The Designer

(from "No License Required", in progress. Copyright 2006, Bryan L. Allen)

The plane taxis towards you on the runway, its engine a muted buzzing. Ashen black in color, it looks to you like it’s been charred, an impression reinforced by its drooping wingtips and flowing curves. The pilot reclines behind a thin plastic windshield, the edges of which bear a tracery of ice. The pilot’s helmet is an indeterminant color, having left behind small chips of itself on numerous cockpits, runways, hangar floors, pickup beds, and the occasional motel wall, while having picked up corresponding colors in exchange—green from the bed of his ancient Toyota pickup, blue from the new plane’s cockpit, orange (the decor choice of many fast-food establishments, due to its reputation for making people hungry and impatient) from the walls of the Casa Grande Burger Queen. At least, that’s where you last saw it, arcing over the heads of a startled family of tourists and two blasé teenagers (who had seen this display on other occasions.) Bulbous goggles and a tatty brown scarf obscure everything of the pilot’s face except the tip of his nose. As the plane nears, the pilot reaches forward and cuts off the engine which slowly rattles to a stop, revealing to you that the rear-mounted propeller has three wicked-looking scimitar-shaped blades. The faint squeaking of the nosewheel brake is the only noise as the plane stops in front of you.

“Heinrich”, you say.

One hand pulls back the scarf, the other raises the access door of the canopy, rising on a pressurized-gas shock. Both hands raise in what appears to be the beginning gesture of a conductor to his orchestra. “Howw DoYouDo?”, booms the pilot, in an accent foreign to the present surroundings of cholla and saguaro. He flings off his flight harness, steps out of the slim confines of the cockpit, and reaches forward and under to fold the nosewheel into the fusilage, tipping the nose to the ground. “Tell me what you think, WetFoot.”

You walk slowly around the craft with the designer, stopping to feel, wiggle, finger-tap, and peer intently at various details. You make a guess: “You planning on gold-coating the windshield?”

“Hah, HAH!”, the designer roars, an enormous grin on his face as he slaps you on the back. “Been keeping up on your reading!”

“Yeah...”, you say, suddenly feeling a bit uneasy at the implications of the craft before you. You run your finger along the leading edge of the prop and give it a tentative click with a fingernail.

“Kevlar and carbon fiber, oven-cured; it pops out of mold so sweet, I only trim the tips. Very low RCS. AND it slices rocks in half!”

RCS: Radar Cross Section. He’s serious, all right. “What’s its airfoil?”

“Jacob’s Laminar Banana, very wide speed range, extremely smooth, no vibration.”

“And the planform? You gin that up yourself?”

Heinrich shrugs his shoulders. “I copied it from a drawing in Aviation Leak of a propfan design. Looked good.”

You glance over your shoulder, half expecting to see binoculars glinting your way from the nearby Interstate. “Why do things so out in the open, Heinrich? Isn’t half the benefit of Stealth keeping them guessing what they’re looking for?”

The designer takes in half the horizon with a contemptuous sweep of his arm; pauses, noticing a pair of F-15s arcing up towards the Luke Air Force Range to the west and gives their distant pilots The Finger. “They go by and see just kooks flying glider-planes and hang divers, wondering ‘how many dead today?’; we invisible to them.”

You feel a dread, maybe a premonition, which, if it had an odor, would smell like a small scared animal flattened at high speed by a very large truck. “Is this plane for a…customer, or are you going to use it yourself?”

A growl, he lowers his chin, staring at the runway, and mutters, barely audible, “Yucca Flats”, then raises his chin defiantly, eyes glittering, and says loudly, “I will show those Ass Holes at Tonopah and Yucca Flats and Groom Lake and Kawich Valley the true worth of their death-planes and bombs.”

What the hell does he expect to do, you wonder, taking on the Blackest of the Black above the Nevada desert, whole agencies of the Federal Government out there that don’t even officially exist, with carté blanche budgets and, some say, poorly-repressed blood lust? “You go flying above Groom Lake in that thing and they’ll vaporize you with an area-defense laser or something just to see what colors they get. Death and spectral analysis combined. And probably eat whatever’s left. Euuf.” You grimace with distaste. Rumors of cannibal death-cults in the ranks of the workers at the secret Nevada Defense Department installations seem hardly more bizzare than the officially-sanctioned view that military people, in the main, find the thought of war repugnant; why would someone become a roofer if he disliked pounding on nails?

“So go fly it; she is sweet.”

“Uhh…”, you reply, having drifted off into dead-end thoughts. “What do I need to know about it? Is it like the Interceptor?”

“Even better. Aileron is light and quick; she has a lot of yaw damping. Rotate at thirty, climb at forty-five, cruise at sixty, approach at 45. Use both rudders for dive brakes.”

“How does she slip?”

“The slip is goot, but the drag increase is bettah with the rudders. Go fly, go fly!”

You pull your helmet and gloves out of the van and carry them over to the swept-winged craft kneeling on its nose. “Walk me through the preflight, will you, Heinrich?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine, just go!”

“That’s what you said the time the muffler fell off on me at Las Cruces and went through that guy’s roof. C’mon, Heinrich.”

“OK, OK, we just do it quick and check the engine.” The designer grabs a wingtip and gives it a violent up-and-down shake, the whole plane rippling and banging. You and he both check the engine and prop, finding one of the two plug wires almost ready to fall off, something you fix with a quick application of pliers and safety wire. With a slight feeling of butterflies, you put on your helmet, pull on your gloves, and look for the pull-start rope. “Where’s the pull-start, Heinrich?”

“Electricity”, he replies, Boris Karlov style, pointing to a button on the dash. You wonder how many pounds that adds, realizing that the chance of this craft being ultralight-legal is next-to-none.

It is suddenly upon you, that trance-like state, the realm you enter when embarking on a flight in a new single-seat plane. Extend the nosewheel. Climb in. Fasten the harness (five-point, more weight; safer, though.) Lower and latch the canopy. Wiggle the controls, fore-aft, side-to-side, rudders. Throttle off. Choke—on? Off? Heinrich shakes his head, yells “No choke!” OK, no choke.

Look all around, pop the canopy open again, yell “Clear!” Thumbs up from Heinrich. Push the button “rattle, rattle, bzzt, bzzt, bzzzvvvv!”, it’s running. Heinrich sweeps his arm towards the open runway. Canopy latched, brake off, throttle up, 3000 rpm. Right rudder, we’re rolling. Reduce power, 2000 rpm. Check the windsock; limp. Squeeze the brake lever on the stick, right rudder. Turn all the way around, complete circle, looking up and out for traffic. All clear. Wiggle the controls again, full travel. Deep breath. Here we go.

Slowly push the throttle open. Pretty smooth. There’s thirty. Back on the stick. 6500 rpm. Temp 250. Speed 45. Good climb, 400 up. 500 up. 300 AGL, start a left turn.

600 up. Nice ailerons, yaw string centered. Watch the speed. Look for traffic. Roll level. Look for traffic. 500 AGL; reducing power. Roll left. Temp 350. Speed 55. 4000 rpm. Look for traffic.

Level now on downwind. Speed 65. Are my knees shaking? Deep breaths, two. Do a couple of dutch rolls; too much rudder; there, that’s good; nice. OK, look for traffic. Temp 350. Comfy in here. Reduce power. Carb heat? Nope. 2500 rpm. Smooth ride. Look for traffic. There’s Heinrich by the van. Speed 60, 200 down. Long wings. Look for traffic, turn base. Gas (yep), Undercarriage (still down and green), Mixture (didn’t touch it; still OK), Prop (yep.) A little high, toe the rudders. 2000 rpm, engine only a remote buzz. Look for traffic, turning final.

Watch the speed, a little hot. Lined up. You’re high. Full dive-rudders; watch the speed. Speed 45. Start the flare. Nosewheel down?! Yes! There; pretty smooth, keep the stick back. Ease the nose down; there. Rudders off. Full throttle, roar of engine, do it again.

You shoot a few more touch-and-goes, becoming acquainted with the slippery nature of the craft. The noise in the cockpit is low and the reclined seat is comfortable. The plane’s composite structure flexes and twists with the slightest bump, giving a cushy, almost pillowy ride. “Traveling machine”, you say to yourself. Coming in on final the last time, you wonder if the voyage this machine is heading for is one-way. Concentrate, dammit, don’t daydream. Look for traffic. Flare, flare, flare; good. Switch off. Roll over to the van. Stop. Whew. Cheated Death Yet Another Time.

Heinrich is beaming, striding up to the nose of the plane. You open the canopy door, pop the harness, and slowly extend out, stooping to keep from bumping your head on the wing.

“Well, WetFoot, how was it?”

You pause, folding the nosewheel forward and kneeling the plane forward so it won’t be flipped backwards by the wind or an errant spectator. “I’m amazed at how smooth, how cushy the ride is compared to the Interceptor. It’s real clean, too; I had a hard time at first with coming in too high and hot.”

“I saw you coming in too fast and I think ‘WetFoot has too much hang glider pilot in him.’ You have to think like sailplane pilot with this plane.”

“Yeah, well, then where’s the spoilers on this thing?”

“Spoilers are needless complexity. I hate spoilers.” Ahh, that Germanic temper flaring up, you think. Mollify and distract, quickly.

“No, no, the plane’s great without spoilers, Heinrich. I just didn’t expect it to be so much cleaner than the Interceptor. Does the full cockpit cover make that much difference?”

“It is a number of things, WetFoot. Cockpit cover, yah, it helps, but the primary improvement is better cruise airfoil on canard coupled with lower span loading on main wing.”

“Does Tab know about this plane?”

“You must not let that Ass Hole know about it. He would just waste my time trying to make it production plane. It is no good for that; all the assholes of the world would get in it and kill themselves. It is too clean.”

“It’s not nearly as clean as a sailplane, Heinrich. People seem to be able to fly them OK.”

“There are glider pilots, and then there are power pilots. Power pilots are the true assholes of the world. They want engine to drag them through sky. They don’t know how to fly planes, just how to make noise with engines, punching through air. They are cry-babies when engine fails. The engine stops and they act like their balls have fallen off; 'Mommie, mommie, help me!', they cry, then crash into saguaro. Assholes must not fly this plane.”

Well, you think, I guess that’s a compliment, since he just let me fly it.