive, letting the nose come down in the usual aileron roll. As the ailerons went in, the airplane was happy to respond in a manner befitting its size and character. It didn't instantly whip into the roll like a Pitts, but then it's not a Pitts, so it's not a fair comparison. For one thing, the wings are four feet longer than a two-hole Pitts and it was flying on them, rather than depending on Lycoming for lift.

The pressures are much, much lighter than something like a Citabria or even a Cub, but the roll response is lightning quick by comparison. The pressures are probably 30% heavier than a Pitts or Eagle (that's a subjective guess) and the roll rate is probably 75%-80% of those airplanes. There is no doubt the airplane is a sports car, compared to most airplanes, but there is just enough boulevard cruiser built into it that it has absolutely none of the "twitchy" feel often perceived in Pitts-type machines.

In cross country mode, the airplane is vastly superior to either the Pitts or the Eagle. It's slower, but you can duck your head to look at a map and, when you come back out, the world is still where it is supposed to be. It is far more stable than most homebuilt biplanes and is nearly as stable on all axes as a factory built.

A Skybolt fuselage in the factory welding jig.
A Skybolt fuselage in the factory welding jig.

Bringing the power back, I held the nose slightly above the horizon and kept pulling. The airplane shuddered a little but, even though I had the stick nailed to my belt buckle, it mushed ahead with no noticeable break. With the stick still back I rocked the wings and found at least one set of ailerons was still working well. The Skybolt uses the same concept of utilizing different symmetrical airfoils top and bottom to control the stall as does the Pitts Special. This means one wing is always flying, so there is always lots of control available.

Hale had mentioned that the curved, eye-lid type of windscreens let a lot of slipstream into the cockpit and he was right. The top and back of my head were freezing by the time I got down even though I had a light helmet on.

A view across part of the Skybolt facility at Marion, NC.
A view across part of the Skybolt facility at Marion, NC.

On downwind, I cut power and started flying a 180 degree carrier-type approach while holding 90 mph. I was half way through the approach, when it became obvious a little power was going to be needed to make the runway because the nose was really down to maintain speed. More on this later.

Skybolt cost table (1994)

Once the runway was made, I ignored Hale's advice about carrying power into the flare and let it settle. As I broke the glide, I was careful to seek the ground attitude I'd seen during taxi and was happy to see the airplane found its own level as it floated along on ground effect. When it finally settled on, it was on all three and nothing more than the normal bump-induced, grass runway boogie interrupted a smooth touch down.

Again, I was all nerve ends as I waited for the airplane to attempt to turn one way or the other, but it never did. My feet were just along for the ride. The airplane isn't much different than flying a Citabria from the back seat in terms of visibility and runway manners. Considering its performance potential, it is really an easy airplane to land.

Later, after flying the other two airplanes, I had time to think back on the comparisons between them. One of the most noticeable differences during approach was that Waugh's airplane with the bubble canopy was obviously cleaner. I started all of the approaches at the same point abeam the runway and Waugh's airplane made it power off every time, but both open cockpit airplanes consistently needed a little power. Also, the nose attitude to hold 90 mph was quite a bit steeper in the open airplanes.

Predictably, I liked Glenn Harr's little 160 hp job better than the others because it was nearly 200 pounds lighter and it showed. I did a few Cuban-eights and rolls in it and found its lower power didn't hinder it at all in those kinds of minor maneuvers. In fact, all the airplanes did good intermediate akro and Glenn's little 160 was right in there. It gave up about 200 fpm in climb; it landed so much slower it was like a Cub. Glenn's airplane also had faceted windscreens and the wind in the cockpit was quite a bit less than in Jerry's with the curved windscreens. The full canopy of Waugh's airplane, however, would certainly make cross country work more comfortable.

We paced all three airplanes in cruise with Clevenger's S-2A Pitts and found the closed canopy, 200 hp Skybolt was good for about 130 mph cruise. The 210 hp open cockpit airplane did 125 mph and the 160 hp about 120 mph. Each of them topped out about 10 mph faster than cruise. These numbers don't really mean much because there was so much difference between the airplanes in terms of little details that the actual speed differences have little to do with the horsepower. Predictably, the only really worthwhile difference attributable to the big engines was that they would accelerate and climb faster, but not a heck of a lot!

Two of the airplanes had a trim system utilizing a throttle vernier down by the left side of the seat and I hated them. You can probably get used to them, but they were entirely too slow. The third airplane had a standard lever system that seemed much more natural. None of this makes much difference, since the elevator pressures during approach are light enough and trim changes small enough ... it was easier to just overpower the cruise trim.

In general, the Skybolt justifies its reputation for strength and reliability (EAA records show no in-flight failures while FAA have two under questionable circumstances). More than that, it is an airplane just about anybody can fly and enjoy, since it is a fairly low demand machine when compared with the likes of Pitts/Eagles. It is, however, not an airplane for a C-172 driver to hop into cold. It has lots of performance and, even though it is a low demand tailwheel airplane, it is still a tailwheel airplane and demands respect.

It's fun to see the re-awakening interest in building airplanes the "old fashioned" way, with rag and tube. With Hale Wallace and Steen Aero Lab's help, that trend can only be upward.

We think Lamar would approve.

NOTE: You can view more articles by Budd Davisson on his website:

If you have any additions or corrections to this item, please let us know.

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