Back in 1972, Al Tomlinson and Neil Reyngoudt started on a plansbuilt project that would take 20 years to complete thanks in part to two five-year breaks. Tomlinson and Reyngoudt worked at Pratt & Whitney, Reyngoudt in configuration management and Tomlinson on the J58 engine for the SR-71 Blackbird. Five years into the project, Bob Pfister, of Stuart, Florida, a government quality-assurance engineer assigned to P&W, caught wind of the project, saw it, fell in love with it and started bugging the two builders to sell it to him. His lifelong interest in biplanes came from learning to fly at an airport where renowned champion air show pilot Clint McHenry practiced in his Pitts, impressing Pfister while he was a mere student pilot.
Second owner Rob Pfister had an eye on this airplane even before it was completed.
With its elliptical wing trailing edges and sculpted turtledeck fairing, the Starduster Too is bound to turn heads wherever it appears. “We just thought it was a good-looking plane,” Reyngoudt said, and he’s right. Add smooth handling from ball-bearing controls and Grand Champion workmanship (it took the Grand Champion Plansbuilt award at Sun ‘n Fun in 1996), and this airplane could be described as magnificent.
The flying wires are single, not double as they would be on an airplane intended for serious aerobatics.
Two open cockpits, two windshields, two lucky riders.
The rear cockpit harkens back to an earlier era predating glass panels.
When age eventually caught up with the two original builders, they sold the airplane to Pfister, but with special circumstances. It still lives in the hangar where it was built, Tomlinson and Reyngoudt have gate keys to the airport, and they keep the airplane spotless and in immaculate condition.
Much of the Starduster story has been lost, for when Aircraft Spruce & Specialty bought the rights to the design, all it got was the latest version of the plans. The exact specifications, a history of the modifications and the corporate tradition were all absent. But fully documented or not, the story of the Starduster is worth telling.
The turtledeck, and the shape of the vertical fin and rudder give the Starduster Too its unmistakable profile.
It began in 1957 when the late Lou Stolp flew the original single-seat Starduster, the SA-100. It had the elliptical wing trailing edges, top and bottom, giving the small biplane a unique and wonderfully distinctive shape. In time, there was demand for a two-seat version, and the Starduster Too (aptly named) came along in the early 1960s. Aircraft Spruce cites some 700 Starduster Too SA-300s completed, but there may well be more than 1000 flying. There are one- and two-seat aerobatic variants known as Acrodusters.
Over the years, the Starduster design has continued to evolve. Early versions had a short engine mount and were tail-heavy. The Starduster of this report has a long engine mount, but the builders don’t know if theirs is the final version of the design or not.
The second major difference in today’s Stardusters is the landing gear. This Starduster has the early model landing gear with the wheels farther forward, whereas the later landing gear, which uses the same attach points on the fuselage, has the wheels moved 5 inches aft to reduce weight on the tailwheel.
The later landing gear uses the same attach points on the fuselage as the earlier design, but the wheels were moved 5 inches aft to reduce weight on the tailwheel.
Another evolutionary change was the airfoil. Whereas the SA-100 single-seater used the NACA 4412 airfoil, the Starduster Too SA-300 uses the NACA M-6 airfoil, which is also found on the Waco Taperwing, various GeeBees, the bottom wing of the Great Lakes, the Knight Twister, the Pitts S-1C and a number of other aircraft. However, that beautiful trailing edge takes liberties with the M-6 coordinates.
The wing stripes accentuate the elliptical trailing edge, while the horizontal tail design adds a pop-art flavor from this view.
Pfister reports that Aircraft Spruce has excellent knowledge of Starduster parts and is prompt in shipping. He also reports that excellent support is available from its online user forum. (Scroll down to the bottom of the AC Spruce home page, click on Aircraft Spruce Forums, and then scroll down to the Starduster link.) For example, he says changing the landing-gear bungees is difficult with one bungee stretcher but is super easy with two, a tip he picked up on the forum.
Building a Beauty
Builders Tomlinson and Reyngoudt cut all of the fuselage tubing and tack-welded it. Then they hired a certified welder from Piper, up the coast in Vero Beach, Florida, who welded during the day on weekends and visited relatives in the evening. Those oxyacetylene welds are beautiful.
From left to right, co-builders Al Tomlinson and Neil Reyngoudt, and current owner Rob Pfister.
The engine, a 180-horsepower Lycoming O-360-A4A, came from a Cherokee that was seduced by a strong wind to go tumbling down the runway, unoccupied. Tomlinson and Reyngoudt topped the engine, and also replaced the Bendix magnetos with Slicks.
The distinctive wingribs are made from plywood, and are not built up from quarter-inch spruce as so many biplane wings are. The plans include full-size rib drawings, allowing the wings to be cut on a bandsaw. Inside the top wing is a 10-gallon fuel tank to augment the 27-gallon fuselage tank. Pfister expects to burn 10 gallons per hour.
The engine compartment is as gorgeous as the rest of the airplane and is home to a 180-hp Lycoming O-360 originally from a Piper Cherokee.
A fixed-pitch Sensenich prop completes the firewall-forward installation.
The carburetor intake screen.
When time came to paint the airplane, Tomlinson did the work in his hangar. He had painted several cars and did an exceptional job on the Starduster. Even after 20 years, the attention to detail is impressive. However, at the 15-year point, a chemical reaction started, possibly between the flex agent in the paint and the seam cement used to hold down the pinked tapes. It put a tragic crinkle in the finish, but you can’t tell from the photos.
As is customary on biplanes, the rib-stitching in the propwash (tail feathers and inboard portions of the wings) uses 1-inch spacing. Other biplanes use 2-inch spacing outboard, but this one uses 1.5 inches. According to Advisory Circular 43.13-1B, this arrangement is good for speeds of up to 240 mph.
The ailerons aren’t all that big, are tapered, and don’t go to the wingtip. Nevertheless, roll response is good, though not aerobatic quick. The interplane strut is tilted out, not vertical.
Other details on this Starduster include beautiful fairings around the struts, and interesting but stock aileron linkages under the bottom wings. The Frise ailerons, even though there are four of them, give a clue that this is not an all-out aerobatic ship. The ailerons are hinged toward the front, which would indicate higher control pressure. The ailerons don’t go far out to the wingtips, and with the sculpted trailing edges of the wing, the ailerons end up being severely tapered. But the real giveaway that the Starduster is not an aerobatic aircraft are the flying and landing wires; they’re single wires, not double as on the aerobatic ships.
Under the cowling, the engine baffles are gorgeous polished aluminum. (Amazingly, the entire airplane was bug-free.) Among the most interesting innovations are the landing-gear doors. Say what? On a fixed-gear airplane? Absolutely. On the outside of the fuselage, panels are affixed to the movable part of the landing gear, keeping out the exhaust fumes. Reyngoudt says they keep the fuselage as “tight as Tupperware.”
The gear leg doors seal the belly as “tight as Tupperware,” keeping out the gases from the dual exhaust stacks.
The cowling allows cooling air to escape along the side of the fuselage.
As you might guess, a plane this impressive dictates its own social agenda. The standard Saturday routine is that Tomlinson, Reyngoudt and Pfister spend much of the day at the airport before retiring to the Park Avenue BBQ & Grille for a late lunch. When the calm winds of late afternoon come up, it’s time to fly. “My favorite flight is a lap around Lake Okeechobee,” Pfister says. “That’s the best.” Usually some lucky passenger accompanies him. Later, I asked Pfister what kind of aerobatics he does, and Tomlinson chimed in with, “Some of the landings.” With friends like that….
This Starduster has been a local flier, with its longest trip a less-than 2-hour flight to Lakeland, Florida, where it won the Grand Champion award. (The builders didn’t mention how much faster the plane flew on the way home with the trophy on board.) That “champion aura” may have protected the airplane from a Florida hurricane. The builders came out to the airport one day to find many hangars gone, and another hangar on top of theirs. They managed to get it off with the Starduster still inside, intact.
The trailing edge of the Starduster Too is perhaps its most obvious visual characteristic.
On a Friday afternoon, I rode along on the air-to-air photo mission, and though I didn’t touch the controls on that flight, my turn would come. The front cockpit is big by homebuilt biplane standards, and there is room enough in it to easily reach all of the straps of the five-point harness. I was given a cloth helmet with non-noise-canceling headsets, and I quickly learned that I needed the chinstrap at its largest setting. I also learned that the chinstrap is much more comfortable when it is not twisted.
Even with the aerodynamic balances on the rudder and elevator, Starduster Too controls have a heavy feel.
You won’t see headrests like this in just any airplane; “real” biplanes have them.
The front cockpit instrument panel on this airplane holds airspeed, altimeter, vertical speed and a turn coordinator with skid ball. On the left are levers for throttle and mixture, and on the right side of the panel is a push-to-talk (PTT) switch for the early generation intercom. When the switch in the back cockpit is set to intercom, PTT lets you talk to the pilot. With the back cockpit switch set to transmit, PTT lets you talk to the world. Pfister was good about telling me whenever he changed the switch position.
On takeoff, Pfister lifted the tail at 50 mph, and we were airborne at 60 mph indicated. The vertical speed showed a 500-fpm climb, but on the ground it showed 400 down. The cockpit was comfortably quiet, and any perceptible wind was limited to the back of my neck. On this cool afternoon, a scarf would have been welcome.
With the camera plane frequently out of sight behind the top wing, I had plenty of time to admire the view of the Palm Beach area, a B-17 giving rides, and jet traffic going into West Palm Beach International. A great treat was the map box under the front panel, where I could stow my pens and notebook without having to worry about them blowing overboard.
Tail surface details, including the elevator trim. Notice the exceptionally straight paint lines, painstakingly applied.
The tail is braced with struts below and wires above.
The landing-gear doors worked exactly as advertised, keeping out the exhaust fumes and the light that seems to seep in through every opening in a fabric-covered airplane. There was a bit of light around the lower wing front spar fittings, but there were no untoward drafts in the front cockpit. Engine warmth sneaked in through the firewall and was welcome.
With the photo shoot done, we came home. “No two landings are the same,” Reyngoudt had said, and Pfister agreed that the Starduster is a challenge to consistently land well.
Even with the engine breather tube ahead of the tailwheel, the assembly is spotless.
The Real Deal
The following morning Pfister and I mounted up for my flight. The engine started again at a low idle speed, and Pfister advanced the throttle to what sounded like 1000 rpm. In the traffic pattern, he announced himself as “red-and-white biplane,” using excellent radio procedures that are all too rare these days.
The Florida landscape below was surprisingly hostile. We flew over the city for 10 miles with only occasional landing spots before flying over marshland. Once away from Palm Beach’s Class C airspace, Pfister gave me the controls.
Pfister saw 120 mph indicated as a cruise speed at 2400 rpm, comparable to Hatz and Marquardt biplanes. Other Starduster Toos with bigger engines and closed canopies should be faster. Then again, this one has numerous fairings around the wingstruts, which should lessen drag.
Details such as numerous fairings separate the Grand Champions from the merely excellent.
First came gentle turns, and the Starduster required only moderate control pressures, giving a feel of stately handling. The controls were smooth, but you fly the Starduster with control pressure, not with stick displacement. In fact, the stick hardly seemed to move for 30° banked turns. The control pressures make the Starduster Too seem larger and heavier than similar biplanes, like the Hatz and the Marquardt, even though all three have 24-foot wingspans, empty weights of around 1000 pounds and a 1700-pound gross weight.
A steep turn came next, first at 2 G and then tightening to 3 G. Control pressures were higher than most homebuilts, with 2 G taking maybe 10 pounds of pull and 3 G taking that much more again. But with the smooth ball-bearing control linkages, the airplane was easy and satisfying to fly precisely. Next came “slow” Dutch rolls, banking the plane slowly left and right while using opposite rudder to keep it straight. Usually rolling the airplane slowly is the trick to succeeding in this maneuver, but on the Starduster it didn’t matter. You could roll the plane smoothly at a moderate rate, and the rudder pedals let you keep the plane perfectly straight. Nice. Fast Dutch rolls, using the ailerons and rudder in phase, were as easy as in any other airplane, but the heavier aileron forces were noticeable.
Specifications are manufacturer’s estimates and are based on the configuration of the demonstrator aircraft.
With the comments about the challenges of landing consistently in mind, I checked the low-speed stability. The trim had been set correctly in the rear, and I started a test at 78 mph. A pull to 68 mph took a reasonable 4 pounds of pull, more than in most small homebuilts and welcome. As I released the back pressure, the nose slowly dropped, but only to 75 mph, and seemed to stabilize. I wanted to wait longer to see what would happen, but one wing slowly dropped, and the test was over.
Stalls were another part of the routine. With power off, the front airspeed indicator showed 45 mph when the nose dropped slightly, with only a little warning buffet. Surprisingly, the skid ball showed a need for right rudder, even power off. Power on, the story was similar except for the much steeper deck angle. At the same 45 mph, the nose fell through smoothly to level flight, and then came back for more. There might have been more of a stall break if you worked at it, but you’d have to be inert not to notice the deck angle of the power-on stall.
A last check of the handling qualities was a roll from 60° right bank to 60° left, the direction chosen so that you could put some muscle into the stick. With the airspeed back up to 120 mph, full aileron gave a respectable but not overwhelming roll rate, maybe 120° per second. Pfister says the ailerons get heavy with speed.
Dancer, Not Gymnast
The Starduster’s handling qualities show it to be a great choice for easy, relaxed flying such as cross-country or even in turbulence, as opposed to being optimized for aggressive maneuvering flight.
Pfister flew us back under the Class C airspace and around the pattern, turning final at 90 mph and touching down at 55. Lack of drag never seems to be an issue in a biplane.
So what about those landing challenges mentioned earlier? Pfister offered an explanation. “I feel our airplane’s full-stall landing attitude is pretty consistent and predictable within the typical range of loading and CG,” he said. “What’s less predictable is the pilot in command.”
“I blame it on my seating position, since it can’t be any lack of skill, right?” Pfister said with a laugh. “I have experimented with different seating arrangements…and found that the higher the seating position, the more consistently I landed the airplane well. As I lowered my position and more of the runway environment was blocked from view, my percentage of greasers decreased accordingly. I choose to sit low in the cockpit to reduce wind and noise exposure, and accept that the touchdowns on pavement won’t always be perfect. But on grass they’re always gorgeous!”
Pavement or grass, cross-country or around the patch, the mission of the Starduster is to look beautiful and to be a great cruising biplane, and it accomplishes these tasks admirably. Add in immaculate craftsmanship, abundant on the airplane that Tomlinson and Reyngoudt built, and the flying enjoyment is just that much greater.
One of the first things judges look at is overall symmetry, and it’s abundant here.
For more information, call Aircraft Spruce & Specialty at 877/477-7823 or visit www.aircraftspruce.com.
Ed Wischmeyer is a Van’s RV-8A owner and a vocal proponent of good handling qualities. He has written a number of flight reviews for this magazine and come away fairly impressed with many of those aircraft.