The Fisher Flying Products line of affordable homebuilt designs has been around for 30 years, an eon given the sometimes transitory nature of kit aircraft suppliers. Now moved into a brand-new facility in Caledon, Ontario, the Fisher airplanes are well on their way to supplying the next 30 years of fun flying.
While I was in the Toronto area, I made a stop at the Brampton, Ontario airport (CNC3), where FFP’s new 7000-square-foot facility is located. I spent some time visiting with the current owner, Paul Riedlinger, who purchased the company from Gene and Darlene Hanson in 2007. The Hansons had been producing the Fisher product line in Edgeley, North Dakota, since 1989, and were ready to retire. When woodworking expert Riedlinger called on them, they responded with, “Where have you been? We’ve been trying to sell this business for 18 months!”
The purchase proved to be a good fit for Riedlinger’s woodworking and management expertise. “I’m a third-generation woodworker,” he said. He and his brother followed their father and grandfather into a specialty wood products business. “They started out making the RCA-type record-player horns, known as the Berliner Amplifier, and then when electronic speakers took over the company diversified into things like boat paddles and picture frames. Furniture moldings were next and when that production went overseas we supplied architectural moldings for home supply outlets like Lowe’s.”
In 2002, the millworks was sold, and Riedlinger was ready to move his family back to Canada from North Carolina, where the wood-products plant had been located. A veteran pilot and homebuilder (he’s constructed a Van’s RV-6A, Zodiac CH 601 XL and Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker D-VI), the Fisher line piqued his interest in wood-based airplanes, and the rest is now history.
Where It All Began
Fisher Flying Products was launched by Mike Fisher in the early 1980s out of a desire to create comfortable “real airplane” Part 103 ultralights. His designs, the FP-101, FP-202 and FP-303, used unique geodetic “basketweave” wood construction, creating a light, strong structure under a fabric covering. Follow-on designs included the FP-404 biplane, the FP-505 parasol wing monoplane (think Pietenpol), and the FP-606, a Cessna 150-style trigear plane. After receiving requests for two-seaters, Fisher responded with the Super Koala and Classic designs.
In 1984, Mike Fisher sold the company to Darlene Jackson, who, along with her husband, Erv, had been Fisher dealers. Unfortunately, Erv died just prior to the acquisition, leaving her to soldier on. Jackson later married Gene Hanson, and together they developed the scale Tiger Moth and Dakota Hawk kits. Fisher went on to design the low-wing Avenger, Horizon One and Horizon Two, Youngster and Celebrity models, which were added to the Fisher Flying Products line by 1998. The company currently offers 16 designs total.
Fortunately, Riedlinger says, there is considerable commonality among the types that greatly simplifies the parts production, and the Hansons were quite well organized, labeling and tagging their extensive inventory. Even so, when Riedlinger bought the company, it took three weeks of packing (and unpacking) and three transport trucks to move all of the stock and factory materials from North Dakota to Toronto.
Initially, Riedlinger set up shop in an industrial building in downtown Toronto, allowing him to familiarize himself with the business while hunting for a permanent location at an airport. Brampton proved a good choice; the land is under federal control, simplifying the building codes, and space could be leased for a lengthy period. The nearby green belt coupled with the area’s industrial designation, also meant there was little risk of future encroachment from housing.
How The Airplanes Are Made
The Fisher designs are largely constructed of wood, making them relatively simple to build by anyone handy with a belt sander and a table-top bandsaw. The wings use wood spars, wood ribs and a fabric covering with aluminum fittings for struts, flying wires, and pushrod control tubes for the ailerons and flaps. The fuselage sides are wood longerons with crisscrossing strips of wood for bracing (wood Warren-truss construction is used in the Dakota Hawk, Tiger Moth, Horizon and Celebrity), and the empennage pieces are similar wood ladder-type structures like the wings.
The Fisher designs present one of the most affordable ways to get airborne, with their low prices and variety of building options. One can scratch-build from a set of full-scale plans, scanned from the original pencil drawings. (Riedlinger says a set of Dakota Hawk plans weighs 10 pounds.) But partial and complete kits are available for the less hard-core builder. Quickbuild kits are also available, with completed wingspars and ribs (there are a total of 56 main and nose ribs in the biplanes), finished fuselage sides and empennage assemblies.
The Dakota Hawk we flew represented an investment of just $26,500, according to Riedlinger. Fisher Flying Products builds the kits as the orders are received, though most parts orders are shipped from stock on hand. A partial kit (wing, fuselage, hardware) requires three weeks to ship, a full kit eight weeks and a quickbuild kit 12 weeks. A new CNC router was on order at the time of our visit, which will speed up production.
Each kit includes windshields, a fuel tank, covering and gluing materials, landing gear, cowling—everything, Riedlinger says, except the items chosen by the customer, such as the engine and its mount, propeller, interior, final paint and other options. Fisher Flying is also a dealer for Hirth engines such as the F-33 28-hp, 45-pound, single-cylinder engine he showed us, and for SuperFlite materials, makers of the glue and coverings supplied in the kit.
The fuel tanks are all welded aluminum, supplied by a local cooling-tower welder who pressure tests each tank for 24 hours to make sure there are no leaks. The composite cowlings are also outsourced and proved to be lightweight, quality work, infused and cured in vacuum bags to reduce excess resin and prevent runs. Clear gelcoat finishes the work.
About 40% of the Fisher builders are scratch-builders, Riedlinger said, but he added that they usually buy hardware kits and will return for one-of-a-kind parts that can be had off the shelf, such as the fuel tank and wires. An active Yahoo builders forum has about 400 responders, and the site gets 15 to 20 messages a day sharing tips and support.
Although Riedlinger has the woodworking and building expertise, he is no engineer, and is wise enough to hire structural engineering support when it’s needed. However, the products are mature enough to need little tweaking at this point.
How It Flies
Art Kitching is the highly experienced demo pilot who introduced us to the Dakota Hawk. The Hawk is one of the most popular Fisher models and is well-suited for cross-country cruising and general sport flying. As we walked around CG-XPR, we marveled at its appearance. The airplane was built in 1996 by Tom Marson, but it doesn’t look its age (it was serial number four). Marson wrote a book on the experience and subsequently sold the airplane and book rights to Riedlinger. Its Warren-truss fuselage structure and high, strut-braced wing was hidden under a green-and-white fabric finish. The wingstruts attach behind the doors, so one boards forward of them instead of ducking under the low trailing edge to reach the cabin. Plastic fairings streamline the round lift strut tubing. The wing’s carry-through is a built-up assembly of 5⁄8-inch plywood and aluminum plates. The airfoil is a modification of the Gottingen 287.
To use the wing-folding feature, simple hinged flaps must be installed. This allows them to be folded out of the way, providing clearance at the wingroot as the wing swivels. Marson had no interest in folding the wings, so his Dakota Hawk is not so equipped.
Two 6-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks were installed in the wings, allowing the 12-gallon nose tank to be replenished by opening a valve once the header tank is down to its last hour. Up front, a Continental C-85 engine, overhauled from a Cessna 140, turns a Warp Drive propeller. The Dakota Hawk was designed for a Rotax 912, but Riedlinger says 80% of them are powered by four-cylinder Continentals, even though 100 pounds of payload is lost and climb performance is reduced.
The underpinnings are cushioned by shock-cord packs, enclosed in Cub-style fairings. Optional die-spring cushioned gear can be ordered, and Grove spring gear is also usable on the Hawk, Horizon and Celebrity models. The main tires are 6.00×6, installed on Matco wheels and brakes, and the steerable Matco tailwheel mounts a 2.80/2.50×4 pneumatic tire. An electrically adjustable trim tab is on the left elevator, with fixed tabs on the rudder and right elevator.
Controls are pushrod actuated, except for the cable-driven rudder. The flaps, had they been installed, would have been lowered by an overhead handle turning a torque tube. There’s a Cub-style entrance door on either side, the lower half folding down while the upper section clips against the wing. However, the airplane is placarded against having the door open during flight—spoilsports!
Interior width is 38 inches (a 2-inch expansion is optional) with a bench seat for the two occupants. A hat shelf takes light baggage, and a small 40-pound-capacity compartment is behind the seat back. We used the step on the gear fairing and the aluminum brace tube behind the windshield to clamber aboard, tossing a leg around the stick. There was more than adequate room for two medium-size individuals.
The plan was for Kitching to fly us up to Collinswood Airport near Georgian Bay for photos, after which I would take over the helm for the return. As he yanked the C-85’s starter handle, the engine cackled to life and avionics were brought online. A panel-mounted Lowrance AirMap 100 is as old as the aircraft, but it’s still a good unit. An Icom A200 com radio was under the dash, as was a Garmin GTX 327 transponder. A 406-MHz ELT had been retrofitted.
For some reason, dual electric boost pumps were supposed be turned on for takeoff and landing, even though gravity would seem to be unfailing. Once controls were confirmed free and correct, the electric trim was set to takeoff and the altimeter was matched to the field elevation of 900 feet. We were ready for the 1700-rpm magneto and carb heat test. A word to Brampton Flying Club Unicom brought a radio check and wind and runway advisory; an 8-knot, 60° crosswind was to hamper our takeoff and landing.
Taxiing had prepared us for crisp tailwheel control, though brakes were only available on the left side, so after Kitching made the seat switch and placed me in control there would be no going back. The roll involved few twitches and liftoff came at 50 mph, using about 500 feet of pavement. During climb at 70 mph, I noted 500 feet per minute or so of climb with a full 24 gallons of fuel. Given the empty weight of 732 pounds, I calculated our takeoff weight to be around 1250 pounds. The Rotax engine installation produces a better climb rate, I was told, given its lighter weight.
We buzzed up to 2500 MSL for the run north along Highway 10 to the lakeshore. Leveling out on a gorgeous 10° C day and setting in 2400 rpm brought the indicated airspeed up into the yellow arc above 100 mph, showing around 105. On turbulent days, Kitching prefers to bring the power back to 2200 or 2300 rpm to restrict the speed to the green arc. At 2300, we indicated 95 to 98 mph.
Control response was comfortable for cruising operation. The elevator was the most sensitive of the primary controls, followed by ailerons at about a 2:1 ratio, stiffening as speed increased. The rudder was light but not sensitive, exhibiting a slight dead band on either side of neutral. There was adequate yaw/roll coupling to permit steering with our feet when our hands were busy.
The Dakota Hawk had a turn coordinator installed, giving us a slip ball to chastise our sometimes uncoordinated turn entry. Otherwise, the panel held strictly VFR gear, with a G-meter added to help us honor the “Aerobatics Prohibited” placard. Visibility was superb except above the wing and cabin, making this a great sightseeing airplane.
We reduced speed to 50 mph for slow-flight tests, finding lighter ailerons at that speed. With power left untouched from the 1800 rpm needed to keep us level at 50 mph, we slowed to 35 mph before we felt the stall nibbling. It proved to be only a mushing exercise, as we ran out of stick travel. Power off, we were able to get a true breaking stall at 38 mph, but it was easily controlled and recovery was prompt.
Photos taken, we headed back to Brampton. The landing circuit was full, but we followed the rest of the herd under Toronto’s overhanging Class B airspace. We flew down final at 70 mph; any more and too much float would be added, Kitching warned. Sure enough, I came in a bit hot and had to wait for speed to bleed away, touching down at about 45 mph. Runway used averaged 1000 feet, with no need for heavy braking. I went back around to check out the wheel-landing manners, which proved to be straightforward as I managed to place the light taildragger on the mains to roll out tail high.
If you’re looking for a docile cross-country machine, the Dakota Hawk will likely fill the bill without bankrupting you. Only 13 models to go before I can claim to have flown the “full set” of Fisher Flying airplanes!
For more information, call 905/838-1050 or visit www.fisherflying.com.