A FEW MONTHS ago I was in Denver, Colorado and was spending a couple of hours at Jefferson County Airport. While poking around the T-hangars looking for interesting airplanes, a favorite pastime of mine, I found LaMar Steen getting ready to go flying in one of the most beautiful airplanes that I have ever seen. LaMar generously offered to let me fly it, but my flight to Chicago was leaving shortly and he mentioned that the next time I was in Denver I could fly it then.
| John Gosney is currently practicing aerobatics in the Steen Skybolt and flying it in national and regional aerobatic competitions. |
Not too long afterwards LaMar, myself, the Skybolt, and the weather all cooperated in what became one of my most pleasurable flights. As LaMar rolled the ship out of the hangar it was obvious that the lines of this flying machine would please the most discriminating taste. If it flew as well as it looked - fantastic! I could not help but feel very fortunate that LaMar would unselfishly let his friends share the privilege of flying his creation.
An out-of-town guest of LaMar, who had brought his wife along to inspect the plane after buying a set of plans, was also eagerly awaiting a chance at the controls. The happy pilot, a graying airline type, was soon buckled into the roomy front cockpit. As I stood there, still awed at the beauty of this splendid machine, the 180-hp Lycoming roared to life and they were gone. About a half hour later, they reappeared and the broad grins as they taxied up were more eloquent than words in telling me how their flight had gone.
As they unbuckled their shoulder harnesses and slipped out of the parachutes, I recalled how I had met LaMar several years earlier at this same airport. He had flown to Jeffco in a very nice Piper "Super Cruiser" to take a private pilot flight check. After sitting down to review his logbooks and other paperwork, it was soon obvious that he was not the usual private pilot applicant. LaMar had flown in the Army Air Corps during World War II and there were a number of entries in his logbook that made this Ryan owner green with envy. He had learned to fly at Tex Rankin's School of Aviation! After the war LaMar had not picked up his certificates and had given up flying for a time. Therefore the flight check was to get currently licensed. As expected, he flew the Piper very well. Later, when the homebuilding bug bit him, he turned out the Steenship, a beautiful low-wing monoplane with 40 coats of dope that I had the privilege of flying. Since building the Steenship, LaMar has become a recognized authority on homebuilt airplanes in the Denver area and has established a reputation as an excellent welder.
LaMar teaches at Manual High School in Denver. It was there that the Skybolt was born, a shop project to teach students the art of welding, metal work, and other facets of air craftbuilding. A year later, the project was complete.
Although the plane has had limited exposure outside the Denver area, over 200 sets of plans have been sold.
Now my chance had come to strap on this airplane -- not a test flight to gather exact cruise and climb performance data but just to have fun, to enjoy the feel of new control pressures, and the exhilaration that comes with flying any challenging airplane for the first time.
LaMar was busily removing the front windscreen prior to installing an aluminum cockpit cover. We both checked to see that the front seat belt was stowed and that no loose objects could interfere with control movement. Two minutes later the hatch was securely in place. Performance in nearly all aerobatic planes noticeably improves when the drag of the front cockpit is eliminated. Upon settling down into the rear cockpit it was obvious that there was much more room than in my Ryan S-T-A. LaMar helped me into the parachute and shoulder harness straps before explaining the fuel selector and location of other gadgets essential to the flight. A couple of strokes of the wobble pump was required to get fuel pressure to the PS5-C carburetor and with a press of the starter, the 180 Lycoming, which formerly was a helicopter engine, was running.
Taxiing was simple since tailwheel steering is excellent in the Skybolt. Visibility over the nose is good. After a brief run-up and check list I called the tower for clearance. I intended to hold the plane on the runway and let it fly itself off but it was airborne in a very short distance and accelerating rapidly to 90 mph. Rate of climb was well over 1100 fpm. Denver is not the best place to evaluate an aerobatic airplane due to the high density altitude. Temperature was near 80 degrees and the altitude 5600-ft. MSL. However, I had nearly 1000 ft. by the end of the runway. As I turned toward the aerobatic practice area, I knew LaMar would be driving out with his friends to watch the flight. I had decided in advance to fly above 8000-ft. MSL to comply with the FAR and to allow plenty of room for error in an unfamiliar plane. Density altitude at practice altitude would be nearly 10,000 ft. I was hoping to get to 9000-ft. MSL before LaMar arrived and get a few minutes of practice so that my own unfamiliarity with the Skybolt would not cause the maneuvers to appear as if they were being performed by a complete novice.
I started with some steep 90-degree clearing turns followed by stalls from numerous attitudes and power configurations, then spins left and right. Recovery was prompt in both stalls and spins. Steep chandelles and lazy-eights were followed by barrel rolls left and right. Roll rate was terrific! Next came slow rolls and point rolls. The wires and cabanes make excellent references for stopping on a point. Then a snap series left right doubles -- and a snap and one-half with an inverted turn back into the practice area. The engine ran beautifully inverted without a miss. Loops were made from cruise speed without diving, all above 10,000-ft. density altitude. After completing a few more maneuvers including hammerhead stall-turns, vertical half rolls, and Cuban eights, I decided to try a few of the more difficult maneuvers.
| The author, John Gosney, and the Steen Skybolt. |
| The Steen Skybolt constantly had its circle of inspectors at the 1971 Oshkosh Fly-In. (Jack Scholler Photo) |
So far everything was excellent. LaMar had told me of an experience he had with the airplane during an inadvertent outside or inverted spin. With minimum fuel, a passenger, and LaMar at 230 lbs. plus parachutes, the attitude of the plane was flat and difficult to recover. Fortunately it did recover after several turns. I must say that his honesty and humility in bringing up this experience can probably keep someone else from doing the same thing in an aft CG configuration. (Aft CG limitations have been placed on the plans to prevent this from happening again.) I found that with myself 180 lbs., chute, and half tank of fuel, inverted spin recovery was prompt with no problems.
Following the inverted spins, I climbed back to 8500 ft. and reduced power until the air speed indicated 80 mph. After rolling in full nose-down trim I pushed into an outside loop. With 150 indicated at the bottom there was no problem completing a decently round outside loop. The symmetrical airfoils are great! Next came outside snap rolls. My Ryan is a lousy outside snapper except when going straight down so it was a happy surprise when my first attempt at outside snapping the Skybolt was successful. A few more and the recovery was more to my liking.
Now for the big test where the advanced aerobatic machines are separated from the unlimited category planes. I wanted to find out if it would do a full vertical roll and still fly off the top. My first attempt began at 180 indicated and was unsuccessful: At 200 it did a full vertical roll and staggered off the top, but still under control. There is no doubt it would do the maneuver well at sea level.
|Some of the Skybolt statistics are: |
|Span ||24 ft. |
|Length ||21 ft. |
|Weight || |
|(including 5 gals. fuel) ||1080 lbs. |
|Cruise speed ||130 mph |
|Stall speed ||55 mph |
|Rate of climb ||Above 1100 fpm at 7000-ft. MSL |
In conclusion I would like to make the following comments:
1. It is the best aerobatic airplane that I have flown although I haven't flown a 180-hp Pitts.
2. I like the idea of a two-seater; it doubles the fun of ownership.
3. With the 260 hp it would be a serious competition machine in the unlimited category, yet handling characteristics make it ideal for all categories of aerobatics.
LaMar has made me the generous offer of flying it in competition this year. I plan to start practice tomorrow.