On March 15th 2009, Tabitha and I went to the Mississippi Coast to visit Eric Newton and his Miss’ippi Mudbug. I had seen a few completed Bearhawks, but Tabitha had not been able to sit in one yet. On this particular visit, I was going to be in Gulfport for work, and my Dad (who also lives on the MS coast) was available to go with us.
At this point I had read the first two of Eric’s construction books, so it was great to see the famous Mudbug in person. I had not yet read the third book, though I have read it since then. Eric was a great host, and I found myself wondering if he ever gets tired of answering the same questions over and over again. Who knows, maybe that’s part of why he wrote the books!
He offered to take us on a flight, which we didn’t expect but were glad to accept. You can see from the pictures above who got to ride shotgun! Actually he even stopped and let us switch seats so that I could fly some too. Getting to ride in Eric’s Bearhawk was a hugely important step in our decision process. Since his has a “Bob” O-360 and a fixed pitch prop, it represents the “lean and mean” side of the Bearhawk, as opposed to the “just mean, not lean” versions that have 540s. The runway was soft, and Eric said that his takeoff performance was usually much better, but we were still impressed. The runway was so soft that it actually led to some mud splattering on the bottom of the wing.
Since I was in the back seat for the first bit of flying, I was able to spend some time evaluating the view and the sight pictures of the various phases of flight. Our first impression in this area is that the horizon sits much higher in the forward-looking picture than it does in most of the other single engine airplanes that I have flown. Tabitha and I both agreed that this was a plus- it makes the windscreen feel more like a picture window and less like a skylight.
Another important observation from Eric’s ride was the prop RPM. Back when I used to work on airplanes in my college days, I was always sure that I didn’t want to own an airplane with a constant speed prop. The expense, weight, failure possibility, and maintenance were my reasons. When I first started talking with Bob about the requirements for the BH, he said that it really can benefit from a constant-speed prop. To paraphrase, he said that while most 2-place airplanes don’t see enough of a gain from the CS, it makes a difference on the 4-place. (I’m not sure about what the number of seats has to do with it, but I think he was referring more to the total weight of the airplane) He did say though that it would still operate just fine with a fixed pitch prop. A comment like that doesn’t sound very convincing unless it comes from someone like Bob- since he seems to have equally large aversions to weight gain and dollar expenditure. If his answer was “I really don’t see why you would need it,” then I would have know that a constant speed prop would be an unneccesary luxury. But since he seemed to be pro-constant speed (or perhaps just not anti-constant speed?), that made me start thinking about it. Those who have spoken to Bob about such decisions will know what I mean.
Flying with Eric was perhaps the final selling point that convinced me to go the constant-speed route. The climb performance was great, but it was very easy to get to redline RPM in cruise speeds. This meant reducing the throttle to keep the prop speed down, which of course means slower cruise speed. The mudbug is still a great machine with amazing performance, but it has a very broad speed envelope, and as such it requires quite a bit of compromise to keep a single fixed-pitch prop well-suited to the entire range.
Eric took us south to show us his neighborhood and the coast, and he let Tabitha do some flying. At the time she had only had one or two recent instruction flights, so she was still very new to flying. She first noticed how much more responsive the BH is when compared to the Skyhawk that she had been flying. The ailerons and pitch are much more crisp, and the rudder won’t let you forget that it’s there. I would compare the feel of the controls more to something like the Luscombe or Taylorcraft that I have flown in the past. When we switched seats, Eric let me do some slow flight and stalls. He has not been able to extend the flaps to the 50-degree setting, simply because it is too dificult to get the lever to that position. Eric’s not built as a weak type of guy, so that should tell you something about how much effort is required! In fact, he had a good point when he said that he’s reluctant to try too hard to get the flaps to that position, since if he is successful, he may not be able to retract them. So we deployed the flaps to 40 degrees (which is still an extreme amount of deflection), added power, and watched the pitch angle climb as the speed went down. Holding altitude during this transition was easy for me, even on the first try. I was surprised by the responsiveness of the controls even at such low speeds. We just plowed along at low speed for a little while, making some turns. The airplane flew well at those speeds, though it was a hand-foot affair, just as it was at higher speeds. The stall itself was a non-event, just as others have described it. I wasn’t sure if I could believe Budd’s hype about the low-speed handling characteristics of the BH, but let me tell you, it’s true.
Here are a few other observations that I remember from flying with Eric. First, the BH seems to be the kind of airplane that will take an hour or two to get used to before I become graceful with the coordination of aileron and rudder inputs. I felt the same way about the lighter classics that I have mentioned above. Riding in the back seat with the windows open gets pretty windy. In the front seat, it’s loud but nice at putt-around speeds. The cockpit visibility is excellent, and the BH will make a great occasional aerial photography platform. The stick-time handling of the BH is good enough to enjoy the flying just for the sake of flying. I wouldn’t say the same thing about any Cessna product that I have flown, though I would say the same thing about the Citabria and Beechcraft airplanes that I have flown. The cockpit is very roomy and not cramped at all. The noise level of Eric’s straight pipes and no noise insulation is still acceptable, at least for the short time that we flew. 10 hours per day of cross country might change my mind. The 360 is plenty of power.
We were very greatful for a chance to get to see the Bearhawk in action! This was just another example of Eric’s great generosity and promotion of the Bearhawk. He’s a great asset to the homebuilding world!