Richard Johnson of Winter Haven, Florida, isn’t your average flight instructor. For one thing, he is well past his early twenties, which the silvery gray hair poking out from under his baseball cap attests to. He has no particular interest in building hours to take him to the next rung of the professional pilot ladder, either. He is already where he wants to be. As a matter of fact, he’s been there for a good long time. What makes Richard Johnson truly unique among the ranks of professional CFIs is the airplane he does a fair portion of his flight instructing in. It’s an Air Cam, an experimental, kit-built, twin-engine aircraft that Richard himself was intimately involved in building. It boasts a horsepower-to-weight ratio that would be the envy of any certified light twin, and has as open a cockpit as you can possibly imagine while still having a structure that can be called a cockpit. In short, it is the very embodiment of industrial strength, kick-in-the-pants, fun flying.
When Johnson first began running a few discrete ads for multiengine add-on training in select aviation publications, he got a quick flurry of responses. There was a good reaction from curious potential clients. But totally unexpectedly, a good number of them were from other CFIs. These calls and e-mails came from other professionals who ran the emotional gamut from being amused at what they perceived as Richard’s regulatory ignorance, to a few who were downright belligerent about someone despoiling their profession by trying to sell his services in an illegal manner. After all, everybody knows you can’t rent an experimental aircraft.
A few of those instructors came away from their encounter with one of central Florida’s pioneering experimental entrepreneurs with an education, a new idea, and an eye on the future. One or two might have come away with elevated blood pressure too, I’m sure. But the fact of the matter is, Johnson is complying with the regulations fully when he rents his experimental aircraft and his time to a client for training. As a CFI, working under the EAA‘s Exemption #7162, Johnson can legally rent his experimental aircraft, and provide perfectly valid and valuable flight training to his clients in it.
A Training Course Unlike Most, But Not Totally Foreign Either
As it turns out, the question of whether Johnson is willing to rent solo time or only dual hasn’t had the opportunity to come about. He rapidly became busy enough with his experimental venture that there is no time left on the calendar for solo rentals to be booked. What he primarily offers is a training course for pilots who wish to add a multiengine rating to their existing single-engine ticket. He offers both Private and Commercial multi training, with the caveat that it must be in the quest for an add-on. The training exemption the EAA has granted him doesn’t allow for primary flight training. But even with that limitation, there has been no dearth of students knocking at Johnson’s door. At any given time he may be working with as many as six pilots who are in search of a multi rating. A student/teacher ratio that many a CFI would be happy with.
Since the Air Cam is a taildragger in an increasingly tricycle gear world, Johnson’s students also walk away from their multi training experience with the added bonus of a taildragger sign-off. This may help explain the grins they seem to have such trouble getting off their faces for so long after they have left Johnson’s presence.
Johnson’s multiengine add-on training package is currently listed at $1195, which covers all required ground instruction and 5.0 to 5.5 hours of flight time. Students who need additional training time buy it at the rate of $150 per hour – a price that is based on a wet hour of dual flight time, with Johnson providing instruction. However, Johnson admits that few of his students have required the additional time in order to be prepared for their checkride. It isn’t all that uncommon for students to opt for an extra hour or two just for the fun of it, though.
Having said all that, it’s still worth remembering that the nuts and bolts of business is money. So let’s at least take a glance at the specifics of that touchy subject.
Dollars and Sense – The True Measure of an Aviation Business
The Air Cam is pricy as kit aircraft go. But then, so are pretty much all aircraft with more than one powerplant bolted to the airframe. In the case of Johnson’s Air Cam, those powerplants are Rotax 912Ss, capable of putting out in the neighborhood of 100 horsepower apiece. The four-stroke, liquid-cooled, Rotax engine is fast becoming the standard in experimental aircraft. And although the cost is less than a certified engine of similar horsepower might run you, it is still a shade more than most people carry around for lunch money. With basic instrumentation, the 912Ss, props, and not much else, the Air Cam’s bottom line is in the neighborhood of $100,000. Not exactly chicken feed, but not quite what a new Cessna will cost you either.
Being a kit airplane, there is then a period of time when you will have to actually build the machine. Johnson has had a long association with ultralights and experimentals going back a number of years. So this wasn’t his first construction project. However, it was his first multiengine kit. Somewhere in that process of building, a fair amount of confidence in the machine also built up. Few pilots have as intimate a knowledge of their aircraft as those who have put theirs together from the ground up.
The payoff in the Air Cam’s use comes in the actual operation. “It should cost us about … in the neighborhood of $35 per hour to operate the airplane,” says Johnson. An enviable rate for a multiengine machine whose task it is to help earn a living for its owner.
Maintenance is a breeze since so much of the aircraft is exposed. And, as any airplane owner knows, simplified maintenance translates to lower-cost maintenance. This is one area that is a real concern for anyone operating an aircraft on a schedule, and a budget. The engines are mounted on top of the parasol wing, with their radiators attached flush with the upper wing surface. Uncowled as they are, the engines can be inspected and worked on with minimal fuss. Control cable runs are largely exposed, and the Dacron sailcloth material covering the wings is fitted with good-sized zippers, allowing inspection of the interior of the wing structure to be quick and easy. The fuselage is of an aluminum monocoque construction and so open that it can be inspected without any significant time being wasted removing interior obstructions like seats and carpeting.
Those engines that are so peculiarly arranged in a pusher configuration burn a miserly 4.8 gph in cruise. That meager consumption is their combined usage, incidentally, not what they burn apiece! And to make the intriguing even more attractive, that fuel is more often than not 93 octane auto fuel, not 100LL AvGas. The Rotaxes are designed to run on unleaded auto fuel, or Mogas as it is often referred to at the airport. Many airports do not stock this fuel so far, and Johnson admits “I really wish they had it available here on the field,” when he talks about his home airport, Gilbert Field. Until they do begin to carry his brand, he tanks up by trucking in gas cans from a gas station in town. But there is a bright side to the inconvenience of having to carry in your own fuel: It also means you get to comparison shop for the best price before buying, unlike the prevailing situation with most FBOs.
Training Exemption? We Don’t Need No Stinking Training Exemption!
The truth is, you do need the exemption if you want to rent out your experimental aircraft for training purposes. But it’s fairly simple for CFIs to obtain and comply with the exemption if they want to make the transition. What makes Johnson such a pioneer may be his willingness to branch out and maintain such a diverse menu of services that he is willing to offer his clientele. The first thing you need to join the party is a CFI ticket in your wallet. Johnson has been instructing for nearly 20 years in both land and seaplanes of both the single- and multi-engine variety. His next big trick, which is hardly a trick at all, is that he is an EAA member. That membership allows him to apply for, and be granted, the magical Exemption #7162 that allows him to rent his aircraft, and conduct training for profit in it. As with most aviation endeavors, that exemption has to be renewed at regular intervals, and there is a certain amount of paperwork that needs to be done. But as long as all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, Johnson has the go-ahead to train his students in an aircraft that the bulk of CFIs across America aren’t aware they can train in.
As with all rules, there are a few exceptions to what can and can’t be done with Exemption #7162. As was previously mentioned, student pilots cannot receive their primary training in an experimental aircraft for hire. Should the exemption holder’s EAA membership expire, the exemption is void as well. And perhaps most important of all to remember, the exemption extends to an individual owner and an individual aircraft. It is not a carte blanche wave-of-the-hand that allows you to rent out any experimental that you like at your whim. As an example, if Johnson should decide to add a second Air Cam to his line up, he would have to apply for a second exemption to cover that particular aircraft as well as the one he carries now.
Real Ratings or Experimental Fakes?
An interesting and somewhat unexpected bit of confusion about training in experimental aircraft that has come to Johnson’s attention is the belief that the multiengine ticket earned in the Air Cam isn’t a “real” multiengine rating. A surprising number of people, including a seasonal visitor to the area named Karl who happened by while Johnson and I were conducting our interview for this article, are under the impression that a multiengine rating earned in the Air Cam is not transferrable to certified aircraft. As Karl so aptly queried, “I couldn’t go fly a Baron after flying in this plane could I?” Johnson’s reply is good-natured and friendly, while still making the valid point that most newly minted multiengine pilots who earned their rating in a Piper Seminole wouldn’t want to jump into a Cessna 310 either, without going through a checkout first. But a multiengine rating is indeed a multiengine rating. Continuing your education through type-specific training is not only smart piloting, but your insurance carrier might have a strong opinion on the topic too. That remains true regardless of what type of machine you do your training or pleasure flying in.
Big, Slow, and Fabulous to Fly
The Air Cam’s fixed gear and wide open design may give the false impression that it is a toy airplane, unworthy of real pilots full of the right stuff. You know, the guys with rocket fuel in their veins, nerves of steel, and carloads of ice-cold determination. But in person, many are surprised to find that the Air Cam is actually quite large. The tail is nearly nine feet tall, which is considerable when you note that the aircraft is indeed a taildragger – meaning that the full measure of that empennage starts at ground level, not a couple feet above it as a tricycle gear airplane’s tail would be. As a matter of fact, the aircraft is so large that it barely fits into a standard-size T-hangar. In order to close the sliding door, Johnson has to park the airplane slightly off center so the nose doesn’t get clipped when he buttons up for the night. The nose extends right past the back edge of the first rolling door, while the trailing edge of the wing is literally inches from brushing against the wall at the middle of the hangar.
Still, as large as it is, the aircraft is slightly lighter than the ubiquitous C-150 trainer when fully loaded, although it packs twice the horsepower. Takeoff in most general aviation aircraft consists of firewalling the throttle, waiting several seconds for the speed to build, rotating, then waiting some more until eventually a liftoff takes place if all goes well. In the Air Cam, fitted with Rotax 912Ss, the throttles never get anywhere close to the stops. The airplane accelerates so rapidly and is in the air so fast I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the ground that made it fall away so fast. And as taildraggers go, this is one beauty of a ground-handling machine. The substantial distance from the mains to the tail wheel makes ground control a breeze, with minimal over-controlling by neophytes who otherwise might have a tendency to swing and sway all over the taxiways.
It’s All About Diversity and Professionalism
In the long run, there is plenty of room for all sorts of aircraft and a wide variety of instructional techniques in general aviation. It is a sure bet that over time Johnson and his Air Cam will be joined by a host of others who are offering specialized flight training in experimental aircraft of every stripe – singles, multi’s, seaplanes, and who knows what else. But until then, rest assured that there is at least one CFI out there doing something truly unique, and making a living at it while grinning contentedly through his wind-in-the-hair, fun-flying day.
It’s enough to give the rest of us hope for a brighter tomorrow.
[Note: AVweb previously published a review of the Air Cam by Dave Higdon.]