Oshkosh Report

If you’ve ever attended AirVenture at Oshkosh, you know it has a way of increasing any addiction you might already have to aviation. This year I just couldn’t stand to not have a homebuilt aircraft any longer, and I’ve decided to start building an airplane as soon as possible! I started to build a “One Design” aerobatic aircraft many years ago, but after ten years of constant moving and only producing two ailerons, I gave up.

This time around, I’ve decided to build something a bit less ambitious than the One Design, and I’ve pretty much settled on a Van’s RV-8; I should make my final decision by the end of September. I’ll keep you posted on my progress!

Arnold and I stopped at Felts Field in Spokane to deliver the set of BD-5 plans I mentioned in my last blog post. Clark Taylor met us there to take the plans and show us around. Here’s a picture of Clark with the partially-finished BD-5 that he hopes to fly some day!

Clark Taylor of EAA Chapter 79 with his partially assembled BD-5

Clark Taylor of EAA Chapter 79 with his partially assembled BD-5

Some of you might remember that Arnold owned a BD-5 kit at one time, and he used one of the bulkheads to form the fuselage of the E-1. Here’s a picture of that bulkhead as installed in Clark’s airplane.

The BD-5 bulkhead that was used in the E-1 (as installed in a BD-5)

The BD-5 bulkhead that was used in the E-1 (as installed in a BD-5)

Clark also gave us a full tour of the EAA Chapter 79 Chapter House. I’ve been a member of many EAA chapters over the years, and this chapter has the nicest facilities I’ve ever seen, complete with large hangar, meeting room, and place to hang out for watching movies, airplanes, or even model railroads. If you’re in the Spokane area, be sure to stop by and give Chapter 79 a visit!

EAA Chapter 79 Chapter House, Felts Field, Spokane Valley, WA

EAA Chapter 79 Chapter House, Felts Field, Spokane Valley, WA

Heading to AirVenture at Oshkosh!

Arnold and I will be heading to Oshkosh and AirVenture Thursday morning. We’re going to be driving this year, so I hope I find something really heavy to buy and drag home!

We’re going to be stopping by Felts Field near Spokane to deliver Arnold’s BD-5 plans to Clark Taylor, who acquired a used kit with no plans.

Arnold and Gary Hertzler, who holds the current closed course distance world record for C-1a aircraft and formerly held the world record that Arnold now holds, will be talking about their records at an AirVenture Forum on Friday, August 1 at 1000. I’ll be attempting to moderate the conversation, if that’s possible. If you’ll be at AirVenture, please stop by for what should be a very interesting conversation with lots of time for questions and answers!

Also, I’ve posted all the material from my manuscript that I planned to, so I’m going to scale back on my posts to about once every two weeks. I’m planning to provide posts about other record setters and general aviation topics of interest. Also, if anyone has anything specific they would like to ask Arnold, please leave a comment or send me an email at eabjorkman@aol.com and I’ll post the answer in a future blog post.

E-1 World Record Selected as NAA Notable Record for 2010!

In January 2010, the NAA selected Arnold’s feat as one of the “Ten Most Notable Aviation Awards of 2010,” and he attended an awards banquet on March 15, 2011, in Arlington, Virginia, along with my sister Kate and me. Here’s a picture:


NAA Ceremony DC

NAA Ceremony in Arlington, VA, 2011 (Eileen Bjorkman personal collection)

Richard Truly, a retired navy admiral, retired astronaut, and former head of NASA, was also feted at the event. Normally, my dad would have hung back, hoping for an opportunity to meet someone like Truly, but instead, when the event was over, Truly marched over to our table, introduced himself and said, “Wow, that was quite a feat you did!”


E-1 World Records Certified!

Here’s a picture of the overall route that Arnold flew:

14_Record Route_comp

The stair-step line is his return trip to Harvey Field — he made several stops along the way!

In the fall of 2010, the NAA certified Arnold’s distance as a U.S. record, and then the FAI certified it as a world record.

Click here for an article in the EAA’s Sport Aviation about the flight!

Arnold Ebneter and Gary Hertzler to be Featured at AirVenture

If you’re going to AirVenture in Oshkosh this summer, please join us on Friday, August 1, 1000-1145, at the Forum 2 tent for a “World Record Holders Chat” that will feature Arnold along with Gary Hertzler. Gary is the current world record holder for the C-1a closed-course distance record, and he previously held the C-1a straight-line distance world record that Arnold and the E-1 currently hold.

Here is a link to the website for more information about the forum: http://www.eaa.org/eaa/event/World_Record_Holders_Chat?id=184C559A6B8544F48ACBC7049C340336

Both Arnold and Gary will provide short presentations on their respective flights, and then I’ll moderate a discussion in a question and answer format that will include plenty of questions from the audience. The presentation is sure to be both informative and entertaining!

Arnold Ebneter Commemorates 70th Anniversary of First Solo

Arnold’s first solo flight was in a Piper Cub at Mael Field in Portage, Wisconsin, on April 2, 1944, about six weeks after his sixteenth birthday. On April 2, 2014, the 70th anniversary of that event, he took to the skies again in his current Cub, this time at Harvey Field in Snohomish, Washington. He flew with my older sister Maureen, so I guess it technically wasn’t a solo flight, but it was still the anniversary! Here is a picture of him after the flight:

70th Anniversary Solo

Arnold Ebneter on the 70th Anniversary of His First Solo Flight
(Eileen Bjorkman personal collection)

The Cub in the photo is the one that he rebuilt for my mother back in the late 1980s.

Arnold reminisced about how the 2014 flight was different from his first solo. The Cub he flew in 1944 had no radio and no brakes, and he flew from a grass field. His current Cub also has an 85-hp engine instead of the 65-hp engine of his original solo airplane, so he climbed a lot faster in 2014 than in 1944.

The traffic pattern in 1944 was also quite different from the typical modern pattern. In 1944, after taking off, he flew straight ahead until he reached 400 feet above the ground; at that time, he reduced the throttle a bit, leveled off the airplane momentarily, and turned ninety degrees left to his crosswind leg. After finishing the turn, he added power again and then climbed up to 600 feet above the ground as he turned parallel to the landing area/runway on his downwind leg. He stayed at 600 feet above the ground until he was ready to land.

Most modern patterns for light aircraft are flown at 1,000 feet above the ground (although there are some exceptions). The pilot climbs straight out until reaching 700 feet above the ground and then turns onto the crosswind leg and then downwind leg while still climbing. There is no power reduction, and Arnold isn’t really sure why they ever did that in the Cub in the first place. He thinks it might have had to do with making sure the airplane had enough airspeed so the pilot wouldn’t stall., but if anyone knows the answer, please let me know!

Streamlining the E-1

E-1 Wheel Pant

The E-1’s Innovative Wheel Pants
(Arnold Ebneter Personal Collection)

After doing some tests, Arnold found that he needed to coax a few more miles per gallon out of the E-1, so he decided to streamline the landing gear.

Reasoning that most of the drag came from the turbulent flow behind each wheel and tire, he decided to cover just the backs of those parts, fashioning two wheel pants that looked like little flat footballs. When he was finished, the simple solution looked a bit odd, but it worked.


First Flight of Arnold Ebneter’s E-1

Arnold and the E-1 took off for the first time at 12:06 p.m. on July 9, 2005. Here’s the takeoff video:

Arnold circled the airport, climbing higher and higher until we could barely see him. After checking out engine temperatures, doing some turns and checking out the landing configuration at altitude, he was ready to come back and do the hard part – landing.

He aimed for the grass runway, figuring it would make for a shorter landing, but the E-1 didn’t want to stop flying – half way down the runway, the airplane was still too fast to land, so he added power and climbed back up to the traffic pattern for another try. The second approach was better and he touched down about one-third of the way down the runway, but there were still some problems. Here’s the video:


Thunderstorm Pilot

Arnold and Colleen arrived in Socorro on July 25, 1993 and spent the next two days looking at the SPTVAR, touring the lab, and meeting Moores’s colleagues. The trip to the lab entailed a twenty-mile drive on a paved road across the desert, followed by a seven-mile dirt road that hugged the edge of South Baldy during the climb to the top. The jarring ride and dizzying overlook left Colleen’s head spinning and she told Arnold he could take the job, but as for the road, “Never again.”

The pay wasn’t great — $100 per day plus expenses – but the job sounded a lot like his free-wheeling balloon days with Moore at General Mills. And this time, he didn’t have to worry about school or the draft interrupting his plans. Arnold took the job, but the thunderstorm season was about to end, so he didn’t start flying the SPTVAR until the summer of 1994.

From 1994 until 1998 he spent four or five weeks each summer in New Mexico, taking the spindly-looking SPTVAR up to roam through thunderstorms, searching out electricity. A typical day began around 11 a.m., when small, puffy clouds appeared over South Baldy – a signpost that a storm was building. Arnold and the researchers would head to lunch, and by the time they returned, the storm would usually have mushroomed to more than 35,000 feet.

Arnold then took off and climbed to an altitude where the temperature dropped below freezing, usually about 20,000 feet or so. Even with its big engine, the SPTVAR climbed at an anemic 500 feet per minute, taking thirty minutes or more to claw its way up to the cloud. When he arrived at the right altitude, Arnold drove the SPTVAR into the cloud and held his heading until he emerged on the other side; then he turned around and disappeared once again into the cloud until he popped back out where began.

During the two trips, ice formed on the wings and canopy, so Arnold would descend to warmer air, let the ice melt, and then climb back up and do it again. Each flight took about two hours, with perhaps a quarter of the flight inside the clouds; after five years, Arnold had spent about twenty-four hours poking around thunderstorms innards.

During one flight, he flew into an updraft and, despite pulling the throttle back to idle, the SPTVAR continued to climb. His clearance from Albuquerque Center was only up to 23,000 feet, and he watched helplessly as his altimeter shot past that altitude and the airplane kept climbing. Arnold called the controller to convey his predicament.

“Albuquerque Center, Spit-Var Eight-Seven-Five-Niner-Three.”

No answer. He waited a few seconds and tried again.

“Center, Spit-Var Eight-Seven-Five-Niner-Three.”

Still no answer. He thought, “What the heck am I doing up here?”

Then it dawned on him that he was in the middle of a thunderstorm in the middle of restricted airspace. The chance that he would collide with another airplane was close to zero.

At 26,000 feet, he finally escaped the updraft and flew back down to 20,000 feet. If the controller was concerned, he never said anything.

Despite the abundance of electricity during the thunderstorm penetrations,  Arnold was only hit by lightning three times during his five-year stint – after all, the point of the exercise was to collect data on the electrical charges in the cloud, not to get hit by lightning. A lightning strike wasn’t as dramatic as he imagined it would be – as a bright light filled the cockpit, he heard a loud bang and felt a small shock similar to the zap received from touching a cat after a stroll across a carpeted floor.

Although funding for the SPTVAR dried up in 1999, and Charlie Moore passed away in 2010, thunderstorm research continues at Langmuir with a new generation of scientists.

Back to New Mexico

In 1993, Arnold was finally ready to begin building the airplane he had designed in college. His kids were mostly done with college, Colleen’s Cub was flying, and he was officially retired, although he was still instructing at Harvey. He had also become an FAA designated pilot examiner, someone who gives check rides to other pilots.

However, his old friend Charlie Moore — his balloon partner-in-crime — had other plans for him. Charlie needed help with some thunderstorms.


The Special Purpose Test Vehicle for Atmospheric Research

The Special Purpose Test Vehicle for Atmospheric Research


Not long after Arnold had left General Mills to join the Air Force, Moore had departed to work for a company in Boston that provided consulting services to various research laboratories. In 1956, Moore and a world-renowned atmospheric scientist named Bernard Vonnegut made a visit to New Mexico to check out the state’s thunderstorms. Both men were interested in learning how thunderstorms become electrified.

New Mexico is a perfect breeding ground for the types of storms amenable to research. Thunderstorms in the Midwest and along the east coast tend to develop as part of frontal systems and the resulting thunderstorms are unpredictable, messy, fast moving, and usually accompanied by poor visibility that makes them hard to see.

Thunderstorms in New Mexico tend to be of much gentler ilk. In the summertime, individual storms build almost every day around mountain ranges due to a series of atmospheric interactions and processes that include such terms as orographic lift, condensation nuclei, adiabatic lapse rate, and supercooling. The resulting storms are much smaller than frontal storms, are spaced far apart and are easy to see due to the typical 100-mile visibility in the desert air.

Researchers prized the lightning created by these “research storms,” and they developed all sorts of methods for measuring the electrical fields inside the clouds. They attached instruments onto seemingly anything they could get their hands on to send into a cloud – unmanned balloons, military surplus rockets, and even airplanes. Moore even tried flying a balloon himself into a storm one day, but the storm spat him and his co-pilot many miles away.

By 1958, Moore and Vonnegut had tired of dragging their equipment and research materials across the country every summer and Moore suggested building an atmospheric research lab in New Mexico. The Irving Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, named for the 1936 Nobel Laureate in chemistry, was completed in 1963. Although most funding for the lab came from the Navy’s Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation, the lab was owned and operated by New Mexico Tech in Socorro, located 70 miles south of Albuquerque.

The lab sits 20 miles west of Socorro at the top of South Baldy Peak, the highest peak in the Magdalena Mountains. In July and August, by 11:00 a.m. each morning, a storm develops over the peak, and researchers go to work. To prevent other aircraft from colliding with the rockets, balloons, and airplanes the scientists send into the clouds, the FAA put a restricted airspace around the laboratory – R5123 – the only restricted airspace in the United States that does not belong to the military.

In the 1970s, the lab acquired an airplane dubbed the SPTVAR, pronounced “Spit-Var,” which stands for Special Purpose Test Vehicle for Atmospheric Research. The SPTVAR had started life as an unmanned reconnaissance plane used in Vietnam. After the war, the Office of Naval Research took out the reconnaissance equipment, added a tiny cockpit for a pilot, beefed up the structure to make it safer in a thunderstorm, and loaned the plane indefinitely to New Mexico Tech. Many people described the airplane as a “powered glider” – it had the narrow fuselage and long wings of a sailplane, and a skinny landing gear that made it look like a praying mantis, but it also had a powerful 200-horsepower turbo-charged engine that could take it as high as 25,000 feet.

The SPTVAR opened up huge research opportunities for the scientists. Unlike the rockets and balloons, the airplane could loiter and fly through the storm at different altitudes and different flight paths. By the early 1990s, research pilot J. William Bullock had flown 700 hours in the airplane, with about one-tenth of that time spent inside thunderstorms. However, in 1993, Bullock retired and Moore needed a new pilot. He immediately thought of Arnold.

For more information about Langmuir Lab and thunderstorm research, visit http://langmuir.nmt.edu/. There is also a book called “Storms Above the Desert,” by Joe Chew. The book is out of print, but you can buy used copies at Amazon. The entire text of the book is also available on the Langmuir website.