The phone call came from Phil Lockwood in Sebring, Florida. Hey, Dave, he said. Im beginning to plan a flight of AirCams from here to a resort in the Bahamas. It should be interesting, and Id like you to come along. As Editor back then, I thought it would be a good topic for KITPLANES, and I tentatively agreed to go.
That was more than 10 years ago. As the time approached for the fall 1998 flight, the west Atlantic hurricane season remained in full force, and Lockwood reported that the destination resort had suffered considerable damage. Florida looked to remain flyable, so the plan was to hop by AirCam from Sebring to Cedar Cove, an island town just off the east end of the Florida panhandle. The cover story in the March 1999 issue extolled the advantages of the AirCam for slow, safe exploring by air at low altitude, which if you know anything about the AirCam is precisely what it was designed to do.
Fast forward to early 2008. Lockwood decided to try again for a group AirCam flight to the Bahamas. The object was for up to 15 AirCams to fly east to Great Abaco Island, in March, and a number of us assembled in Sebring…just in time to be confronted with unflyable weather. Thirty-knot south winds would make conditions uncomfortable if not dangerous, and no immediate improvement was expected. The party at Phil and Tisha Lockwood’s home that night compensated considerably for the canceled trip, but it wasn’t much of an angle for a magazine article.
During the spring and summer, George Weber, Lockwood’s marketing and sales director and the trip planner, kept his eye on the weather. Last September, he notified us that a new attempt would be made in early October. This time the weather cooperated and this much anticipated trip actually happened-and a few elements of the trip turned out to be more interesting than planned.
What’s an AirCam?
The Lockwood AirCam has a fascinating history. In the 1980s, Phil Lockwood worked for Maxair, the ultralight company that turned out the two-place Drifter tandem trainer. He was tasked at one point to fly a Drifter with a cameraman for a National Geographic television special.
When he was later contacted to offer flying help with a National Geographic program on the Ndoki Rain Forest in western Africa, Lockwood convinced the producers that flying any single-engine airplane in the area was too risky, considering the solid 300-foot forest canopy and the absence of clearings and roads for hundreds of miles. Even if the pilot and crew survived an engine failure and landed in the treetops, chance of rescue would be slim.
Lockwood was asked to design, build, test and fly a special-purpose twin-engine machine that would greatly improve chances of survival in this environment, and the AirCam was the result. Each engine was totally independent of the other, including its own dedicated fuel tank.
The original pair of AirCams worked beautifully in their African camera platform roles, and Lockwood retained the rights for future development. For the kit market, he redesigned the airplane into a more rigid, higher-performance twin with a quickbuild aluminum fuselage shaped like a tub. The power package changed to a pair of four-stroke Rotax 912S engines (100 horsepower each) or turbocharged Rotax 914s.
Safety remained a primary concern. In an AirCam, Vmc (minimum controllable velocity with the critical engine off) is close to stall speed, meaning that if you have flying speed, you can maintain control. With its big (205 square feet) wing, you can safely fly an AirCam at well under 60 knots anywhere its legal and safe.
Third Time’s the Charm
I joined the other AirCam pilots at Lockwood Aviation Supply early on a Friday morning in October. Weather at Sebring Airport was VFR, but fog to the north had Richard Johnson (who had flown with us to Cedar Cove) and his AirCam stuck at nearby Avon Park, slightly delaying our departure for Fort Pierce Airport on the Florida coast. Only five AirCams would make this trip. Lockwood and I in his AirCam, Johnson in his, and Randy Nageotte with his amphibious-float version made the three-plane takeoff from Sebring for the hour-long flight to Fort Pierce. At a comfortable cruise speed of 65 knots, it takes awhile to get anywhere, but at an altitude of less than 1000 feet, you get a spectacular view of the countryside.
In the meantime, Denny Crummel prepared the Piper Navajo twin that would become our support vehicle and rapid alternate transportation for Crummel’s wife, Nellie, George Weber and his wife, Sidney, Tisha Lockwood and June Lockwood (Phils mother), and Nageotte’s wife, Lynn.
At Fort Pierce, we met the other two AirCam crews: Ken Allen and his friend Karen Hall, and Robert Meyer and his friend Tom Hornaman. Lockwood filed the five-airplane flight plan from there to Grand Bahama International (ZFP) at Freeport, the closest port of entry in the Bahamas. The Fort Pierce departure was delayed a few minutes after Meyer discovered a broken exhaust system spring on his left engine. He had a spare, and the fix took only a few minutes.
Finally all was ready, and we took off as a group of five. Lockwood filed for a crossing altitude of 2000 feet, and en route we relaxed-everyone in sight, but you’d not call it formation flying. Nageotte’s amphib had its waders on, and he likes to fly really low over water.
The direct route to Freeport was 128 magnetic for 108 nautical miles. Although the XM Weather radio feature on Lockwood’s Garmin 496 GPS showed precipitation to the north, our course line looked clear, and visibility was good enough to see the receding Florida coastline on our right for the first 20 miles or so. We switched to an air-to-air VHF frequency, and the loosely spread formation proceeded southeast at a groundspeed of about 70 knots on a sunny October day.
Sitting in the back, I had airspeed, altitude and engine rpm gauges, but no compass. Lockwood invited me to fly, but my problem was to find an aiming point to maintain heading. At our slow speed, a tiny unintended bank for a few seconds would change the course. Looking at clouds ahead helped, but we settled on another solution. The GPS indicated bearing to our destination and track, our current course over the water. Every few minutes, he would tell me these two numbers, and I would correct to get us back on the proper course. The game was fun, and it worked well.
Total time to Freeport was nearly 2 hours, and we were beyond sight of land about half the time. Miles before reaching the island, we could see the sandy bottom through at least 50 feet of water.
We cleared customs in a few minutes, skipped lunch, refueled, and prepared to launch for our destination, Marsh Harbour Airport (MYAM). Meyer’s left engine had something else in mind: A solenoid valve in the primer system stuck open and flooded the engine. The fix (temporarily bypassing the primer system) took an hour. Ready to roll, Lockwood called Ground Control for taxi clearance. Where is your flight plan? the controller asked. None had been filed, as we were under the impression that once cleared into the Bahamas, VFR flight plans were optional. Not so. Writing, faxing somewhere for approval, and getting the flight plan into the system took another hour. By the time we had 10 engines started again and were ready to taxi, it was an hour and a half to sunset.
Adding 10 knots to our best-range leisurely cruise speed, and making a beeline for Marsh Harbour would get us there at close to sunset, we thought. Flying east along a south-facing beach, I saw no fish, but our shadows were clearly visible on the sea bottom. Unfortunately, a beeline course wasn’t going to happen. Heavy showers under the vertical buildups directly ahead limited our visibility and would get us exceedingly wet in the open cockpits.
With lack of daylight an increasing concern, we decided to turn back toward Freeport. Because there was now precipitation directly behind us, we turned left to clear a storm before completely reversing course. At this point, the Nearest Airports feature on the GPS indicated that Treasure Cay Airport was about 28 nautical miles to the east, and the weather looked to be clear in that direction. So we headed for Treasure Cay. Everybody tuned to Unicom and traffic advisories.
Eight miles out and reassured by GPS, we saw the airport. The landing with a few minutes of daylight left was without incident, except that Nageotte’s right main amphibian tire went flat. Yet, all five planes were soon tied down and covered on Treasure Cays ramp. Apprehension gave way to elation, especially when we discovered that Nageotte had brought a spare tube and tire. He had never had a flat in his 300 AirCam amphib flight hours but came prepared. Good work!
Meanwhile, at Marsh Harbour, someone listening to Unicom heard our approach transmissions at Treasure Cay. He alerted our advance party at Marsh Harbour Airport and at the resort that we were safely on the ground. Two taxis were dispatched from Marsh Harbour to retrieve us.
The much-appreciated taxi rides were as interesting as the last half hour of flying. As citizens of a former British colony, the Bahamians continue to drive on the left, mostly in cars with the steering wheel on the left (the wrong side) because left-hand-drive vehicles are more available. The road between Treasure Cay and Marsh Harbour is quite narrow and dark, and there was no moon. The driver of our taxi felt most comfortable tailgating the other taxi ahead of us. Her 9-month-old daughter was in the right front seat, and kept dropping things on the floor, which her mother felt obligated to pick up. Finally she reached across, scooped up her daughter and put the happy little girl on her left shoulder.
This made for an exciting ride. In my case, it dredged up a scene from Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall where Annie’s brother is driving Alvy (Woody) to the airport at night at high speed while discussing his frequent thoughts of suicide. Nonetheless, the skill of our driver deposited us safely at the resort in time for a late but excellent dinner and a sincere welcome from the resort and tourist bureau staff who had waited hours for us. Food and conversation flowed liberally as we got to know each other better. After dinner, Crummel, a preacher and talented singer, entertained us with gospel and other songs. Sleep came easily that night.
A New Day
I awoke early and explored the resort a bit before breakfast. There’s a large marina and a three-story hotel overlooking a pure white-sand beach. Cottages, a spa, several swimming pools, the restaurant and other facilities-plus plenty of the requisite palm trees-add to the beauty of the place. I was surprised at the small number of guests and the few boats at the marina. Perhaps the resort was already experiencing the effect of the worsening worldwide economy.
Playing at the resort was secondary to other wholesome tasks such as replacing Nageotte’s tire and moving all five airplanes from Treasure Cay to Marsh Harbour Airport. The maintenance party bought a socket-wrench set at the local hardware store plus a 4×4 wood fence post they had cut into shorter lengths to jack his amphib float off the ground.
By 10:30 the AirCam crews were ready for a 40-minute van ride back to Treasure Cay. Once there, Nageotte’s repair was quickly finished. Our van driver, James C. Williams, shared some useful tools, and the airport fuel truck driver supplied compressed air for the new tire.
Repositioning the AirCams to Marsh Harbour Airport offered more opportunities to explore the shoreline and use our cameras. Lockwood invited me to take the front seat, and Johnson and Nageotte joined the flight. Meyer and Allen had already taken off together.
A shower was centered on Marsh Harbour as we approached, and we clipped one edge of the downpour for a few seconds. I swung away to the east, and we all waited for the shower to drift beyond the airport. I then set up for a left downwind behind the other two planes.The runway was wet when we landed. Just after touchdown, Lockwood said, Look out for the puddles! By then it was too late to avoid one on the left side, so he got splashed from the right and then the left, as the mainwheels are directly in line with the back seat. Sorry.
In the tiedown area, we discovered another problem. Johnsons left tire was flat. He had a spare inner tube, and soon had the wheel off. Then we noticed his right tire was going soft. Lacking a second new tube, he found a tire-patch kit in town and fixed the third and final tire problem.
Things went smoothly from then on. There was time for a dip in the pool, and I walked around the town for a while, looking for a souvenir map. Saturday nights group dinner with music on the beach was a highlight.
After breakfast on Sunday, we made several van runs to the airport for flights out by Navajo and AirCam. Careful flight planning indicated that the current and forecast 20-knot east wind would preclude the need to stop at Freeport for fuel, even for Nageotte and his more draggy amphib. As a bit of insurance, we first flew west to Treasure Cay for fuel, getting about 20 miles closer to our Fort Pierce destination. Alternatives in case of reduced range were a fuel stop in Freeport or one of the closer coastal Florida airports.
None of the alternates was necessary, however. The tailwind continued, and rain showers stayed well north of us. Everybody landed at Fort Pierce with plenty of fuel. After clearing customs, some of us dodged inland showers for a brief visit to George and Sidney Webers residential airpark home and hangar at Port St. Lucie. Then Lockwood and I continued to Sebring and arrived in time to avoid the thundershower bearing down on the place. The drive back to my hotel in Sebring included a cloudburst-style free car wash.
Careful planning pays off for a group flight-especially if spare parts and tools are included-and flexibility is a key to success. More importantly, though, in a group of people with common interests and talents, is that a little adversity detracts not at all from the pleasure.
One More Time
I returned to Sebring again on Monday for a brief flight-again in the front seat of Lockwood’s AirCam-for a reacquaintance with low-and-slow flying. If you stay the required 500 feet away from people, structures and vehicles in non-congested airspace, piloting the AirCam is safe, legal and a lot of fun. Just take care to avoid the wires, towers and cables.
Buying one isn’t inexpensive, with a basic kit price of $98,600 (including the engines). But single-engine capability is the AirCam’s most outstanding feature and what makes this design unique. Lockwood demonstrated this by imagining an engine out in a narrow box canyon. A tight climbing turn with one engine at idle and the slip/skid ball in the center showed off performance that was, frankly, spectacular.
For more information visit www.lockwoodaircraft.com.