Several people have asked me how I chose to build a Bede BD-4C airplane instead of any number of more common planes. The questions come in three forms, all of which read like “How did you decide to build this plane?” but, when taken in context, sound more like:
- Are you nuts? How can you do such a huge project as a whole airplane?
- Are you nuts? Don’t you know how badly Jim Bede screwed over gazillions of people?
- Are you nuts? Why don’t you just build an RV?
True confessions time: Yes, I probably am nuts. Ask my kids or my wife or anybody else in my family and they will all tell you that I’m nuts. But even nuts can build airplanes so, conceding this point to the critics in the peanut gallery, let’s move on to the subject of how I chose to build a Bede BD-4C.
My desire for a new plane began in early 2006, just a few months after I bought my 1968 Piper Arrow. The Arrow was a great airplane but, at almost 40 years old, stuff was wearing and that I simply did not want to have to deal with. I replaced the tachometer cable. I rebuilt the tachometer. I replaced the tachometer. Then I started wishing that I could replace all of the mechanical stuff in the plane with modern electronic doodads that have no moving parts. Over the years, I got more desirous as I saw more and more of the functionality available in modern glass panels in modern planes. If you are not a pilot, imagine going back to a 1960s car with a push-button AM-only radio, windows with crank handles, no cruise control, mechanical door locks, and an A/C that barely works. Now multiply by 10 and you have an idea of the scale of the “problem” that I wanted to solve.
There are approved glass panels that can be put into a 1968 Piper Arrow. In particular, the Aspen Evolution can replace the “steam gauges.” The cost is well into five figures, though, and I was simply unwilling to put that kind of money into a 40+ year old airplane. That started me noodling at the problem of what I would rather have and how I could get it.
I quickly dismissed buying a more modern airplane such as the Cirrus SR-22. I’m cheap and the SR-22 is way too much money. That left homebuilt planes, of which there are tens of thousands flying.
I started by defining my mission for the airplane and turning that into a set of requirements:
- Four-seat airplane. I like to give people rides in my plane and I want to take more than one passenger at a time. Candy and I also like to take trips in our plane and we enjoy the extra space in the cabin afforded by a back seat.
- At least as fast as the Arrow, 150 mph, preferably faster.
- Fully electronic instrumentation. Fewer moving parts and no vacuum pump.
- Roomier than the Arrow, which was 36 inches wide and had only 5 inches of foot room in the back seat.
I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to build from a kit instead of from plans. I wanted to get a lot of the parts pre-made rather than having nothing more than a set of drawings from which to make an airplane. I was also seriously tempted by the “quick build” options available for many kits, which could shave a year or more off of the build time.
There are lots of two seat kits; not as many four seat kits. My short list came down to three:
The Glassair Sportsman. While technically a 2+2 and not a true four-seater, it does have the space inside that I want. Glassair also offers a “two week to taxi” program where you spend two weeks at their facility and essentially build the whole airplane. Even if I opted not to use TWTT, it is encouraging to know that the kit is well enough proven that such a thing is possible.
The Vans RV-10A. This was a no-brainer for my short-list. Vans makes fantastic airplanes, easy to build, speedy in the air, and the RV-10A is roomy inside. The only real downsides were that it is a low-wing, which meant climbing up onto the wing to enter the plane; and Vans recommends at least a 235 HP engine for a cruise speed of 190 MPH which translates into more gallons per hour of expensive aviation gas.
The Bede BD-4C. I was surprised to keep coming back to the BD-4C because it is a stodgy, boxy looking thing and I like sleek, sexy planes. However, I appreciate fine engineering even more than I like “looks” and I could not get past the performance specs of the BD-4C: 189 MPH cruise on 180 HP. There are enough BD-4’s flying that I know that speed to be achievable and not just marketing hype.
I admired the efficiency and speed of the Bede so I started seriously researching the plane. It was one of the first airplane kits, debuting at the 1969 EAA airshow in Rockford. There are still almost 500 of them in the FAA registry and many more flying outside the Unites States.
Construction is very simple: essentially the airplane is a giant Erector set with the vast majority of the parts being either aluminum angle or flat aluminum and pretty much everything held together with nuts and bolts. A few parts are riveted but all of those are pop-rivets. The wings and tail feathers are “bonded” which is high-brow airplane lingo for “glued” with ProSeal. The spar is a single piece of aluminum tube in each wing, mating to a single piece of aluminum tube in the top of the fuselage. Stone simple and extremely strong. At gross weight, the plane is stressed for ±6.3 G; with two seats filled, it is meets acrobatic certification standards at ±9 G!
I read through all of the NTSB reports that I could find on BD-4 accidents. None involved mechanical failure of the airframe, which I found very comforting. It meant that things ought to be simple enough that even a complete newbie like me could build a safe airplane. Before starting on my BD-4C, I had never done any sheet metal work, never worked with aluminum, and never done any airplane work. I am a handy guy but my projects had always been on cars and home improvement stuff.
The NTSB reports did reveal a pattern of accidents from fuel starvation shortly after takeoff. The BD-4 wing is flat with no dihedral. Among other things, that means that there is no low-point in the fuel tanks. As long as there is a bunch of fuel in the tanks or the pilot flies “coordinated” with the ball centered, there are no problems. However, if the pilot takes off with relatively little fuel in the tanks and flies uncoordinated then it is fairly easy to unport the fuel pickup, starve the engine for gas at 200-300 feet, and crunch the airplane into the ground before getting the engine to restart. Not fatal but definitely something to avoid!
BedeCorp has a new wing for the BD-4 (both the -4B and the -4C) while solves this problem. The wing now a “fin” sticking down about 5 inches from each fuel tank. The fuel pickup is about 1 inch above the bottom of the fin. Even in uncoordinated flight, there are several ounces of fuel in the fin, making it more difficult to unport the fuel pickup. Furthermore, any water in the tank collects in the fin, below the pickup, where it can easily be drained during pre-flight.
The latest version of the BD-4 is the “C” model. This is 4 inches wider and 14 inches longer than the BD-4B. I sat in the front and back seats of the factory demo plane and immediately appreciated the extra elbow room and the extra rear seat foot room. The BD-4C is as wide as a compact car and has as much rear seat leg room as a full size sedan.
I was doing my “shopping” at AirVenture 2011, hanging around the BedeCorp booth pretty much all day long, pestering the whole staff with a never-ending stream of questions, and surfing the internet for everything that I could find about the Bede BD-4 at night. I spent a lot of time reading the BD-4 forums. The world-wide web is an amazing tool.
My last concern came down to customer service. Though BedeCorp was advertising a builder’s assist program, it seemed like I would be the guinea pig for the program. I talked to Jim Bede Jr. quite a bit about my worries, which were amplified by my complete lack of experience with airplane construction. Jim impressed me by being completely up-front about the newness of his builder’s assist program; he did not try to whitewash it or convince me that it was anything other than brand new. He assured me that I would have ready access to the guys in his shop who had built the factory plane and that when I hit problems with the kit, they would promptly make it right, whether that meant sending replacement parts or providing coaching by phone or email.
With Jim’s assurance (and wondrous support from my wife), I realized that I truly could build an airplane and that I was highly likely to complete it in a reasonable amount of time. I struck a deal with Jim on price and, a few short weeks later, I went to the BedeCorp factory in Ohio to begin construction of the wings of my plane. A month after that, I flew my Arrow to Ohio and Jeff Bede drove me home, hauling my plane on a trailer behind us.
I am now almost two years into the project and am finishing up the controls, hooking up the ailerons and flaps. Once these are done, I will be left with the finishing kit (wing tips, cabin interior, doors, fuselage skin, etc.) and the BD-4C kit will be done. To get from there to a flying airplane will “only” involve adding an electrical system, avionics, and an engine.
So far, I have been thrilled with my choice of the BD-4C. I have learned a ton but the fabrication has been well within my abilities. Jim Bede Jr. has been true to his word. There have certainly been bumps along the way but Steve DeDauw in the shop is unfailingly prompt with advice by email, text message, and phone. Whenever I need something, whether it is something tiny like a few more bolts or rivets or something large like more aluminum stock to remake a part, he has sent it without delay. Tim Becker has been johnny-on-the-spot with new CAD drawings, sending me “pre-release” drawings to get me started and then updating them as he revises them. Best of all, Jim Bede Sr. has talked with me several times when I have had concerns and questions.
With support like this, I am confident that my plane with fly “soon” and serve Candy and me for a long time to come.