Modern jet engines are extremely reliable, until they’re not. When they decide to no longer be reliable, they tend to do what we call an “explosive disassembly.” Since jet engines are always on fire on the inside, when they disassemble themselves, they often let the fire out. For this reason, one of the main items a jet usually has is a fire detection system, and along with it a fire extinguishing system—unless it’s a homebuilt jet and the owner/builder decides he doesn’t need one.
The CozyJet is the world’s first successfully flying Experimental/Amateur-Built composite canard jet. For a long time it was the only one, but recently Robert Harris and JetGuys of Covington, Tennessee, have launched two more using what they learned from the CozyJet project. Right from the drawing board, the new jets are designed to be jets, while the CozyJet was nothing more than an engine conversion to an already flying Cozy Mk III with a Mazda rotary engine. Though there are exceptions, rarely do auto engine conversions make good, reliable “daily-driver” aircraft. The owner of Cozy Mk III N722, Greg Richter, had enough of his trials and tribulations with his Mazda conversion that it caused him to approach longtime Rutan canard repair station owner Robert Harris with a request for improving his Cozy.
Greg wanted to go to the opposite extreme and install a highly reliable turbine engine. Coincidentally, Robert had been toying with a General Electric T-58 jet engine. The T-58 is one of the world’s most popular medium-sized helicopter engines, though that’s not how it started. In the concept of six degrees of separation, Robert knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone else, who put him in touch with the retired GE engineer who happened to be the first person to lift a pencil to draw the first line of the design that became the T-58. In the conversation, the retired engineer said, “I designed that engine to be a turbojet, but eventually we put a gearbox on it.”
The original government contract the turbojet version was drawn up for was cancelled, but the need for a 1200-shaft-horsepower turboshaft engine dusted off the drawings for the T-58 and gave it new life. The really good news for Robert and the CozyJet was the engineer remembered the specs for the tailpipe that allowed the T-58 to maximize thrust output as opposed to just being a gas generator for a gearbox. Since Robert’s early attempts at a tailpipe created a lot of noise but not much thrust, this tidbit of information made the CozyJet a real viable jet airplane.
The CozyJet on the ramp at Tonopah, Nevada. It’s a nice place to stop for gas between Las Vegas and Reno.
Greg Richter had a lot of fun with the CozyJet. He made a splash at Oshkosh, and it appeared on the cover of Sport Aviation in September 2005. Eventually he felt the need to sell the CozyJet, and it was passed on to Frank Dasmacci. Frank hired Robert to do some upgrades to the avionics and flew it home to Sacramento, California. He was happily enjoying it when I approached Frank with an idea that I thought the CozyJet could help promote. That idea forming in my head was the Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience (RAFE). I knew the message I was hoping to get out, but felt I needed something really attention grabbing to promote that message. Since I was good friends with Robert Harris and had been around the CozyJet since it first came into his shop, I knew what a “people magnet” it was, and that was exactly what I needed to launch the RAFE.
Flying the CozyJet
In June 2015, Frank turned over ownership of the CozyJet, and the RAFE was about to take off, literally. EAA was extremely supportive and put the CozyJet and me in Boeing Square for the entire week of AirVenture 2015. The response to the RAFE project was incredible, and I knew I’d never have been able to pull it off without the people-magnet effect the CozyJet had. The next part of the mission was to take the CozyJet on tour and keep up the momentum.
The CozyJet went to Kanab, Utah, to fly in the annual canard race there. Though it’s fast at altitude, it’s just a Cozy Mk III, and down low it doesn’t fly at any faster indicated airspeed than any other Cozy Mk III. The CozyJet is airframe limited, meaning it has so much power that in level flight it can exceed the redline of the airframe unless you reduce power. There are a few Cozys that can indicate 200 knots in level flight at low altitude. The CozyJet can indicate its redline at FL220. I’ve not had it high enough to not have to pull the power back. At FL220 it’s been tested to 310 knots true airspeed and burns 38 gallons per hour.
The CozyJet’s General Electric T-58 jet engine is quite a change from the Mazda rotary engine that originally powered the aircraft.
All this power gives you confidence, but I tell people the CozyJet and the subsequent jets that have come from Robert Harris’ JetGuys shop are Experimental aviation at its finest. As an airline pilot, when I go to fly my Boeing, I know every parameter I need to know before takeoff. Even a typical Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft has a pilot operating handbook (POH) that will provide the pilot with performance data for takeoff, cruise, range, landing distance, etc. Since the CozyJet is just a Cozy Mk III that had an engine conversion, its POH is for a Cozy Mk III, with a small, supplemental section on the jet engine. Other than the required V-speeds needed to validate completion of Phase I testing, there was no other performance data except what I started collecting after acquiring the aircraft. It outperforms every aspect of Cozy Mk III performance except one: abort distance.
The reason for this is on takeoff, the CozyJet, with its 110 gallons of Jet A on board, is much heavier than a typical Cozy Mk III—about 800 pounds heavier. Our running joke has always been, “It’s not that heavy for that long!” Way back in the beginning of the CozyJet’s life, I cautioned Greg about his ability to stop the CozyJet if he needed to abort or immediately return after takeoff. We all knew it was marginal, but no changes were made. The CozyJet was mainly a proof-of-concept attempt to validate the T-58 installation; no one ever anticipated it would be used for the mission I was flying with it.
The biggest difference between the CozyJet and any other Cozy Mk III is this: a Cozy Mk III with an O-320 Lycoming and 30 gallons of gas is ready to go on a cross-country flight. That is the CozyJet’s landing fuel. With a fuel burn of 40 gallons per hour and 110 gallons on board, you get 90 minutes of flight time out of the CozyJet. I flight plan it this way, including a climb to 17,500 feet and cruise to the destination. It burns 60 gallons the first hour and 40 gallons an hour after that, but you don’t get a second hour. You need to be landing in 90 minutes with a 30-gallon fuel reserve and your alternate better be very close! On takeoff and initial climb the CozyJet’s fuel flow is 100 gallons per hour. If you need to divert, 30 gallons won’t take you far.
Off to the Races
It was these parameters that I learned to deal with when launching off on the CozyJet’s RAFE promotional tour to the Reno Air Races and back. It was an awesome trip with the intermediate stop at Kanab and flying through countryside I’d only seen before while flying in other jets like the F-14 from my Navy days and the Boeing 737 I fly at work. One of the most rewarding legs was crossing the Nellis ranges north of Las Vegas. There I once played in my Tomcat as part of the Air Force’s Red Flag exercises. Flying in a tactical fighter teaches you about making sure you have enough fuel. Crossing the Nellis ranges in the CozyJet was no different. There are not many places to stop and get gas, and the only place is Tonopah, Nevada. Back in my Navy days, things went on at Tonopah we couldn’t talk about. I’d flown there many times and always wondered about that little airport in the middle of nowhere Nevada. I finally got to stop there, and I highly recommend it if you’re in the area.
The CozyJet did its job at Reno, and thousands of people got to hear about the RAFE. I kidded Hoot Gibson that more people looked at the CozyJet than Strega! After an awesome week at the Reno Air Races, it was time to head east and get back to Texas. There were a few more events the CozyJet was booked at before the season ended, and it went back to JetGuys for some seriously needed upgrades. The first on the list was larger wheels and brakes. I hate to say I told myself so, but I told myself so.
Flying back from Reno was pure joy. It was a cool morning and the CozyJet was performing flawlessly. I made a quick stop in Carson City for cheap Jet A before the long haul across the Nellis ranges again. Tailwinds at 17,500 helped, and I made it to St. George, Utah. From there it was a stop somewhere around Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then I hoped to make it to Andrews, Texas, where there was really cheap Jet A.
Since I primarily fly the CozyJet VFR, I’ll typically flight plan to somewhere and then see if winds shorten my range or allow me to make the next airport a little farther. It takes tedious preflight planning and en route decision making. To maximize the lower fuel flow rates at altitude, I stay as high as possible, much like the old Hi-Tacan approaches we flew in the Navy. At the very last minute, the engine goes to idle and a rapid descent drops us onto the airport. Done correctly I never touch the throttle from cruise altitude until I spool it up on short final.
After St. George, I started entering a southeasterly flow of winds aloft; that meant I probably wouldn’t make Double Eagle II Airport outside Albuquerque. There is a nice-looking airport in Grants, New Mexico, just west of Albuquerque, which has a 7000-foot runway and cheap Jet A. I decided to cut that leg short and land there.
Another consideration when flying an aircraft like this is runway length. Because of concerns for takeoff abort distances and landing heavy after an immediate return, I prefer long runways. Since it flies at the same approach speeds as any other Cozy Mk III, 3000-foot runways are OK for landing, but that’s not what concerns me; it’s getting out, so that means a lot of the magenta circles on the sectional don’t apply any more. Grants has a long runway, but its high elevation means high density altitude. Fortunately, there was a strong quartering headwind on landing. That would help with the landing rollout and assist if I had to abort or come back. It was a real good spot to stop, especially considering there were no other airports in the vicinity.
Arrival at Grants was normal, and the CozyJet lived up to its reputation as a people magnet and drew out everyone on the airport—all two of them. The airport manager, retired U.S. Air captain Ray Jenkins, and another local pilot came out to meet me at the fuel pumps. We all enjoyed each other’s company and stories as I refueled the CozyJet. While we chatted, Ray took a phone call and when done, he explained it was the fire chief wanting to come out that afternoon and do some training on the airport. Ray and his friend said they were going to lunch and asked if I wanted to join them, but I declined as I had to keep heading home. They mentioned they’d go after I took off. We all shook hands and I taxied out in front of the crowd of two.
The blades on the compressor were heavily damaged, requiring the T-58 engine to be completely rebuilt.
Takeoff was normal despite the high density altitude. It wasn’t very warm that day, and the CozyJet climbed fast, like it usually does. I gave a wave to the new friends on the ground as I went by and pointed the nose up and toward Andrews, Texas. In only a few minutes I was passing through 10,000 feet and started fumbling with donning my oxygen stuff. About the time I let go of the stick for a second to fasten my cannula, there was a loud explosion right behind me. It sounded almost like the pop of a huge balloon, louder but that quick. I was immediately thrown forward into my shoulder harness as the CozyJet went from about five degrees nose up to five degrees nose down, and I was hanging in the straps. The first thing my eyes settled on was the compressor rpm on the MGL screen; it said zero.
Immediately I started turning the aircraft back toward the airport somewhere behind me. Training kicked in—Navy training. Things happen real fast in these situations, and you’ll often hear people talk about time compression. My time compression went by really fast.
As the airplane was turning back to Grants, it dawned on me that another thing we talked about but never tested was an air start. With compressor rpm at zero, it clearly meant the engine wasn’t spinning, most likely seized. When the airport came into view though, the instinctive conclusion of the subconscious calculations my brain just did resulted in the thought, I’m not going to make it. As I was rolling out of the turn and still trimming for best glide speed, I realized I had nothing to lose to try an air start. I made sure the throttle was back behind the gate, switched the igniters back on, and hit the start switch…nothing. No rotation meant the engine for sure was seized.
I now found myself in the worst-case scenario for any single-engine jet. My Navy training inside my subconscious was screaming at me—eject, eject, eject! Of course, that was not an option. Another subconscious training impulse was pull the fire handle. There wasn’t one. Nor was there any way I knew what really happened back there. There was the temptation to start down that decision matrix…did I suck in a bird, FOD, compressor stall? That got shut down and only one thought took over: fly the airplane.
The CozyJet “glider” was floating fairly well, but the airport was not getting lower on the canopy. There’s not much but scrub brush and ragged desert between where I’m gliding and the airport. I recalled on the approach end of the runway I landed on that there was a deep ravine. I hadn’t noticed or did not remember what was off the end of the departure end. It looked like Interstate 10 was going to be the best choice. It paralleled the runway and went right past the airport. There was a feeder road that might have less traffic. Power lines…mailboxes…road signs…pedestrians? Every bit of guidance I’ve ever been given from my Private Pilot instructor all the way to Navy and airline instructors rapidly played through my head.
Just as I was resigning myself that I-10 was going to be it, it started to look like I might make the airport, but it would be downwind. I’ll take it! The winds were still strong when I departed, and stopping might be a challenge but it was a much better option than I-10. There really wasn’t any choice since I was about to pass the point where turning for an into-the-wind landing on I-10 wasn’t going to be an option. It was going to be downwind on either, and I’d rather have the runway. If the airport seemed out of reach at the last second, a downwind landing on I-10 would still be a possibility.
What I hadn’t considered was, as I got lower, the winds got stronger. That push helped get the CozyJet closer to the runway, but it was a mixed blessing, which would prove itself shortly.
At about 1000 feet it was obvious I could make it downwind to the runway. I pushed the I-10 option out of my head and committed to the runway. At one point it looked like I might actually be high so I extended the nose gear and slipped a little. Once I knew I had the runway made I extended the speed brakes. Touchdown occurred about 300 feet from the approach end. Even though indicated airspeed was normal, it was quite obvious my ground speed was enormous. I held the CozyJet nose up, aerobraking as much as I could while giving a first, light tap on the brakes. I put the nose down earlier and faster than I normally would because I was eating up runway like crazy. Having 35 years of EZ flying, I know the limits of their braking, but this wasn’t a normal landing. Brakes came on steady, and we were slowing, but runway was passing by fast. Later we calculated that with the density altitude and tailwind, my touchdown groundspeed was 148 knots.
EZs are very clean, and if you don’t step on the brakes, you don’t slow down. Add to that the heavy weight of the CozyJet, and it was going to take a lot of braking to get stopped. I knew not to just stand on the brakes, but three-quarters of the way down the runway, we were still moving about 30 knots when the brakes just gave out. The quartering tailwind was pushing us toward the runway’s edge. There’s nothing to hit out there but sagebrush, but still it was not where I wanted to go, so I pumped what little brake there might be and contemplated raising the nose gear. Landing nose gear up is the emergency braking procedure for an EZ. It’s in the POH, and I’ve done it once in my VariEze. EZs use differential braking for steering, and without any brakes at all, there’s no way to steer these fast-landing airplanes. Landing with the nose gear up does very little damage and stops the airplane rather quickly. It was quickly becoming an option.
Just short of the runway’s edge, I got a little pressure from the left brake pedal and was able to prevent the CozyJet from departing the runway. With one last stomp on the pedal, it was enough to get the nose pointed toward the centerline as we trundled along about walking speed. I breathed a big sigh of relief as I realized we were going to make it, and I’d just completed a dead-stick landing in a jet.
Suddenly, a puff of smoke went by the left side of the airplane, low. The little voice inside of me screamed, “Hey! This thing could be on fire! Get out!” I unbelted, opened the canopy, and leapt over the side, practically right onto a fire. Still not knowing what was going on in the engine compartment, the immediately visible problem was flames coming from the left wheelpant.
In almost every other Experimental aircraft I have, the brake fluid on board is DOT 5 silicone fluid. There are multiple reasons for this, but one of the highest on my list is the flash point—for DOT 5 it’s 900 F. The flashpoint for MIL-H-5606 is 193 F. Once 5606 starts to burn, it is like magnesium and very difficult to extinguish. One of the items for that winter’s maintenance and upgrades was to replace the brake fluid with DOT 5. The heat was enough to soften the O-rings in the calipers, which let the 5606 leak out. When the temperature became hot enough, the 5606 caught fire. Once it started burning inside that wheelpant there was nothing visible until the fire was so far underway that flames were coming out from underneath the wheelpant. It was beyond anything I had the ability to deal with, considering there was no fire extinguisher within my reach.
Every other airplane I have, including my Piper Cub, has a fire extinguisher. For some reason, I hadn’t made sure the CozyJet had one. I rapidly rummaged through the whole cockpit looking for one. Under the thigh supports, I pulled out some old rags, someone’s ball cap and what could’ve been one of Greg Richter’s old socks, but no fire extinguisher. Exasperated, I stepped back and surveyed the now larger fire climbing up the trailing edge of the gear leg.
Post-fire investigation showed the fire actually melted the aluminum brake line where it attached to the caliper. Now the 5606 brake fluid was draining out of the master cylinder and feeding the fire even more. I grabbed my bags and dragged them about 100 feet from the burning plane. When I turned around and looked at the burning CozyJet, my heart sank. I remembered reading about a Defiant lost to a brake fire in Albuquerque years ago. Above the gear leg fire was almost 100 gallons of Jet A, separated from the flames by only foam and fiberglass. It looked like this could be the end for the CozyJet.
Standing on the far end of a 7000-foot runway with no one else in sight, watching your plane burn, is a very lonely, helpless feeling. It occurred to me to call 911. Grants is a tiny old mining town, and not much exciting happens there anymore. With the added difficulty of attempting to communicate on my cell phone in all that wind, the 911 operator thought I was telling her my trailer was on fire. I tried to correct her and asked her to immediately send fire equipment to the airport, but I don’t think she even knew there was an airport in Grants. I gave up. With no other ideas, I took a picture of the burning plane with my cell phone camera just to document its last moments. I just knew any second now that Jet A was going to blow, and I jumped when there was a loud pop and the airplane moved. The tire had exploded from the heat, and the airplane settled on its rim.
Since I’d heard Ray and his friend were going to lunch after I departed, I thought I was the only person on the airport and totally doomed. About that time I saw a car coming down the runway toward me. It was Ray. He’d seen me land and wondered why I was going downwind so hot. When I didn’t taxi in, he went outside his office and realized I was at the end with a problem. He had no idea I was on fire. When he drove up, his jaw was hanging and I said, “Ray! You have a fire extinguisher?” He quickly replied, “No, I’ll go get one!” As relieved to see him as I was, my heart sank.
I walked to the runway edge and kicked at the dirt, seeing if I could gather some up to throw on the fire and smother it. But then realized how futile that would be.
I thought about dragging my stuff farther away because I had no idea how big the fireball might be when the tanks finally melted enough to let all that Jet A spill out. It seemed like there was no way to save the situation, and all I could do was stand there as this awesome one-of-a-kind CozyJet went up in flames.
As I watched, the left wingtip slowly settled onto the asphalt as the melting fiberglass gear leg gave way to the weight of the plane. Then, much to my surprise, I saw a truck racing down the runway with emergency lights blazing. Maybe my 911 call actually worked!
What really happened was as Ray drove across the ramp to the hangar to get a fire extinguisher, he ran across the fire chief who was driving across the ramp to meet Ray. The chief wanted to discuss the drill he’d called about doing earlier. Ray flagged him down and hollered to him through the open window of his truck: “Go help that guy—he’s on fire!”
This Is Not a Drill!
Ray pointed toward the end of the runway and the fire chief thought Ray was playing a joke on him. Ray yelled at him again: “No, really—he’s on fire!” The fire chief still didn’t believe him, but decided to play along and drove down the runway. As he got closer, he could see smoke, and that’s when he turned on his lights and drove faster. He stopped just short of the burning plane, got out, and much to my dismay, just stood there all wide-eyed with his jaw hanging down. I yelled across to him, “Hey! You got a fire extinguisher?”
His head snapped over to me, and I guess it was the first time he even noticed me standing there. He replied, “Yes.” I said, “You want to get it?” and he suddenly went into action. He opened the back door of the four-door truck and, in what seemed like forever, he emerged with a fire extinguisher. Then, he walked, not ran, around the nose of the CozyJet and extinguished the fire. A couple of squirts of the fire extinguisher and it was over, just like that.
I sat down on my luggage. What just happened, which took less time than it takes to read this story, felt like it took forever and seemed so surreal. A few minutes later Ray reappeared. A couple of minutes after that I heard sirens. In no time there were fire trucks, ambulances, sheriff’s department vehicles, and all kinds of people standing around staring at the charred CozyJet, all in complete wonder.
I surveyed the damage and was amazed that the heat and flames hadn’t seemed to damage the wing strakes to the point the fuel might have been released. Paint had burned, but it didn’t look like fiberglass had. Looking up the tailpipe, everything seemed normal.
Everyone had questions for me, and each entity, fire department, sheriff’s department, etc. all wanted to have a say in what to do. Ray was awesome though, and he took charge. He gathered everyone together and said, “Listen, we have too many chiefs here and not enough indians. Whatever you need that has to do with the airport, you come to me. Whatever you need that has to do with the airplane, you listen to Richard.”
He turned to me and asked, “What do you need, Richard?” I looked around and said, “I need a box of tools, a couple guys to help me pull the wings, a trailer, and a way to lift the jet up on the trailer.” Ray said, “You got it!”
Ray drove off to get the assets we needed while a fireman offered me a toolbox. A couple of deputies and firemen started helping me take the airplane apart. All the while I had this nagging question: What happened? There was just no time to dwell on it, and I figured we wouldn’t know for sure until we took the engine apart.
We got all the screws out of the cowling, and a fireman and I slid it off the CozyJet. As we did, I got my first glimpse of the damage. Pieces of jet engine spilled out onto the asphalt. Chunks of turbine blades, inlet guide vanes, and other loose metal were inside the cowling. All of that came out the front of the engine.
Usually when foreign objects get ingested by a jet engine, there is damage all the way through. After seeing what came out of the front of the engine, I once again looked up the tailpipe and, like before, saw no signs of damage. That loud bang I heard was a compressor stall that blew the pieces out the front of the engine. There’s an intake bolted to the front of the engine, so these pieces didn’t really come out the front because there were no holes in the fiberglass intake, and there were no holes in the engine case either. Around the variable inlet guide, though, the vane actuators were nothing but twisted metal. All these pieces blew out the inlet guide vane area.
A fireman and I carried the cowling off the runway to set it on the dirt. That’s when I noticed a discolored band around the cowling. There had been a fire. Not a sustained fire, but probably a big ring of fire that blew out the back when the compressor stalled and all those pieces exploded through the inlet guide vane area. Things could’ve been much, much worse.
In about thirty minutes there was an off-road forklift and a flatbed 18-wheeler on the runway with us. Since the left tire had blown and the gear had melted, the CozyJet couldn’t roll. It would have to be lifted onto a trailer, and it would be much easier to lift it with the wings off. As we were pulling off the wings, we realized it would be good to drain the Jet A out. Ray fetched a hand pump and a couple barrels. While a couple firemen helped me remove the wings, Ray helped transfer the Jet A from the CozyJet to the 18-wheeler and forklift, my contribution to the rescue effort. It became obvious that the flatbed 18-wheeler was overkill, so I asked Ray to see if he could get just a 16-foot flatbed trailer, which he did. We lifted the wings onto the semi-trailer, and it drove away to unload them at the hangar. When the 16-foot trailer arrived, we hoisted the CozyJet up with the forklift and drove the trailer under it, then settled it down and hauled it to the big hangar. Once everything was unloaded, hangar doors closed, and all the people that assisted were thanked and drove away, Ray turned to me and said, “How ’bout lunch?”