MR RON AND HIS REMARKABLE FLYING MACHINE
Published by Lindsay Johannsen at Shakespir
Copyright Lindsay Johannsen 2017
Shakespir Edition Licence Notes.
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National Library Of Australia Cataloguing-in-publication data:
Author: Johannsen, Lindsay Andrew
Title: Mr Ron And His Remarkable Flying Machine
Cover art and design bungled by the author.
Also published at Shakespir by one’s sylph: the novels “McCullock’s Gold” and “The Cassidy Chronicles”, plus poems, some short story rubbish, “travelogue” things, children’s stories and Christmas Stories.
To order the McCullock’s Gold paperback version or contact the author please visit
MR RON AND HIS REMARKABLE FLYING MACHINE
G’day. A little while back I was in the supermarket doing some grocery shopping when I happened to meet my good and great friend Jim Thomas. “What are you like at after-dinner speaking?” he asked, following an exchange of pleasantries (and with just a hint of anxiety in his voice, I thought). “See we have this anniversary event coming up at the Aviation Museum Saturday afternoon,” he explained, “followed by a dinner, and…”
“Lousy,” I told him quickly. “Totally hopeless – crowd phobia, panic attacks, cold sweats…”
“Thanks,” he replied. “I knew I could count on you. Three or four thousand words should do the job.”
“… dyslexia, double vision, laryngitis, fainting episodes…”
“Come on,” he continued encouragingly. “Be a mate; give us a hand here. From what I hear, you can cobble up something interesting before breakfast every morning, blindfolded with one hand behind your back.”
I ignored the flattery and just stood there staring into the middle distance, my face hewn granite, all cold and impassive.
Jim is a true flying enthusiast and has been for most of his life. I was, too, for a time – in my own way; during a previous lifetime – but only to the thousandth part compared with Jim. In fact his aeroplane adventures would fill a book, were he to put his mind to it.
And sure, I write the odd bit of nonsense from time to time – for my own amusement, mostly. I mean nobody in their right mind would want to read the stuff.
In the main it’s to keep the mighty brain occupied until beer o’clock, when our little band of genteel senior pisspot self-alleged sophisticates gather in the front bar of the local watering hole to continue our long-standing discussions on world affairs, women in general and the wankers we’re supposed to believe are running the joint.
“Tell you what,” Jim added, homing in on a perceived possible weakness (God knows how he suspected). “Why don’t I drop into the pub about four o’clock Friday afternoon and shout you a beer while I check out what you’re going to say,” (…all of which will show you just how desperate the fellow was). And, being known as a man of principle, I naturally replied in the affirmative – from which you may draw your own conclusions.
The point I’m making here, my friends, is that responsibility for the following monologue rests squarely on the head of J. Thomas Esquire, and, should you get the urge to throw cutlery or other items of tableware, please be good enough to direct your missiles at him.
Now the account I am about to relate is essentially true and, given that it involves certain dubious elements of one’s own affaires aeronautique, I will take the opportunity to apologise in advance for what may seem an excessive use of personal pronouns. The fact is, in such circumstances it’s difficult to avoid the buggers.
And so I now present, at great expense and embarrassment to the museum’s management committee…
“Mr Ron And His Remarkable Flying Machine”
Some time during the early 1970’s, a widely popular weekly magazine called The Australasian Post carried a story about a fellow named Ron Wheeler and the little plane he’d designed and built.
It wasn’t a model. The thing was pictured airborne with him piloting it. In the article he described it as a “minimum aircraft” and said that he’d named it “The Skycraft Scout”.
To many this article came as a revelation. I mean you weren’t allowed to do that sort of thing. There were Rules, and those within the (then) Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) took these rules Very Seriously. Any would-be back-yard aeroplane enthusiasts found putting together elements of something of an aeronautical nature without the appropriate DCA approvals and certifications had their ambitions quickly and thoroughly crushed (whether an intention to attempt flying the thing existed or not).
In fact, just a year or two prior to this I’d heard on ABC Radio how a couple of blokes in rural Queensland had been charged with the heinous and despicable crime of … “Constructing an aircraft fuselage”.
I mean just about it! Maniacs building their own aeroplanes and then flying them around the place?!!
Mayhem! The end of civilization even!
Yet here was Ron Wheeler in a widely circulated national magazine, pictured flying an entire aeroplane (for want of better words), which he’d designed and built himself. And not only was he piloting the thing, he was apparently doing so sans an appropriate licence, and was selling the buggers as well!
And by golly, “minimum” was the right word here, for other than engine and landing gear, the whole thing had been constructed from an inordinately small amount of readily-available, hobby-type sailing materials.
His fuselage was an extruded aluminium sailing mast. Attached at the appropriate position each side of this were two, smaller section masts, into each of which was drawn a sail – much in the nature of two small mainsails set bottom end to bottom end and lashed to an “angle of attack” bracket on the fuselage. These sails (or “wings”, to use a more technical term) were held in the shape of airfoils by a number of curved aluminium tubes located in specially sown pockets.
A light A-frame and suspended post under the wings held the wheels, flight stick and seat, while a rudder and tail at the rear gave flight control. Power came from a front-mounted modified Victa motor mower engine, and a bicycle chain turned Mr Ron’s laminated-wood propeller via a reduction drive.
The entire assemblage was braced and tensioned with steel cables, the fuselage top-wise over a king post and below via the A-frame, and the wings forward against their fuselage fixings, below to the A-frame wheel mounts and top-wise over the kingpost.
Interestingly, there were no rudder pedals. Instead the Scout had two-axis controls, courtesy of its wings’ high dihedral angle, its pilot providing a low centre-of-mass, and a full-flying rudder and tail.
As I was to later discover, left and right flight stick application in calm early morning conditions gave it very precise turn and bank characteristics, though as a day progressed and the desert air began to move it could be tossed about like a butterfly. As a result I quickly learned not to attempt flying the thing between 9.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. on a hot summers day, in anything greater than about a five to eight knot breeze, or at any time when the possibility of encountering severe turbulence existed.
Awash with envy I stared at the magazine’s images. I wanted one, of course. Not because of some all-consuming cosmic obsession held since early childhood, wherein I saw myself wheeling above the earth’s surface as free as a bird or anything like that. I mean many of us experience that sort of thing on a recurring, day-to-day lifetime basis, but never actually do anything about it. In many instances this is because (to quote someone far wiser than myself): “If God had wanted mankind to fly He’d have given us more money”.
Naah. My desire was much much deeper and far more profound – an urgent, primeval, instant-gratification gut-feeling thing that involved no actual thought processes whatever. And, needless to say, not a great deal of time was to elapse before I was on my way to Sydney, the sooner to see Mr Ronald Wheeler’s aeroplane at his factory and to arrange a purchase.
But one never quite knows what to expect in situations like this, and Mr Ron, I soon discovered, was quite the abrasive little fellow. When I raised the question of legality he assured me that it was all done and dusted, and how he, single handedly, alone and by himself, had convinced the Department of Civil Aviation that a new regulation should be written to cover items such as the machine he was developing.
And the DCA Mandarins, seeing that a groundswell of interest was developing, realised in their Great Wisdom that if they were to not so write, then a vast multitude of enthusiasts would soon be beavering away in their back sheds at all manner of winged contraptions, with the intention of flying them off into the dawn of a bright new day (or picking up the wreckage and starting over). And so it came to pass that the Regulation ANO 95.10 was created.
But how had Mr Ron managed it? Judging from what he told me it must have taken a while, though after meeting the fellow I can imagine how it went.
They’d have said “Go away” any number of times, but being the sort of person he was this wouldn’t have even slowed him. He’d have kept going back – and back and back and back – plus phoning and writing and petitioning and chewing away generally at the Department’s obstructiveness.
And eventually the Department relented, “ANO 95.10” was put in place and Mr Ron was officially able to build and operate this … thing, this …winged device – by which time he would have long been flying it around a mate’s back paddock somewhere.
Now I’m only guessing here, but it’s entirely possible that Wheeler may not have been the only person urging the Department to act, given the increasing amount of ultralight (microlight) aircraft development and activity occurring overseas at the time – some examples of which, I must say, looked like nothing so much as a couple of airborne Hills Hoists caught in the act of mating.
Whatever the case, an urgent need will have been seen to keep the local like-minded loonies under control, and ANO 95.10 was put in place to do this. Interestingly, its terms were, at the same time, both generous and restrictive – generous in that no pilot training or licence was required; restrictive in the limitations it set.
From memory, in the main these were: maximum empty weigh 125 pounds (57 kg ); maximum height above ground 150 feet (46 metres), and sealed roads (should you happen to reside in those parts of Australia where these things exist) were not to be flown across.
Back at Skycraft, Mr Ron and his wife Gwen were, design and production-wise, way out in front of the pack, both locally and internationally, and neither were they suffering any shortage of customers. In fact, according to Gwen, they sold more aircraft in Australia that year than all of the other agencies combined.
Interestingly though, on my visit there, rather than Gwen selling me a kit, it seemed more like me having to talk her into parting with one – most likely in the hope of seeing some glimmer of level-headedness or proficiency show itself through a potential customer’s enthusiasm.
SO then, had I done any flying?
Well of course I had. I was an inaugural member of the Alice Springs Gliding Club, after all – established when I was eighteen. But conversation drifted back to the aircraft without my getting a chance to explain how my actual flying experience was somewhat limited, and how a tally of my hours would have been written using a zero, a decimal point, and one of the smaller-value numerals.
See, the problem was, I was never there. At the time I was fully occupied driving a road train for my father (old Bertha, now donated to The Road Transport Hall of Fame). We were carting cattle mostly, or hauling copper concentrates from the Peko Mine at Tennant Creek 500 K’s to the old narrow-gauge railhead here in Alice Springs .
And whenever I was able to show up at (what was then) the Connellan town-airstrip – now suburbs – it was totally without notice. All the scheduling would have long been arranged of course, so I’d be put on the tow vehicle to do a stint of towing.
Now as it happened, driving the four wheels, engine and chassis comprising the towmobile-contraption was quite an adventure. And this was never more so than when the tow-ee chose to remain on the towline until the tow cart had reached the end of the tow run and entered the tight turn-around loop, hard against Chinaman Creek. The problem here, was that one had to keep the tow line under tension until it was released from on high. I don’t know if anyone ever rolled the thing or finished up in the creek, but driving the old wreck certainly had its moments.
Meanwhile, back at Wheeler Aviation, one was trying desperately to not appear the complete flying novice.
Certainly one’d had some experience, and in the urgency of the moment much was made of going up with Wally Woods on instruction flights. Gwen didn’t ask how many times this had occurred so I didn’t bore her with needless trivia. I mean flying stories are all pretty much the same really.
(…it was twice.) And gosh; Wally said I was doing really well, and that a couple more lessons would most likely see me practically just about almost at the point of going solo.
Nearly. Before much longer. Without a great deal more instruction.
And so Gwen took my money, I returned to our little homestead in the Central Australian bush, and in due course the aeroplane kit arrived in Alice Springs.
As soon as I could manage it I was heading to town in our truck to collect my prize – along with the usual load of fuel, stores and supplies etc.
At home again, truck unloaded and Sunday being Sunday, I set about assembling Mr Ron’s aircraft-kit. This was just a matter of reading the hand written manual, attaching the nuts, bolts and cables to their various fixture points, pulling the wing tensioning cords tight in the appropriate sequence and attaching the motor and fuel tank etc – tasks you would not unreasonably expect me to have carried out with a great deal of care and attention.
And then, after double checking my double checked double checking, this magnificent chariot of the sky was ready for its inaugural test flight.
How beautifully calm the day was, I remember observing, and how firmly my bride and flower of the early mid-morning had declined to come out and watch as I took to the heavens.
Out on our nearby, 1500 metre Flying Doctor rated air strip I went over everything again, checking and rechecking each particular item. And with every fixture and fitting on the airframe and controls out in the daylight and visible for inspection there’d be no leaving half the undercarriage or anything else behind where this fledgling aeronautical aviator was concerned.
Finally all had been accounted for, present and correct, and I began a careful running-up of the motor – a handy nearby stump anchoring the rope attached to the aircraft’s tail-end tether point. And, with the engine performing as expected, the next item on the agenda was to climb into the cockpit and try a bit of tentative taxying – to get the feel of the Scout’s behaviour, it being a giggle-headed tail-dragger.
Naturally, being by habit a cautious sort of fellow, it wasn’t until reaching the second fifty metre mark that I advanced the throttle to full power and eased back on the flight stick.
And in an instant we were airborne and flying!
…in ground effect anyway: altitude four foot six.
After a hundred metres or so I eased the flight stick back a little more to gain height, but for some reason the altitude didn’t increase beyond five metres or so.
Okay, I thinks to meself. Thirteen hundred metres to the end of the strip. No trying a one eighty degree turn just yet. I’ll just land straight ahead and leave that for the second take off.
But what was happening? We were losing altitude. Stick back a little…
To no avail. We were back on terra firma. And several more attempts at straight and level flight gave the same result.
So what was wrong?
Back at the workshop I tethered the aircraft to a post using a rope with a tension-scale attached – an old Imperial butchers’ scale – the idea being to test the engine and propeller’s full-power thrust.
The next morning I rang Mr Ron with the result. Ninety-five pounds, I told him. (44 kg.)
He bridled straight away. Ninety-five pounds is fine, he said. It’s just poor airmanship on your part. Blokes are flying them all around the Blue Mountains down here – a statement that in hindsight was probably as reliable as the earlier aeronautical comments of my own.
See Mr Ron didn’t like anything but admiration for his achievements, and even the slightest element of criticism concerning his aircraft seemed to be taken personally. Not that he wasn’t willing to help. He’d give you all the advice in the world. You just had to be circumspect in wording your questions.
As mentioned before, Wheeler’s power plants were beefed-up Victa motor-mower engine conversions. They ran well and were perfectly reliable. There was also nothing to ‘em and they were a breeze to work on, so over the next few days I raised the compression a couple of millibleems and open the ports a bit, following which I convinced myself that the engine sounded a good deal sassier. I also shaved a whisker from the leading edge of the propeller to reduce its pitch – much in the manner of using a slightly lower gear ratio.
The scale now pulled a hundred and three point five pounds (47 kg) – probably as a result of my fiddling with the propeller more than anything else – so about nine the next morning I took the Scout back to the strip to try again. And, as luck would have it (and totally unbeknown to the person holding the flight stick), just as the aircraft rose from the ground it entered a broad mass of gently lifting air.
Success! thinks that person, sitting there twenty metres up. Caution’s the catchword here, though. Turn to the left a few… (Sorry…) to Port a few degrees … then to Starboard a few degrees … then back to the centerline. Fly straight and level to the end of the strip, ease off the power … and touchdown.
Hey; too easy!
Now I was certain: the plane flew beautifully; all I had to do was grit my teeth a bit harder.
Okay then: engine idling, roll to a stop, out of the seat, lift the tail, turn the aircraft about – not a breath of wind showing in the trees about the place to complicate the issue, so we’ll do it again – only this time we’ll fly a U turn at the other end and repeat.
…only it didn’t quite turn out as expected.
You see, that extra smidgen of thrust had certainly made a difference, but the result was not as great as the previous lift-assisted flight had led me to believe. In fact – despite my new-found confidence – the plane still lacked power enough to maintain straight and level flight.
So off we went on the return leg, me and the little aeroplane, again doing the gentle turning to Port and to Starboard … except that this time we ventured a little farther afield.
Not more than a few tens of metres from the landing ground, you understand, and on the face of it safe enough (one would have assumed), but undeniably beyond the airstrip’s cleared surface.
Meanwhile, as ever, the immutable laws of physics were beavering away, and without going into too much detail about how we actually arrived in such a situation, me and Mr Ron’s Remarkable Flying Machine found ourselves making our way through a stand of metre and a half juvenile ironwood saplings – still under full power I hasten to say, but at barely a metre’s altitude and less than ten K’s per hour.
Oh, we’d managed to point ourselves toward the runway all right; we just hadn’t managed to change our actual direction of flight.
Now you’ll appreciate that a minimum aircraft with a broken back will be a sorry looking affair – with its metal all bent and twisted and its sails and silver cabling draped loosely over the adjacent shrubbery – but it will never look as sorry, I’m sure you’ll agree, than when viewed from the position of the pilot’s seat.
This was only revealed, however, after the ignition had been cut and most of the dust and shredded ironwood leaves filling the air had settled.
Probably time for a rethink, was the conclusion I believe I reached, as I set about untangling myself from the wreckage prior to trudging back to the house.
And it was shortly after arriving back there that my brother Dave suggested in a phone conversation that I contact a bloke he knew in Adelaide who made racing motors for competition go-carts.
“No worries,” said the Adelaide man when I explained my dilemma. “I can do that.” And, as good as his word, he put together for me a 125 cc Yamaha motor, complete with his special tuned-powerband exhaust system.
I mean this here engine was a real power plant!
And so, after acquiring a new fuselage and sundry other parts from Mr Ron and investing a substantial amount of time in making an engine-appropriate larger-diameter propeller and flat-belt reduction drive transmission, we were airborne again, only this time it was in an aeroplane that would climb under power like a turbocharged V8 dune buggy up a sand hill.
So don’t ever imagine that the Scout was not a sound aircraft, because it was. Its problems lay entirely with the motor. Properly powered, Wheeler’s plane flew beautifully.
In the early morning air or the late afternoon it was a joy, whether five metres up or fifty (or five hundred for that matter). But by far the most fun was had when weaving it in and around the well spaced ghost gums out from the air strip at five or so metres above the spinifex.
On the face of it this seems insane, but I only ever did it in perfectly still air, at thirty-odd K’s (about 20 mph). It was like flying in an air race but in super slow-motion, as in still-air conditions the Scout’s two axis controls were absolutely precise. And so much so was this that one could execute a 180 degree turn inside the 100 metres cleared width of the air strip, with the inside wingtip just a metre and a half from the ground, and do it in absolute confidence.
On the other hand, while heading home one day from a cross country jaunt, I flew into a huge area of lifting air, and watched in awe as the Jervois Range escarpments shrank away beneath me. I don’t know how high we finished up that day, but the rest of the flight home was down hill all the way with the engine throttled back to an idle. In fact for a time it was difficult to see that we were actually moving relative to the ground.
Mr Ron was not happy about the new engine. I tried to explain about our height above sea level and local air-temperature density issues, situated as we were on the northern margins of the Simpson Desert, but to no avail. It was poor airmanship on my part, he said, plain and simple; there was nothing wrong with his plane or its engine.
But flying around in a Victa powered Scout was okay for Mr Ron, as he wouldn’t have weighed more than sixty kilos wringing wet – where at the time I would have, um… And the cooler, more dense lower altitude air where he was operating would have been helpful as well. I note with interest, too, Wikipedia’s mention of a more powerful engine option becoming available with later models.
One weekend during a visit to Sydney I went out to where his little group of enthusiasts were taking to the air, only to discover that their down-sloping airstrip was on some elevated grassy ground overlooking what appeared to be wheat fields. This meant that anyone taking off there would soon have a free eighty or a hundred metres altitude over the adjoining wheat fields and landing ground.
No wonder Mr Ron and his little group of Victa-powered Scout owners were doing so well. They were flying down hill, then landing presumably at the lower level somewhere and then transporting their aircraft back up to the take off point.
A few years later I was to acquire a Canadian ultralight called a Chinook. And what a great little aeroplane! …except that it was more akin to a little knock-about truck than any enthusiast’s flying machine. It featured a fully enclosed cockpit and wheelbarrow wheels, and its Rotax engine and pusher propeller was situated behind the cabin, close to the centre of mass.
It could also carry a load. Besides one’s self it could take on forty litres of fuel plus an extra jerrycan, a tool box, a tucker box, and some water and a swag.
I mean you could actually go off and do stuff way beyond a Scout’s range, like get an overview of difficult-to-access geological formations, check windmill operations and the water level in stock tanks, or attend a broken down vehicle.
We had some wild and woolly adventures, too, me and that little yellow buggy, though with none of the below-treetop nonsense mentioned earlier. In all aspects the Chinook was an entirely different aircraft, and my natural habit when cruising around the place was to keep three or four hundred metres clear of the spinifex.
But it was certainly safe. It had a good glide ratio and didn’t really stall. Instead, with its eleven metre span and big wing area, you could fly it to a standstill, engine idling, and execute a straight-and-level “parachute” or “mush condition” descent. And, with its large tailfin and 95 percent of its mass close to the centre of lift, it could not be made to spin. (As Wikipedia notes in the factory’s test flight summary: “Spin testing, entered from level flight, turning stalls and snap rolls failed to produce a spin condition, as the WT-11 Chinook would just mush back to level flight.”
This technique was advised in an emergency landing situation, should you find yourself over water or have no clear area on which to roll out. With no extra loading, the Chinook’s descent rate in this configuration was around eight feet per second. Its arrival back on Planet Earth would jar your teeth a bit and bend the wheel spars, but that was about all.
And I speak from experience here, when, via some inexplicable means, the fairies lodged a tiny flake of foreign material under one of the fuel pump valves. I got it fixed okay, but had a busy half hour clearing ant hills and shrubbery from a patch of ground a couple hundred metres away before dragging the plane backwards there via a meandering route through the scrub.
(…and later having to straighten the wheel spar tubes.)
Overall, though, there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever: flying the Chinook was great, but it wasn’t quarter the fun that Mr Ron’s Skycraft Scout was. See this is what the Scout was all about. It was an out and out fun machine, pure and simple.
You couldn’t carry anything. …Well, except for some letters inside your shirt perhaps or a lunch parcel on your lap. But as mentioned earlier, adequately powered, Mr Ron’s Remarkable Flying Machine was just the most wonderful Big Boy’s Toy you could possibly imagine.
© L A Johannsen