A Fly Baby Pilot Report

I'm rather fond of this article...it was the first sale I made to KITPLANES magazine. It ran in the February 1989 issue. Some of the information in here is obsolete; for instance, N500F is no longer operated by the flying club.



Ron Wanttaja

The sun glints off fabric-covered wings as you turn final. Wind slips through the wires and past your borrowed leather helmet. Blue sky curves overhead. The exhaust crackles when the pilot closes the throttle. The stick eases back. Fat tires kiss the grass, and the tail settles gently to the turf. Up with the goggles and off with the helmet as the engine shudders to a stop.

Then you climb out, thank the owner, and start looking for your rented Cessna.

Why don't we all own open-cockpit classics? Cost, you say. They're the domain of those folks with the desire to protect old planes and the six or seven-figure income to afford it. You'd have to sell the house just to afford the down payment on the insurance.

But there's a "nouvelle classique" out there; an open cockpit, wire-braced classic few have discovered. One that costs less than the doggiest 150.

The plane? The Bowers Fly Baby. Designed by Peter M. Bowers, a Boeing engineer, the Fly Baby won the first EAA design contest back in 1962. The 'Baby is everyman's homebuilt... cheap and easy to build, fly, and maintain. Over four hundred have been built, and they turn up quite often in Trade-a-Plane or on airport bulletin boards.

Mention "single seat homebuilts," and most people think of really tiny aircraft. But that's untrue in the case of the Fly Baby. The wingspan and length are only a couple of feet less than a 150, but even a 65 hp Fly Baby has better wing and power loadings. Many are upgraded to 85 or even 100 horsepower. The deep fuselage encloses all but the pilot's head. The prop hub is at eye level, and the wing is broad and long.

The basic structure is spruce, with 1/8" marine mahogany plywood on the fuselage and fabric-covered wings and tail feathers. Both the low wing and horizontal stabilizer are wire braced.

The Fly Baby is the "transformer" of general aviation. The wings fold, the plane can be converted from monoplane to biplane in an hour, the cockpit can be enclosed, and floats can be installed. On land or lake, a Fly Baby can do it all.

It's always a problem to pick a representative example of a type of homebuilt. We'll fly N500F, Peter Bowers' original, now operated as a club airplane by Seattle's EAA Chapter 26.

Five-Hundred Foxtrot has over 1600 hours, which is a lot of time for a homebuilt airplane. By definition, the prototype is "stock." But Bowers always tried out improvements on his own airplane first, so left-over ironmongery sticks out here and there. 500F packs an 85-horse Continental with a steel prop.

Our preflight inspection starts in the cockpit. Just basic VFR instrumentation on the panel, with throttle and carb heat mounted on the left side. When preflighting any folding-wing airplane, it behooves the pilot to ensure his wings are rigidly attached. Inside the cockpit, this consists of checking the four wing-spar pins, the aileron pushrods at the base of the stick, and the humungous turnbuckle connecting the left and right sets of landing wires.

A small door behind and above the seat opens into a long storage compartment. Some builders have enlarged this turtledeck compartment to carry a tent and other camping gear. N500F has the standard turtledeck, which can be quickly replaced with one incorporating a closed canopy.

The exterior check is standard for a fabric-covered airplane, with a few additions. Check the glider hook on the tailwheel. N500F doesn't have an electrical system and must be hand-propped. The glider hook removes most of the danger... tie a rope to the hook, start the engine, climb in, and pull the release handle to taxi. It's lighter and cheaper than a battery, wiring, fuses, starter, regulator, generator, etc., and doesn't require a transponder under the FAA's new Mode C rules. The hook dates from a period where Bowers received a glider-tow waiver for N500F. Basic tests were performed, but then the FAA inspector discovered a policy change no longer allowed experimental-category towplane waivers.

The engine compartment is the same as a J-3 Cub. In fact, it is a Cub. Same engine, same mount, same cowling. The fuel tank mounted in front of the windshield also came from a Cub.

Check the landing gear region next. On each wing, flight loads are transfered via four wires to the wheel hub, and thence to the axle. The axle is solidly held in place by the gear legs and a double-vee of wire bracing between them. Atop the wing, the landing wires tie together at the turnbuckle in the cockpit.

Care must be taken with any folding-wing airplane, lest Saint Peter administer your next BFR. But the Fly Baby's system is simple and strong. The wings are braced by a total of sixteen wires, but they are connected to form four bundles. Slack off the cockpit landing wire turnbuckle, remove a single high-strength steel pin from each wheel hub to disconnect the flying wires, and pull the spar pins and the aileron disconnects. Slide out the wing panels, rotate the trailing edge up 90 degrees, and fold the wings alongside the fuselage.

Fly Babies ride quite well on trailers, but they have their limits. Two of Bowers' friends once cut a corner too tight and ejected 500F at a fair rate of speed. Bowers, an inveterate shutterbug, only complained that they hadn't taken a picture of the result.

Back to the preflight. The wheels also came from a Cub; big, fat, low pressure tires. Since the axle is rigid, the tires are the only shock absorbers. Baby those big rubber bagels; they sell for around $125 each.

Note an unused wire tang on the lower longeron. It's used for the flying wires when the biplane wings are installed. The biplane setup consists of four panels (each about 75% the size of the monoplane wings) and a top wing center section. The center section is set forward to allow cockpit access. Eleven degrees of sweepback keeps the center of lift on the C.G. With the help of a friend, you can convert from monoplane to biplane in about an hour. The monoplane version is the Fly Baby 1-A; the biplane's offical name is Fly Baby 1-B. Legally, changeover from monoplane to biplane requires only a log entry.

Other unused fittings under N500F's fuselage date from an ill-fated period when twin Edo 990 floats were installed. The floats came from an Aeronca C-2, with less than half the horsepower and a lower thrust line than the Fly Baby. The floats were originally installed too far aft. The first time Bowers gunned the power for takeoff, the nose of the floats dug in and the plane flipped into Lake Washington. Bowers quickly surfaced, yelling, "Get a camera! Get a camera!"

The Fly Baby was hoisted out, dried, and the floats were reinstalled further forward. It flew successfully for a while, until it sank again after a downwind landing by another pilot. The wheels went back on.

Since it's been fifteen years or so, we can assume the plane is dry enough for our test flight. Knot a loop in a tiedown rope and secure it in the glider hook. With a shot of prime and a quick pull of the prop, the C-85 breaks into an easy rumble. Don your helmet and goggles as the engine warms up. They aren't just for looks; the wind will beat your hair to death without the helmet. When ready to go, step onto the wing root, lift your leg over the coaming, and slide down into the seat.

One reason the Fly Baby won the EAA contest was its comfortable cockpit. Bowers is over six feet tall and designed the plane for his own frame. The cockpit is about 24 inches wide, and a little tighter where the coaming curves in. Once in place, you can't move much. But where would you go? I'm large (well over the 95% percentile) but there's always enough room to work the controls. But when wearing a sweater and coat for winter flying, I fit the cockpit like a cork.

Fasten the seat belt and shoulder harness, pull the glider hook release, and you're ready to taxi. Like many taildraggers, forward visibility is poor and requires minor S-turns. The squishy tires give a good ride, but have a weird resonance: At a certain speed, the plane jiggles up and down like a dribbling basketball. A change in back pressure or speed stops the jiggle.

Run up, check the controls, and the 'Baby is ready to fly. No radio, so check the pattern carefully. Taxi into position and apply full power.

The Fly Baby is has a sensitive rudder, which results in mild swerves the first few flights. Most taildraggers demand attention during takeoff and landing and the Fly Baby is no exception. You have to fly this plane all the way back to the hangar (old taildragger pilots say it's a good idea to sneak back later to try and catch 'em at something). But the acceleration is good, and flying speed is quickly reached.

After an easy five hundred foot run, the Fly Baby lifts off and turns into a pussycat. Pitch control is light and responsive, ailerons are heavier but effective. Climb rate is about eight hundred FPM, with a good climb gradient. Move the stick slightly to the side, and the wing drops gracefully.

The slipstream caresses a cheek to introduce you to that old friend, "Adverse Yaw." The ailerons are the non-Frise type. A 2:1 aileron ratio reduces the problem somewhat, but your feet will never go to sleep in a Fly Baby. Bowers includes flying hints with the plans, but the flight manual for the Fly Baby is sold in any aviation bookstore: Wolfgang Langewiesche's Stick and Rudder. Read it and believe, and you'll speak the Fly Baby's language.

The first time in an open cockpit is incredible. Perfect visibility! No semi-clouded, bug-flecked plexiglass. Movement in the corner of your eye means another aircraft, not a moving shadow on reflective glass. The only blind spot is the wing directly below.

The military-style square windshield cuts the slipstream quite well, leaving only minor drafts around your torso. The cockpit is quite warm and snug; a leather jacket, gloves, and sweater are sufficient for flights down to 35 degrees Farenheit. In much of the country, an open cockpit airplane doesn't have to sit idle all winter. Remember, the turtledeck can be replaced with one mounting a sliding canopy during cold snaps.

Time for some stalls. With open cockpit and birdcage of bracing wires, the Fly Baby slows up NOW when power is reduced. The sighing of the wind through the wires dies as speed drops. A shudder, and the stall breaks at about 45 indicated. The nose drops quite a bit; no gentle Champ stall here, and all that drag means slower acceleration. The rudder remains effective, easily picking up dropped wings.

It's hard to concentrate on quantitative assessments of the Fly Baby's flying qualities. The plane just begs to be thrown about. Not with the eager twitchiness of an aerobatic bipe, but a solid feel that lets you know exactly where you stand. The slipstream roars in a dive, whispers in slow flight, and pats the side of your head if you're lax on the rudder. The plane is stressed for light aerobatics: a lazy loop, or a wide barrel roll on a clear summer's day. If you must fly straight and level, the airspeed will register about a 90 mph cruise.

Back to the field. Keep that solidly-fixed landing gear in mind. A small drop that you wouldn't feel with Cessna spring-steel gear legs will rattle your fillings in a Fly Baby. Fly the pattern around 55 to 65. With power cut to about 1500 on turning base, the plane glides like a clean power-off 150. Pull the power off all the way on short final, and the Fly Baby drops like a dirty 150. Slips result in an awesomely steep descent with a small airspeed rise.

Over the threshold, make sure the power is all the way back and start your flare. For the first ten hours or so, wheel landings will plunk those $125 tires down as gently as possible. If you bring it in too hard, you'll feel the wheels bottom out as plane springs back into the air. Catch it with power, and ease it down again.

Even a good wheel landing may cause a little skip, but it's nothing to be concerned about. Ease forward on the stick to plant the tires. Never pull back; let the tailwheel settle on it's own. Those big wings have a surprising amount of excess lift. If you try force the tail down, you'll be back aloft with little airspeed.

The elevator loses effectiveness early, plopping the tail back to the concrete. With the tail down, the Fly Baby quickly loses speed. Painting it on takes about eight hundred feet, but a skillfull stall landing can be done in about half that.

Can a trigear pilot of today handle a taildraggin' Fly Baby? With a few hour's checkout in a Cub or Champ and a thorough cockpit check, there should be no problem. Only one of our club members had previous conventional gear experience. One took five hours of Champ dual, then flew N500F back to Seattle from Oshkosh with no problems. Ross Mahon, our club president, logged his first taildragger hour in the Fly Baby. He just taxi-tested it until he felt comfortable. In the carefree, liability-innocent days of yore, Bowers let anyone with a pilot's license fly N500F. The names of over 270 pilots are in its logbooks.

One thing to remember is that homebuilt aircraft are not Cessnas or Pipers. Homebuilts emphasize performance and sporty handling, and aren't as forgiving as the factory iron. Fly Babies aren't toys, and remember... your first flight is solo.

A used Fly Baby is the best bargain in aviation, appearing on the market for little more than the cost of the engine. Expect to pay somewhere in the $2,500 to $6,000 range. A 1986 model with 80 airframe and engine hours sold recently for $4,800, and that seems to be a typical price. Expect to pay more for a biplane Fly Baby. [Note that these are 1988 prices - RJW]

As with buying any used airplane, a pre-purchase inspection is vital. Any mechanic can check the engine, fabric, and structure. Wood decay is always a concern, especially if the plane has been stored and neglected. Don't expect to be allowed a test flight unless you can prove that you are both serious and qualified. You may have to work out a prepurchase agreement allowing you to return the undamaged airplane if unsatisfied. Check what options were built into the aircraft... some are built without folding wings, and few have the removable turtledeck. Some have closed cockpits and fairings for faster cruise. There are a few two-seaters, but most were built without the designer's blessing.

A Fly Baby is the perfect cure for those "I can't afford an airplane" blues. In the last five years, N500F's only maintenance glitches have been a new set of tires, a sunk carburetor float, and a new magneto coil. Got three friends? Kick in $1250 each and buy a Fly Baby. Split insurance, hangar, and maintenance four ways, and you each pay about $50 a month. Charge $5 an hour (dry) for a maintenance kitty. The small Continentals will happily burn autogas at about five gallons per hour.

Don't want to trust someone else's workmanship? Or can't find one equipped exactly the way you want? Fine, the plans are still available as are the materials. A complete Fly Baby spruce package costs only $554 from Aircraft Spruce and Specialty Company. Even if you buy a used model, a set of $50 plans make a great maintenance manual.

There's nothing like the feel of slipping down to a soft grass field in a classic taildragger. Or cruising above the fall foliage, wrapped in leather and wool in a snug open cockpit. Don't you feel a little embarrassed wearing that leather flying jacket in a Spam Can?

Fun to fly, cheap to own, and with classic looks to boot. Who could refuse a Fly Baby?

Return to The Stories Page