Delmar Benjamin: The Need for Speed

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AVweb continues its coverage of EAA AirVenture 1998 ... .

Osh '98

Delmar BenjaminIt's like the tattooed biker my Mom always warned me to avoid. "It's for your own good," she would say. "Something like that will only bring you grief." Maybe Delmar Benjamin's mother never told him to stay away from things that would hurt him. Or, maybe she did and he just wasn't listening.

Benjamin is a lanky blond with a preference for shades and jeans, who, when not flying his pilot-eating plane is out tending his 25-hundred acres of wheat in Shelby, Montana. It's not the pretty part of Montana, he'll tell you, but you can "see" the pretty part from there. If you're wondering why a wheat farmer would have taken up the considerable challenge of reconstructing one of the world's most romanticized racing airplanes, then you've just got to know a little about Delmar Benjamin.

Benjamin has always felt the need for raw power, even as a kid. His fondest memories of flying are of crashing. When he was eight or nine his Dad landed in the trees. No one was hurt, and Benjamin thought the whole adventure was "cool." Flying a Cessna 152 was not. When he was sixteen years old, he soloed in the safe, slow plane and was bored to tears. Benjamin wanted speed and thrust, and he found it in motorcycles and hot rods, and then, when he was 19, in a souped-up Lincoln Continental. Many years later, it was a Pitts Special that got him interested in flying again, and a crazy idea to build a GeeBee kept it going.

The Granville Brothers built their first stumpy little R-1 in 1931, and shoved enough raw horsepower into the cowling to propel Jimmy Doolittle to an average of 252.7 miles per hour and first place in the 1932 Thompson Trophy race. The plane was fast and the technology was the newest of the time and every pilot wanted to fly it. But, the GeeBee racers, much like flying itself, were terribly unforgiving of complacency or mistake. Within the first 33 flying hours, the original R-1 and its lower horsepower brother the R-2, had been crashed five times, and two pilots were killed.

Benjamin knew the GeeBee's history when he set out to reconstruct the little racer, but still had no idea how life-changing it would be. He has had close calls in the plane—uncontrollable oscillations and out of control landings—but it was the GeeBee's exhaust system that nearly killed him. He has had lead poisoning and has developed a liver problem after long hours breathing lead-filled exhaust gases circulating in the cabin with him. On a trip to Kokomo, Indiana, he became so ill he could hardly stand. He crawled into his plane and returned to Montana, thinking that if he going to die he wanted to do it in his own bed. He didn't die, but he also didn't get out of bed for three weeks. It was then he discovered the constantly circulating exhaust gases had given him a full blown case of lead poisoning. Treatment only made it worse, so now he's letting it run its course, knowing the half-life of the lead in his body is 30 years. He admits that blindsided and surprised him—because up until then, he just knew someone had been watching over him.

A karmic connection

GeeBee Benjamin speaks of the Granville Brothers the way some people speak of religion. He tells AVweb he has a karmic connection to the R-2. "There's some kind of energy going on there. I don't understand it, but there's something going on. When we were working sixteen hours a day on the plane, sometimes you would feel like the Granvilles are looking over your shoulder…there's been some things that happened, and I thought, wow, you coulda died there, but things worked out. So I get the feeling that someone's looking out for me." If someone is looking after him, that someone has a wicked sense of humor. In addition to his illness, a judge granted his ex-wife much of his future airshow profits. So now, like the Thompson Trophy racers of the 1930's, he flies out of economic necessity.

Money has been tight from the first. He sold his Buecker Youngman and Cessna Skymaster to build the GeeBee…but by the time that money was gone, the plane was still just half-finished. He managed to convince the Small Business Administration to give him a business loan, but he knew it was a one-time shot. "When I flew it, I had payments to make, so I had no choice but to start flying airshows right away. My first show, we started at Sun 'n Fun in the spring. My first flight in it was climbing in and going to Sun 'n Fun." Since then he has amassed 1138 hours in the R-2, more than Doolittle, more than Lee Gehlbach, more than anybody. And the plane he calls the "shortest, snakiest taildragger ever built" is still a handful. He knows overconfidence will kill him and the first thing he thinks when he gets in the plane is how he's going to land it.

"When you fire it up, you've got this huge engine on a little airframe and that feels very good, like a sportscar. It's rumbling away...it makes you happy just warming up and then when you taxi out to the runway you can't see anything, you've just got to get a little sideways and look down the runway. And then you go for a ways and wonder what's up there again and you look again. And, you can't really go back and forth because you have to go so far to see anything, it's not like a Stearman or something, you can't s-turn back and forth and see something, this one you have to get 90 degrees to see down the runway."

It's got aileron reversal

GeeBee "First I bring the power up and I use all of it, it really goes nice and straight. You got the stick forward and you're waiting for the tail to come up, because you can't see anything until the tail comes up. And you get the tail up and then you can see down the runway, you need to hold it on until 120 (mph), because it's got aileron reversal. If you dial in an angle of attack around 100 it would fly off, but the ailerons would be reversed at that speed, so if you move the ailerons you would snap in. On my first flight, I got pilot induced oscillations—first in yaw, and then when I rotated, in pitch. I got through that and it hasn't happened since. I was sitting on a seatback parachute…I was moving back and forth and the airplane was out of sync with me. We got the seat fixed."

"You fly with kid gloves...it's a very light touch. It doesn't have any stick pressure and sometimes it uses negative pressure. But once I got accustomed to that, I liked the way it flies. The rudder is 13 inches deep and 6 feet tall, very large when you look at it…and it'll beat you to death. You hit the rudder and your head hits and canopy. See, the canopy's pretty scarred up there, I always seem to hit my headset on the left side for some reason."

"It's so pitch sensitive that you could put one finger on top of the stick and you could break the wings off the airplane, just by pulling the stick back with one finger. That's how sensitive it is. Like yesterday, I pulled for the barrel roll, and pulled about 10 g's just because that thing is so pitch sensitive."

"On landing, you need to keep speed up so you don't get into aileron reversal, and you need to see the runway, so usually when I'm downwind, when I cross the numbers I start a turn and come right down to the runway and level out and touch down and try to touch down easy because the shock absorbers on this thing don't work well, and it'll tear the gear off the airplane. Then your elevators quit working at about 80 mph, so the tail will come down on its own at about 80-100 mph and that is too fast to be going down the runway and you can't see anything in front of you. And there's so many curved surfaces you can't look out one side and tell if you're straight, so you try to put your head back against the headrest and you try to keep the same amount of runway on both sides—-you can only see a little pie shape of runway behind the wings and you try to keep the same amount."

GeeBee at OSH '98 The GeeBee is a constant challenge, and that is what keeps Benjamin going…but with more than 1,000 hours in it, he is now looking for another project, another first. What will it be? "The X-prize. I want to be the first civilian into space," he tells AVweb. His eyes light up as he talks about building a rocket that will propel him straight up to the edge of space, then glide back down. It is at that moment that another Oshkosh fan asks him to autograph another "Delmar Benjamin GeeBee" T-shirt, and Benjamin floats slowly down to earth again.