By RAEANN SLAYBAUGH
When you see it coming, you might think your eyes are playing tricks on you. Do they even make airplanes that small? Ted Dearing of Chandler, Ariz., does. And he does it well.
Weighing less than most motorcycles — and delivering up to 50 miles per gallon — his 340-pound, Volkswagen-powered Hummelbird is a “daily driver” in the aviation community.
Built in 2003, this single-seat, all-metal, low-wing homebuilt aircraft is designed to be as lightweight as possible according to Dearing, who says he has spent about 1,000 hours customizing it to be light and fuel-efficient. For this reason, the Hummelbird has no electrical system. It is powered by a hand-propped, 100% solar-powered ignition — the only one of its kind that Dearing knows of. He also uses a handheld radio to communicate.
Under the cowling, it’s a similar story. Although the design called for a lightweight two-cylinder VW engine, Dearing opted for a four-cylinder VW engine. “It only increased the aircraft’s weight by 20%, which is well within the allowable range,” he says. “Overall, it’s a light, simple engine.”
Dearing’s Hummelbird features all-metal construction. Not only does this make the aircraft rugged, Dearing — a retired metal shop teacher — likes the look of it. “Plus, it’s easy to maintain, especially in the desert,” he points out.
This is critical because he doesn’t store the aircraft in a hangar at Stellar Airpark, where he lives; it is exposed to the elements. “It’s not intended to be a show plane,” he clarifies. “It’s just supposed to very functional — and it is.”
Something else the Hummelbird isn’t is a kit plane. Rather, it was built according to a highly customizable scratch-build plan from the early 1980s. “Hundreds were built,” Dearing explains. “But, because there weren’t — and still aren’t — any kits, per se, ready-made parts weren’t available.”
As a result, he has built every part of the aircraft, including the fuel-efficient engine.
For all its customization, Dearing hasn’t blown his retirement savings on his Hummelbird. He estimates he has only invested about $5,000, including avionics.
“I’m a real good scrounger,” he laughs — so adept, in fact, that he has built three complete engines for the aircraft with almost no out-of-pocket expense. “VW parts are pretty inexpensive to begin with and I’m able to reuse many of the parts people give me when they dismantle their VWs, even the dune buggies.”
It doesn’t cost much to fly the Hummelbird either. It redlines between 135 mph and 140 mph, but cruises at 115 mph, burning just 2.6 gallons of automotive gas per hour on average. And, if Dearing cruises at less than 100 mph, he can get 50 mpg. With its six-gallon tank, the aircraft is good for at least a few continual hours in the air without refueling, although its solar-powered battery delivers about 10 hours of flight time.
To date, Dearing — who’s had his private pilot’s license for more than 50 years — has logged about 800 hours in his Hummelbird. He flies it almost every day, mostly to Payson, Tucson, Gila Bend, and Casa Grande for the day, or to Coolidge to have breakfast.
“What I do is mostly low-country desert flying,” he explains. “These aren’t cross-country airplanes, so you don’t see too many of them. They mostly stay at home.”
Maybe this is why people stop him so often to ask about the unusually small aircraft. “On occasion, it gets mistaken for a Teenie Two kit plane,” he says, referring to an aircraft introduced by Popular Mechanics in May 1971. The cover caption reads: “Build a VW-Powered Plane for $750.” Whereas both aircraft are VW-powered and feature all-metal construction, Dearing reiterates that the Hummelbird isn’t a kit plane. “It’s more reliable,” he says of his aircraft. “And its pilots tend to be more experienced.”
The Hummelbird lands at between 35-40 mph and glides close to 13:1. It only needs the length of a football field to touch down and can take off with about 300 feet of makeshift runway.
This low-maintenance characteristic came in handy a few years ago, when Dearing had to land his Hummelbird on the Beeline Highway, halfway to Payson. Due to mishandling of the ignition pre-flight, the engine gave out in the air. Because the aircraft doesn’t have a re-starter on board (again, an effort to keep it ultra lightweight), he had no choice but to land on the highway.
“It went OK,” he laughs. “Then, after I restarted it, I took off in the other direction.”
His latest trip in the Hummelbird is to the 39th annual Copperstate Fly-In & Aviation Expo at the Casa Grande Municipal Airport, which is being held Oct. 20-22. The Hummelbird may very well be the smallest aircraft on the field, sharing the skies with a variety of airplanes, including giant World War II bombers such as B-17s and B-24s.