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Monday
Mar232009

Almost 40 Years Later The BD-5 Still Looks Hot!

 I was a solid "A-" student in my school days, and I even got accepted to Purdue in engineering (but bailed at the last minute to become an airport bum instead).  But I did get one "D" in my 8th grade history class.  I bring this up cuz it strikes me funny that now that I'm an old crusty adult, I'm pretty much fascinated with most all things historical.

 Aviation history is right at the top of the list for sure, and that's where this info on Jim Bede's little BD-5 comes in.  This truly visionary designer with the revolutionary "micro" airplane exploded on the scene at Oshkosh in 1971.  The very first version had a fiberglass shell, and a really, really tiny "V" tail.  And check this out: here's an actual claim from a very early brochure... short wing version: max speed 215mph on 32HP, and 285mph on 70HP! 

 Almost everything about it was different, and it was clearly ahead of its time.  Those early claims included using a 2-stroke engine, a side-stick controller, length just over 13', "short wing" span of only 13.5' and an empty weight around 230lbs.  Its bolt-together primary structure (like the BD-4) was supposed to be easy to build by using just basic skills... oh, and it was supposed to be easy to fly too.  Of course. 

 Honestly, it all sounded too good to be true.  Unfortunately, much of it was.  But once they finally got the design figured out, and got past a really long list of set-backs, they did have an awesome looking airplane that had some pretty spectacular performance.  Even if it was now all aluminum with a mostly conventional tail and the short-wing version was considered essentially death-wishy.


Testing one of many early tail designs with a snazzy 'pickup' wind tunnel

  A young Burt Rutan working for Bede in 1972

   Probably somewhere around late 1971 my dad purchased kit #322 (out of about 5,000 eventually sold), and we lived the BD-5 culture for several years.  He sold his kit before ever getting starting on it to put deposits down on two of the planned fully built BD-5D ‘production' models.  And then later still, traded one of those slots for a BD-5J order.  And if you didn't know, that "J" stands for jet.  The 300mph and flies-thru-a-hangar in James Bond kind of jet!

 In fact, the jet version of the BD-5 is largely the only piece of success and reality that keeps Jim Bede's name from causing sulfur to shoot out of people's heads when he's mentioned.  The jet proved that the basic design ideas of the airplane where actually fabulous.  It was just that the propeller driven versions, and the huge task of building so many kits, presented too many obstacles to overcome at the time. 

 The strong headwinds that kept slowing the project down over the years finally took their toll.  Several significant design, engineering and manufacturing changes (and the money it took to implement them), along with supplier problems, and ongoing difficulties in getting a 2-stroke engine to function reliably finally beat the project down.  A lot of kits were delivered, but none of them were fully complete, leaving thousands of builders stranded.  The operation eventually shut down... before my dad's jet ever got built.

 While it's absolutely true that the BD-5 fell way short of the promises that had been made, it still turned out to be a unique and beautiful looking airplane that had better performance than anyone really thought possible. And ultimately, the jet version proved that Bede wasn't full of hot air (ok, maybe that he wasn't completely full of hot air!)

 

BD-5 Jet - about 200lbs of thrust and 300mph!

 I'm planning to cover many aspects of the program in future posts, but there are a couple interesting points to note now.  One is that the airplane really began the 'kit' airplane revolution and sparked huge interest in building your own airplane.  The ultimate failure to deliver tho gave the 'kit' airplane biz some bad public impressions that took years to rise above.  My podcast interview with John Monnett from Sonex covered a little of that.

 It's also pretty cool to note that Burt Rutan went to work for Bede in 1972 as the director of development. This was shortly before he would become very popular.  One of the pics above shows him working on the all aluminum version airplane with one of the several different horizontal tail designs that were tried.

 I remember on one of the trips my dad and I made to Newton, Kansas to the Bede factory back in the early 70's, there was this odd looking sorta delta wing airplane with a tail in the front that was pushed back in the corner of a hangar.  It was Rutan's VariViggen before the world knew who he was.  It was only a couple years later at Oshkosh 1975 when he really hit it big with the VariEze.  That airplane largely picked up on the dreams that Jim Bede had ignited in people, but hadn't fulfilled.

 The whole BD-5 story, along with a lot of what was going on in the homebuilt airplane world in the early 1970's is pretty fascinating.  I figure a good close look at the past is a great way to see where we're headed in the future and how we might get there!

 

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Reader Comments (1)

This comment originally posted March 27, 2009 on the old AirPigz.com:

MontanaOne (Carolyn) wrote
This reminds me of the SR-71 Blackbird, of course the BD-5 is on a much smaller scale. The first time I saw a Blackbird was at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, and it is located down a level. I remember walking over to a railing and looking down on this sleek, black, aerodynamically designed work of aviation art which literally took my breath away, and exclaiming to my husband, "WOW! Now THAT is a plane!" I was sure it was a prototype of some futeristic aviation phenomenon...and was shocked to learn it flew in the 1950s! THE FIFTIES! It was as old as I am!
The BD-5 is another example of a "futeristic design" made in the past. When I was in high school in the 70s (yes, I am as old as dirt), I wanted a home built helicopter kit. I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world to fly my own little one-person helicopter. I remember my dad and I looking at specs for the kit and trying to figure out if we could put it together. He used to buy the old "Heathkit" things, from CB radios to television sets and build those, so I was positive he could build me a helicopter. I'm glad now we didn't, as I'm sure I would have flown it right into a lamp post, trying to get all three axis' of flight going at the same time. "Airport bum," I like that description! It fits me as well!
(By the way, I hear a large jet taking off right now...hmmmm...checking flight schedules...Frontier's 737 on it's way to Denver.)
Posted Mar 27 2009 7:25 AM

December 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAdmin

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