F1 Rocket Kit Plane
The Need for Speed
For a pilot like me, life doesn't get much better than living on an airpark, sharing the same hobby, and becoming friends with with all your neighbors. One of the great things about this is getting together for group flyouts. The only drawback is that, with one of the slowest airplanes on the field (the Maranda), we were usually one of the first to leave and the last to arrive. Being a bit competitive, and disliking the numbness in her more padded regions, Avril declared that it was time for me to build something faster.
Yikes! Gotta love a wife who TELLS you to go build an airplane. Needless to say, I didn't protest and immediately commenced a search for an airplane which would get the two of us to lunch a little faster. Also included in the criteria was that it should be a proven design and capable of carrying tent and sleeping bag, so that we could start traveling and seeing some more of the country. We also wanted something with a reasonable stall speed and good climb performance; it's a bad feeling to take off high, hot and heavy, watching the trees at the end of the runway getting closer and closer . . .
Thumbing through the annual Kit Planes directory, it didn't take long to arrive at the F1 Rocket as being a serious contender for emptying the bank account. We spoke with Mark Frederick of Team Rocket at Florida's Sun n Fun convention and were pretty much sold on the idea that this was the plane for us.
Conveniently, the factory is located right here in Texas, so one weekend after our return from Florida, we loaded up the Maranda and flew to Macho Grande airport to meet with Mark and take our first test rides in a Rocket.
Now that is an experience! Up until now, I had really never flown in a high performance airplane. I had learned to fly in an 85 hp Luscombe and at 150 hp, the Maranda was the most powerful airplane I had flown. Flying the Rocket was a whole different ball game.
I was impressed as the takeoff roll started, pushing me back in the seat. I thought "Wow, that's pretty impressive acceleration". Then I noticed that the throttle was only 1/4 of the way in. A few seconds more and I thought "Wow, that's pretty impressive acceleration." Throttle was still only about 50% of the way in. By the time the throttle was all the way in, my eyes were bulging and the drool was streaming back around my ears.
I figured Mark would stay under the 3,000' clouds, as we had coming up. About 3 minutes after takeoff, sitting in the sunshine on top, I could see I was wrong.
After a bit of flying around, Mark handed over the controls. One of the things I love most about flying is playing along the edges of cumulus clouds (keeping the legal separation, of course!). In the Maranda, this means planning ahead of time to an altitude in order to go around the clouds. The Rocket offers another option: Pointing at the nearest cloud, I pulled back on the stick and went Up and OVER the top. Yeee-haaww! This is fun!
All too soon, the test flight was over and it was Avril's turn to go for a ride. After they had been gone for a while, I could hear the distant sound of the engine and prepared to videotape the landing. As the Rocket approached the far end of the runway, it dawned on me that it was going too fast to land. Cool! an overshoot! As the plane zoomed by and pulled up into the air, the wheels did a rotation in the viewfinder... as in rotated sideways, up, sideways and down. The Camcorder did a good job of capturing my "Oh, Boy." This was the first time Avril had been in an "unusual attitude". I figured there was a 50/50 chance that she would storm out of the plane, give Mark a thump and cut me off for a month. I had a couple of minutes to contemplate how much groveling I was going to have to do, before the plane came to a halt on the pad, and Avril bounded out. "Wow!", she said, "that was better than sex!".
I wrote a check on the spot.
By the way, if you are with the FAA, please note that I used artistic license in the above description and nothing should be inferred as having occurred which should not have occurred. If you are not from the FAA, let's just say I got lucky that night.
A few months later, we got a call that our kit was ready to be picked up. We rented a large trailer and drove out to Taylor, Texas, to bring home the newest member of the family.
Sitting on the floor of the hangar, checking off the parts list, I was starting to wonder what, again, I had gotten myself into. Surveying the pile of parts was a bit intimidating. However, this was a quick build kit, so it couldn't take that long, right? Little did I know.
There's a common joke among builders of just about anything. It goes something like: double the time and triple the cost. Ha Ha. Very funny. You'd think by the time I started the project, I would have figured out that it's not a joke.
Actually, it's not quite as bad as that. At the end, it took a little over double my original time estimate (whereby I rounded up the factory estimate) and about 50% more on the cost. Mind you, as of this writing, I haven't finished adding up the bills, but I kept track of my time and it came to just over 3,000 hours. However, I have been accused by my friends as being anal-retentive (yes, I think they are my friends), and I did customize a number of things, so the time could have otherwise been lower.
Overall, I was very impressed with the kit. The workmanship of the finished parts was excellent. Lots of the parts which are extra cost items on other kits, were included. Things like air vents and tires. Factory support was excellent and there is an active builders group. There are also a number of builder websites out there, which provided a big help on those head-scratching occasions. I owe beers to people like Vince Frazier, Randy Pflanzer and Bob Gross the next time I see them at a fly-in
One of the areas I spent quite a lot of time on customizing, was on the instrument panel, which is complete in this picture. During the build, I was spending around 1 1/2 hours a day commuting to work. All this time spent looking at the instruments in the car got me to thinking that it ought to be possible to build something similar in the airplane - at least, something beyond just the simple piece of aluminum with lots of round and square holes drilled in it. I wanted to have the panel as simple and clean as possible, and wanted to have a kind of 3-D effect, with the monitor and idiot lights located under a smoked plexiglass screen. Although you can't see everything in this picture (that's the idea of the smoked plexiglass), there is a roll trim indicator at the top, a pitch trim indicator on the right side and idiot lights across the bottom and up the left hand side for things like pitot heat indication, canopy latch, etc.
In keeping with the "clean lines" concept, the switches were located under a door on the right side of the cockpit, and the fuses hidden under a door beneath. After a lot of fiddling with cardboard and aluminum templates, a fairing emerged to cover up the throttle quadrant and EFIS controls on the left.
I had decided early in the process that I wanted to build a glass panel and did not want to have any traditional aircraft instruments. Some people think that's a bad idea, but I think most of the potential failure modes have been addressed. There are two electrical busses on the airplane and two alternators. The EFIS is driven automatically by either a dedicated EFIS battery or by the main aircraft battery, whichever is online. The passenger's monitor is secured with a pin which can be pulled, so if the pilot's monitor was to fail, it is possible to reach around, grab the passenger's monitor and put it in the pilot's lap.
If the EFIS box itself should fail, then there are two options:
1) Pull off the F1 logo on the side of the panel to reveal a steam guage airspeed indicator (shhh . . . don't tell anyone), and pull out the $2.49 suction-cup compass from the storage locker under the left floorboard. This works for VFR flight. Or:
2) Swing the Garmin 496 out from behind the panel on the right side. Actually, this option doesn't exist yet; the bracketry is there, but as of this writing, it hasn't been installed. However, once it is in place, it will provide GPS-driven backup for groundspeed, heading, altitude, etc. It also has it's own antenna and own power source, making it completely independent from all of the other aircraft systems.
I decided to go with a Blue Mountain EFIS One. As of summer 2006, it has about 65 hours on it and so far, I think it was the right decision. It took me a little while to adapt to the different display (actually, I'm still adapting to the entire airplane, never mind the display), but after a few hours I decided that I really like it and then I later decided that I like it a lot. It provides fantastic situational awareness, it's very intuitive and active monitoring of all the parameters means that if anything goes out of limits, you know about it immediately. For example, each alternator has an ammeter on it, so in the event of alternator failure, you don't have to wait until the voltage drops and then wait until the pilot notices it; the system will provide an instantaneous notification at the moment of failure, in the form of a popup-up box with flashing red font. With an all-electric panel, this is a pretty useful feature. Another feature which I have really started to appreciate is the fact that all flight data is recorded every 5 seconds, so you can download all of the flight and engine parameters to a laptop after the flight. This makes it very easy to identify which cylinder peaks first when leaning and makes the process of balancing injectors much more precise. It also makes it easy to see the impact of any changes, like tweaks to the cooling system or streamlining fairings.
On the performance front, it's a blast! I have not been able to equal the factory-claimed climb performance of 3,500 feet per minute, but I'm usually between 500 and 1,000' above ground by the time I get to the end of our 3,000' airstrip, so who's counting? Cruise speed depends on how much fuel you want to burn. Normal cruise for me is about 215 mph true airspeed, at around 11.5 gph. As of this writing, I'm still working on balancing the injectors, so the fuel consumption might come down a bit once I can start to run lean of peak. The airplane is much easier to land than either the Maranda or the Luscombe and is much more tolerant of cross winds and gusty conditions. At cruise, it is solid and rides through bumps much more smoothly than what I am used to, thanks to the higher wing loading. It will take off in about 300 feet and land in about double that.
We're looking forward to doing some more traveling, now that I'll have some free time outside the hangar. Getting an Instrument pilot's rating is pretty high on the list of things to do.
Hopefully I'll have some traveling stories to write soon.
Is it better than sex? Maybe not better - but it's a close second, and the Rocket never has a headache!
Update: July 2007 - Fun and Paint
After almost a hundred hours of operation, we decided it was time to stop flying naked.
Although we weren't looking forward to the months of downtime
that a paint job would entail, it just didn't seem right to keep flying the Rocket with an unfinished look, and I didn't relish the work that would be needed to keep the bare aluminum bright and shiny in southern Texas. We spent hours thinking of different paint schemes and even hired a local artist to help us flesh out some ideas. Finally, we thought we had something close and that's when we met Raymond at Big Red Customs.
We went through several more designs with Raymond until one day we went to his shop and he showed us a sample plate with his latest idea for our plane. Immediately, we knew we had it. Using the style from his template, the rest of the design process went quickly and a few weeks later, Raymond, his crew and equipment arrived at our hangar. Using bulldog clips, they hung dropsheets from the rafters, put dropsheets on the floor and set up a ventilation fan at one end to exhaust the fumes out the door.
I was quite surprised to come home one day and find all of the parts were black. As it turns out, black is the best color to use for primer when you are spraying a silver base coat. I guess that's why they call them professionals - I never would have thought of using black.
We used a base coat/clear coat system, with PPG brand paints. HVLP guns were used to keep the overspray down. I think in the end, the job took longer than any of us estimated - the crew was on site for most of about 6 weeks, but they held to their original estimate for the cost of the work and I am very pleased with the final result. In fact, Raymond went out of his way to add extra touches. Like, when we decided that we would not put the registration across the back of the tail, which left a large, open canvas on which Raymond airbrushed the "F1" logo that Avril designed. He did all this at no extra cost. Unfortunately, Raymond's talents have been in high demand since he did our plane and I have heard from other friends who have approached him that he has not had time to work on their planes. However, if you are in the Houston area and are looking for a great job - and can find him when he is not going flat out - you might be able to persuade him to do another.
We now have about 150 hours on the plane. I love it. It is a huge amount of fun to fly. It's a very different kind of flying from what I am used to; you can pretty much just point it where you want to go, and it goes there. If you don't want to go around a cloud, you can pull back on the stick and go over top. On a recent cross country, we were purring along in the bright sunshine at 8,500 feet. Conditions were smooth as silk and the clouds beneath us were sliding by at well over 200 mph. A great tune was on the mp3 player and I remarked to Avril: "It doesn't get much better than this". She definitely agreed.
I am now working on an IFR ticket and we hope to be making a lot of weekend trips around the country in the months and years to come. The only problem is that, now that it's finished, the building bug has started nibbling again. I'm not sure what will be next. Maybe something that lands on the water . . .
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