My work sent me on a trip to Orlando recently, and I checked in with folks on the Biplane Forum to see if there was anyone who's be interested in showing off a project, or if there was some aviatory attraction I should definitely see. I got a few suggestions, but by far the most appealing one was to visit a set of three Chargers at the Ormond Beach (OMN) airport.
My work duties were finished around 5 on the day of my visit, and I was rolling by about 5:20. Unfortunately, from where I was, it would be at least an hour and a half drive, and traffic at 5:20 on a weekday meant there was an additional ten minutes of delay. Silently cursing as I passed through Florida's plethora of poorly-explained road toll booths, I made it to the airport around 7.
I met D., who had made the invitation initially, at the gate, and he introduced me to a crowd of folks, all of whose names have already disappeared from my fickle memory. I think two of them were Charger owners, D. used to own a Charger, and there was one owner who wasn't at this particular event. They were gathering anyway for a birthday celebration for R., who I ended up talking to after my flight.
D. looked up at the sky and said, "Let's get you up before sunset!" We pulled his plane out, and climbed in. I found that I mostly fit in the front cockpit, but the rudder pedals were uncomfortably close. I still managed to fly the plane just fine, but I wouldn't enjoy a long cross-country in the passenger seat.
I had an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, and a tachometer as my instruments; a control stick, rudder pedals, and throttle as my controls. We taxiied out to runway 8, and after a brief run-up, launched into the humid, warm air. D. gave me the plane as soon as we were out of the traffic pattern around OMN, and told me to stay around 1000 feet to keep under the Daytona Class C, and then we could climb once we hit a particular body of water.
We got to our mark, and I sent the throttle forward. The plane didn't scream upward, but it climbed with more vigor than Norbert the Champ would have. Looking out over the short twin wings was a little strange -- Norbert's wings are 5 feet longer in each direction, and there's only the one on top.
I was more relaxed than I had been in the other Charger I've flown in, probably because I was over the first-time jitters. I found that the plane responded quickly to control inputs, and felt like it was shorter in all dimensions than the comparatively pokey Champ, which is true. Ailerons rolled the wings faster, the rudder swung the tail more aggressively, and the elevator pointed the plane up and down with greater speed and less pressure. It also struck home how much more comfortable the stick arrangement is in the Charger: in the Champ, the stick pivots below the floor, and although this is very neat and trim looking, it means the stick swings pretty far in all directions. The Charger has the stick's pivot above the floor, so you can see the workings of the system.
I tried a variety of maneuvers, dancing around the puffy clouds that dotted the sky: a power-off stall, a power-on stall, steep turns, a slip, a dive, etc. The power-off stall was almost shocking in how gentle it was. It wasn't properly a stall at all -- we were clearly going down while aiming up (or at least level), but there was no break, and I had a sense that at least one of the wings was still flying. The power-on stall was much more interesting, breaking distinctly and dropping the left wing promptly. A release of pressure and a touch of rudder straightened the plane back up, and we were flying again. The steep turn was unremarkable and quick. The slip was pretty weird: unlike the Champ, which seems to be designed to slip, the Charger wouldn't plunge over at 45° and drop like a rock. I could get it over about 20° then ran out of rudder, and it didn't seem to go down appreciably faster than just slowing the motor down and coasting downward. I suppose the advantage would still be that you could descent without gaining extra airspeed, but a slip was definitely where the Champ is the more capable plane.
The wind in the cockpit was basically unnoticeable. It was there, and in cold air I would have been cold, but it wasn't howling through or anything. The windshields were a single sheet of (probably) polycarbonate that had been scored through about half of its thickness by a 1/8" or so saw blade, then bent along those scores to form the three-faceted windshield shape I like for these planes. It was an interesting technique that I haven't seen before. It's nice in that it doesn't leave a big distorted section around the bends, and it doesn't require a frame. D. said that the wind in the back cockpit was more present, but not terrible. He was able to turn off the push-to-talk feature of the intercom, and just leave it always-on, so maybe I block the wind more effectively than other passengers. D. said that a front pit cover is a very good idea, and very nice to fly with compared to an uncovered but unoccupied front cockpit.
As the sun descended toward the horizon, we turned back to the airport, and dropped down to get under the Class C again. D. seemed to be offering to let me land the plane, but as we approached OMN, I gave it back to him, unsure which runway we were landing on, and certainly having no experience landing a biplane. In the traffic pattern is a bad time to learn much of anything, and I figured it would be safer all around to give that particular offer a thanks-but-no-thanks this time.
After we were down -- the landing was stiff-legged but not bad, and I could feel the difference between the Champ's oleo gear and the Charger's rubber donut setup -- we taxiied back in, and I had a chance to wander around the assorted Chargers in the hangar. One was missing its motor (I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph the firewall, motor mount, and what accessories were still mounted), and the other was fitted out with a giant Dynon glass-panel screen in the pilot's cockpit, with a very professional-looking black instrument panel. All three Chargers were painted the same scheme of white and red and black checkerboards and sunbursts. It's a good looking scheme, though it looks like it would take a long time to mask off and paint.
I ended the evening talking to R., who built one of the Chargers (I think he built the one that was sitting with its engine removed, but I'm not so sure now). He was the owner of the one D. took me up in, and I got the impression he's been building airplanes for a long time now. We talked about good and bad points of the Charger design. He pointed out a few things that I should address:
I wish I had had more time to chat with him, but I knew I still had a 90 minute drive ahead of me, and my sleep schedule has been all kinds of messed up lately with the switch from Pacific time to Eastern time plus not sleeping well in the hotel bed. It was after 9 by the time I left, though fortunately the return trip was through much less traffic than the way there. It still took an hour and forty-five minutes to get to the hotel after a stop for gas and slowing down for some torrential rainstorms that passed through.
It was a surprisingly nice visit -- I don't mean that I had expected it to go poorly, just that I didn't have any real expectations beyond that I would see some planes. Everyone was very friendly, and welcomed me as if I've been hanging out with them for years. D. and R. were very generous with their plane and their time, and it was a very kind gesture on D.'s part to let me fly basically the whole flight after takeoff.
I know a few more things to look out for on my build, and I have re-confirmed that the Charger is a nice plane to fly. Being in the 160 HP plane rather than one of the 180 HP planes means I also have a reasonable expectation for how my plane might perform (I'm not planning on using the larger 180 HP motor unless a too-good-to-ignore deal shows up). R. and I exchanged eyebrow waggles and appreciative discussion of putting a radial engine (probably the Verner Scarlett 9S in my case) on a biplane, which would be a 150 HP solution.
So, hooray for unexpected business trips that can be turned to biplanely purposes. I have more information, and another half hour of Charger time in my logbook.