There I Was – Merlin First Flight

Aircraft of the Month – The Merlin GT

This is an experience I knew I was going to have to describe.

By now you are aware of my continuing interest in aviation, airplanes and flying. In a manner of speaking, the Merlin was—for me—the culmination of everything about flying—well except the supersonic part!
The Merlin is a kit-built aircraft. That is, I bought the kit, about like you would by a model airplane kit, and spent 400+ hours putting it together. Critical welded parts of the “kit,” like the fuselage structure and other tube structures were factory welded. I did not have to learn to weld!

The aircraft being prepared for its airworthiness inspection.

The aircraft being prepared for its airworthiness inspection.

The Merlin is a tube-and-fabric airplane. Once the frame and associated parts were installed, the aircraft was covered in fabric. The fabric had heat shrink characteristics, so I put the fabric on straight and wrinkle free, then ran a hot iron over the fabric, causing it to shrink, become taught, and conform to the shape of the framework.
The engine was an 80 horsepower, four cylinder engine that was an outgrowth of snowmobile engines, but was purpose built for aircraft applications. The whole engine weighed about 80 pounds. I was actually able to lift the engine and attach it to the engine mount by myself.

Actually, I did all of the fabrication and assembly work myself, with the exception of the final painting. My father-in-law, Rev. J. D. Bennett, skipped Sunday services one day to help me put tape on the aircraft to make the red lines on the fuselage and the leading edge of the wings.

Finally, it was complete, but first I had to have an FAA Airworthiness Inspection. This is a technical compliance inspection conducted by an FAA inspector. This was an inspection for compliance with basic aircraft requirements. For example, all required instruments had to be installed and marked with operational ranges and limits, that it had the registration number and “Experimental” placards properly displayed, etc. The inspection was completed in about 30 minutes. With the airworthiness certificate completed, the only thing left to do was to fly it.

There I was…

Many aircraft builders will enlist a pilot familiar with the make and model or similar aircraft to make the first flight, but I had flown several other Merlins and was confident that I was competent to make the first flight. Still, extreme caution was in order.

The aircraft just after completing the first high-speed taxi text. Note: door is removed.

The aircraft just after completing the first high-speed taxi text. Note: door is removed.

I was flying out of a small, grass field airport in East Tennessee. The wind conditions were calm and the air was cool. I started the engine and did a thorough preflight check. (I had run the engine on the airplane numerous times before, so I was confident that all engine controls and fuel system were working properly.)

I pulled out on the runway—there was no one else flying at the time—and simply taxied down to the other end of the runway, at low power, making sure the rudder and tail wheel allowed me to steer properly, and checking all of the flight controls. I turned around and started back down the runway—adding more power. I lifted the tail with the elevator; the aircraft responded as expected.

Once again, I turned around and headed back up the runway. This time I advanced the power a bit more, raised the tail, then gently eased back on the stick just enough to lift the wheels off the runway, then reduced power and landed, all under positive control.

Airborne! Take-off on its first flight.

Airborne! Take-off on its first flight.

Finally, I turned around, pointed the aircraft down the runway, and ran the engine up to full power. The aircraft respond immediately and within 100 feet, the wheels were off the ground. I checked the ailerons for proper banking. I still had room to land if I did not like how it felt. But, I was soon climbing out over the trees at the end of the field and turning left over the river that paralleled the runway. I circled over the airport several times, staying close enough to the runway that I could have made and emergency landing if needed.

After about fifteen minutes, I lined up with the runway, reduced the power and let the airplane glide toward the grass surface. Small adjustments in power kept me on what looked like the proper glide path. I made the final approach at 40 mph and touched down at about 28 mph. One slight bounce and we were rolling back to the hangar.
It was really not until I got out of the aircraft that it dawned on me that I had actually made the first flight in an aircraft that I built myself. It is a hard feeling to describe—certainly intense satisfaction, but I was also shaking, visibly.

Over the next 30 months, I flew several hundred hours, much of it just flying around the airport, perfecting my landings, and just enjoying the airplane. I took a few cross country flights, but travel of any distance required patience—at a cruise speed of about 80 mph, it was not high speed travel. In warm weather, I often flew with the doors either open or removed altogether. It was a great airplane for aerial photography. After about 30 months, I took a new job, had to move 800 miles and the airplane was no longer practical. I sold it to a pilot who lived in Washington state.

An East Tennessee dirt race track. The Merlin was an excellent photography platform.

An East Tennessee dirt race track. The Merlin was an excellent photography platform.

This photo was taken from the Merlin just before sunset as they were preparing to begin stock car racing at an East Tennessee dirt race track.

TECHNICAL NOTES:
Maximum speed: 105 mph
Range: 400 miles
Seats: Two.
Weight: 1200 lbs. maximum
Power: one, four-cylinder, Rotax 912, 80 hp.

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