Homebuilders have always been a frugal lot. The old saying goes that copper wire was invented by two builders arguing over a penny. In a time when it is not uncommon to see average Experimentals built for six-figure sums, it is also refreshing to visit companies that are dedicated to helping folks build affordable, practical airplanes that are simple, fun, and safe. This was the reason I found myself at the doorstep of Hummel Aviation—a small company in small-town America that provides plans and kits for little airplanes with big value. These planes can be built by those of modest means who just want to get in the air and have a little fun.
Company owner Terry Hallett (left) and his friend, Steve Gigax, are true believers in simple, inexpensive flying machines like the Hummel H5.
Founded by Morry Hummel, Hummel Aviation is now owned and operated by Terry Hallet and his friends in Bryan, a typical Midwestern farm town in northwestern Ohio. Tucked among the cornfields and tree-lined creeks are hundreds of potential emergency landing sites—a great place to work on airplanes. Fortunately, the Hummel is a plane that seems reliable enough that flights can begin and end on paved runways, and Bryan has a nice one, Williams County (0G6), the home base for the company.
Hummel is one of those companies where it is hard to tell the owner from the employees and friends who choose to hang out. People came and went throughout my visit, some working on projects around the shop, others working on airplanes or taking them flying.
Hummel H5 builder and owner Steve Gigax designed the H5 prototype as he built it, aiming for a slightly more roomy and capable airplane than the original Hummel Bird or the UltraCruiser. The H5 has since become the current flagship product, and Steve spends much of his time helping out around the company when he’s not hopping in his plane for a trip around the patch.
Housed in a single building at the airport, Hummel has both production facilities for their kits and a hangar to keep their flying airplanes and a couple of project planes. I counted a Hummel Bird, three UltraCruisers, and an H5. While the Hummel Bird, powered by a half VW engine, is probably the best-known of their airplanes, it is the H5 that is going to carry the company forward. The four-cylinder engine provides plenty of power for good performance, and the cockpit has enough room to at least let you carry a toothbrush and the rest of your shaving kit.
I visited Hummel in early autumn, a perfect time for flying in the Midwest, with cool temperatures and light winds. On deck waiting for me were the H5 and a tiny little yellow Hummel Bird, easily mistaken for a hummingbird hiding among its larger-winged brethren. There were also a couple of project planes, in for modification or completion, and a prototype motorglider version of the Hummel Bird hanging from the ceiling. This was Morry’s last project, flown a few times, but never brought to fruition.
The Hummel operation is efficient and compact, built into the back half of their large hangar. There’s room for fabrication and storage of parts and subassemblies waiting to go out to builders. Because of the simple nature of these craft, there is little need for massive, specialized machines or tooling. Form blocks hanging on the wall are used to manually stamp out bulkheads and ribs, and hardware storage is confined to a small set of drawers because there just isn’t that much hardware required to build one of these machines.
Bulkheads start with flat pieces of aluminum cut with templates (right) and are then hammered on form blocks to create their flanges (left).
Hummel offers a number of different options for putting a plane together. Customers can simply buy a set of plans and get started, or they can choose to purchase blanks (precut sheet metal), fully formed parts, or partially completed assemblies. The price list shows virtually every part of the airplane, so builders can buy what they don’t want to fabricate, and start from scratch on other components. Hummel can also supply full-sized Mylar templates, allowing those who want to source their own aluminum to have accurate patterns.
Although they don’t formally offer sub-kits, Terry told me that many customers order only what they need to build a portion of the plane at one time, often starting with the fuselage, then moving on to the wings or tail. During my visit, two young builders from Missouri were taking delivery of blanks for fuselage components (see sidebar, “Hummel—a Small-Town Company”).
As of March 2016, a complete materials package for the H5 lists for $4,700—a very reasonable sum when pricing airplane kits in today’s market. A four-cylinder engine and firewall-forward package for the H5 sells for $7,360, allowing low-budget dreamers to think about being in the air for a sum much less than the cost of many new cars.
Hummel also provides hardware kits that are complete for each model of airplane, making it easy for builders to have everything that they need on hand when they get started. The airplanes are simple enough that not a lot of hardware is required—there simply isn’t that much to bolt together—but to my eye, the kits looked fairly complete. As with most kits, I expect that builders will have to buy a few extras here and there, but Hummel has done a good job of trying to anticipate needs and also in modifying the hardware kit based on feedback on things like bolt length.
This H5 fuselage under construction shows the simple conical fuselage capped with an equally simple, single-curve turtledeck.
The H5 is built primarily with pulled rivets, making assembly fairly quick once the parts are fitted. Skins are now pre-punched, and the fuselage can be built without jigs—just draw centerlines on the bulkhead flanges, line them up with the line of holes in the skin, then drill and Cleco to assemble. While the original H5 was built on a beam jig, the parts for that plane were used to create the templates necessary to accurately drill skins so that individual builders need not jig the assembly at all.
The internal fuselage structure is as simple as the rest of the airplane and is assembled using pulled rivets.
The fuselage of the H5 is really a cone from the pilot’s seat back, with the humped turtledeck riveted on top of the cone. This provides a fair amount of structure from the cockpit on back to the tail. The structure is very simple, with only a few spots looking like they have compound curves that might need a little stretching or shrinking. Make no mistake—you will have to learn a few sheet metal techniques to build one, but you won’t have to become a metal master to get it flying.
Simple construction and simple systems are the keys to making a low-cost airplane, and the H5 meets both of those criteria. A good example is the open-cone tailpiece, which looks a bit like an APU exhaust on an airliner. It is the simplest way to finish off the tail cone aft of the vertical stabilizer spar.
Simple hinges and linkages are used throughout. Pushrods operate all of the flight controls, and the H5 has one of the simplest rudder systems I have seen—a center-hinged rudder bar connected to a pushrod that runs down the left side of the cockpit and is connected directly to the rudder horn. The elevator pushrod runs down the right side, and aileron rods run out in the wings, attaching to bellcranks mounted at the end of the center section.
The wings are attached with two taper pins at the mainspar and bolt in the back. This makes them easy to remove for storage or ground transportation. You aren’t going to want to pull the wings on a regular basis, but they certainly come off more easily than on most airplanes; the fuselage will still be on the gear, since the struts are mounted to the center section.
The H5 cockpit is small, but adequate, and allows space for instruments, switches, and a portable radio on the panel with a surprising amount of room for the average-size pilot.
Single-seat airplanes are the purest form of aerial entertainment—just you, the machine and the air. The smaller they are, the more personal they feel, and there is no doubt that the H5 is small (until you compare it to the Hummel Bird itself). Yet somehow, the cockpit does not feel cramped. In fact, pilots over 200 pounds routinely fly them and report that they fit just fine. Without getting out my measuring tape, I’d say that the cockpit is probably wider than what you’ll find in an RV-3 and maybe just a touch smaller than a Panther. The Panther pilot sits a little more upright and has a little more legroom, but the Hummel felt quite comfortable with a flying jacket for the early autumn temperatures of northern Ohio.
The essence of Hummel flying is simplicity, and the cockpit reflects that. Aside from the normal flight controls, the airplane features electric flaps, a trim lever, engine controls, and not much else. The example used by the factory was built by Steve Gigax and reflects careful attention to detail. Instruments are minimal, but adequate, the four-cylinder VW conversion being watched over with rpm, oil temperature, oil pressure, and CHT/EGT gauges. A capacitance fuel quantity sensor gives a fairly accurate reading of what’s in the six-gallon header tank, and a switch for a fuel transfer pump and two valves allow the tank to be refilled from wing tanks—one on each side.
The header tank has an on/off valve to feed the engine, and as long as that is open, you can be pretty sure that fuel is getting to the motor. Gigax flies with a handheld radio mounted in the cockpit and a kneeboard-mounted portable GPS. Switches on the panel include one each for the ignitions (a primary magneto and a secondary electronic ignition). A portable voltmeter plugs into a cigar lighter outlet to keep tabs on the engine’s alternator, and a magnetic compass hangs under the glareshield to help you remember which way is north in the land of gridded farmland.
The remaining controls in the cockpit are for carb heat, trim, cabin air, and the all-important canopy latch. Who could ask for more? Oh yes—let’s not forget the battery master and starter switch—you don’t have to hand prop this baby as you do with its little sibling.
Fitting into the cockpit is not hard. The airplane sits low enough to the ground that stepping in and onto the seat is not much of a stretch. Once you have the right foot on the seat, you hoist yourself up to sit on the top of the seatback, bring the other foot in, then let yourself down as you slide your feet under the panel to find the rudder pedals and toe brakes. It’s all quite comfortable, to be honest, and fastening the four-point harness just makes you feel snug and secure.
The H5 uses a converted VW engine, which can be supplied by Hummel or sourced from several different vendors.
Starting the four-stroke, four-cylinder VW conversion is simplicity itself: Make sure the fuel is on, turn on the magneto, and hit the starter button. It fired up for me on the first try, and I then powered on the secondary (electronic) ignition. While the magneto is equipped with an impulse coupler to retard the spark for starting, the EI is timed with significant advance. Having it on during start can lead to a kickback.
The engine ticks over nicely once it gets a little warm, and then it is time to close and latch the canopy. You get a real sense of just how small the airplane is when you realize how much of the pilot is sticking up above the canopy rails. But this also tells you just how good the visibility really is. You can’t see directly behind you, of course, but most pilots can’t do that in a bubble canopy airplane unless they are half owl. Visibility is quite nice overall, and once you’ve cleared the area, it is time to taxi.
The Hummel taildraggers all use a direct, solid link to the non-swiveling tailwheel, so ground handling is limited to wide turns. Brakes can be used to tighten things up a bit, but if you are used to a swiveling rear wheel, you still want to plan ahead and not put yourself into a corner from which you can’t get out. This incudes back-taxiing on the runway. Approach the end up against one side because it can take most of the runway width to get turned around. Aside from the large turning radius, ground handling in the H5 is quite good and felt stable at all speeds—including the takeoff and landing rolls. I didn’t try the tricycle gear version, but the factory’s pilots report that it is dead-simple to handle on the ground.
The steering for the small tailwheel is linked directly to the rudder, making for snappy steering. The open end of the tail cone is not an afterburner—it is simply the easiest form of construction.
With such a simple airplane, the pre-takeoff check is pretty easy: Run it up to 2000 rpm, check each ignition system, make sure the fuel is on, and check the canopy latch. Then, line it up and away you go! As you add power, you are reminded that the VW engine turns backwards compared to most certified engines. A little dancing on the rudders is to be expected the first time out, since most pilots lead with right rudder—and that is not what you want to do when the prop goes counter-clockwise. That sorts itself out quickly, however, and the tail lifts easily as the airspeed indicator comes alive. Before you know it, you’re off the ground and climbing at a respectable rate. This airplane did not have vertical speed indicator, but it felt and looked like close to 1000 fpm at greater than best-rate airspeed.
Flying the H5
Control in all three axes was excellent—quick and responsive, yet not twitchy. I was surprised, in fact, at the harmonious nature of the controls in an airplane whose design is still fairly young. Few changes have been made since the original, which tells me that the original design got it pretty much right—right out of the box. The airplane invites steep turns as soon as you get it up in the air, and like most sport planes we fly, I rarely used less than 45 of bank throughout the flight.
The first thing I noticed as I wrung it out in turns was the pitch stability. You could roll into a 60 banked turn with almost no pull on the stick at all, and the altimeter stayed pegged on whatever number you were at when you started. It was almost like having an altitude-hold autopilot—it was that good. Yet pitch was not stiff and heavy; a couple of chandelles and wingovers showed that the overall control was fairly light and harmonious.
Pulling the power back to idle, I eased back on the stick to see how it stalled. I pulled, and pulled, and pulled (although not very hard) until I was at the stop. While the airspeed needle dropped down into the 20s, the altitude needle stayed right where it was—and not much else happened. This can be interpreted as not having enough elevator to fully stall the airplane (which might very well be true) or as the fact that the stall is pretty darn benign (also true). Intrigued by the mushing-along flight, I relaxed the backpressure, let the nose drop to pick up some airspeed, and pulled it a little more briskly into a nose-high attitude. This time, I was rewarded with mild buffeting as the nose settled down to the horizon, with hardly a drop in altitude. I’d have to say that whatever break it has, it does it straight ahead. The airspeed for the stall was down below where I believe the indicator to be accurate, but the low 30s is probably about right.
Putting the whip to the 85 horses, I next accelerated to find the top end of the speed range. Feeding in a little trim to hold altitude, I found that to be about 123 mph (indicated) at 3000 feet on a cool day, with the engine turning about 3500 rpm. Throttling back to a sedate 3000 rpm, I nailed the ASI at roughly 115 mph, and bringing things back to a very quiet 2500 rpm, saw 78 mph when everything settled out. I don’t know the fuel flow at that point, but it couldn’t have been very much. You could stay up a long time at the lower power setting and still enjoy the ride—and the view.
Air work complete, it was time to head back to the field. I dove down below the scattered layer of autumn cumulus and entered the pattern, throttling back to hit the recommended 55 mph. Flaps down, the stall speed is only about 1 mph slower according to Steve, but the nose is considerably lower, so I toggled the switch and dropped them all the way. With the engine pulled back, I flew a power-off approach that felt very natural right at the 55 mph mark and was rewarded with a smooth tail-low wheel landing that consumed just a few hundred feet of runway. Control was positive both in the air and on the runway, and glideslope response was excellent.
The H5 is a sturdy little airplane with wide-spaced maingear giving good stability and control on the ground.
After rolling to a stop, I just didn’t feel like I’d had enough of the little airplane, so I added power and was once again off the ground in a few hundred feet, reaching pattern altitude as I turned downwind abeam the departure end of the runway. The second landing was similar to the first, but I started final high so I could slip it a bit and see how that worked out. The answer was just fine. Get high, slip it to steepen things up, and I think this airplane would easily operate out of a thousand feet of field.
Overall, the H5 is a very comfortable and easy airplane to fly with harmonious controls, good low-speed performance, excellent stall characteristics, and a reasonable top speed for an airplane powered by a VW conversion. It holds no surprises for the careful pilot and that makes it what I call an honest airplane. Treat it nicely, and it will return the favor.
Is It Right for You?
Here at KITPLANES, we find that comparisons between airplanes are fraught with difficulty because no two airplanes are ever designed with exactly the same goals in mind. To the casual observer, it might seem appropriate to lump all single-seat homebuilts in the same category and then score them against one another. But this is hardly fair, since the H5, RV-3, Panther, or Cassutt all have different purposes, and therefore different characteristics. The truth is, they are all fun, and all do what they were designed to do—but I would no more ask a Hummel to do aerobatics than I would ask a Cassutt to land at 40 mph.
It is better to ask yourself if a particular airplane does what you need it to do, not just in terms of performance, but also in terms of cost, build time, complexity, and the skills required to get it finished. The H5 is a simple airplane requiring simple tools and not a lot of money or space to construct. It is fun to fly, but expect that you’re going to need someone else to carry the luggage if you’re headed far from home; there just isn’t much space to take along more than yourself and a spare shirt or two.
But…for affordable flying (both in construction and operation), the H5 is going to be very hard to beat. Fuel consumption is directly related to horsepower produced by the motor, and a smaller airplane requires a smaller motor. If sipping just a couple of gallons of gasoline for an evening sunset flight is your mission, the H5 might well be your bird.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a race plane or an aerobatic mount, you might want to check elsewhere—that isn’t what the H5 is designed to do. This simple airplane is for those who simply want to get airborne in something inexpensive and honest, and it fills that box nicely. We didn’t find anything that required extra experience as a pilot in its flight characteristics, and the overall investment is far less than with many other kit aircraft on the market. It’s definitely worth a look if it fills your mission.