The BD-5 series of unbelievably-tiny, high-performance airplanes is a study in stark contrasts. Originally conceived by entrepreneurial engineer Jim Bede during the homebuilt airplane craze of the late 1960's, the BD-5 was intended to be easy to afford, easy to build, and easy to fly. The product that Bede ultimately delivered checked none of those boxes. The original propeller-driven BD-5 was among the best-selling aircraft kits ever produced, yet only a small percentage has ever been completed and flown. Thanks to appearances in the movie Octopussy, and numerous high-profile marketing campaigns, the jet-powered BD-5J was a wildly-popular cultural icon during the 1980's. The airplane's fame, however, could almost be considered posthumous. Bede Aircraft Company had already gone belly-up and most BD-5 kits languished in dark corners of hangars, garages, and barns…abandoned by owners who were unable to build them or too scared to fly them.
The story of the BD-5 is not over just yet. In spite of its sketchy past, the airplane's fighter-like appearance and bantam size still attract budget-minded pilots with a speed jones. One of those pilots is Justin Lewis. Actually, Lewis's involvement with the BD-5J goes several steps deeper than just ownership. He helped to develop a substantially improved and modernized variant of the tiny jet. When he is not test flying recently-completed airframes or checking out aspiring mini-jet pilots, Lewis and his pint-sized ride can be seen performing at airshows or lurking on military radar screens.
I recently talked with Justin to find out more about his airplane and what it is like to fly it.
Tested: One of your gigs involves flying a 17-foot-wingspan jet at airshows all around the US. What is that like?
Justin Lewis – I remember someone telling me that if you're going to do an airshow, you've got to be one of two things: extraordinarily good, or unique. I just think it's easier to be unique.
People are captivated by the airplane's miniature size. You're taking the impossible and making it possible by putting a human inside of this small machine. I love to demonstrate how wonderful and graceful this jet airplane can actually be. It's just amazing.
So you don't do any crazy stunts like inverted limbo passes or flying through barns?
[laughs] No, nothing like that. I'd love to do that sort of stuff, I just it need it to have some kind of benefit. Right now, honestly, people just look at it and say, 'Wow, that thing flies!' At that point, I've basically done my job. Anything else I add on is unnecessary risk. But trust me…I think about it.
How did you first become interested in the BD-5J?
I was one of those kids who watched the Coors Light Silver Bullet streak past me at airshows in the 80's. I only saw it a couple times, but I'll tell you…seeing that stuck with me. It was such a rare thing to even see one fly. It was amazing what it could do performance-wise, and you just couldn't believe that something so small could do that. It was like a for-real magic trick that's right there in front of you.
On top of that, when you see this small machine up close, you kind of look at it and you go 'Oh my gosh…I can do this someday. This isn't a multi-million dollar fighter.' It makes you dream. At least it did for me.
The airplane you fly is called the FLS Microjet, what is its lineage to the BD-5J?
With the BD-5J, I thought, 'This is a project I would love to tackle.' But I'm a realist too. I knew that no one had ever successfully built a BD-5J outside of the Bede factory. People have rebuilt existing BD-5Js. Other people have taken prop-driven BD-5s and put jet engines in them with mixed results.
I'm not an engineer with a ton of skill putting airplanes together or a lot of building experience. I saw myself more as a manager, so I attacked the project from that approach. I went out and started figuring out, 'Why did everybody fail?' From that, I created a few rules for myself.
One of those rules was really centric on quality. I looked to make sure that I would never sacrifice quality at any turn. I wouldn't go putting boat parts in the airplane, or anything like that. Quality and money have this curve where they always have to meet up. I saw that money often drove people to make decisions that affected the quality of their airplanes. I decided that if work had to stop because I didn't have the money, then work would stop.
I wanted to look at this airplane that had historically been unsafe and ask, 'What were the safety issues with this thing and how could we mitigate those specific issues to make something that people could rely on?'
I didn't start from absolute scratch. I found BD-Micro Technologies, a father and son team…Ed Karnes, who had been a SR-71 floor engineer for Lockheed back in the day, and his son, Richard. He doesn't like to admit he's an engineer, but he is. After the Bede factory closed, a lot of the parts fell in their lap. They offered services to the BD-5 kit owners which helped people actually get these things built. For instance, you could send them your kit and they would predrill all of the rivet holes using their jigs. That was a huge benefit for people.
Skeeter [Ed] had taken this BD-5 design and every part, every system on it…he couldn't help but look at it and say 'Man, I can do that better.' When I came along about 20 years into their adventure, I realized very quickly that they had incrementally improved almost every system on the airplane. But it was still a little bit convoluted since they were usually helping people with individual parts of their build. I said, 'Let's put it all together and sell it as an entire kit.' So we took all of those little improvements and made the FLS (Flight Line Series) Microjet. We took 5 years to put this thing together. Many of the earlier improvements they had made were wonderful, but we still had to go through and analyze it all again.
Did you retain the BD-5's very unique retractable landing gear?
Yes, the world's fastest landing gear! They'll retract or extend in less than half a second. It's driven by a mechanical lever in the cockpit. If you move really slow, it's actually kind of hard to get it all the way. But if you do a nice continuous stroke…boy, they just snap right down or snap right up.
We reversed the lever so that when I push it away from me, the gear is up. In the original design, if you pushed away, the gear was down. We did that because it is a bit of a space-saving comfort feature while you're flying.
What are some of the performance figures for the FLS Microjet?
The efficiency for a single-place jet airplane is just through-the-roof compared to your next best option, which is something like an L-39 [Aero L-39 Albatros – a Czechoslovakian military jet trainer. Surplus examples can be purchased by private owners]. So you're looking at a million dollars when you go up to that next step.
250 knots indicated airspeed is the maximum speed of the aircraft. At about 6,000 feet, which is a good altitude for a pilot without oxygen on and it's not too cold, you're looking at about 220 knots at full power. That's pretty remarkable because you're only burning about 30 gallons of fuel per hour in this 416-pound jet.
Around 170 knots is a sweet spot where it just loves to operate. It's very efficient. You're probably burning 17 to 19 gallons per hour. You get a really good range out of it. Even better than that is how the airplane operates in the slow regime. I can fly this airplane all the way down to 70 knots with the flaps down…then a little bit slower to get to the stall speed.
The roll rate is much faster than your average general aviation airplane, but it's not as fast as an aerobatic airplane. It's definitely very sporty, but it's not the fastest roll rate…which I appreciate. It makes it feel like a jet.
The range is about 170 miles. I tell people that you could take it from Oklahoma City to Dallas with no problem. But it's not a cross-country airplane…this is a sport airplane. It's meant to go out, turn upside down, have a lot of fun, feel like you're in some sort of a fighter, and then come back and talk about it with your buddies. If you want to go somewhere, you can't even take a second pair of underwear in this thing.
So, I assume you have to trailer your jet from place to place?
I do. I take all of my stuff and a crew chief when I go to these airshows. It only takes me about half an hour to put the airplane together or take it apart. That, of course, depends on people. Because when the little jet comes out of the trailer, everybody wants to come talk to you. That can increase those numbers pretty quickly…but that's okay.
Other than airshows, what do you do with your jet?
I work with Bob Bishop, one of my childhood heroes. He calls those original Coors Light Silver Bullet BD-5Js SMARTs…Small Manned Aerial Reconnaissance Target. They look like cruise missiles on radar. We pretend to be that very thing.
It's historically very expensive for our [military] guys to train towards the threat of having cruise missiles attacking the United States, or our ships, or even our allies. The government has learned, that for a really cheap cost, they can have us fly these cruise missile-looking airplanes, and pretend to shoot us down. It has everything to do with tracking small targets on radar.
What kind of pilot does it take to fly this kind of airplane?
The airplane is actually very easy to fly. But it's a single engine airplane and there isn't a lot of crash protection for the pilot. You don't a have a big piston engine in the nose that can smash through a tree in case you have to land off the runway.
When I talk to potential kit buyers, I'm looking for different types of experience. Turbine time is the least important thing. I'm looking for variation of experience. More importantly, I'm looking for a certain decision-making demeanor. I need the conservative pilot that I can detect makes the disciplined, correct decision…not the impulsive pilot that says, 'I want to buzz my house.'
As I explain to people, you cant' be okay 99.9% of the time. In this airplane, you have to live 100% of the time. The consequences in an airplane without any crash protection for the pilot are just too great to not be ahead of the airplane
What is your piloting background?
I've flown quite a few military aircraft over the years. I just pinch myself every day over the aircraft that I've been able to fly, like the F-14 Tomcat. I flew something called the E-6B Mercury, which is different than EA-6B Prowler. It is a Boeing 707 variant.
I taught in the T-45 Goshawk. Then I went into the Air National Guard and switched to the A-10 Warthog, which is the tank-killer everybody knows. I did a tour in Afghanistan in the A-10 and then eventually transferred to the Oklahoma Air National Guard. Now I fly the MC-12. The MC-12 is a Beechcraft King Air 350 variant and we primarily fly an ISR mission [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance].
Of all those airplanes, do you have a favorite?
Probably the A-10. The A-10 is more capable of doing its job than anything else I have ever flown. There's no other plane that supports the troops like the A-10 does.
What's on tap for 2017?
I'll probably do 10 airshows in 2017, beginning in Brownsville, Texas in February.
Many thanks to Justin Lewis for sharing his story and his experiences keeping the world's smallest jet relevant for another generation of aviation fans. Be sure to check out Justin's 2017 airshow schedule on the FLS Microjet website. You can also follow Justin on Facebook.
All photos courtesy of Glenn Watson of MachPointOneAviation.com and Justin Lewis
Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.