[Editors' Note: Jim Marske is a U.S. sailplane pilot, designer, and builder, who has designed and constructed a series of 'flying wing' sailplanes over the past three decades. Click here for more information about Marske and his designs.]
My search for a flying wing sailplane ended with the purchase of N86TX and its relocation to Hangar 115 in New Braunfels, Texas (my brother’s three-car garage). For the next several months he, with help from my cousin Rayford and my father Tom, did the remaining 30% of the work to get the sailplane to a finished state and ready for inspection.
I called the FAA and they sent an inspector over. For four hours, I answered questions from Mr. John Irwin on just about everything you could think of. "Where is the engine? Where is the fuel tank? Where is the Nav system? Where is the EGT? Where is the rubber band to launch it?" Not really; he was nice and very professional and I appreciated every nut and bolt he checked.
Last year my brother “Buddy” passed and this is his recollection of N86TX. In his memory I post his version of “Our Wing.”
[Buddy's story] So, I have known my only older brother all my life—TV producer, private pilot, sailplane pilot, Hobie Cat owner, AMX owner (a rare sport vehicle), and recently a flying wing owner. He lives about fours hours away by ground transport so he contacts me on a 30 minute communiqué via satellite. I get this excited and almost unintelligible conversation that conveys the following:
(I do manage to pick out the basics)
1. He wants me to travel about 50 miles to look at a "Mar-ski" flying wing. YEAH Right!!! (I’m thinking, "Not another radio controlled project!").
2. Check it out to see if it is capable of being finished (now I know the real reason for the call; I get to finish it).
3. Send pictures so he can consider the purchase of same (this could be a profit center for me if I can just bill him travel time). You see, I have all the mechanical aptitude and inventiveness, the workshop to support the project, and a massive Snap-On roll-a-round with all the required tools. I also have four years in the Air Force as a weapons system technician and a year in AC-130 Gunships—and big brother has a really big selective service number and the time and resources to fly. Ain’t it always the case!
I grabbed my favorite traveling buddy, Ray Silkwood, fired up the weekend road warrior (a 1972 Blazer with a more than stock power plant), and take to the road on the first free morning for all involved. The backup reason for the excursion being a stop at several of my favorite pawn shops and secondhand tool stores (just in case this is another Piper Cub in need of several years worth of annuals, lots of navel jelly, and a whole lot of rat poison).
We locate the correct driveway and rumble in...THERE IT IS....
There is this little bitty cockpit and these massively long wings and it is all supposed to be stuffed in this crafty little trailer.
My first thought is how am I going to get the entire 50 foot wing into that itty-bitty trailer?
My second thought is if there is just a little bit left to do to make this bird flight-worthy, how come my brother said it was only 70 percent complete? Third thought is how come it was not complete and not flying?
Ray and I tear through the inspection covers like a "Tim Allen modified Binford ten horse shop vac" and find almost nothing wrong with the interior of this really unique looking Stubby little flying wing. It does not have a motor or a visible means of pitch control but it does have a conventional stick and rudder.
(I’m thinking, "Maybe I can put in a Rotax and gear it to push a prop through the hand crafted gear reduction linear inter-digitized rectabular extrusion three-to-one ... nah, maybe not!")
Paint is not great but adequate—basic white with a really poor red stripe job.
(Again I am thinking, "Maybe some ghosted flames in neon green with a false flying tigers shark teeth in matching yellow along the canopy ... nah, maybe not!")
The instruments need a little TLC. The panel is really basic and the interior is pretty functional except for the bicycle handle grips on the spoiler and stick (maybe a porcelain gearshift knob would fit).
One thing has to go though, those stupid looking trailer wheels (maybe a Boyd’s inverted -finger wing-three spoker with center covers ... YEAH that will do it!).
Sure as there is ridge lift in the Rockies, I didn’t get to stop off and see any of my favorite pawn shops.
I ended up with this little sweetie in my workshop and a promise from my brother to come down on the weekends to "HELP ME A LITTLE" with the process of getting this bird flight certified.
So with Ray, my dad Thomas M., and my only older brother and this "Mar-Ski" flying wing in my front yard, we start off what is to be a great part of life for me and my only older brother.
NEXT DAY is a wash job, complete inspection of every moving part, and an agreement that the PVC pipe bushings in the wing ribs (installed to ease the friction on the push tubes) have "GOT TO GO". The noise of aluminum tubes and PVC rubbing when aileron is actuated is like a fingernail on chalk board symphony!
Nine weeks later and with just a few hundred drops of red and white corpuscles on the shop floor, the FAA inspector is in MY work shop and spending time with my older brother to determine if all of Irwin & MY work is government approved or not.
I watch with amazement as document after document and photograph after photograph are detailed with more conflagration of verbiage than the control tower at O’Hare has ever heard. Sure enough, after an hour or so the inspector has to 10-100 and the pow-wow between me, my Dad, and my only older brother centers on how we are going to have to deal with this inspector to get the ticket we need.
Back he comes and he wants to see the wing disconnected. Mind you, we have spent several hours in the early morning sweating the process of getting the wings all aligned perfectly and this guy wants me to remove a wing!
So with a little banter about the time this might take and a raised eyebrow of disgust on my part, I agree to allow this government inspector to view the ballet of professionalism required to dismantle a single wing.
I find out that when he speaks to ME he is a pretty nice guy who really likes my workmanship and is fully satisfied with the inspection process and signs on the dotted line and it is all over!
My little sweetie has
"OFFICIAL GOVERNMENTAL APPROVAL" for "N86TX"
to be stenciled on my—err—my only older brother’s bird.
[Lloyd's Story] One early Saturday morning in mid-April of that year I rolled over and asked my wife to attend the test flight of my flying wing. She was up and was ready almost as fast as I was. What a blessing to have such a cool and supportive wife!
We could read the thoughts in their eyes: "You’re not going to get me in that thing!" Several walked around to the rear of The Wing and one said, " Where’s the rest of the tail? This thing can’t fly!" I asked if I had any volunteers for testing. Immediately there was a mass exodus to the coffee lounge. With the parachute we did another weight and balance check and all was well. As I walked to the FBO at 9 AM to use the facilities, I overheard one instructor telling another that planes without engines don’t fly very well. He continued, "You are too busy worrying about where to land to enjoy the flying." Boy, is he wrong.
I have to admit that for many nights prior to the flight I had gone through the checklist over and over. I imagined every possible trouble scenario and even wrote a detailed test program with emergency procedures that my brother and helpers could put into action if needed. The day comes and much of that gets stored away to be retrieved only if really necessary. My brother Buddy had checked the wing over a thousand times. He had butterflies.
My Dad handed me the canopy. The time had come to set her free! Butterflies were there but I had explained to myself,
"Self, it is a sailplane with many hours of hard work to build, a very very good designer, Jim Marske, working out all the problems, and she's just waiting for you to say,"Let's Go!"
OK, Lets GO!
Silently I said, "Now, Lloyd, shut your mouth! Go into the restroom and ponder." So I pondered.
Ralph Thompson , a member of the Airport Board of Directors, was going to fly chase with his 115 hp Citabria. He was also there to allay fears of the airport manager. Ralph found himself caught in a political squabble about my testing my flying wing glider at their airport. Thank you, Ralph, for all the Unicom and traffic advisories. The airport manager had given me a really hard time prior to flight, including some guff about not letting me do my auto test tow on the airport. I did those at another airport. I wanted the runway length here for safety. Finally, he came around.
I had thought several times about letting someone else do the initial test flights. After getting my commercial glider pilot ticket and thinking about the wing and studying every article I could get my hands on and with the support of Jim Marske by phone over several discussions...
I decided to go for it.
Thanks to my wife’s and brother’s support it was time to go! All is set for my first flight.
I wanted to take my time with these flights, but things quickly changed. The tow plane landed 30 minutes late. As he rolled up, the pilot told me he had a flat tail wheel and bad battery. We needed to go ASAP! Across the taxi way we went—crew, wife and Wing.
I had chosen the runway into the three knot wind. As I strapped on the parachute, out of the clear blue it hit me:
"I am going to test fly this Wing?”
For most of my life I have had an obsession with wings. At John Sealy Hospital at age 6 or 7 I remember my father bringing me a Cutlass Jet model because he could not find a Flying Wing that I had seen in Popular Science Magazine. I built RC Flying Wings with the help of my friend Herk in Virginia and have stopped in Chino to see the N9M. In my youth I saw a Flying Wing plank test flown in Texas and it became a part of my dream. Now the dream was at hand!
In my everyday life I produce and direct television programs, a job where there is plenty of pressure and lots of decisions to be made every minute with each show. But this was different.
I stopped momentarily and had a quick conversation with my Heavenly Father to say, "Thank you. Please find the time to assign a few more angels to me today. And bless my family if anything goes wrong."
I stepped into the cockpit and for some reason felt calm and warm.
Everything slowed down. Radio check...release check...control check...seatbelt check...kiss from wife...thumbs up from my brother on the wing after attaching the tow rope. He checked it twice and then once again. I was not sure the Super Cub pilot was sure what to expect towing this white custom sailplane down the runway.
The radio crackled,
"N86TX on runway 17 New Braunfels for glider tow and test flight."
With that the rope came taut and we rolled down the open runway. In the first 200 feet I was focused on deciding if it was going to be stable. Jim Marske and Mike Hostage who design and build wings had given me all their words of confidence, but this was the true test. Lift off and in ground effect.
The Cub accelerated to 70 mph and we started to climb. The airport has three runways in a triangle so we turned left to always have a place to land if needed.
At 300 feet it is calm and The Wing is just beginning to relax. Me, I was sucking about 40 cubic feet of air so there was no way the canopy was coming off. "Fly the plane Lloyd!" I just kept telling myself that it is just like the test auto tows.
Ah, right! It really is flying just like Jim said it would!
My concern turns to what surprise The Wing will give me.
The Wing says,
"Cool it, I‘ve been waiting for years as you built me to get here. Shut up and let’s enjoy this."
OK. Check roll carefully. OK, check airspeed. 70 mph, now at 1000 feet. If all goes well, I had planned to go to 2000' on the first tow to give me 1000' to just fly smooth. The air is dead calm and very smooth. One circle of the airport and we are now at 2000' northeast of the airport. I reach to pull the release and everything stopped for a second. I had done the dozen ground tows but now we are at 2000'!
A nice calm voice said, "I want to be free!" So, with a smile I pulled the release. For the next 20 to 30 seconds we flew without a single input. I slowed to about 55-60 mph and just flew.
I said to myself, " Lloyd, this is what it's all about!"
I just let her spread her wings without a single touch; she was stable and flew effortlessly at 60 kts with not a single hiccup. I opened up the NASA scoop more and what little noise there was disappeared and we just floated. The air was very calm and I just gave her time to breath as well. What a rush. What a great time to be alive.
Slowly I turned to the left to over fly the airport and head south. It was as though The Wing was stretching its wings after a long, long sleep. No surprises, just very smooth. We did some slow turns, 45 degrees then 90 degrees at about 10 degrees of bank and no more. I was always talking on Unicom to ensure ground and chase knew my intentions. I took The Wing down to 1500 feet and decided to slow down. She said, " OK!" At this height my mind turned to the pattern and landing. The tow plane is down and the chase plane is clear and advising traffic of the test flight.
I turned downwind and found myself at 1200' for runway 17. Without even thinking "full spoilers" The Wing said, "OK!"
At this point I realized my toes were starting to hurt; I was trying to push the rudder pedals out the front of the plane.
"RELAX Lloyd," said The Wing, "we've done this before. Remember!"
Down we came, going cross wind at 600'. I had full spoilers while turning to base at 400' so I retained full spoilers with plenty of room.
A small voice said,
"Just watch this squeaky clean touch down. Coming in for a landing!"
I did not even have a second thought and I said "OK."
We rolled to a stop about 300 feet down the runway from the numbers and a wing touched the ground.
I had a few seconds after stopping to thank the Great Designer of Life for everything, to thank him for my wife and my family and the dream he gave me and also to tell my Wing, "Thank you!" before all the crew arrived.
The next tows were each to 4000'. We found a heavy mush to occur at 40 mph but we still had some nose weight to remove. The first 4000' tow was quiet and peaceful. We did some 90 degree turns with the bank angle at 45 degrees and then 75 degrees with good response. The Wing has a tendency to slowly lift the left wing (we will adjust that later).
The Wing and I tried some stability tests on pitch. We increased speed to 85 mph, released, and did two cycles of pitch until The Wing stabilized at 60mph, maybe 58mph, in level flight. Then we tried several 360's left and right. The Wing wanted to turn better to the right but we'll see after adjustment. We did some more stall approaches and there was no tendency to fall off.
The Wing is heavy with nose weight, parachute, and an overweight pilot! The landing was pleasant and very comfortable. My wife and the crew and the rest of my family rushed over to tell me how good it looked.
The joy of the successful test flights! Thanks to my wife, Denise who gave me the support needed to complete and fly the Pioneer!!
The next flight to 4000' was uneventful on tow. I did some slack rope tests for yaw with rudder that went well. When I actuated the spoilers on tow to see the effect, it was controllable but noisy. Ground notified me that the wind had picked up to 12-15 mph and the ride is very rough from 150' to 2700'. My radio has failed. I trust that my ground unit will follow the pre-test rule: 'When there is no radio contact from the glider, the ground unit will transmit all headings and approaches for all air traffic.'
At 4000' I released from tow and decide to try a 360 at 80 to 90 degrees. It works well. I spiral down to 3500' and do some mild approaches to stalls in turns to see if any tip stall occurs. None yet. I hit rough air at 2700' and get bounced. It is interesting that at 2500' flying into the wind, The Wing now is climbing at 150' per minute. The Wing and I stay at 2500' for about 15 minutes and then go lower, and then back into the wind to climb again. I decided to turn downwind and then penetrate upwind.
In the downwind turn I dropped like a rock for about 150' with no warning. The handheld radio floated by and I...grabbed it.
"No, Wing! What the (&()^&@#$^) are you doing? Or is it you, Lloyd?"
I stabilize The Wing and I fly back into wind, going right back up to 2500'.
Wing did well. Pilot is sucking air. A calm voice says, " Just sit back and watch."
I notice that I am getting a wind gradient shift at about 2500' so I do the pelican bounce for lift. I turned downwind just at the wind shear and fell out of the sky until I regained airspeed. "I don't want to be that close to the ground!"
I looked at the almost straight out wind sock. Boy, did the wind ever come up quickly! OK, now high approach, but I am still at 2000'.
I do several S turns and long shallow turns to get down to 1000' for downwind. I am trucking downwind at 900' midway on my downwind leg. FULL spoilers and I decide to turn final at 500' On final at 500'. Close spoilers. Turn crosswind at 400, close spoilers and turn final leg 1/2 miles from the numbers at 350'. Point nose to numbers and go to 70 mph and full spoilers.
Wing tells me, "This is fun."
Got some news for the Wing!
Use full spoiler until in ground effect and then level at 65 mph and let the headwind slow me to 55 mph and touch spoilers to make a soft touchdown.
It occurs to me that I have landed on the numbers about 250' from my crew. I taxi over to them using spoilers and brakes. Just a bit of a smile on my face. We load The Wing and go home to re-live this precious experience over beer and wine. Our Wing is safely in its trailer and Lloyd, the pilot, is safely in his hammock. It took me weeks to come down from the rush. I still drift off to re-live that experience of test flying the Marske Pioneer II Flying Wing Sailplane.
To all who read this, you can achieve your dreams!
Here's a video by Lloyd of the Pioneer IID Flying Wing and featuring designer Jim Marske.