Saturday, January 2, 2016

Pilot Hubie Tolson: Testing last surviving experimental aircraft of its kind

The Windecker Eagle, housed at the Coastal Carolina Airport, is the only surviving one of the seven experimental aircraft built in 1969.

The Windecker Eagle is a curious but beautiful piece of aviation history that will be setting at the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport for a few more days.

It is the last of seven experimental airplanes built in 1969 – or it is the last two, depending on how you look at it. This airplane was built using scavenged parts of two wrecked airplanes that had been sitting out in the weather in Canada for 35 years.

The airplane, now owned by a Chinese billionaire who is looking to produce airplanes of his own, according to Hubie Tolson.

Tolson, a local entrepreneur, and pilot, best known for his stunt-flying aerobatics, is test-flying the plane locally.

In a way, the airplane is impractical, particularly in its four-seater design.

“You can’t use the back seats,” Tolson said. “They were designed by engineers, not by artists.”

The rear seats are four or five inches off the floor of the airplane, and there is nowhere for riders to put their legs.

Even if they could, Tolson said, the airplane couldn’t carry more than two adults unless it were flying on only half a tank.

Also, the airplane has a few flying quirks. One is its tendency to go into uncontrolled spins when it stalls. Two or three of the originals crashed due to this rather bad habit.

Tolson suspects it was that seat thing that kept the airplane from going into full production.

But what makes the plane historic is that it was the first all-composite airplane with no metal frame. That construction is called monocoque – a method that, like an egg, supports the structure via its outer skin rather than through a skeletal structure.

Many modern aircraft are built using the same method.

…But a method that keeps Tolson wary. “We’re being very gentle,” he said.

The Windecker Eagle, oddly enough, was designed by a dentist, Leo “Doc” Windecker and his wife.

Windecker, a pilot, had customers and friends who worked for Dow Chemical, a company he learned was experimenting with fiberglass-reinforced structures. He and his wife experimented and came up with an epoxy glass fiber, “Fibaloy.” They patented it and convinced Dow to give them $20 million to design and build their airplane.

Despite a few deficiencies, Tolson said the airplane is remarkable. Flying at a speed of 200 mph, he said, “it was one of the fastest things going… It’s not a sports car, but it’s a nice stable platform.”

Wei Hang, the Chinese entrepreneur, purchased and restored the aircraft, putting millions of dollars into it. He plans to keep it at his home in Xiang, “the aviation capital of China,” according to Tolson.

 Several aviation publications report that Hang plans to restart manufacturing of the Windecker Eagle in China and production is scheduled to being in 2016.

Tolson said he does not see Hang’s taking the plane as the U.S. losing any history: “He saved our history when no one else would have,” he said.

Currently, Tolson is test flying the airplane. “Woolies,” short pieces of orange string that can be observed by the pilot as it flies to help him determine how the air moves over the wings, dot the wings.

Tolson said he has stalled the airplane a few times — no deadly spins yet, but he wears a parachute when he flies so if a problem comes up, “I just roll out.

“I’ve been compiling a list of tweaks and problems,” he said. Once testing is complete, the airplane will be taken to Mooresville, for the final tweaks.

Then it will be shipped to its final destination via what Tolson calls a “cookie sheet” — that is, a shipping palate flown airfreight overseas.

He will probably fly the airplane to Mooresville after Aviation Press arrives on Jan. 5 to take pictures and do a story.

The airplane is not on display for the public, but if you keep your eye on the sky, you might just see the Windecker Eagle fly by with Tolson in the cockpit.


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