Leza-Lockwood's Air Cam: Low and Slow Is No Sweat in This Two-Seat Twin
And now for something completely different: the Leza-Lockwood Air Cam. The Air Cam looks like a twin-engine ultralight with a serious glandular problem. Instead, it's an experimental-category/amateur-built kitplane specially designed for aerial photography and videography — hence the name — over terrain where two engines are a distinct advantage. AVweb's Dave Higdon put the Air Cam through its paces. Here's his report.
years, my flying in the Florida has included introductions to dozens
of ultralight and light experimental-amateur built designs ... and the
odd encounter with alligators. Now, imagine yourself in a big,
open-cabin experimental airplane, cruising languidly about 500 feet
above a mirror-still, algae-green lake outside Sebring, Fla., one
known for yielding some awesome amphibs. Without warning, your
pilot-host's voice crackles through the headset: "There's a
monster, 3 o'clock, almost straight down ... let's take a closer
look!" Looking right and down indeed reveals a slight wake
shimmering in the morning light.
The throttle and stick both leave your grip, along with any comfortable reality, as the host rolls 180 degrees left and swoops quickly toward the water. In a blink, your front-seat perch goes from simply the one with the best view to the one closest to 16 feet of potential belts, bags, boots and Cajun-restaurant appetizers. Meanwhile, Mr. or Mrs. Gator barely blinked and continued swimming, straight ahead, unperturbed by our low pass.
That experience was part of my introduction to flying the Air Cam and helping me get too-close-and-personal with the 'gator was the plane's designer, Phil Lockwood. Maybe because he saw the hair on my neck standing at attention, Phil quipped something comforting: "Great place to have two engines, isn't it?"
Ah, thanks Phil; after nearly losing hold on my calm, Phil pulled me back to reality. As long as we kept ourselves from flying into the lake, we had little to fear. The redundancy of two big engines in back provided plenty of comfort. In all, it was great place to fly an Air Cam, Lockwood's adaptation of a once-popular ultralight into a twin-engine, testosterone-heavy cruiser ideal for aerial observation over places singles fear to fly. Phil's Air Cam earned its bush wings flying for the National Geographic Society in the bush of Africa, hoisting aloft a cinematographer over territory far less accessible, far more remote and far more hostile than even anywhere near this or any other alligator we saw later.
The success of the Air Cam over its five years in kit production rests more in its appeals to pilots who enjoy something different — fun and with an unbeatable view — not those prone to angling for the closest view possible of carnivorous wildlife, entangling flora or any other otherwise perilous geography. Pilots appreciate the Air Cam's twin 100-horse Rotax 912S engines along with its other stand-out traits, some of them attributable to that excess power.
Most of all, owners embrace the ease of its production-kit form, great handling, stunningly slow-speed abilities and ample cross-country capabilities. You could say the Air Cam delivers the best of two worlds: the advantages of a twin with gobs of redundant power and the joy of a view unparalleled by anything flying — short of a broomstick.
Phil's original 1995 Air Cam borrowed heavily from the Drifter, a single-seat FAR 103 ultralight and its two-place experimental big brother made popular in the early 1980s by Maxair, a small Pennsylvania company where Phil once worked and flew as part of the shoestring staff. Drifters, single- and two-place alike, sported a long seamless-tube fuselage that ran from the rudder pedals to a tail boom, braced in the center by a rectangular box section. The box section stiffened and strengthened the tube to carry the Drifter's parasol wing, its pusher propulsion system, and the conventional landing gear's tailwheel.
Drifters were popular because of their great flying qualities and the view from the pilot's perch at nearly the front end of the boom in both the single-seat Drifter DR277 and the DR503 two-place models (the second seat on the DR503 was directly behind the front seat and under the wing). In response to the needs of the National Geographic Society, Phil designed the Air Cam along the same basic lines, with the box section supporting the wing, main gear and engine, and with two seats ahead of the powerplant, but the front one has virtually no obstructions.
Phil also designed the original Air Cam so the tailboom was removable in order to ground-transport the halved aircraft through the African bush to a river front location that would make bush planes tremble on their tundra tires. Nothing but rain forest and bush for hundreds of miles in every direction.
Today, the airframe is no longer made for disassembly and transport through the bush. And in succession after the twin-cylinder, two-stroke Rotax 582s, Phil has fitted Air Cams with Rotax engines; four-cylinder, four-stroke mills with liquid-cooled heads and air-cooled cylinders. First on were two 80-horse 912 engines, followed by the 115-horse 914-turbo version of the engine, then, in the past two years, the 100-horse 912S. As you'd expect, the higher power and increased reliability did nothing but good things to the Air Cam's performance.
But what made the Air Cam the appealing plane it was in Africa remains the same and the key to its popularity today: stunningly short take-off distances; ridiculously steep climb angles; breathtaking climb rates; great flying qualities, balanced control harmony and docile single-engine traits. And that redundancy serves to comfort any aviator facing the uncomfortable thought of crossing hostile territory — whether mountains, oceans, jungles of course, 'gator-laden lakes or simply the hostile geography of a sprawling urban landscape.
The Air Cam Only Looks Like An "Ultralight"
Although it certainly carries with it a family resemblance, the Air Cam exceeds all physical definitions of an ultralight in FAR 103: a single-seat; five-gallon fuel capacity; straight-and-level maximum speed of 55 knots (or 63 mph, whichever way you like it); and a maximum empty weight of 254 pounds (about 115 kilograms). Instead, the Air Cam far exceeds these values: Two seats, a fuel capacity of 28 gallons; an empty weight of about 1,040 pounds; and a gross-weight of 1,680 pounds. Some of the extra weight comes from wings of ribs and tubes and wires under cloth and two pusher props — in this case, each with its own engine. So the Air Cam is an airplane — experimental category/amateur-built — with a 2,000 fpm cruise-climb speed that matches the 55-knot ultralight limit — topping at more than 100 mph, for as long as you can stand it.
Sport planes like the Air Cam share a great deal of appeal with their ultralight kin — low acquisition and operating costs; the option of performing your own maintenance (if you actually built it); and a style of flying far more tactile than anything that fully encloses the users.
You want short-field performance? You came to the right place. How about slow-speed flying? It's there, on just one engine, even. Cross-country capability? Sure, as much as any open-cabin aircraft. Bush operations? Most pilots' nerves will give out before they come even close to trying a field that's really too small.
Let's go fly this thing.
Easy Flying, From Preflight To Shutdown
You can see and touch almost everything you'll ever need to check during a preflight, one of the traits the Air Cam thankfully inherited from its ultralight ancestors. Whether it's the control-system connections, the main-gear attachments, engine mounts or any other airframe-integrity check, it's easy. In fact, the only real reach required is up to check the pusher-mounted engines on each wing.
The one-piece, aluminum-monocoque fuselage comes in two pieces when the kit arrives, already pre-drilled and "tack" riveted in a precision jig back at the factory, so the builder needs nothing more than a flat surface to align and assemble the two halves. The wings, gear and tail surfaces all attach to this bathtub-like structure, which does nothing to obscure what you need to check.
With the engine oil in the green and the fuel tanks checked and filled as necessary — many options exist for fuel — it's time for the front seat. A step attached to the fuselage gives you the boost you need to step over the fuselage sides and down into the cockpit, where the engine, flight and electrical controls are nicely arranged on finished surfaces on either side of the front seat; throttles and flight controls are also installed in the aft seat area — but not controls to start the engines or arm the electric boost pumps.
What all this means is that you fly solo from the front seat; want to put a tourist or any other non-pilot person up front, and you'll need their help lighting off the two 912S Rotax mills, to change radio frequencies and control the transponder — much the same situation you get with other tandem-seat tail-wheel airplanes.
Starting the twin Rotaxes is no more difficult than most cars, with the sole additional step being the electric boost pumps to start fuel moving through the lines from the tanks. With the brakes set, Lockwood coached me through the starting procedure — left engine first, right engine next — and within a minute we have 200 horsepower warming up. These engines idle at about 2,200 rpm and run at speeds up into the 5,000-rpm range. But, there is a gearbox on each engine to bring the prop speeds down to the same range you typically find flying with a Continental or Lycoming engine. Another difference between these engines and conventional aircraft mills is the cooling system — liquid for the heads, air for the cylinder barrels — so we wait for the coolant and the oil temps to rise into the green, just as we would in any other airplane.
Run-ups with checks of the flywheel electronic ignition differ little from conventional airplanes; likewise checking the control linkage and the boost pumps. One exception: the Air Cam uses fixed-pitch three-blade composite props from IvoProp, so there are no prop governors to check. Within three minutes of engines-start, we're turning onto the active at Sebring, have the toe brakes set and the stick back near my bellybutton, my left hand on the throttles, ready to go.
No traffic on approach, none in the pattern, so it's time to go. Full throttle brings the Rotaxes up to their unique Indy engine-like sound as the IvoProps rise to a low roar. Brakes released, we roll smartly forward. The tail comes off the ground in less than two airplane lengths as I ease the stick forward to neutral. And, before we've rolled 100 feet, I ease back on the stick again and the Air Cam vaults off the runway, pointed skyward so steeply that it feels like I've just reclined in a dentist's chair with nothing but a clear, blue ceiling to see. Our climb rate? About 3,000 feet per minute at 55 mph indicated.
Pulling the power back from full to about 90 percent and lowering the nose to 85 mph indicated gives me a much better perspective for watching for traffic — while still climbing at round 1,500 fpm. Now, looking ahead level with the horizon lets me see something other than my feet and stop feeling like I've just been forced to recline in a dentist's chair. Between the initial and sustained climb rates, it took us less than three minutes to level off at 5,500 feet — not a great height for landscape-watching, but excellent for conducting some of the more mundane chores of these reports: low- and high-speed handling; stalls, power-on, power-off; and, of course, single-engine flight.
By Whatever Name, The Air Cam Is All Airplane
Big, odd, unusual bird though she is, the Air Cam does what airplanes are supposed to do — and does those things so well that converts quickly forget its unusual roots and configuration. Those folks are too busy having fun, the main reason for owning and flying craft like the Air Cam.
For low-and-slow, a few airplanes might succeed at crawling along at Vmc with their noses above the horizon as they hang on the prop. In the Air Cam, you pull the engines back almost to idle and trim for 55 mph ... engine sounds drop to something slightly more than a whisper and the air coming over the windscreen falls to little more than a slight breeze. It became possible to talk to Phil in the back seat without the aid of the intercom.
To belabor the point into practical territory, the low noise allowed me to descend to about 50 feet above the trees lining a lazy, marshy river north of the lake and cruise upstream sightseeing — without the notice of folks fishing on the river banks and without disturbing the huge white egrets perched in some of those same trees. Only our shadow produced any notice, and then the anglers simply angled their smiling faces skyward and waved as we floated past.
Furthermore, at even that low speed, the Air Cam lost neither any of its considerable control authority nor its nimble response level. When my low and slow flight path approached a hot restricted area a few clicks north of Sebring, it took only the slightest stick pressure to reverse course and point the Air Cam back toward the lake. And most of those anglers remained oblivious to our second winding pass as we flew by.
An awesome way to spend a morning, seeing the sights of central Florida. Although most of us don't spend our flight time sightseeing, more of us probably would if given access to the totally unobstructed view from the Air Cam's front seat. And this low-down cruiser aspect of the Air Cam sacrifices none of the more-traditional capabilities we generally buy an airplane to use.
For example, the Air Cam gave me no worries about stalling or spinning during my low-altitude pass up the marshy river — the 39 mph stall speed was still a good 16 mph away at the low-power level we used. The huge ailerons and largish rudder gave me confidence that we could together handle any unexpected bumps in the air and fly away upright.
That control authority grows with speed, along with the Air Cam's dynamic stability. The twin went where I wanted, when I wanted, with no struggle, no hesitation and no adverse yaw — climbing back to 4,000 msl to sample stalls seemed 3,000 feet higher than necessary. Power off, the Air Cam exhibited something more like a mush than a break, although it did want to fall off a wing a bit — probably because of the P-factor from the two big props, even though I had the Rotax engines at idle.
Power-on stalls were another story altogether. First, pulling the nose up with almost any power on starts the Air Cam climbing; by the time it actually stalls, the nose is so far up that you have to look down to see the horizon line. Then it breaks, gently; the nose drops, the nose rises, and the Air Cam is flying and climbing again. It's easy to imagine ending a power-on stall series higher than where you started it. Of course, holding the Air Cam straight and level becomes more critical and a trifle more busy during high-power, high-angle-of-attack maneuvers, as it does with most airplanes.
But as power increases, so does rudder authority, thanks to the twin pusher-mounted powerplants blowing air past both sides of the rudder. And this is a rudder already so powerful that during single-engine flight, you need but slight toe pressure on the appropriate rudder pedal to cancel the effect of asymmetrical thrust. Considering my light-twin-on-one-engine paranoia, Phil practically had to hold my hand to get me to switch off one Rotax.
But confident of Phil's own survival instincts — alligator-buzzing aside — my left hand finally complied with his instructions. Cruising at 70, he had me pull the throttle on one engine, then switch off the ignition and wait. The Air Cam's nose first swung gently toward the dead-engine side and then my left foot — in this case — went to the left rudder pedal and I pushed with toes only. It took little more pressure to center the skid ball than needed to counter changing winds during a 360-degree turn.
Roll left, roll right, climb, slow, descend, land — all non events on one engine. During right-engine and then left-engine shutdowns, the Air Cam proved completely docile and controllable. Even climbing at more than 1,000 fpm was no problem, ball centered all the way through a climbing 360-degree turn. Though not an approved procedure (nor a recommended one), single-engine takeoffs should be as relatively easy. Remember, with one engine, you've got 100 ponies to power a 1,680-pound airplane — one that weighs only 80 pounds more than a 100-horse Cessna 150 at gross — but with a lot more wing generating a lot more lift, 205 square feet of it.
Probably the toughest aspect for me to master was the landing, and on this aspect I plead rustiness. Once upon a time, ultralights and ultralight-like experimentals were the bulk of my flying; the unusual views and odd normal-attitude perspectives were, well, normal for me. In recent years, however, regular ultralight and light-experimental time is but a tiny fraction of my total annual time compared to the factory iron that's my routine ride today.
Reacquainting myself with the different visual cues of the Air Cam took a bit of time. My first approach was a bit hot, the flare a bit high; my second hit the speed marks: 55 rounding the corner to final, 45 over the numbers is closer to ideal. Of course, I flared too high, again. But my third, fourth and subsequent landings all hit their mark, including a couple of three-point landings like I hadn't done since my Drifter-flying days.
Touchdown and rollout during my best efforts took less than 500 feet but they looked long compared to the land-and-stop-in-200-feet performance Phil demonstrated. But then, Phil has a few thousand hours in Air Cams, so I'd expect to be poorer by comparison. Ditto for some of his 150-foot take-off efforts, in which the Air Cam seemed to spring skyward by rotating around the tailwheel axle.
And with the Air Cam's ability to burn either unleaded auto fuel or 100 low-lead, it's doubtful an Air Cam pilot couldn't eschew airports all together and find fuel, RC Cola and a Moon Pie by simply landing behind rural country stores along a route.
How better to link the words "aerial" and "adventure?" Or "cheap" and "thrills"?
You Can Build It...
At $68,500 for the complete quick-build kit (everything you need except instruments and paint), the Air Cam 912S is not a bargain-hangar bird, as homebuilts go. Leza-Lockwood's quick-build kit goes farther than most to make assembling an Air Cam easy, as I mentioned earlier. The fuselage structure arrives in two pieces assembled in jigs back at the factory and ready to finish drill and rivet with the best blind fasteners — saving hundreds of hours of work on the most-complex structure in the airplane. Elsewhere in the kit, Leza-Lockwood provides everything, all the complex and most simple parts finished and ready to assemble, whether wing spars, ribs, landing gear components, motor mounts, even the envelopes for the wings and tail feathers.
Engines come out of the crate, with mufflers, cooling-system components and the props ready to mount. Important cables come finished to length and the control linkage components need only finish drilling and assembling. Avionics are up to you, as are lights, strobes, your choice of intercom — or none of the above, if you want to really keep it simple. The commitment comes down to about 800 hours — equal to a few months of weekends or less, plus whatever extra time you need to deal with your personal options list.
Completing the commitment, navigating the FAA's final inspection, the initial and final sign-offs gives the builder another perquisite: the FAA Repairman's Certificate. Think if it as earning an airframe & powerplant license good for one airplane only — the one built and named on the certificate — so the builder can handle all maintenance, repairs and upgrades except IFR avionics and instrument sign-off. Who better knows an airplane than the builder who gave it flight? Conversely, many argue how good it is to have a second set of eyes look at your airplane regularly, myself among them.
...For The Fun Of It
You may not need a great aerial camera platform; you may not even need the ability to launch and land from super-short strips. But you may lust after flight more romantic and tactile than slogging along in a Spam Can, totally insulated from the elements - at least, on those days when the insulation isn't required by the elements. And that's what the Air Cam provides, in addition to the safety of two engines.