Visit with David Bice

Today was a real treat- I was able to visit with David Bice while on a visit to ABQ.  David’s Bearhawk is of particular interest to me because it is so similar to mine.  I even used the same paint colors as he did!  His has an angle-valve 360 with slightly lower compression than ours, and he used a McCauley prop vs our Hartzell.  The empty weight of his Bearhawk is extremely low, below 1200 pounds.  I’m sure he’ll have at least a 100-200 pound advantage over ours, in part because he made his almost as light as he could.  For example, he equipped it for day VFR only.  It has one radio and a transponder (small panel-mounted Becker units), part 91 required instruments plus single-cylinder EGT and CHT monitoring, and maybe just a few other things.  He uses an SD-8 alternator as his primary charging source, and a PC680 battery. He has the back seat installed, but said in practice he really only uses it as a place to store stuff.  He’s using 800×6 tires and single-puck brakes, and a Scott tailwheel.  The fabric parts are covered with Polyfiber products.  The fuselage metal is painted with enamel and the fabric with Polytone.  His wings are bare aluminum, and while he hasn’t made an effort to polish them yet, you might not be able to tell.

David is a very interesting fellow who has a very methodical and safety-oriented approach to building and flying.  He took me up for a local flight to see the beautiful New Mexico scenery and to show me how well his airplane flies.  I was especially interested in seeing how his airplane performed at such high density altitudes.  The airport elevation was over 6000 feet, and when we were flying around at 8500 feet the OAT was 60 degrees F. Keeping in mind that 59 degrees F is standard temperature at sea level, we were seeing density altitudes on the order of 10,500 at 8500 MSL.  I would estimate our gross weight to be on the order of 1900 pounds.  Even still, the performance of his Bearhawk was quite respectable.  After takeoff the climb rate was a solid 500-700 feet per minute at airspeeds ranging from 70-80 miles per hour.  At 7500 feet with the economy power setting of 19″ MAP and 1900 RPM we were seeing 100 MPH.  His oil and CHT temperatures were also very low.  The oil temperature is probably related to the huge oil cooler that he used, anticipating the need for extra cooling in his hot and high local conditions. I thought his airplane had plenty of good performance for the conditions, and was yet again pleased with the engine choice in our Bearhawk.

As with the other two Bearhawks that I’ve had the pleasure of flying, the inflight experience is exceptional.  The sight picture in cruise is much more nose-low than the Cessnas that I have flown.  This makes for a very nice view from the cockpit.  The slow flight and stall characteristics are very predictable and honest, perhaps even more than they should be.  David has an angle of attack monitor installed, and it gave very effective warning of the oncoming stall, just before the airplane started to break.  Full-power climbing stalls required an expectedly high deck angle, but the recovery was as simple as reducing the back pressure slightly.  Even before his AOA warning, it was very clear to me that we were on our way to a stall.  The control stick warned me with its increasingly heavy pull to lower the nose on its own, and with its abnormally aft position, just as it should.  In a power-off stall with a power-off recovery, the nose has to come down fairly low to recover, but not as low as I would have expected.  To help demonstrate the good-natured stall characteristics, David suggested that I enter a power-on stall with crossed controls.  I used what I thought to be a fairly large amount of rudder and enough opposite aileron to fix the heading.  The stall break was completely straight ahead.  He reminded me that a similar maneuver in his Luscombe would have resulted in a rapid reversal of the positions of the sky and the ground.

David also let me taxi his airplane for a little while, and I was surprised by how much brake input it required for steering.  My tailwheel experience has been in lighter airplanes, and in those the rudder has been more effective for steering on the ground.  David credits this to the landing gear geometry of the design, with the weight on the tailwheel being of a higher proportion than those lighter airplanes.  The advantage of this geometry is that the airplane has much less of a tendency to lift the tail when you don’t want it to.  The main takeaway from my discussion with David about his previous experience, and my own experience with the taxiing, is that Bearhawk pilots should probably have the brake pedals covered for all ground operations.  I’ll be interested to see how that thought changes as my experience grows.  In retrospect, I remember Dave Lenart also needing a healthy amount of brake input on the taxi when I flew with him last summer.  With this in mind, I’m also especially glad that we configured our Bearhawk for dual brakes.

I was also glad to learn about the power settings that David has found to be useful.  For economy cruise, he uses 19″/1900 RPM.  He has found that the engine runs very smoothly at that RPM.  When he slows down to take aerial photos, he adds two notches of flaps and reduces the throttle to 14 inches.  At that power setting his Bearhawk loafs along sipping fuel at somewhere around 5GPH, but still going faster than the average Cub.  

Another data point from today’s flight was accidental.  David has a crossover exhaust system without any mufflers, and I was interested to see how noisy the cockpit was.  He let me borrow his Lightspeed Zulu for the flight, which is one of the fanciest ANR headsets available.  The batteries were depleted though, so I wasn’t able to use the ANR feature.  ANR headsets that aren’t actively using the ANR are usually not as effective as passive headsets.  This is in part because the manufacturers design the ANR headsets to use less head clamping force.  While this improves comfort, it also reduces the seal effectiveness and cuts down on the passive noise canceling capabilities.  I spite of all of these factors, I still found the noise level to be quite tolerable.  I wouldn’t want to fly very long without either a headset or earplugs, but honestly, I feel the same way about every powered airplane I’ve flown so far, from GA to airliners.

Overall, it was a fantastic visit.  David showed me around the airport and told me about lots of little things he has learned from his experience.  I was especially impressed with several of his construction details, such as the metal cover for his airbox (mine is fiberglass), his rudder cable guards, the very cleanly routed wires and plumbing firewall forward.  Those details speak to his prior building experience on several airplanes, along with his experience as an A&P mechanic who has worked on planes ranging from light GA singles to the B-17.  One of the things that I appreciated most about David’s Bearhawk is that it fits his mission perfectly.  He has managed to put together an airplane that serves his needs very well.  I wouldn’t say that I need any more motivation to get our Bearhawk flying, but this trip certainly gave me more anyway.