Record Breaker

Setting the round-trip USA aviation speed record in an RV-6A.


On a clear day in January 2010, I took-off from Montgomery Airport in San Diego, California, in my highly modified RV-6A (christened The Feral Chihuahua) for Jacksonville, Florida. Twenty-four hours later, I landed back at San Diego, having successfully crisscrossed the United States. It was an official NAA round-trip transcontinental aviation speed record. This is my story.

My quest for a record flight started with an idea: Why not rebuild my Van’s RV-6A to make it go faster, higher, and farther? With such a plane, I reasoned, why not have as a goal the round-trip transcontinental speed record?

I already had a fine RV-6A with about 1,300 flight hours on it. It had flown me safely and efficiently for over twelve years, and had taken my wife and me to many places in the western United States. But I had just sold my other completed kit plane, and thus had some extra time and cash on hand. So, I decided to use these resources to go after my new goal.

To modify the RV-6A for more speed, I decided to increase the plane’s horsepower, as well as improve its aerodynamics. For increased power, I replaced the Lycoming O-360 with a modified fuel-injected IO-360 built by Aero Sport Power of Kamloops, British Columbia. The engine was modified by installing a more efficient exhaust system designed by Clinton Anderson at Custom Aircraft Parts, and by adding Light Speed Engineering’s dual electronic ignition in lieu of magnetos. Going with fuel injection, along with electronic ignition, increased the plane’s power by 20 horsepower and allowed a more efficient fuel burn at the higher altitudes flown during the record attempt. (This better efficiency would also help extend the plane’s range.)

For better aerodynamics, I used the more tucked-up feature of the IO-360’s horizontal air intake to justify replacing the stock Van’s engine cowling. I decided to replace it with the more elongated James cowling, with its three induction ring intakes. (Two are for cooling air, and one is for engine combustion air.) The use of these rings promised less air-intake drag, thus saving more power for thrust. The lower third ring also smoothly joined a conical ram-air intake which I reasoned should work “a la Mooney” to increase engine manifold pressure at altitude.

I also added a fiberglass plenum to cover the engine’s air box for cooling, rationalizing that it would help effect laminar airflow over the engine’s cooling fins, and also provide a more efficient connection to the induction ring air intakes.

The last thing I did to reduce drag was to replace the original wheel fairings with Van’s newer design, which more smoothly covered the tires, wheels, and brake systems. I also took advantage of the rebuild to replace the old wood-and-fiberglass-tape nosegear fairing with Van’s improved gear and hollow fiberglass fairing. The new nosegear fairing was obviously lighter, but also adopted the newer “fat” teardrop shape now prevalent on all Van’s products.

Flight Test

I flew my RV-6A both before and after the modifications, recording speed, fuel burn, and engine manifold pressure at various altitudes. For each altitude, I flew a heading then reversed it, recording my groundspeed for each leg so I could compute an average no-wind airspeed. The resulting data (see Table 1) shows that the modifications in engine, ignition, and aerodynamics were well worth it. At 18,000 feet, my rebuilt RV-6A was 21 knots (24 mph) faster, while burning one gallon per hour less fuel. My first goal of flying faster had been met.

My second goal was to get the plane to fly higher. Over the years of enjoying my RV-6A, I’ve found that it’s especially good traveling in the “teens,” and I routinely filed for cruise altitudes between 12,000 and 16,000 feet. The impediments to flying higher included the loss of power (and speed) inevitably from the lower performance of the engine in the rarified upper atmosphere. But they also included the engine’s oil overheating due to that rarified air’s inability to carry off heat. The new IO-360, with its greater horsepower, improved ignition, and increased manifold pressure, would address the first impediment. But what about excessive oil temperatures? Indeed, the higher-horsepower engine’s greater heat might make that problem worse.

During initial flight testing after the rebuild, I regularly had to stop my climb and wait for the engine’s oil to cool. I also found that by about 19,000 feet, the engine’s oil remained uncomfortably hot in cruise. Fortunately, I became aware of a new oil cooler developed and sold by Airflow Systems, which suggested improved performance. I eagerly ordered and installed one. After extensive flight testing, the data showed I could easily climb to 19,000 feet without the oil rising into the yellow, and cruise at a cool 180 F. With the new engine configuration and oil cooler, my second goal of flying higher was realized.

I next turned my attention to the question of extending the plane’s range. At first this seemed rather obvious: add more fuel capacity. But at the altitudes (17,000 to 21,000 feet) planned for the record, I also needed to extend the range of my oxygen system. Its solution was not so obvious.

For increased fuel capacity, I did what ferry pilots do, and added a rubberized fuel bladder, plumbed to the plane’s existing fuel tank selector. I initially installed a Turtle-Pac “Drum 66,” which I placed lengthwise in the cockpit, replacing the passenger seat. The cockpit’s lateral bar behind the seats prevented the bladder from becoming full, and limited its on-board capacity to 42 gallons. However, with the plane’s two main tanks in the wings, I now had approximately 76 gallons of usable fuel, enough for almost 11 hours of flight without reserves.

I had been using Mountain High’s Oxymizer cannula and 540-liter aluminum oxygen bottle for years, and found I could generally count on about six hours before running empty. For a record flight, I needed to at least double that duration. Fortunately, Mountain High recently had started offering a new product, a “black box” called an Electronic Delivery System (EDS). Intrigued, I ordered one, along with an oxygen mask and built-in microphone to keep me legal above 18,000 feet. The EDS arrived, and flight testing showed that it quadrupled my oxygen bottle’s duration. I now had a fuel range of 11 hours, with an even greater range for on-board oxygen. My third goal of being able to fly farther was thus accomplished.

During the rebuild period, I added a fourth goal to my list: fly more safely. Thus, I upgraded and added equipment to also accomplish this goal. To improve my ability to obtain real-time weather information (including winds aloft and airport conditions), I installed a moving map GPS that connected to an XM radio. The GPS also had a mapping feature to improve my terrain awareness at night and under instrument meteorological conditions.

Anticipating at least one night landing during my record flight, I also decided to upgrade the plane’s landing lights, and retrofitted high intensity discharge (HID) lights. I also replaced the old 121.5 MHz emergency locating transmitter (ELT) with the newer 406 MHz satellite-based ELT. Lastly, for good measure, I added a SPOT satellite tracker, so I could let people know I was either OK or not.

Satisfied with these improvements, I concluded that The Feral Chihuahua was now also safer and ready for the record attempt.

First Attempt

My strategy for setting the record was fairly straightforward:

1. Select a flight day when the jet stream was aligned west-to-east, and followed the southern border of the United States, connecting one coast to the other.

2. Leave San Diego at sunset to take advantage of cooler air for the climb to 19,000 feet.

3. Use the jet stream’s push to increase my groundspeed and allow a non-stop crossing to Florida.

4. Land in Jacksonville at dawn to refuel.

5. Fly back to California during the day at low altitudes to duck the jet stream’s headwind.

That was the plan, anyway—but it didn’t work.

On a clear February evening in 2009, I took off from San Diego. Unfortunately, I hadn’t accounted for being tired at the start and was dangerously fatigued only six hours into the flight. I also found a number of systems to be inadequate, including my clothing’s and cabin heater’s ability to warm me at 19,000 feet in February; the instruments’ lighting effectiveness; and the bladder fuel tank’s usability. To make things worse, the forecast tail winds didn’t materialize, making a non-stop crossing impossible with the amount of fuel I had onboard.

So, at around the Texas-Louisiana border, I made the difficult decision to quit and turn-back. From 19,000 feet, it took about 40 minutes to descend, so I asked the controller for the nearest 24-hour towered airport an hour behind me. He advised Abilene, Texas, so I took it, turned, and descended.

After refueling and taking a short nap until sunrise at Abilene, I limped my way home to San Diego, using the easier daylight flying conditions to reflect on my failed attempt and learn from it. After all, Henry Ford once said, “Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again.” And I was certainly in need of more intelligence.

As I flew west to home, I jotted down the things that hadn’t worked on the failed flight. And beside each item, I listed what I could do differently next time. My list included the following changes:

1. Take off at dawn. I’m a morning person, and leaving at sunset was simply stupid on my part. It was totally against my biological clock. Plus, leaving at dawn would give me a night’s sleep before the flight, so I’d disembark fresh instead of tired.

2. Fly high east across the United States in daylight. Since I would be leaving at dawn, a large part of my high-altitude flight would now be in daylight, giving me at least some passive solar heating in the cabin to ward-off the 4 F outside environment.

3. Replace the flexible fuel bladder with rigid-walled fuel tanks. I had found that the flexible bladder was difficult to fuel and—due to its irregular shape on the floor—didn’t have a consistent “unusable” amount of fuel, thereby making a wild guess of fuel duration calculations. A more traditional rigid fuel tank would also allow me to calibrate and better plumb it to the aircraft’s fuel system.

4. Improve cabin lighting by installing an LED strip under the glareshield. This was probably more psychologically needed than real, but it would make it easier for me to monitor engine systems, and would make me feel “at home” as I travelled surreally surrounded in blackness nearly four miles above the earth.

5. Land halfway across the United States, both while heading east and west. I didn’t want to again gamble on having a perfect tailwind to make it non-stop to Jacksonville. So, I would purposely plan to stop halfway while heading east. The next time it would happen in daylight, so I could also study the approach, taxiways, and FBO location, and confirm they’d be open for refueling when I would be coming back 12 hours later. Ironically, halfway across the USA is Abilene, where I’d stopped during the failed attempt, so it was already familiar to me. Stopping halfway also would allow me to depart with less fuel and weight, and thus climb more quickly to cruise altitude.

With the changes listed above, I awaited the next perfect winter day and took off at dawn, January 30, 2010.

The result was success, and I beat the old record by three days. As is the case in many revised plans, I found that my successful record flight was actually an easier experience than my previous year’s failed attempt. Henry Ford was right!

Lessons learned

I learned a few important lessons during the whole record-setting experience. They included:

1. Mistakes are an opportunity to improve, so always have a timely debrief to learn from them.

2. Spend some time in your cockpit before you depart, and visualize your full flight to help identify weaknesses.

3. Use checklists to aid your memory. (I had one for remembering essential equipment and supplies, as well as a special pre-flight checklist modified for the record flight.)

4. You’ll need the support of many people, so be good to them. My friends and family were always supportive, and I can’t say enough good about them, my equipment suppliers, and the FAA.

5. Trust your inner voice. I’m glad I paid attention to those nagging doubts that always enter one’s mind. In all cases they were right, and I was safer as a result.

Jeremiah (“Jerry”) Jackson is an instrument-rated private pilot and experienced skydiver with over 1,800 parachute jumps. He’s been on eight successful world-record skydives, and holds the official NAA round-trip transcontinental speed record in his modified RV-6A. Jerry has published two aviation books:The Flight of the Feral Chihuahua, about the pursuit of his NAA speed record, andFour Minutes, about the crash of his RV-10. He and his wife live in San Diego, California.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Kitplanes magazine.

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