Development of composite aircraft in the 1980s was nothing short of phenomenal. After Burt Rutan kick-started the avant-garde phase of homebuilding in the 1970s, fiberglass aircraft came to be accepted as full-fledged members of the establishment. Across America, builders were sanding foam, scratching itches and smelling up the place with epoxies and resins.
By the mid-1980s, two of the major protagonists of the period would be up to full speed: Stoddard-Hamilton, which had been producing the Glasair line of two-seat kits since 1979 in Arlington, Washington, and newcomer Lancair, headed by Southern California-based graphics designer Lance Neibauer.
It must have been the competition of the time that made each company lock the other into the gunsights. The rivalry stood on differences of construction materials and methods, design aesthetics and, to be honest, more than a spoonful of ego. A fight that was borne by builders and salesmen also spilled into advertising and marketing materials; you would think each company had no other competitors than each other.
The Glasair started as a simple, rugged aircraft reflecting practical design philosophies. A squared-off fuselage and empennage is better from a structural point of view, but it’s also boxy looking from certain angles, particularly in the early short-fuselage models. It also used an unusual, Mooney-style design, with the fuselage sitting on top of the one-piece wing.
Lancair’s drive, under Neibauer’s pen, was to emphasize graceful lines—the 235’s wasp waist gave it a shrink-wrapped appearance, as though the fuselage had been drawn tight over an engine and two occupants.
Moreover, the Glasair used vinylester resin over various types of foam, cured at room temperature in conventional molds, following boat-making practice of the time. Lancair, perhaps with a slight advantage of arriving later to the game, used high-tech epoxy over honeycomb cores. It widely stated that these materials had a “strength to weight ratio…superior to common wet layup parts, and they are environmentally stable to +250° F.” Then, as if to further drive home the point, the company painted its demonstrator aircraft lipstick red, which, of course, sent the conservative S-H crew into paroxysms of disbelief. (Most composite aircraft are white to reduce heat absorption and to keep the ’glass away from the “gooey” stage.) Stoddard responded that vinylester resins were easier to work with, less expensive and didn’t risk the allergic reactions some builders had to epoxies.
Early on, the two companies in fact offered very different product. The original Lancair, which housed a Lycoming O-235, first in kit form, would soon take an O-320, was a trigear retractable from the start, and reflected Neibauer’s focus on speed and efficiency. The Glasair line, conversely, broadened the offerings with fixed-gear trike and taildragger models as well as a retractable trike.
Through the 1980s, the companies leapfrogged each other with new models boasting more speed. Stoddard brought out the II series, which offered dramatically improved manufacturing and an increase in factory-built components. At the time, the company claimed a reduction in build time of 40% over the I. The II could also carry engines as large as a 180-horsepower IO-360, which helped close the gap to the quicker (by dint of being smaller) Lancair. Lancair, predictably, responded with an IO-360 of its own.
We take it for granted that the majority of kit aircraft today have reasonable and appropriate handling qualities, but by the late 1980s, both the Glasair II and the Lancair 320/360 were gaining reputations as “hot rocks,” with light pitch forces and marginal (by certified standards) trim stability. The issue came to a head in the early 1990s, when the Australian Civil Aviation Administration refused to “certify” the original Lancair design because it was deemed unstable.
Both companies eventually recognized that builders were coming from ranks other than, say, Pitts owners, and that stability profiles closer to certified aircraft were, ultimately, a good thing. (Although both companies fought the accusations until updated product was released.) Lancair developed a wider-span horizontal stabilizer and elevator that improved longitudinal stability, and also offered a longer engine mount that moved the empty c.g. forward.
Stoddard-Hamilton followed a similar path after stretching the II in 1989. By 1993, the state of the art was the Super II-S, a further stretched II (the fuselage was longer than the II-S by 6 inches) with the wing moved aft, having the effect of moving the empty c.g. forward, and a 30% larger horizontal stabilizer. The industry was maturing.
Both companies produced follow-on models that raised the performance bar. Stoddard unleashed the 300-hp III on the world in 1987—the prototype flew to Oshkosh in 1986—gracing our cover for the first time with the February 1987 issue. Lancair followed suit in 1990 with the remarkable IV, which finally ended the product development foot race the two companies had been in for the better part of a decade. Lancair staked out the high end (adding the IV-P and turbine variants), and S-H retooled into the more modest (and now nearly as numerous) GlaStar utility aircraft.
When you look back on this heated rivalry, remember it for more than the slightly outlandish potshots. These two companies advanced the art of composite aircraft—in design, sure, but more importantly in manufacturing. In their attempts to beat one another, Lancair and S-H both created new, more efficient manufacturing processes, and focused intently on making the designs easier and quicker to build (because more of your brand on the ramp will help sell future designs). Walk the fly-in parking at any airshow today, and early two-seat Glasairs and Lancairs will be seen in ones and twos, not by the dozens as was common in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But their impact on the market continues to be felt.