Can your airplane save your life?

Could your airplane save your life?

Long-time test pilot Jim Stewart is convinced the design of the prototype Sport-Jet, a composite and aluminum four-place single-engine jet, saved his life. The prototype crashed June 22 on takeoff from Colorado Springs Airport. Preliminary reports from the NTSB point to wake turbulence as the cause of the accident.

“I’m glad to be alive,” Stewart said at Oshkosh. “It wasn’t my time. This airplane really performed — it saved my life.”

He’s convinced that the design of the composite airplane’s cabin is the reason he’s still around. “If it would have been metal, it would have collapsed,” he said. “But because the cabin was intact, I’m intact.”

That cabin was on display at Oshkosh. What visitors saw were a few scrapes near the door and not much else in damage — until a look at the ground revealed a 4-foot mirror reflecting scrapes on the bottom of the fuselage. “That’s Colorado soil there,” Stewart said, pointing out the reddish streaks.

“Everyone who has seen the cabin is amazed at how it protected the occupants,” said Dain Bornhofen, son of the airplane’s designer, Bob Bornhofen.

Before beginning the design process, Bob Bornhofen consulted several insurance executives and talked to them about what was important — from an insurance perspective — in designing an airplane. “Bob came away with several ideas for a survivable cabin,” Stewart said.

The first is that the bottom of the cabin should be flat. Each component, such as wings and tail, are built separately, which means they can be replaced. “The whole airplane is designed in that basic manner,” Stewart said. “The components can be shipped individually.”

The basic design proved itself in the crash — and before, company officials said. Data collected in 25 hours of flight testing before the crash revealed that the plane met all performance criteria and exceeded expectations in climb, speed and fuel burn. “Everyone involved in the program knew it was a thoroughbred,” Dain Bornhofen said.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

Why did the plane crash? Stewart blames it on Air Traffic Control. He claimed the tower cleared him to take off one minute and 28 seconds behind a Dash 8, when three minutes should have been the minimum time allowed. As the plane made its way down the runway, it hit the wake turbulence left by the Dash 8.

“That was the worst place on Earth,” Stewart recalled. “The world came to an end.”

About 2,000 feet down the runway, the Sport-Jet hit “bad air,” he said. It rapidly rolled 90° at an altitutde of just 10 feet. A wingtip struck the ground, cartwheeling the jet onto its tail, which suffered major damage.

When the plane finally stopped, Stewart looked at John Welty, an A&P mechanic who was in the right seat, and saw blood. Stewart found out later that it was his blood, flowing from a gash in the back of his head when a tool became a flying missile during the crash. He told Welty that he needed to get himself and Stewart out of the airplane. “There was no problem opening the doors,” Stewart said. “And not one drop of fuel came out of the airplane. The engine stayed where it was supposed to, attached to the airplane.”

In fact the Williams FJ33-4A engine was still running after the accident. “John shut it down,” Stewart remembered.

AN INSURANCE PERSPECTIVE

One of the first calls after the accident was to Gary Czajkowski, vice president aviation claims, at Airsure Limited, the plane’s insurance company. “When I first got the call, I was concerned about how to notify the next of kin,” he said. “When I saw the accident, I was curious as to how they survived. Bob was adamant that the aircraft be safe.”

Even in the wake of the accident, Airsure will continue to insure the Sport-Jet, Czajkowski said.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The development program on the jet continues, with the company working on No. 2. “We will not let this minor setback slow us down,” Dain Bornhofen said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get this plane out to people who want a personal airplane,” Stewart added. Certification is expected in 2008. The jet, priced at $1.2 million, will be certified to 25,000 feet.

While safety is paramount, another of the jet’s selling points will be its performance. “I’ve driven F-15s,” Stewart said.  “I like to turn and burn. This airplane does that. It will climb at 4,000 fpm with no afterburners.”

The plane feels “normal” on takeoff, he said, “but when you get to 45 knots, the magic starts. It accelerates really fast after that.”

For more information: 719-495-7221

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