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ABSTRACT:     A review of what various Skybolt owners have to say about the airplane.
A Bolt in the Blue
The Steen Skybolt is as popular as ever, according to this survey.
(From Kitplanes, 07/1992)
By Don Downie

The Steen Skybolt has been around since 1970 when LaMar Steen, then a Denver high school manual arts teacher, developed the drawings and his class built the prototype. Since then, at least 3000 sets of plans have been sold in 27 countries, and more than 400 Skybolts are flying. Two years ago, Steen sold the plans and all rights to Hale Wallace, a retired IBM manufacturing manager who became interested in the project after years of building model aircraft.

Wallace jokes that he just overgrew his hobby and built one of the first Skybolts, which was the Reserve Grand Champion at Oshkosh in 1979. He recently moved to a hangar on the grassy Marion, North Carolina, airport. Builders and would-be builders are welcome any time, he says.

Are Skybolt builders happy with their projects? We wrote to several and found out in short order that the design is alive, well and flying both for fun and profit; several builders are using Skybolts in airshows.

Thomas Ferraro

Thomas Ferraro's Skybolt can be considered an old-timer. Tom and his wife started the project in 1972 and completed it in 1978. Since then, N22TJ has been a consistent trophy winner at Oshkosh and other events.

We didn't build it for that but it is always nice to have the airplane compete with the caliber of homebuilts that exist today. The plane is always hangared and the Stits and Aerothene finish have held up extremely well. I also provide some extra TLC like wiping the bugs off after we fly.

Ferraro, a 41-year-old quality assurance manager, chose the Skybolt because at that time it was the only two-place, open-cockpit, easy-to-build biplane that was truly aerobatic (with its full-symmetrical wing). Total cost in 1978 was $9000. Ferraro estimates that the figure would be $35,000 today.

His IO-360 engine came from aerobatic champ Gene Soucy's Red Devils Pitts. At that time, Soucy routinely changed engines every couple of years, so Ferraro inspected the powerplant and installed it. He has put on more than 500 flawless hours since then. Ferraro reports performance at 125 mph cruise and an effortless 1500 fpm climb with open cockpits and 180 hp. Empty weight is 1136 pounds.

Ferraro says that construction was straightforward and uncomplicated with the fabrication of windshield fairings and I-struts the most difficult. He obtained an A&P rating after building his Skybolt and has since rebuilt a Piper Pacer. Originally he used sheet metal screws on the Skybolt cowlings but soon changed to nut plates. He recommends T-6 metal side panels because it becomes tougher each year for him to dive head first into the front cockpit to inspect and lube the front rudder pedals and check fuel fittings.

Were he to build another Skybolt, he would make some fairing modifications with more metal and less fabric around the cockpit entry areas. Think about easier maintenance access, he stressed. What's next for Ferraro? He'll probably rebuild an antique or a classic.

Thomas Ferraro built his Skybolt from 1972-78 for $9000. Like many Skybolts, it is equipped with an IO-360 engine.
Thomas Ferraro built his Skybolt from 1972-78 for $9000. Like many Skybolts, it is equipped with an IO-360 engine.

Don Stamp and Newell Kelly

Another oldtimer in the Skybolt corral was built by Don Stamp and Newell Kelly between 1973 and 1975. Stamp is a 7000-hour ATP from Salem, Oregon; he's 55 years old. The Skybolt was a first-time project that took 3000 hours and $13,000 1975 dollars to complete.

The plane now has 300 hours on it, still looks great and has had no problems, says the builder. Stamp's other hobby is listed as more airplanes and he is presently restoring an SNJ-5.

Stamp's IO-360 180-hp Lycoming with a constant-speed propeller came from a junker in Florida. The engine price was right but the seller lied about almost everything else, Stamp says. He received basically no help from the designer but added that the project would be 100% easier to build today.

Construction problems were caused by little details not being in the plans. Stamp recommends using a copy of the Acrosport or Pitts plans to supplement the Skybolt plans. Were he to do the project again, he would start with a 260-hp engine even though he said that it is a very good sport aircraft with 180 hp.

John Kiesow

I liked the looks and the performance, says John Kiesow of Agua Dulce, California. It took him five years and $27,000 to complete his Skybolt and he says he wouldn't do anything differently if building another one. This was a first-time project for the 33-year-old fireman. He purchased a used O-360 180-hp Lycoming and rebuilt it.

Kiesow says that builder support was more than adequate and that no part was more difficult than another. Flight performance is right at what the designer said. Kiesow, who has been flying for 13 years, plans to build another airplane, this time a fast one.

John Kiesow's Skybolt required $27,000 and five years of spare time to complete. He rebuilt his O-360 Lycoming.
John Kiesow's Skybolt required $27,000 and five years of spare time to complete. He rebuilt his O-360 Lycoming.

Ned Crowley

I'd never built anything in my life not even a model airplane before the Skybolt, says Ned Crowley, a 36-year-old automotive training manager for BMW. This first-time builder from Londonderry, New Hampshire, chose the Skybolt because of its aerobatic reputation. The project took 3000 hours and $24,000 plus another $3500 in navcom equipment.

Crowley bought a run-out IO-360 with a fixed-pitch 76X56 prop and rebuilt the powerplant, working with an A&P who helped him through the process. The Lycoming is an easy engine to work on, but with my lack of (aircraft) experience, I elected to get help and do it right the first time.

He says the most difficult part of the job was just being concerned that I'd finish it. The actual building processwelding, woodwork, fabric, painting and wiringwasn't all that hard. Actually it was fun and rewarding.

Crowley received little or no builder support from the original designer but adds, Now that Hale Wallace has the company, the support has been fantastic. I'd advise new builders to go with Hale and have a ball. As a builder-pilot, Hale has the knowledge and ability to explain what the plans don't.

With an empty weight of 1184 pounds, Crowley's Skybolt performance is exactly what he expected: 125 mph cruise at 2500 rpm and a climb of 1800 fpm. Crowley had only 300 flight hours with about 35 hours of taildragger timemost of it in Cubs. However, he had his friend Dennis Sawyer do the initial test flying and give a high-performance checkout. As a result, Crowley reports he had no ground handling problem.

The biggest thing on landing is to have the gear on straight so as not to induce any bad habits with the plane. he says. I cross the numbers at 80-85 mph for a wheel landing and 70 for a three-pointer. As far as forward visibility is concerned, there is none. 1 always slip down final approach and even begin my flare in a slip. Just before touchdown, I kick it straight and on it goes.

At my home base of Nashua, New Hampshire, I can consistently land with two aboard and clear at the first taxiway; that's 1100 feet. The Skybolt is for total fun. he says. I get a big kick out of flying around upside down.

Crowley is planning another project, this time a Glasair IIS for transportation.

Ned Crowley, who had never built anythingnot even a model planebefore his Skybolt, risks frostbite to test his engine.
Ned Crowley, who had never built anythingnot even a model planebefore his Skybolt, risks frostbite to test his engine.

Finished and in an warmer environment, Crowley's Skybolt looks like this.
Finished and in an warmer environment, Crowley's Skybolt looks like this.

A Builder's Album

Jim Wilson's Skybolt/Firebolt project.
Jim Wilson's Skybolt/Firebolt project.
Professional photographer Jim Wilson sent along 42 project-in-progress shots of his new project, called a Skybolt/Firebolt. His first homebuilt, a Skybolt, is finished and flying.

The new airplane, now considered 70% finished, became the subject in one of the best photo building sequences we've seen. We had trouble whittling the photo package down to publishable size. Ed.

Earl H. Buchanan

I started flying biplanes in the mid-1930s and always admired the Great Lakes trainer. says Earl H. Buchanan. a WW-ll U.S. Navy pilot from Chatham. Massachusetts. The Skybolt seemed like a modern version.

Buchanan spent more than 5000 hours and $ 18.500 building his first-time project. He used a fuselage welded by Mac McKenzie of Starfire Aviation, Tempe, Arizona. Mac was very helpful. says Buchanan. and I have had excellent builder support from Hale Wallace also.

Buchanan used a Lycoming IO-360/B1A from a Beech Travelair turning a 76X56 wood Sensenich prop. He considered installing the engine controls with the attendant electrical wiring and plumbing (fuel and brake lines) to be the most difficult part of the project. Determining what and where to buy components in the Cape Cod area was his second hurdle.

At the time he wrote us, Buchanan had made only three flights. The stall characteristics of this airplane are exceptional, he said. I can hold the stick back and walk the nose down through the horizon with the rudder alone. My power-off stall speed seems to be about 55 mph and the rate of climb is about 2000 fpm. At 80% power, I get 120 mph but my instruments have not yet been calibrated.

Even though he has 1800 hours and a commercial license, Buchanan reported that he had done little flying since leaving the Reserves in 1959. That makes me pretty rusty, he said, but the Skybolt seems like a real honest airplane and has excellent ground-handling characteristics. I developed a tailwheel shimmy problem on my second landing, which resulted in throwing the steering chains. That left me with a free-swiveling tailwheel but she still rolled out pretty true.

I like my Skybolt. I'm proud of it and the plane gets a lot of attention whenever it is out of the hangar. Building it was a great experience.

Now the 70-year-old builder is looking for a kit to build.

WW-II Navy pilot Earl Buchanan had not flown since 1959 until he built his Skybolt, which he labels a real honest airplane.
WW-II Navy pilot Earl Buchanan had not flown since 1959 until he built his Skybolt, which he labels a real honest airplane.

Jim Simmons

Just one aerobatic flight with Daniel Helegoin of the French Connection was enough to convince Jim Simmons to build an aerobatic aircraft. Simmons is a 49-year-old computer sales and service man from Cheshire, Connecticut. He has 1000 flight hours and many years' experience flying radio-controlled aerobatic models. He chose the Skybolt because of its reputation as a strong sports plane.

Simmons needed $22,000 and 4000 hours to complete his first Skybolt. Yes, he's building another one! He purchased a completed fuselage from another builder who gave up on the project. The most difficult part on the initial aircraft was adding a two-place sliding canopy, he says. The 180-hp Lycoming IO360/A4A came from Canadian aerobatic champion Gordon Price's Pitts S1 when he upgraded to a larger engine. Simmons notes that since he has learned aerobatics, he, too, plans to change to a 260-hp or larger engine. The second Skybolt will have an Apollo 618 loran, King navcom and encoding transponder.

His advice to other builders: Build the aircraft as light as possible and try to work on the project a little each day.

Jim Crunkleton

The Skybolt is a great airplane. It has no nasty habits and is very easy to fly. Building one is a different story. It requires a lot of welding and pattern-making, says Jim Crunkleton, who holds an airline transport rating and has flown 17,000 hours.

The 46-year-old builder from Senoia, Georgia, spent 4500 hours in eight years and $43,600 to complete this first-time project. Crunkleton said that he used all available prefabricated components including a Sparcraft wing kit, and he didn't ask for any builder support.

He says that the plans are good but not instructional. The designer leaves a lot of leeway for the individual builder to create his own airplane, he said. A walk down the flightline at Oshkosh or Sun n Fun will demonstrate what I have said. I think that most first-time builders will find the Skybolt to be a long project. Tube-and-fabric designs are extremely labor-intensive, but they're rewarding.

The IO-540 Lycoming in this Skybolt presented a problem. It came from a crook in Florida who sold it as freshly majoredshould have said freshly paintedand I had to send it out for a $12,000 overhaul, explained Crunkleton. His only advice to other builders is Keep workingit's worth the effort.

Worth the effort is Jim Crunkleton's summary of his $43,000, eight-year Skybolt project.
Worth the effort is Jim Crunkleton's summary of his $43,000, eight-year Skybolt project.

Scotty Jergenson

Scotty Jergenson is a test pilot for Learjet, Inc., and for 14 years prior to this, he was a test pilot for Cessna. Jergenson is 45 years old, has logged more than 5000 hours and lives in Cheney, Kansas, just west of Wichita. When not testing jets, he flies a 10-minute, 20-maneuver airshow routine in his Skybolt, which took 5000 hours spread over 14 years and $26,000 to complete.

Jergenson is a first-time builder and reports adequate builder support from LaMar Steen, from whom he purchased a new Lycoming IO-540-D4A5 engine. Both during and after completion, he had help from Hale Wallace, Mac McKinsey [sic] of Starfire Aviation as well as Bob Near and Jerry Keller of Blue River Aircraft Supply.

Being committed to a very long project so as not to adversely impact home life and career was the most difficult part of building for Jergenson who suggests that a Skybolt builder (1) have the necessary shop tools to save time, (2) consider teaming up with a partner and (3) make sure that the required amount of money is available from the start.

While no performance information was available for his engine/prop combination and weight-and-drag configuration, the builder says that the Skybolt has met his expectations for airshow aerobatics. The only avionics aboard is a used handheld transceiver; however, Jergenson may install a 720-channel radio and a transponder.

Will he build another aircraft? No!

Scotty Jergenson, a Learjet test pilot, built his Skybolt for airshow work. The task took 14 years to complete.
Scotty Jergenson, a Learjet test pilot, built his Skybolt for airshow work. The task took 14 years to complete.

Dennis Sawyer

I wanted a competition/learning aircraft that was stronger than the pilot! The Pitts was the only other consideration, says Dennis Sawyer, a 44-year-old engineer from East Hampstead, New Hampshire. He competed in model aerobatics, and the next logical step was to build a full-size biplane and compete. He has 1600 flight hours and an instrument rating.

Before the Skybolt, Sawyer had built a Pitts, a Hiperbipe and a Kitfox II. He spent 2500 hours and $14,000 (1977 prices) on the Sky-bolt project. His only avionics package is a simple navcom. For Sawyer, the most difficult part was learning to weld. He suggests buying as many prefabricated components as possible and finding a local biplane builder to pick his/her brains for all the information possible.

Sawyer says that the performance is exactly as claimed by LaMar Steen and that builder support was more than adequate. His next project: probably a Kitfox IV.

Monte Barrett

Monte Barrett of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a 55-year-old former corporate pilot who now owns an engine rebuilding shop. Some of his 10,000+ flight hours have included aerobatics in Citabrias and clipped-wing Cubs. He chose the Skybolt as a strong all-around sport biplane.

This aircraft was completed in 1983 and Barrett said that LaMar Steen was very helpful during the project. A Steen wing kit was purchased. The most complex part of the project was the cowling and landing gearin that order.

The 260-hp engine was rebuilt in Barrett's shop. He is using a Hoffmann constant-speed propeller. Since completion, the builder has flown his Skybolt in more than 30 airshows and six contests. He says that he has never had a problem with the airplane.

Were he to do the project over again, Barrett would move the rear seat aft, add a canopy, more fuel capacity, buy the flying wires rather than make the plate type and develop a different aileron configuration.

Barrett reports his top speed with his modified IO-540 to be slightly faster than predicted. Climb and acceleration are outstanding, he said. My Bolt' is a good airshow airplane.

Swinging a Hoffmann constant-speed propeller, Monte Barrett's Skybolt performs in competition and at airshows.
Swinging a Hoffmann constant-speed propeller, Monte Barrett's Skybolt performs in competition and at airshows.

Jim Wilson

Two projects during one marriage are probably enough, advised Jim Wilson, a 42-year-old commercial photographer from Richardson, Texas. He has already built one Skybolt and is 70% finished with his Firebolt, a development of the Skybolt by Mac McKenzie.

I think the Skybolt/Firebolt is a beautiful biplane design and it can be built with an open cockpit (not possible with the Eagle). It's a good blend of safety and performance, said Wilson.

His IO-360-S1A engine came out of a Mooney whose pilot thought checking for water in the fuel was unnecessary. It was then rebuilt with Cermichrome cylinders, balanced and brought up to new specs.

He is presently covering his second project and hopes to have it in the air sometime between spring and the year 2000. I've been around this business long enough to know that completion dates are merely the opium of the homebuilder.

Wilson has 3000 builder hours and $48,000 in the project and plans to add about $7000 in avionics, including a Northstar loran and stereo tape deck. He made a number of changes from his original Skybolt including a cantilever landing gear that he expects to improve ground handling and increase speed.

He supplied the following bit of builder philosophy: The project, like all projects of this size and scope, has provided me with some pinnacles and valleys over the past three years. There have been times when I closed the garage door behind me to prevent me from doing harm to that pile of frustration. And there were times when I just stood back with pride and wonder that a person could create a machine that will, some day, lift him into the sky. Well said.

For information on the Skybolt, contact Steen Aero Lab, 1451 Clearmont St. NE, Palm Bay, FL 32905; call 321/725-4160. [Changed to new address - ed] Plans sell for $165. Wallace has a wide variety of prefab components available including wingtips, fuel tanks and even complete welded fuselage assemblies.

To round out the circle, Wallace noted that LaMar Steen, now retired and living in Greeley, Colorado, has a Skybolt under construction and fills his spare time with building and flying model aircraft.

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