Three years ago at Sun n Fun, I met Nick Otterback standing by the first prototype of the Lightning. Surrounded by the, er…functional looking Jabiru high-wingers in the display area, the Lightning appeared low, sleek, sexy and fast. At the time, I wasn’t all that familiar with the Esqual, from which the Lightning was struck, but I did recognize traits that originally excited me about the Aero Designs Pulsar. Namely, the proportions are pleasing, theres a good amount of horizontal tail-so I figured stability would be appropriate-and the design is intended to be as foolproof to build as is possible.
Sometimes the wheels here at KP Central move slowly, so it wasn’t until last fall that one of our most experienced test pilots, Chuck Berthe, was able to hook up with the Lightning and its designer, Nick Otterback. Soon after the flight, Berthe reported to me that hed found many things to like about the airplane but a few-including poor longitudinal stability in some configurations-that warranted if not concern, then at least a second look. Berthe, not wanting to be misled by a single data point-could the factory airplane be the norm or an anomaly?-he sought rides with builders in other Lightnings. Those test hops indicated that his first impressions were accurate.
Around the same time, Otterback indicated that he was working on improvements to the Lightning, including a new trim system-a change from a spring-bungee system to a trailing-edge tab-and it seemed prudent to bide our time until these alterations were on line.
Move ahead to Lakeland this year, when I had dinner with Otterback and the rest of the Jabiru family, based in Shelbyville, Tennessee. He was excited about the updates, now implemented into a new demonstrator aircraft that, I learned later, had won Best Composite at the show. But I could tell he was worried about a bad review from someone as respected and unemotional about handling qualities as Berthe.
Berthe sampled the second airplane and came back truly impressed. In private conversation and in the story he submitted, Berthe admitted that he was mighty pleased to see that Otterback had taken his comments to heart as constructive criticism. Careful development, a little bit here and a little bit there, moved the Lightning design from pretty good to wow, beautiful job! No single thing was the cure. Otterback worked to move the empty c.g. forward, reduce elevator gearing and improve the trim system.
This tells me Otterback is a sharp guy-and not just his building skills or design chops. No, the smartest people I know are those who admit to what they don’t know; they’re the first to seek out experts in a new field, listen intently and sniff out the truth of a situation. Im delighted that he was able to put ego aside and improve the airplane. Forget about missing the mark first time out. Focus on the result, and do everything you can to make the airplane better for builders and pilots.
Aviation history is littered with flawed designs and hubristic designers convinced they know more than the stalwarts-and certainly more than some hick test pilot. (Dont worry, Berthe knows I say this with fondness.) Good design is about humility. Years ago, I spent the better part of a week with controversial motorcycle designer Pierre Terblanche. No more irascible and outspoken designer exists, I think, and yet he was the first to admit that areas outside his core skills were probably better understood by those whose core skills were centered in that field. Say what you want about how his creations looked, but they were all smart.
MARC COOK has been in aviation journalism for 20 years and in magazine work for more than 25. He is a 4000-hour instrument-rated, multi-engine pilot with experience in nearly 150 types. Hes completed two kit aircraft, an Aero Designs Pulsar XP and a Glastar Sportsman 2+2.