Every so often, the professional pilot gets the rare opportunity to go back in time without the benefit of a WABAC machine or a hopped-up DeLorean, back to those happy hours between a full-fledged pilot certificate appearing in the wallet and the time the superego insists that you make money with those new skills.
For many of us, the memories are filled with the scent of a Cessna 150’s baking Royalite interior and the passage of farmland under the wings. For others, it’s carefree aviating under the Dacron wings of an ultralight. And for yet another group, it is the recollection not of a Piper Cub’s cramped quarters or squirrely runway manners but of its gentle, wing-flapping ride over low-altitude bumps or the satisfaction of nailing a three-point landing on grass. A stripe of contentedness between the harrowing checkride and that first real flying job, laid down like grout on an endless tile floor.
Just for Fun
Slot into the mental file cabinet of simple, delightful adventures a flight in the Lockwood Super Drifter—preferably on the Full Lotus amphibious floats. While the Drifter and its twin-engine cousin, the AirCam, both find semi-steady income from aerial photography and light agricultural work, among other tasks, where the Drifter really excels is in taking you back to the time when flying was for pure pleasure.
Some of this comes from the Super Drifter’s layout. After all, you’re not going into heavy weather with little more than a bikini-like nose cone for protection, are you? And with a 70-mph cruise speed, you’re not going anywhere quickly. That’s what the Super Drifter can do. In reality, what it wants to do is run 50 to 55 mph at lower power and even lower altitude.
An unashamedly visceral flying experience provides the remaining motivation. You are, in your best dreamlike state, cantilevered out ahead of the wing and well forward of the engine. The compact nose cone and instrument panel are just in view beneath your chin. Left hand on the throttle outboard of your hip, it becomes obvious that if your watch is loose it’ll end up somewhere you’ve flown over. For the front-seater, hip room, shoulder room and headroom are all unlimited.
“It’s easy to say who the core customer is for the AirCam,” said company president Phil Lockwood, “but for the Drifter, it’s a wide variety of people.” The AirCam started life as the answer to the question, “How do we replace the expensive helicopter for aerial photography?” The Drifter appeals to “people who like to fly open cockpit, ride motorcycles…it’s that group. Like the AirCam, it puts you right out front. But it is more affordable to own and operate,” Lockwood said, stating the somewhat obvious: Owning one Rotax is easier on the 401K than supporting a pair. “Both airplanes provide that ‘magic carpet’ ride you can only get with an open cockpit and most of the airplane behind you.”
The Back Story
“The Super Drifter is derived from the Drifter, which came out in the early 1980s. There was a progression to a two-seat Drifter, which eventually became the MU version, with a higher gross weight and more power,” Lockwood said. “It was designed for float use and was powered by a 532 and later, a 582, and that worked really well. But customers wanted four-stroke engines. In the 1990s, we designed a mount for the Rotax 912. Altogether, there are about 1000 Drifters out there. I don’t know how many are actively flying, but they tend to have good longevity.”
You may recall that Rotax had introduced the 912 into the U.S. market in 1992, positioned as a lighter alternative to conventional four-stroke aero engines—it was an argument that rang true with Drifter devotees, who warmly greeted the Super Drifter. “It’s a lot less expensive over the long term than the two-stroke,” Lockwood said of the 912S that’s optional (but almost universally ordered) for the Super Drifter. “Especially if you’re going to fly a lot. We have very low fuel consumption—25% to 30% less at the same speed—for the 912 compared to the two-stroke. It really doesn’t matter if you have the 503 or 582 or 912, the Super Drifters all fly at about the same speed.” The big advantage and primary reason to buy the four-stroke 912, said Lockwood, is that it’s quieter and more fuel efficient with “a really nice throaty sound.”
Changes to the engine and the addition of flaps “caused the center of lift to move back,” Lockwood said. “At the same time, we were able to extend the tube and move the front seat forward.” The “tube” is the main structural member of the Drifter and Super Drifter, a massive aluminum beam that runs from the front seat to the tail. In concert with these fuselage changes, Lockwood altered the main airfoil. “At that time, the ailerons and flaps became larger [for the Super Drifter] and we added about 10 square feet of wing. That keeps the stall close to where it was with the lighter two-seater.” Lockwood and company have been careful to improve the Drifter in stages, aware that to take it too far from its humble Maxair roots, or to make it into something it’s not, would be the wrong development path.
“One of the things I wanted to improve was its handling on floats. The older Drifter seemed to do quite well, but at the higher gross weight [of the Super Drifter], we were losing some of the tail effectiveness at high angles of attack. I also think it had something to do with the floats being closer to the fuselage,” Lockwood said. “We tried end plates and other remedies but felt like the pitch response wasn’t what it should be, even though the airplane had good yaw stability.” Regardless, he felt that the Super Drifter could be markedly improved.
A key issue in the elevator effectiveness, Lockwood said, was that “you couldn’t rotate off the water unless you had 4 to 5 mph more [airpseed] than you needed.” This inability to rotate at low speeds marginally hurt the airplane’s water manners in that it had the power and the wing to come off the water in a shorter distance, but not the tail effectiveness to make it happen. Without adding power or wing, Lockwood felt, the Super Drifter could have much-improved takeoff performance with a few simple changes.
The tail span increase was a modest 3 feet total. “But with that, we found that you can rotate off the water right at stall. I like the airplane’s performance to be optimum,” said Lockwood, justifying the effort. “We can also hit the wing’s critical angle of attack at the forward CG limit.”
Of course, changing tail volume increases the amount of force it can apply to the fuselage. “We had to do some load tests and break some fuselage tubes,” said Lockwood, “and we had to load the new tail because the horizontal and elevator are both different.” His approach was conservative and time consuming. News of the big-tail Super Drifter was released in 2009, but actual customer examples didn’t appear until two years later.
Lockwood’s factory is on the Sebring, Florida, airport, with Lake Istokpoga just to the south—the perfect venue to showcase the Super Drifter’s capabilities. The example I flew was equipped with the most popular options: the 100-hp Rotax 912S, Full Lotus amphibious floats, a Ballistic Recovery Systems ‘chute and a nickel leading-edge treatment for the prop. (Judging by how much spray comes off the tails of the floats, this is a desirable option.) So it was both the ultimate expression of the Super Drifter and the most commonly ordered.
Hopping aboard follows a series of easy contortions as you clamber up the floats and slither into the mid-back seats. On the wheels, the Super Drifter appears to sit relatively flat, and then you notice that the thick, constant-chord wing has 6˚ greater incidence than the fuselage. Visibility, even from the back, is marvelous: The wire-braced wing is well above you. Rear-seat riders perch just behind the leading edge, while the pilot is totally ahead of it. As you look around, you see just how simple this machine is. All visible structure is aluminum tube with bolted- or riveted-together gussets; the control system is basic cable for the rudder and ailerons, an exposed pushrod for the elevator, which resides above the tailboom; flaps react to a stout handle by your left hip, while the wheel-retraction mechanism is another lever to your right. That’s the throttle just ahead of the flap handle and a single brake control that looks like a bicycle brake on the main control stick. Ultralight-style systems, scaled up to a 1000-pound-gross machine.
Taxiing in the already warm April weather gave little hint of what was to come. The Rotax thrums happily behind you; with so little weight, the Super Drifter taxies with little power. Direct tailwheel steering makes finding the runway a simple matter. Runup complete—it’s a typical 912-centered effort with the added benefit that you can see most of the control system to check its integrity—and time to find the runway. At a typical empty weight of less than 500 pounds, the Super Drifter is light for 100 hp. For this trip, the airplane weighed about 80 pounds less than maximum gross; we had approximately 7 of the total capacity of 10 gallons aboard.
Takeoff is energetic, to be sure. The Drifter wants a smart forward application of the stick to raise the tail—it actually feels a bit tail high, but the wing is happy—and an equally smart positive pitch-up to rotate at an indicated 40 mph. In truth, you don’t need to watch the airspeed indicator much; it will let you know when it’s ready to fly and will give you plenty of warning when it’s done. I’m sure that with a few hours at the helm, any reasonable pilot could tape over the airspeed indicator and be none the worse for it.
Best rate of climb is listed as 1000 feet per minute, but it feels like more because of the climb gradient. Best-rate speed is 55 mph indicated airspeed, best angle only 5 mph slower. If your benchmark is a climb rate of, say, 800 fpm at 110 mph IAS, the Super Drifter feels like an open-air elevator by comparison. Once to pattern altitude, you could leave the power in and contemplate flirting with the top speed of 80 mph or the 70-mph predicted cruise speed, both of which I’m sure the airplane is capable of, but you’d be missing the point. Instead, Lockwood suggested throttling way back and enjoying the view at 50 to 60 mph, a good range given the design’s 58-mph maneuvering speed.
With the Rotax just loafing and the windblast bearable, I could begin to understand the attraction. For someone accustomed to (and thankful for, much of the time) a completely enclosed flight experience, hanging out into the wind was disconcerting at first. I tried not to look down, to keep my eyes on the horizon and concentrate on flying. Didn’t last long. We had just crossed the southern edge of the Sebring airport when it clicked, and the whole reason you have an airplane like this came into focus.
It was about then I reset my control inputs to the Super Drifter’s needs. Its ultralight roots are strong, so the control inputs provide an expected response, just slower in coming. The airplane is somewhat lightly damped in yaw, so you’ll learn to work the rudder pedals. In the gentle thermal turbulence, the Super Drifter rocked and pitched mildly, each displacement requiring a response at the helm. After a while, I wasn’t aware of moving the stick as much as just thinking about where I wanted the airplane to go. We didn’t fly it in much wind, however, and the air was calm enough that I’d expect even a light-wing-loading airplane to be comfortable. Remember, too, that the Super Drifter has 160 square feet of wing, halfway between that of a Cessna 152 and a 172, yet weighs 670 pounds less than the 152 at max-gross.
Phil Lockwood provided the carnival ride he’s famous for in aviation-journalism circles. Power cut and the Full Lotus wheels levered forward (above the level of the floats) with the big handle—you can look out either side to see if the locking pins are engaged—we descended to the lake. On the approach, it’s easy to peg a good pitch angle toward the low-chop water because the design is fairly draggy; with effective flaps, it’s simple to develop a steep descent rate. But the low power loading makes it equally easy to set whatever rate feels right. The Full Lotus floats are pretty forgiving of the arrival, and the airplane comes to a quick stop once on the water. Takeoffs, as you would expect given the power and wing area, are just as impressive. With little wind to help us, the Super Drifter came onto the step in just a couple of seconds and was clear of the water 7 seconds after application of power. This thing’s a veritable fish, which might not be so good considering all of the alligators we bothered that afternoon. Only a few of them looked up, however.
So Near, So Far
After an hour bouncing around and in Lake Istokpoga, Lockwood and I returned to the airport. Later, I was shocked to learn that we’d only traveled about 4 statute miles to the south. It felt like more, but I attribute that to the high rate of sensory input. It was also a trip—and I mean this with no disrespect to the Super Drifter at all—that after the fact leaves a stronger impression of the sights and sounds than it does of the airplane itself. Which, when you step back and think about it, is actually the point. It’s awfully hard to walk away from a flight in a Super Drifter and not think about the reasons you took up flying in the first place.
For more information, call 863-655-4242, or visit www.lockwoodaircraft.com.