As a Youngster
As a youngster—like many of us I imagine, I often looked to the sky in wonder. My dreams, thoughts and ultimately my future, forged by a fascination of flight. I had no mentor, no guiding light, nor a kindred spirit…Solo Flight was for the privileged, the favored or the fortunate few.
In July about 2011 a friend made an emergency landing enroute to Oshkosh. An engine out forced the Robertson B1-RD down on a golf course damaging the Leading Edge. After fixing the engine and replacing the damaged tube I flew the plane on to AirVenture. Directly after arrival I met a gentleman from the Baltic States who was very curious about the craft, I’d flown in.
“It fly’s so slow! What is it?” He questioned.
After explaining to him the origin and a little history of the machine he started a story that eventually changed the course of my aerial pursuits. He was involved in a first-time flying program and showed several pictures of the primary glider they were using. Ground towed by various means he was proud of accomplishments made, but unhappy with the speed and handling of the glider.
“We need something slower. Something like this.” He told me.
It seems his concerns were not only with the inertia developed at higher speeds but the vast amount of real estate disappearing behind the pilot which certainly did nothing to prolong the experience. He hung around for most of the week and we had several great conversations. In most cases at an event such as this, people meet, talk, and never see each other again. Occasionally contact information is exchanged, but in most cases both parties leave with only memories.
Over the next few years, I talked to everyone and anyone who would listen. I made it a quest to find someone interested in a “First Flight Flyer” type program to no avail. Friends and associates chided me. “Why don’t you do it?” They’d ask. Although a good and valid question, at the time I didn’t even consider the possibility. I was after all only concerned with ‘powered’ flight.
Time marched on, and over the years, time tested, and proven designs emerged from a little hanger/flying field and neighboring machine shop located on the outskirts of Winchester township, Wisconsin. Here a gaggle of engineers, designers, tinkerers, builders, flyers, and bull-talkers form a loosely knit not-for-profit organization, dubbed the Skonkwerks.
Strict adherence to FAR-103 was and always has been a guiding principle. Viewed as a catalyst for thought, research, and development rather than an adversarial foe. Not in spite of, but rather because of FAR-103, many rudimentary, stable, intuitive, and innovative, flying machine designs, sporting unique construction techniques and superior weight to strength to safety ratios, have flown from the Skonkwerks field.
In January of 2021 the Skonkwerks was encouraged by EAA chapter 77 members Rick Hayes, and John von Linsowe to design a First Flight Flyer. Kicked around for years, the project suddenly moved to center stage. The idea evolved as a natural and intuitive way to give back to the community, nurture the culture and provide opportunities for prospective pilots, including interested youth and special need adults. It is time for them to live their dreams, enrich their lives and experience firsthand—the magic of a timely towed solo flight.
The First Flight Flyer Prototype #1 is the first glider developed at the Skonkwerks. It is also the first FAR-103 compliant glider honored by the EAA with an ultralight award. The little craft was conceived, designed, developed, constructed, test flown and shown at AirVenture 2021 in only four short months. It proved to be safe, affordable, robust, intuitive, and legal, but the ‘ultralight design and build game’ is a continual dance with ‘give and take’, and there are a few more steps to be learned.
Even though, the Skonkwerks departure from ‘normal’ powered craft was somewhat unprecedented, it proved very worthwhile. The secret handshakes, and lessons learned through these design and construction challenges, will ultimately show up in future projects. In the spirit of innovation and continual improvement the Skonkwerks team has already begun construction of prototype #2 which should be nearing completion late fall 2021.
The goal is to first, reduce the financial burdens and blur the paradigm associated with learning to fly by developing an economical, high drag, ground only towed flight system (think water skiing). To then second, publish (open source) plans and experiences and get them into the hands of interested organizations capable of training and operation of a First Flight program.
We will achieve these ends through the development of an easy to build, legal, economical, safe, super simple, super slow First Flight Flyer. Through its ease of flight, intuitive response, and friendly nature, it will nurture confidence in a first-time pilots’ own abilities. Perhaps even aid in their personal growth, and build trust across ages, backgrounds, socio-economic, or geo-political conditions. We are all—after all…Brothers in flight!
Criteria for FFF Snap Dragon Prototype 2
Attributes of an ultralight. The designer/builder can assign any value of importance to any attribute, but the sum must equal 100.
Speed (fast or slow)
Minimized Parts Count
Ease of Construction
Ease of Transport
Place pilot as close to 25-33% as possible.
Place gear as far fore as possible.
Must be capable of three-point departure.
Craft must be capable of robust training taxi trials without wings.
Must come apart or fold up easily. Wings, tail etc.
Must demonstrate a superior weight to safety to strength ratio.
Must be easy to build.
Built of materials easy to economically obtain. (…via a consumer procurement chain?)
Difficult or machined items must be kept small and easy to source. (?)
Reduce parts count. (?)
Minimize part count and maximize part commonality. (…through FFF 3D printing?)
Is it something that could enrich lives?
Has somebody else already done it?
Is it even remotely possible?
A major objective is to minimize necessary skill sets for the novice builder, both in procurement and construction. To utilize alternate construction materials and method. To achieve this goal through Additive Manufacturing. AM consists of many different types of 3D printing. (FFF Fused Filament Fabrication or FDM Fused Deposition Modeling, is commonly referred to as Desktop Printing, and is the most popular amongst consumers. These printers are available everywhere and are very economical. 3D printed parts will easily allow minimizing part count, construction expertise, complexity, and part weight. Through intuitive and innovative design, it will further expand part safety, complicity, co-functionality, interaction, commonality, ease of installation, and line-up.
Furthermore, utilizing open-sourced STL files and directions online at Skonkwerks.org, and a 3D printer available at various local outlets, a high degree of construction success can be hoped for by a first-time novice builder. Using readily available filament, superior weight to strength ratio, and ease of construction can be achieved.
For years hobby and homeowner 3D printing aficionados have focused on the production of toys and trinkets as the primary use for their equipment. Limited by the filament material available, the Additive Manufacturing (AM) arena had other issues as well. The early printers had limitations of heat, accuracy, and speed, so functional parts were not often attempted.
Millions of printers have since been sold. Quiet attention to customer feedback, coupled with diligent research and development has driven industry leaders to make huge improvements in printers and programing. Machines and materials today, bear little resemblance to ones from only ten years back.
Recently there has been increasing competition amongst 3D printing manufacturers in the prototyping market. Unfortunately, most 3D printed prototypes possess only a fraction of the strength and durability of their eventual, fabricated counterparts.
That’s changing, however. Increased material capabilities now mean some production end-use parts can be successfully produced on 3D printers. Printer manufacturers are looking to the manufacturing segment as a new service area, and some printing companies have shifted into high gear, focusing on a manufacturing future.
While there is still a large, relevant, prototyping base, companies want to be the first choice for polymer-based components and provide a complete solution to address the requirements for the products developmental, and manufacturing lifecycle.
With dozens of new co-polymer filaments hitting the market every month, the hobby printers are now capable of strong, highly accurate parts, printed with once impossible to print co-polymers like ABS, HIPS, PETG, ASA, PVA, PEET, Carbon Fiber Infused Polycarbonate, Fiber Glass Nylon, Carbon Fiber Nylon, and dozens of other combinations.
It’s not just toys and trinkets anymore.