Homebuilding on the Edge

The old joke says Mojave, California, is not the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there. Oh, so not true.



Mojave, like so many California desert airports, began life as a support strip for the local gold and silver mines. It became Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Station Mojave in 1942. Mojave passed to the U.S. Navy after the war and back into civilian hands by 1961. Throughout the 1970s, various forms of air racing were common at Mojave—a sort of Reno south, if you will—but changes in local roads that cut off part of the course and a longstanding issue with winds and high summertime temperatures helped hasten the end. By 2004, the airport became the Mojave Air & Space Port owing to its stature as a commercial spaceport recognized by the FAA. This acknowledgement came just days before Mike Melvill made the historic flight in Rutan’s SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004.

Rutan’s Catbird under construction at Scaled Composites in the early 1980s.

Mojave’s emergence as the hotbed of private aerospace design and testing owes a lot to its proximity to Los Angeles (about 2 hours away), great expanses of sparsely populated California desert, generally flyable weather conditions much of the year and more than adequate facilities. Having a 12,000-foot runway (with significant open land at each end) at your disposal opens up the opportunities to test high-performance aircraft with as little risk as possible. Mojave’s success is also due in part to the tireless efforts of Dan Sabovich, longtime airport manager and member of the East Kern Airport District, which managed the airport. Sabovich was instrumental in attracting new businesses to the airport while maintaining relationships with existing tenants. (It’s not uncommon for airport authorities, in seeking to land bigger tenants, to be tempted to kick the old-timers to the curb.)

Before and after: Burt Rutan poses with the CAFE-dominating Catbird in the late 1980s. Last year, he was reunited with the Catbird as a retirement send-off.

Somehow, Sabovich managed to bring in totally new industries and clients and get them to integrate into the whole. Among Mojave’s alter egos is that it’s a place for airliners to go to die—or at least rest while waiting for the next-life event. Some of that open land now pays for itself. Movies and television love Mojave for its flexibility. Perhaps the best show on the tube, Mythbusters, goes to Mojave frequently to tear apart old airliners and blow stuff up. Among the assets valuable to filmmakers: two floodable pads, warehouses, “wreckage and salvage parts,” a firing range, big runway, on-field medical and firefighting capabilities and, perhaps best of all, a blast pad. Who doesn’t want a blast pad?

An uncommon updraft-cooled, top-exhaust Lycoming TO-360 powers the Catbird.

But there’s something else at work here, not so much stated for the record, but instead hinted at in casual conversation. For many years, Mojave as an airport of aerospace development flew somewhat under the radar, almost as though the type of person (wearing an FAA badge or not) who would insist on dotted i’s and crossed t’s would be less than interested in standing out in the desert sun looking for something to complain about. Not to say it was the wild, wild West, but the prevailing attitude has long been one that embraced the unknown. Perhaps, too, the proximity to the Edwards Air Force Base, where so much leading-edge technology has been tried and tested, has something to do with the attitude at Mojave. Innovation isn’t the oddball around here; it’s the norm.

The Catbird in flight near—where else?—Mojave.

Rutan as Centerpiece

Burt Rutan is a big man—physically and metaphorically—but his shadow hangs so long over this desert town that he might well be 50 feet tall. Rutan’s aviation accomplishments are without parallel in the modern era, and run with a particular attitude. This attitude conveniently parallels that of Mojave itself. It’s an attitude that says, “I can do it better, faster and smarter than you.” Whatever it is.

The Catbird was built when analog gauges ruled. So, too, did purely mechanical, high-pilot-involvement systems like a hand-crank landing gear.

An important constant runs through Rutan’s approach and is mirrored by (or, perhaps, simply mirrors) the way Mojave has evolved: a no-nonsense practicality. How can you say such a thing about a company that has created the private-sector space race and launched a slew of groundbreaking aircraft? It’s easy when you look closely, which I did, thanks to Scaled Composites’ Elliot Seguin, who invited me to speak at a regular event Scaled holds for its engineers—lunch and a talk. It says something about the corporate culture that it encourages outsiders to come and share their experience and point of view. Afterward, a quick tour of Scaled (sadly, no cameras allowed) and then a full afternoon of touring hangars, seeing what must be just a fraction of the exciting projects taking shape under the hot California sun.

With a workshop/hangar this neat, you have to wonder what Nick Sheryka’s office looks like. He praised the simplicity of the Sonex as well as the clarity of the blueprints.

Sheryka started his Sonex in New Hampshire before relocating for his “dream job.”

Company Like the Man

Burt Rutan has always been given the credit for radical leaps of concept and execution, much of which is justified. But with the formation of Scaled Composites in 1982, he created a core business structure that would support tremendous innovation.

“I think you can create an environment in which people can be innovative,” Rutan told Air & Space magazine in 2009, two years before his retirement. “And it’s an environment where you don’t let people feel guilty of failure. In other words, you let them try things that may not work. And you expect that they’ll try a lot of things that don’t work. And once in awhile, they’ll come into something that’s a new, genuine idea. That environment doesn’t exist at the normal airplane factory, but I try to make it exist.” During our walk, Seguin makes the connection. “You can see how it happens around here. Long-EZs and Quickies turn into spaceships.”

So things are tried. Wander through any of Scaled’s hangars, and you’ll see innovation at work. During my visit, I got to stand under the belly of the imposing Proteus multi-purpose, high-altitude research aircraft, stare up at the WhiteKnightTwo four-engine design meant to take SpaceShipTwo to altitude, and even stand a couple of feet away from SS2 itself. It was more than a little humbling to see so many aviation milestones in one place.

A road not taken: The one-and-only Skyjacker prototype lives outside at Mojave. Designed and built by Ralph Sawyer in the late 1970s, the lifting-body design has loads of novel features and bears evidence of continual tinkering to improve flying qualities.

A Place to Build

Seguin took me on a mini tour of Mojave’s Experimental projects, which ranged from the conventional to the intense. On the saner side is Nick Sheryka’s Sonex. “My goal for this was to get myself into an airplane, learn how to build and to become a pilot. I wanted something inexpensive to learn on. I already have plans for the next airplane I’m going to build. The Sonex is a good design, proven, and the blueprints are fantastic.”

Roger Hayes of Sierra Technical Services.

Sheryka started the project at home in New Hampshire, but moved it to Mojave when he got his “dream job at Scaled.” Sheryka said he did a lot of work in his garage but eventually had to move the project to the hangar. “I was actually out here until 11 o’clock last night putting on the ribs, but I don’t mind. It’s really convenient to work so close to the project. At lunch I can come in here and work for an hour.

“The engine is coming next month,” he said with more than a glimmer of excitement. He’s going the hot-rod route with the Jabiru 3300. “My project at work is really keeping me busy, but it ends in a month, and then I plan to work on this as much as I can. The avionics have been ordered…all the big pieces. Now it’s a matter of time.”

When I saw the project, it was well into the main structural phase. “I built this fuselage in six months of continuous work.” Skeryka had specific reasons for choosing the Sonex. “It had to be two seats because I wanted to take friends for rides,” he said, “but really the deciding factor was cost of maintaining and operating. It burns a tiny amount of gas…I figure I’ll make myself broke at the end of whatever airplane I own, so I might as well have a lot of hours at the end.”

Tools of the trade: Sierra’s variety of milling tools on display.

Sierra’s milling machine makes quick work of large pieces of stiff foam for soft tooling.

Sierra Technical Services

Roger Hayes had been working at Scaled and noticed that the demand for outside vendors to produce composite tooling was strong. So, in 2008, he bought Sierra Technical Services. One of the company’s strengths is its ability to create what’s called soft tooling for quick-turnaround projects. Soft tooling differs from hard tooling in that it’s used to make one or just a few parts and then discarded or replaced by hard tooling for series production. As so many of the projects at Mojave are one-offs, Hayes looked to be in a good place.

Business hasn’t been quite as robust as predictions, but more is coming in. “We started the business in 2008 because we saw a lot of companies [here at Mojave] doing prototype work. We specialize in soft tooling because we’re really good at it. We have the capabilities to do so many things,” Hayes said, and that includes machining into tooling as long as 15 feet and as wide as 5 feet. Maximum depth is 3.5 feet, which makes the possibilities almost endless for aircraft parts. A single wingskin can be crafted in that space. “The machine is a five-axis type with a spindle that can turn 20,000 rpm. We can bury a 1-inch ball mill into 15-pound-density foam 3 inches deep and go 1400 inches a minute from end to end.”

Soft tooling created by Sierra is used for the Stinemetze brothers’ scale Bearcat.

Given the proximity of companies like STS, it’s no wonder so many projects undertaken by Scaled employees and others with CAD-CAM experience would find the company’s capabilities so enticing. The days of laboriously hand-carving foam or other media as female molds are long gone. (Indeed, Rutan’s whole idea for the Long-EZ and its ilk was to keep from having female molds at all. The famous homebuilts were constructed of blocks of foam cut with a hot wire across temporary bulkheads. Everything could be shipped to the builder in a flat box.)

Bearcat in Scale

Matthew Stinemetze and his brother Justin are working on an amazing scale replica of the Grumman F8F Bearcat. Matthew explained that he and his brother are building two of the 70%-scale airplanes, “which is why we’re using hard tooling. Normally you wouldn’t for a one-off.” The airplane will be fully composite with vacuum-bagged skins for strength and weight reduction. It’ll be mostly carbon fiber.

Notice how the soft tooling includes the spinner half.

“Part of the problem doing a scale version,” said Matthew, “is that not everything scales. We had to make our own wheels. The tailwheel in proper scale just wasn’t available, so we built our own. We built scale models that are mechanically like the original Bearcat’s, but we had to have our own rubber tires cast.” The tires are like a large, probably fairly expensive shopping-cart’s, flat and smooth.

The Stinemetze Bearcat’s horizontal stabilizer under construction in soft tooling.

“That’s the nice thing about having Scaled here. We can do some work in the machine shop on the weekends,” Matthew said. Plus the local support. The 4×8 sheets of foam used as the hard tooling was milled by Sierra Tech off the west end of the airport and then fine-tuned on weekends at the Scaled facility.

Matthew Stinemetze and his brother, Justin, are building a scale Bearcat. Here is the custom-made tailwheel.

Power will come from a Lycoming IO-540, resting on the front of a fuselage that, while faithful to the Bearcat’s form, shares nothing with it. “A lot of the stuff is pretty well figured out, but we’re doing a lot of engineering and designing as we go. But my brother is the project

manager for SpaceShipTwo…” he said, leaving more than the slight suggestion that these guys know what they’re doing. In overall scale, the Bearcat will be close to an Extra 300 with just a bit less wing and, because it’ll have retractable gear, slightly heavier. (An Extra typically weighs 1500 pounds empty, against a maximum-gross weight of 2095 pounds.)

A motivational illustration hangs on the wall—the general layout of the two-seat Bearcat.

The project has been in progress for a couple of years. “We’ve been pushing pretty hard lately, but all of us are doing a lot of overtime at Scaled, so it’s hard to find the time,” Matthew said. When I suggest that once the airplane is flying the brothers will be inundated by requests for plans or kits, he added, “Oh, I know. We’ll see how much energy I have left by then. But we have hard tools, so we could easily rent tool time.” You get the impression that he’s focused on the near term, while still keeping the longer-range possibilities in focus.

Gene Sheehan and his electric Quickie. “You want to see what’s under here? OK, then.” The outgoing Sheehan was unhappy about the lack of American participation in the Green Flight Challenge last year.

Electric Efforts

A short walk from the beefy Bearcat project is Gene Sheehan’s electric Quickie. “It was built for the Green Flight Challenge, but we didn’t get it finished. Tragically, I think, it’s the only airplane built [for the GFC] that was made in the United States,” Sheehan said. “We have three battery packs, 74-volt units, on the airplane now, but had we run the race, we would have mounted five of them. The lithium-ion batteries weigh 30 pounds each and have a capacity of 40 amp-hours, which is the largest capacity I could find.”

A compact electric motor and controller live under the Quickie’s cowling.

Sheehan’s carbon Quickie has more than enough performance to meet the GFC rules, which call for a cruise speed of more than 100 mph and a 200-s.m. range. “I can routinely run 120 to 130 mph for more than 2 hours,” said Sheehan, who vows to continue development of the airplane because he feels that, as battery technology develops, electric flight will become far more common. And this is from a man who, as owner of Feuling, an extremely successful supplier of hot-rod parts to the Harley world, has done well by the dead dinosaur.

Function is all. A pair of batteries for the Quickie live under the pilot’s knees. A foam pad will do when weight is an issue.

Even electric motors need cooling, but the Quickie’s ports are really small.

Justin Gillen and his Tango 2 project.

Desert Tango

Justin Gillen’s Tango 2 is under construction in a hangar next to where Cory Bird’s Symmetry calls home. “This is serial number 25,” he said, admitting that he had some concerns about a company turning out so few kits. “But they’ve been great, meeting all my building needs. The support has been really good.”

Gillen went back and forth about what to build, considering the RV series. “But I wanted something that went 200 mph on as little fuel as possible. I’m going to install the Lycoming O-320, and that should be economical. I also liked the low profile of the Tango. We have a Grumman Tiger [at Scaled], and flying around at 110 mph or so I figured that it was just so draggy. I liked the [Tango] design from that angle.”

Of the many homebuilt and Experimental projects under construction at Mojave, the Tango is perhaps one of the most conventional.

Gillen’s Tango is ready for an O-320.

The Tango 2’s fuselage basically “as delivered,” according to Gillen.

A good example of Team Tango’s approach to support is how the company responded to some minor problems Gillen had with a lower wingskin. “As I started working on it,” he recalled, “I noticed a few irregularities here and there. Nothing that I couldn’t fix, but when I told the company about it, they just said, ‘No problem,’ and sent me a replacement skin.” Gillen finds the Tango 2 a straightforward build. “The fuselage arrives how you see it. I haven’t done much touchup or anything.”

Catbird, Again

Zach Reeder is the Scalie continuing his work on Rutan’s Catbird. “The restoration of this airplane was interesting,” he said. “The maingear was in a scrap heap over at Scaled. The airplane was hanging upside-down from the ceiling. The firewall forward was gone, the panel was gone, the wiring was gone…It was stripped.”

Approved for sustained inverted flight. The Catbird resided inside one of the Scaled Composites hangars for years.

Looking closer at the Catbird reveals some interesting design choices. The current turbocharged engine has a manual wastegate and no overboost protection because it just wouldn’t fit. The landing gear is totally mechanical, with a 30+ turn crank to get it retracted. “Here’s something not a lot of people know,” Reeder said. “The nosegear, which is from a Beech Duchess, has no trail [the Beech has active nosewheel steering], so when the wheel spins down, it can flop over to one side or the other, and it might not line up in the well. So we pull the data plate [in the center console] and use this stick to get the tire in the right place.”

Yes, it sounds crude. No, you couldn’t ever get the FAA to buy off on such a system for a certified airplane. Heck, most homebuilders wouldn’t tolerate such a thing.

Today, the Catbird is in the care of Scalie Zach Reeder. Can you imagine this airplane will live anywhere other than Mojave?

But this one feature, if you want to call it that, is totally emblematic of the Rutan approach—dare we also suggest, the Mojave approach—to performance and innovation. Pushing the envelope and learning new things are far, far more important than coddling the pilot. In fact, Seguin told me during the tour of Scaled that it’s a mark of pride among the Scalies that the aircraft are hard to fly. What they do should be amazing; how they treat the pilot is secondary in the extreme.

Innovation first. Maybe that should be Mojave’s new city slogan.


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