Flight test: Questair Venture
- Credit: Keith Wilson
Sunny side up – the 300mph ‘egg’ is not ‘cheep’ (geddit?) but it’s a lot of fun | Words: Bob Davy - Photos: Keith Wilson
Are you old enough to remember Mork and Mindy, the late '70s TV sci fi comedy? In it Robin Williams plays an alien who flies to Earth in a spaceship which looks like an egg. Well, another one has just landed at Raleigh Executive Jetport, NC.
To be more exact it looks like an egg on a tripod?the most unusual aeroplane I've ever seen (maybe with the exception of black-and-white movies from a century ago showing motorised umbrellas and venetian blinds shaking themselves to pieces).
And the sound! It doesn't fit what I am seeing: the throbbing of a huge, six-pot, bored-out IO-550 making me look to see if there is a Piper Malibu taxying in behind it. No, the flying egg is making the noise. In fact this aeroplane is effectively the front and the back of a Malibu joined together, with the cabin removed.
The designers of the Venture, Jim Griswold and Ed MacDonough were part of the Malibu design team in the 1980s. As it parks and owner John Kruckenberg jumps out I am minded of another aircraft, the Gee Bee racer: an engine and propeller at the front, a tail behind, and just enough room for the pilot between the two.
The prototype Venture first flew more than thirty years ago when things with similar names were being fired into space and?thanks to a new company?quick-build kits are soon to be available again.
The Venture may be a kitplane but when you walk up to one you quickly realise it's more like a production aircraft you build at home. I stole that line from the description of a Frati Falco I read a long time ago but it's equally relevant here?this one took an incredible 4,000 hours to build.
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Think about that for a moment. If you managed eight hours a week it would take you nearly a decade to complete. If you did it full time?forty hours a week with no holidays?it would still take almost two years. That's a great deal in both time and money. If you got your local shop to do it you would have a £200,000 labour cost after you bought the kit, engine and propeller.
John's dad, a retired airline pilot, built the aircraft with a friend in the '90s. For one reason or another he never actually got to fly it, and after less than fifty hours in the air it was stored and forgotten about?until five years ago.
Son John decided to track down the aeroplane into whose tail he remembers having to climb to buck rivets after school as a twelve-year-old because the grown-ups couldn't fit. He found the aircraft, did a deal with the owner and got it back in the air, finally flying his dad in it after a gap of twenty years.
'Nine Two Delta' is one of 100 or so kits produced, of which thirty have been completed, and just over half this number are still flying?although after a gap of twenty years numbers are on the rise.
The first kits were a little 'compromised' shall we say. There were several teething troubles. For example with the original design you could either brake or steer but not do both at the same time, so many were lost in takeoff and landing accidents (our camera ship pilot said the first Venture he ever saw was in a tree).
The original canopy was held shut with no fewer than seven latches and when raised it teetered alarmingly on a three-foot gas ram?whereas John's has a proper sliding canopy. In fact this Venture is probably one of the best three flying and sports a number of other improvements to the basic design.
The undercarriage and flaps are extended and retracted separately whereas in the original they were interlinked, the undercarriage fairing is better than standard, the landing lights are neatly recessed into the nose and... there's that panel!
Looking like it came from a 1970s jet fighter it is a beautiful thing to behold and I would ask you to study the photographs because to describe where everything is would take nearly as long as it did to build it. Its component parts weigh about 150 pounds making this the heaviest Venture of all, but it's worth it.
The cockpit is awesome and it's also 46 inches wide?surprise, surprise like a Malibu. So there's no lack of room once you stand on the seat and shimmy down. The seats have memory foam and I notice initially that my headset is touching the canopy when we slide it closed, but a few minutes later the foam has compacted into the shape of my backside and I have at least three inches of headroom.
With a basic weight of 1,200 lb and 52 USgal of fuel weighing 320 lb there is still 480 lb left for two pilots and a little baggage stowed behind the seats. MTOW is 2,000 lb, giving this aircraft very nearly the 300hp per ton power-to-weight ratio of early WWII fighters. I'm nervous but I can't wait to fly it.
Engine starting is straightforward for a fuel-injected, six-cylinder lump like this and it's already warm. We switch the battery on, mags to both (the guarded switches look like they ought to fire the missiles), pull the mixture lever to idle, no prime needed, and crank the engine, pushing in the mixture once the engine has fired. It settles down to a meaty, loafing idle which nevertheless isn't shaking the aircraft around very much.
I'd expected this tiny machine to vibrate like an overpowered, lightly-built racing car sans sound insulation. But it doesn't. In fact I've already forgotten how tiny the Venture is?it actually feels like it can handle the power.
Unsurprisingly, when we release the toe brakes the aircraft moves forward of its own accord, so we can warm the engine while we taxi. As this Venture is modified so that we can turn and brake at the same time it's very easy to taxi?nevertheless I can feel it teetering on its narrow undercarriage as we manoeuvre.
There is nothing untoward and we make it to the holding point in quick time to do our run-up. Again there is nothing unusual and by now I've completely forgotten that I'm in a tiny egg of an aeroplane?whereas, frankly, when I first set eyes on it I wondered if my life was in danger.
John is a cool, unflustered chap with a fantastic American country accent and he is putting me at ease while I assimilate what an amazing aircraft I'm sitting in.
We line up and open up the throttle, accelerating madly. There is a predictable swing to the left which I counter with a firm press on the right rudder?taking care not to operate the toe brake?and very quickly indeed we are at seventy knots and rotating into a 2,500fpm climb with the innovative (for its time) side stick.
It doesn't move much but what movement there is is light and effective, particularly in roll. I find myself looking for the undercarriage lever, or should I say switch because it's so small and out of the way, next to the avionics stack. The turbulence from the extended legs is omnipresent.
I can't imagine anyone could accidentally land 'gear up' in one of these, er... at least not yet. The noise goes away progressively as first the main wheels and then the nose wheel retract.
This produces a pitch down, then a pitch up as the mains go backwards and then... Well who cares; it's all completely controllable and we are easily able to cycle the undercarriage in formation with the camera ship (after we practise it once more to confirm there'll be no problem). Doubling as flaps for takeoff, the ailerons are actually flaperons, and we retract them well before the 170kt limit (the same for the undercarriage).
First impressions are better than good. That old cliché 'pocket rocket' now has only one place in my memory banks, never to be tagged to any other light aircraft again. It feels like I am flying a BAe Hawk as I bank and weave on the way up to 5,000ft to find the camera ship.
Roll rate is more than 180 degrees per second and there is no discernible hysteresis in roll i.e. bring the stick back to neutral and the roll stops dead instantly. Aerobatic pilots spend hours with spade adjustments, and gluing bits of 'P-strip' in front of the ailerons to get this effect?the Questair Venture had it all sorted at the design phase.
The only piston-engined light aircraft that feels anything like a Venture is the Siai Marchetti SF260: a benchmark in high performance design and handling that still stands the test of time (it was designed in the 1960s).
Just before we zoom into our rendezvous with the Cirrus SR22 camera ship I try a stall. It takes an age to come back from our 250kt cruise speed to the stall itself and I take care not to shock-cool the engine, instead zoom climbing from 4,000ft to more than 7,000 until we finally feel a mild buffet at 70kt, followed by a nod at 65kt and a mild wing drop, easily held by rudder. Is that it?
OK, with power you might get a more violent response but, as Paul Bonhomme once said, referring to an Su26's stalling characteristics, "throttle open equals ugly aeroplane, throttle closed equals easy aeroplane". If there's any doubt, close the throttle before, during or after any low speed/high alpha business and this aircraft will behave itself.
Formation flying is a great way to work out what an aircraft's control response and harmony are like, and the Venture doesn't disappoint. In a week where I've flown four GA aircraft on the trot, the Venture is a clear winner, even though one of the others was an ultra-modern SR22, which nevertheless is more than seventy knots slower on similar horse power and doesn't handle anything like this beauty.
Away from the camera ship I try a few more manoeuvres to see if I can upset the little bird, but nothing does. Owner John then demonstrates an aileron roll, pulling the nose up just five degrees before whacking the stick sideways, the excellent roll rate meaning that my head comes within a whisker of slamming against the canopy.
I try it myself and give it ten degrees nose-up before the roll... and come out of the manoeuvre 300ft higher than I started it. If we had parachutes we would have flown a sequence of aeros but we don't, so I crank the flying egg round to point it back to base, keeping the power up and pushing the nose down.
This works well initially because it gives me the chance to see what flying at Vne feels like (a bit more wind noise and nothing else) but I quickly appreciate this is more fast jet than GA, and I need to S-turn as well as pull back the power to try and slot into the circuit.
Surprisingly, with the power back to a reasonable twelve inches manifold (don't shock-cool, remember) the big, two-blade prop is quite draggy so we lose energy a little quicker than in a light jet, such as a Citation Mustang for instance.
Finally we get to the undercarriage/flap limit of 170kt and can introduce some serious drag into the equation. I fly onto downwind at 120kt initially, coming back to ninety on base, eighty on approach and landing at seventy.
It's a normal touchdown with the aircraft staying completely controllable?not at all as twitchy as it looks. One slightly unusual aspect though is that after touchdown the wings still move noticeably with stick deflection because of that narrow track.
The brakes are light and effective. I estimate we stop in about 500 metres without trying hard. This is not a rough field/ STOL aircraft for sure but smooth grass would be OK.
That's the most exhilarating flight (I nearly wrote eggxhilarating) I've ever had in a kitplane, something which looks and sounds like it's from Reno (in fact there's some footage on the web of pilot Mike Dacey lapping the course at 376mph in a modified Venture some years back).
The original kit manufacturer stopped producing kits many years ago. New company Questair 3.0 was formed in 2015 to provide quick(er) build kits of the original design but with the snags ironed out.
The original kit price was USD64,000 including the prop and it's probably going to be more than that?though no one knows how much at the moment. We'll keep you posted.
If you do remember Mork and Mindy it only remains for me to say "Nanu, nanu".