I was originally approached by a very good fried of mine, the late Mike Spence, to test fly the Flea as Roy and I had never met. I have been very fortunate in my flying career to have met and been mentored by people like Mike. There were several others that I'm not going to mention here. But it taught me that there is a time to give back as well.
The flea at her first public appearance at Orient during the Children's Flight. November 2020
I have a total of 6100 hours of which over 3000 is on conventional undercarriage. (Tailwheel). As I have done over 450 hours of test flying and in excess of 32 maiden flights, I was confident that I could handle this one. Because of the uniqueness of this aircraft and the enthusiasm of Mike and Roy, this was an opportunity to give back some of what I had received. I did quite a bit of research by contacting the few pilots around the world that had flown a Flea. They all warned me that it was unconventional. Not like anything else I had ever flown.
Just to put everyone in the picture of "Unconventional"
The Flea has no ailerons nor elevator. It does have a joystick and a set of pedals.
The pedals are connected to the tailwheel and are only used for taxi purposes. The tailwheel has no effect once more than 50% power is applied.
The joystick is connected to a very effective rudder. So your directional control is manipulated by the joystick once you apply power. The joystick is also connected to the front (Main) wing and controls a pitching moment of this wing. The rear wing is fixed.
So, the three axis of control are:
Which is controlled by the joystick via the rudder.
Which is controlled by the secondary effect of rudder.
The airframe doesn't really pitch. Only the main wing changes angle of attack and gives more lift or less lift. If you change the throttle setting there is a slight pitching moment.
Landing approach to FAKR
I started with some high speed taxi exercises on a very long and wide grass runway. Contrary to popular belief, "High speed taxi" is never higher than the stall speed of the aircraft. Although we had not determined the stall speed on this aircraft, we had some documentation on others that had flown. As far as I'm aware, only about four more, world-wide. This process was already quite daunting. My natural instinct was to try and steer with my feet as any good pilot would. But the pedals (Tailwheel) had absolutely no effect whatsoever. With my brain now in overdrive, I soon learned to keep directional control with the stick. As I increased the speed on every run, I could feel the aircraft getting lighter and lighter. (Wanting to get airborne). Now again my instincts told me to lift the tail. But again, the stick had no effect as there is no elevator. And by pushing the stick forward only creates a negative angle of attack on the main wing, keeping you firmly on the ground. I then tried to keep the stick as neutral as possible until she started flying. The first hop was only about one meter high and no further than 10 or 20 meters, as I shut the throttle. I did a few more, every time stretching the distance by keeping just enough power on. This gave me a chance to feel the effect of the controls and how she reacted to very small inputs. She would tend to yaw to the right under power. This has to do with the thrust line of the engine to counter the torque and slipstream. At first, I kept trying to correct this but then the secondary effect dops the wing. Eventually I just let it yaw a bit but kept the wings level. The hops got progressively higher and longer. Because there are no brakes, you need to land with enough stopping distance ahead. On one of these hops, I was so busy checking control inputs verses the effect that I ran out of runway. I was now airborne and forced to do one full circuit. It felt like about 15 minutes but probably wasn't more than 5 or 6.
The approach was uneventful as it was a very calm day. The fun started once I had touched down and my instinct was trying to steer with my feet again. Fortunately, my brain went into overdrive again and I caught it with the stick before getting totally out of control. Once down to taxi speeds, the tailwheel took effect again. Fortunately, lockdown was implemented and that gave me a year to ponder about what had happened. I have now done some more hops, more circuits and a flight from Orient to Krugersdorp. The take-off's are still challenging but once straight and level, she is quite docile. The real challenge comes when you encounter any turbulence. The aircraft doesn't have a slip ball because you wouldn't be able to keep the ball in the middle anyway. But when she drops a wing, the only way to pick it up is to apply rudder with the stick which gives you a yaw effect and the secondary effect is roll, which lifts the wing. All good and well, but now you're pointing in a different direction! This becomes especially relevant when on final approach at FAKR. A narrow runway and inevitably, turbulence on short final. Your left wing drops. You pick it up with right rudder but now you're heading off to the right. So, you apply left rudder to line up but your left wing drops! The only way to counter this is to keep turning left through the centreline, then coming back to the right to pick up the wing. Problem is, you tend to get into a left, right osculation. And that's not good on a narrow runway. It's going to take a lot of time and many take-offs & landings before I get comfortable.
All smiles after the maiden
The bottom line is that your instincts should not come into play and you need to be wide awake when flying this little plane. I would imagine the it will get better with practice.
I am humbled and honoured to be the first pilot in Africa to have flown the Flea. There will surely come a time when another local pilot gets a chance to fly her. Then I'll be able to compare notes.
With a very happy Roy after the flight
Thank you, Roy, for putting your trust in me, as well as everyone else that have supported this project.
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