Originally intended to provide inlet air for his Subaru STis intercooler, the top-mounted NACA duct on Randy Crothers RV worked better as an air outlet device. Not one to argue with success, he left well enough alone and is now all smiles after a hard-won conversion.
This month we launch a new column devoted to the exciting world of alternative engines and automotive conversions for kitbuilt aircraft. Author Rick Lindstrom is both an experienced journalist and a builder who has first-hand experience with alternative engines.-Ed.
The sign on the airport bulletin board says Please Do Not Overfly the Prison or You Will Make Some Armed Guards Very Nervous. Sure enough, there’s little to Jean, Nevada, other than the Gold Strike Casino and Hotel, the courthouse, the federal womens prison, and Jean Airport (OL7) itself. But for one weekend each year, little Jean is the national focus for those flying behind alternative powerplants.
No, there’s nothing missing behind the ring gear. Jon Finleys Subar-Sonic does quite well, thank you, with a ground-adjustable Warp Drive prop mated directly to the business end of a Subaru EJ-22.
Hosted by Contact! magazines Pat Panzera, this years Alternative Engine Roundup marked the sixth such event. During the weekend of March 27 to 29, roughly a dozen aviators from the western U.S. braved the unstable spring weather to fly into the gathering at Jean. Given the strong winds with turbulence almost everywhere, it was surprising that the pilots were universally nonchalant about their flights. Or perhaps thats just the typical attitude of those whove taken the significant step away from traditional aircraft engines when powering their airborne steeds of choice.
You might think that such independent thinkers would shy away from gatherings of more than one or two, but here they were rubbing shoulders and comparing notes with enthusiasm. They all had good reasons for making the sojourn.
This fly-in grew out of the tandem-wing event we used to have in Arizona, Panzera said. It used to be just Quickies and Dragonflies, but its evolved into something else in the last six years. Indeed, a quick glimpse at the ramp showed a good variety of kit aircraft types. Several tandem wings were there, but a preponderance of RVs, two Zenith 601s, and a Subaru-powered Sportsman 2+2 also graced the event.
We wanted to raise awareness of alternative engines in our own venue, Panzera said, and this is a great way for guys to show off what theyve done. This is especially relevant when you consider that those in attendance are already spring-loaded to appreciate the myriad challenges in doing an engine installation differently. They celebrate the dogged persistence it sometimes takes to find solid solutions to unanticipated installation or operational problems, and there’s nothing like another set of eyes and hands that have been there to help find workable solutions to vexing issues that are keeping builders grounded. How these problems are vanquished during the annual roundup is interesting in its own right.
Hey, Kids! Lets Put on a Show!
In many ways, Jean Airport is the ideal location for these annual gatherings. Two parallel runways are more than adequate for the skydiving, glider and powered operations. There is no special use airspace to contend with until you approach Las Vegas Class Bravo well to the north. The self-serve fuel is relatively cheap for the area, the hotel and casino are within an easy walk, and the restrooms and vending machine are always available on the side of the recently built, modern terminal building. Best of all, there’s a large meeting area, barbecue and kitchen available for events just such as this one.
Jess Meyers Belted Air Power is one of the older shops specializing in propeller-speed-reduction technology. The staff arrived in the company’s Chevy V-6-powered RV, which uses a simple belt PSRU.
An elevated indoor observation area at Jean Airport faces the ramp and runways, and was obviously intended for families with young children to be able to observe the magic of flight from a safe, comfortable place. With the quick setup of some chairs, the unfolding of a few tables and plugging in a portable PA system, the meeting area became an instant think tank populated by those with the latest expertise in how to successfully complete and fly their particular type of alternative-engine conversion. If you happened to be in the middle of a similar installation, there just wasn’t any better place to see and hear how others had done it before.
Your Turn in the Barrel
They say that No good deed goes unpunished, and this annual event is no exception. Its not enough that you’ve successfully flown cross-country in an Experimental aircraft with a non-standard engine installation. No, if you’ve made it to Jean, you’re expected to share your expertise with anyone who cares to listen. As much as public speaking makes most normal people uncomfortable, the Jean contingent (as a whole) seems to have little problem with standing up and telling everyone whats what. (But then, how many normal people do you find flying Experimentals with engine conversions? Its probably safe to say that those in attendance would consider normal to be some malignant form of disease.)
The presentations provided a good dose of reality instead of the purely theoretical or marketing fluff. Its these hard-won insights that are so valuable to those who have chosen to follow a similar path, and there were plenty of folks eager for first-hand information. Here are some of the highlights:
Its not enough to just fly in to the Alternative Engine meet. No, you should also be prepared for your fair share of show-and-tell. Randy Crothers provides a fascinating history of his Subaru STi conversion here, with complete photo documentation.
Remember when the new Wilksch diesel aviation engine was all the rage for those looking for an alternative to avgas? Kurt Goodfellow was there with a 120-horsepower, three-lobe Wilksch WAM 120 installed in his RV-9. Designed to operate on either diesel fuel or Jet A, these engines are pretty rare, and the roundup was the first time many attendees actually saw one in a flying airplane.
Randy Crothers offered a thorough discursion on his experiences with the Eggenfellner STi installation in his RV-7A. One of the original customers for the roughly 25 engines sold, Crothers has persevered through multiple induction and ECU issues to achieve a fully functioning, reliable installation. His modifications include removal of the problematic ECU-controlled throttle body and replacement with a manually adjusted version. The leaky, poorly fitting intake manifolds were replaced with ones that sealed up tight, allowing the engine to finally produce its promised performance after the supercharger was swapped out for a turbocharger. The top-mounted NACA duct on his engine cowl was originally intended to provide cooling inlet air for the intercooler, but he found that it was better suited to provide an additional outlet for ram air, providing a 7-psi differential. It provides the cooling he was looking for, even though the air flow is reversed. Ive got outstanding performance now, Crothers said, and 128 hours so far.
Jon Finley flew in with his direct-drive Subaru EJ-22-powered Q2 (christened Subar-Sonic) from his home base near Albuquerque, and he also brought along his unusual hand-built propeller from his Finley Skunk Works for the show-and-tell session. Finley enjoys 150-mph cruise speeds from his 100-hp Subaru conversion, while averaging between 4.5 to 5.0 gph of fuel consumption.
Sam Kittle serves as the chef du jour for this years Jean event, as he usually does for most others. Originally a tandem-wing guy, volunteer Kittle just cant keep himself away from these annual gatherings.
Woody Harris and Andy Elliott, both having flown to Jean with their Corvair-powered Zenith 601XL homebuilts, gave a joint presentation on this popular engine/airframe combination. Elliott has earned a doctorate in aeronautical engineering, and his 601 taildragger featured some items not found on the average Zenith, including aileron spades for better control harmony. Harris has an extensive background in professional motor racing. Neither has quite gotten around to painting their airplanes yet, as they’re still having too much fun flying them.
Getting in on the Act
The presentations werent completely limited to the individual aviator; there were a few commercial concerns represented as well. Gwen Maxwell and Ephriam Carter were there from Maxwell Propulsion of Arlington, Washington, with the company’s 160-hp Subaru-powered Sportsman 2+2. Their weekend was devoted to giving demo rides and showing off their version of the Subaru H4 conversion, which has, incidentally, just been updated with higher-compression pistons and other mods to put out 195 horsepower.
Belted Air Power from North Las Vegas was in attendance with its RV-6, which features a Chevy V-6 driving the prop with a simple cogged-belt arrangement. Producing 204 hp at 4000 rpm, this combination has worked well for the company since 1996. The RV-6 that Belted Air Power had on display has logged approximately 450 trouble-free hours over two years, according to company representatives.
The guys from Las Vegas Valley Soaring, located just next door to the meeting room, offered a compelling argument for adding a glider rating to your Private ticket. Given an audience of fliers using alternative engines, their position was that glider training could make that one crucial landing attempt a good one, which makes a certain amount of sense.
Wrapping It Up
No gathering of aviators is complete without food, and the catering team of Panzera and Sam Kittle didn’t disappoint with the choice of barbecued chicken or tri-tip steak. Late Saturday afternoon found the attendees gratefully feasting before heading back to the hotel to plan Sundays departures.
As the sun dipped below the ridges to the west, and the desert air became suddenly chilly, a few last-minute engine consultations were held before final goodbyes. I don’t know how they did it in the old days, before computers, Panzera observed as the group dispersed. Now you can share information so easily via the Internet. There’s a web group for every kind of conversion. And the two things that are key to a successful conversion are maturity and market acceptance. Its those guys who not only provide the conversion stuff, but actively support it, that will make it in the long run.
His parting comments had the ring of someone whos witnessed the conversion experience personally and developed keen insight along the way. And as long as he continues to host events such as this one, those who have yet to learn can directly benefit from the experiences of others-without the steep learning curve. Thats a good thing.
Rick Lindstrom has been fascinated with motorized devices since the disassembly of his moms Kirby vacuum when he was 3, predictably followed by record player motors and lawnmower engines. After he learned to fly, it was only natural that he gravitated to the world of alternative aircraft engines. He currently pilots a Corvair-powered Zenith and is undecided about what will power his GlaStar.