First flight story of Smith DSA-1 Miniplane (N671EC c/n 1971) by Elmer Carlson
The place was the airport at St. Maries, Idaho. The date was September 22, 1971. The occasion was the first flight of the Smith Miniplane I had completed after six agonizing, frustrating, joyful, fun filled years.
I had planned for this flight to be in June of 1971 and requested the registration number N671EC for the date of the first flight and my initials. However, this time frame didn't work out. So much for plans.
Dale Mumford, the FAA representative from Spokane met me at the airport about 9:00AM to perform his last inspection and give his OK for the first flight. He asked me what I had done since the last inspection. I replied, "Well, I tried some taxi tests and had trouble with the left brake. It stuck and caused me to almost do a ground loop to the left. So I had to remove the lower end of the left front flying wire and the panel behind it so I could get at the brake cylinder. I hope it is fixed now and won't give any more trouble."
Dale started to inspect the area I mentioned, but a plane landing interrupted us. It turned out to be Walt Redfern, my good friend and avid builder of homebuilt airplanes. I had called him the night before and asked if he had a parachute I could borrow for the flight today. Walt brought a couple friends with him. He also brought the parachute, but told me not to use it because it hadn't been packed for several years and probably wouldn't open.
We stood around talking about various subjects while Dale continued to inspect the Miniplane. He finally announced it was ready for flight. Then he turned to me and said, "I need to see your pilots license and current physical". I just happened to havethem with me and satisfied him that all was in readiness.
Another plane arrived. It was a Cherokee 180 piloted by my good friend Bob Conway accompanied by his wife, Suzanne and two of his sons, George and Loren. They brought Bob's 8mm movie camera so they would be able to photograph this earth-shaking event. I was really glad to see Bob; we have been best friends since we were in High School. He not only gave me support during the building of the Miniplane, but he built most of the ribs for the top wing and machined the instrument panel, among other things.
As I remember, September 22, the second day of autumn, was a clear day with a few fluffy clouds and a slight breeze out of the East. It was rather cool, but not cold. All in all a pretty good day to test fly a new airplane.
Just as I was getting ready climb into the cockpit, my wife Shirley and my Mom (Leila) drove up. Shirley was very familiar with the Miniplane, she had patiently watched the progress for the last six years, and so was very glad to see it finally finished. My Mom (76 years old at the time), who had supported me on all of my projects, walked over to me and said, "Well you finally did it." I gave her a big smile and answered, "Not yet, I'm still going to have to fly it to see if it works."
Since the Miniplane did not have an electrical system, it was necessary to start the engine by hand propping it. I asked Bob if he would do the honors and he accepted. After climbing into the cockpit and fastening my seat belt, I nodded to him and he approached the front of the plane and said, "Brakes". I applied pressure to both toe brakes and repeated, "Brakes".
He pulled the prop through about five turns and called out, "Switch on". I turned the switch to both mags and repeated, "Switch on". The 125 hp Lycoming 0290 engine started on the first pull.
I remembered the first time we tried to start it after I had completed assembly and installed it. The plane was tied down outside my brother's shop. My friend Ellis volunteered to prop it. The oil level was correct and the fuel tank was full. Ellis pulled it through a few times and called, "switch on". I called "switch on," after turning the switch to both. He pulled it through and it didn't start. I really didn't expect it to start so easily, but after about twenty minutes of propping, it still didn't start. Ellis had worked up a real sweat and I was really getting worried, however during a thorough check of everything that needed checking, I found out that I had not turned the gas on. What an embarrassing moment. Ellis wasn't very happy about that either. I turned the valve on and the engine started on the next pull. What a relief. My confidence was restored.
As I taxied toward the West end of the field, past the grim faced spectators assembled to witness this event, my thoughts drifted back to some of the events leading up to this day. I thought of the many tiny 1/4 in (6 mm) nails used to nail the 1/16 in (1.6 mm) plywood gussets to the wing ribs to hold the gusset in place until the glue dried. Also, the year that the project was completely idle for lack of interest and motivation. Finally, I made a commitment to work on it every day if only for 15 minutes. It worked and the plane was slowly completed.
As I neared the area set apart to check the engine, I had a feeling almost like when I completed my first solo back in 1945. It was a feeling of miserable joy. That time I knew the airplane would fly, but I wasn't so sure about me. This time I was confident that I could fly, but I wasn't 100 percent sure about the airplane, but that is what first flights are for. I sent a short prayer heavenward that both the airplane and I would function properly and that the flight would be successful. Everything checked out OK when I did the cockpit check. So there was nothing left to delay the takeoff. The time had come.
The elevation of the field at St. Maries is 2,100 ft (640 m); the length of the runway was about 1,800 ft (549 m) at that time. This was plenty of runway for a plane of this size. As I pulled onto the field and lined up for the takeoff, I discovered I could not see the runway. The edges of it were in view only out of the corner of my eyes. I advanced the throttle fully and was surprised at the rapid acceleration and after a few seconds the tail came up and my vision was improved. The far end of the runway was where it was supposed to be and by easing back on the stick we left the ground. It was so easy. I held the climb established on takeoff straight out to an elevation of about 2,000 ft (610 m) and was elated that the airspeed indicator worked, along with the altimeter and compass. I already knew the tachometer worked. So far everything was going swell.
After a few minutes of getting used to the open cockpit and feeling the wind blowing through my hair I decided to do a few maneuvers. By giving a little left stick the plane turned left just like it was supposed to, right stick gave a turn to the right. Pushing forward lowered the nose and pulling back raised it. What a pleasant feeling. A few more left and right turns brought me back over the field so I thought I'd express my feeling to the spectators on the ground and rock the wings. That even worked out to my satisfaction.
Now for the ultimate test, will it trim out and fly hands off and maintain level flight? The Miniplane doesn't have trim tabs. It featured a screw at the leading edge of the elevator just like a 707. I had to put a roll splice into a 1/16 in (1.6 mm) cable and run it through a couple pulleys to connect the trim wheel in the cockpit with the wheel on the elevator trim screw. It was a real challenge. I let go of the stick, the nose started dropping so I started turning the trim wheel for nose up. The nose started coming up and after a couple turns we were in level flight. Hurray, It works. Now I let go of the stick again and took my feet off the rudder pedals and the plane stayed straight and in level flight. I guess the 3/4 inch of offset in the fin was enough. What a feeling of joy. I pounded the air with my fist and yelled, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" but nobody heard me.
After satisfying myself that the controls worked all right, I flew around for about a half hour just enjoying the flight. In order to become more familiar with the flight characteristics I tried some gliding, climbing, slow flight, stalls and simulated landings.
Finally realizing that I would have to land soon, I decided to make an approach for a landing and just fly low over the field. Since I would be landing toward the East it was necessary for me to fly a right hand pattern, so I descended to 800 ft (244 m) and made a left turn onto the downwind leg and throttled back and slowed down to a gliding speed that I thought would bring me over the West end of the runway at the correct altitude. During the turn onto final approach I could see that I would be way too low so I fed in a little more power, not enough though, I was still going to be low. More power brought me up to level flight. At this point I decided that my approach was way off so I just gave it full power and made a buzz job out of it. I went down the field at full power about 30 ft (9 m) in the air, and then made a sharp pull-up. The Miniplane may have had a lot of drag, but it would sure climb like a fighter.
While flying the downwind leg of the pattern for another landing attempt I noticed the oil temperature was starting to climb a little. (Later, I had to install an oil cooler) I shortened the base leg on this attempt and carried power a little longer. It looked good so I continued on over the field and started to flare for a landing, the runway disappeared. I could still see the edges out of the corner of my eye so I just let it come on down and touch down for what I considered a three-point landing, no bounce either. I figured out that I would have to "S" turn when taxiing. This is what I did on the way back to the hanger.
As I taxied up to the group of spectators in front of the hanger there was not a grim face in the crowd. Everyone had a smile and some were giving me a thumb up signal. As soon as I shut the engine down they were over to the plane giving me a handshake. My feeling of miserable joy had turned into a feeling of pleasure and relief. I looked forward to many more flights in the Miniplane.