By BILL WILSON
The phone rings at Phantom Aeronautics in Three Rivers, Michigan. A customer is calling the kit aircraft company with a request. There is a very good chance he or she is also asking about the new 4-cycle engine Phantom is in the midst of testing.
The milling machines, lathes, inventory control and office functions at the factory grind to a halt and the entire focus of all personnel is directed toward handling the caller’s problem. Talk about customer service! Even better is that the caller is guaranteed to be talking to the one person who can answer all questions from personal experience.
That’s because there is only one person in the factory and he is no phantom. Jim Bennett is real and he knows every nut and bolt in the kit he produces, where it goes and what it does. Jim is a one man airplane factory.
“There are 270 line items in the Phantom kit,” he says. “And I pull, machine, assemble and ship every one of them to our buyers.”
“There’s no time to feel lonely, despite the fact that I’m here by myself all day long,” he says. “I talk to people all over the world who need guidance, parts and advice on their Phantoms and, increasingly, similar out of production aircraft like Flightstars and Hurricanes.”
That speaks volumes about Phantom’s longevity. First designed in the 1980s, the Phantom has evolved through six changes of ownership, various locations around the United States, and several model and engine changes. But the basic aircraft, now known as the X-1, looks very similar to the original. Perhaps that’s why there are around 1,500 Phantoms in some form of airworthiness around the world.
Unlike some former competitors, the Phantom is still healthy and evolving. Owned for the last 11 years by Erik Pederson, a PhD engineer and pilot who lives in the area, Phantom is offering new designs and revisions to the original, such as strut-braced wings. Pederson comments that the struts were offered for pilot-builders who had some trouble negotiating entry and exit to the cockpit and to alleviate problems with hangar door openings that were too low for the king post used in the wire braced version.
Fresh out of the design shop, Phantom has been testing the Valley Engineering 4-cycle 50-hp air-cooled engine that promises to be popular with builders who have been waiting for reliable 4-cycle power. The first reports are positive and Jim is excited about being able to offer an affordable alternative to his builders who are cautious about installing 2-cycle power. The engine weighs about as much as a Rotax 582, but costs close to the new price of the now discontinued Rotax 503. Erik designed and Jim machined a new engine mount to add beef to the airframe.
Although E-AB is the normal certification, a very basic X-1 with an MZ 201 engine can qualify as a legal ultralight. There is virtually no difference in the airframe between the ultralight and the E-AB single seat models, so even the lightest weight versions of the aircraft still feature an ultimate G-force of +9/-6. The Phantom airframe is so strong some owners have even done aerobatics in their aircraft, although the factory does not officially advocate such activity.
Because of its weight and speed, the Phantom can be flown in the light-sport aircraft (LSA) category. Is there a special LSA factory built Phantom in the future? Pederson says at some point there will be. That would allow kits to be built to the exact specifications of the S-LSA and be certificated in the E-LSA category, which would allow owners to perform their own maintenance and inspections after taking an FAA-approved 16-hour light sport repairman-inspections course.
“We believe in owner-builders,” says Jim. “I think it is really important that the people flying the Phantom know all about how it’s put together.”
To that end the factory encourages kit buyers to spend some time at the Three Rivers facility where their building efforts can be monitored by Jim, who adds this duty to his already focused workload.
Anyone who has been around the kit built industry realizes that some of the nicest work you see is performed by builders who are machinists. Jim came to Phantom after a long career in machining and has been able to use his years of experience to create necessary parts and assist kit builders.
When an order is placed, Jim begins by pulling various widths of 6061 T-6 aluminum tubing, cutting them to length, and drilling, bending and notching each tube to fit the pattern. He knows that each machining operation is critical to the success of the aircraft’s bolt together assembly, or else he’ll be on the phone with an unhappy builder and there won’t be anyone else to blame.
It usually takes six to eight weeks from the buyer’s deposit to deliver the completed kit. If the aircraft will be fully or partially assembled at Three Rivers, no shipping is involved. Otherwise the kit will be delivered to the buyer’s designated location. Recently that has been overseas almost as often as within the United States.
While assembling and prepping kits, Jim is kept busy taking care of exotic parts problems that come from owners trying to restore a Phantom or similar tractor-configured aircraft to flight. Pilots flying Flightstars and Hurricanes, for example, have problems from time to time finding parts that fit their needs. Jim has the flexibility to spend some quality telephone time with these folks, using his special knowledge of their type of aircraft to actually create a solution from an oral description and a block of aluminum.
“You can hear the excitement in their voice when they realize that I really do understand what they need and I will be shipping them a part that will return the aircraft to flight,” he says.
Jim estimates that in addition to the entire aircraft kits that the company sells, he annually ships another 10 aircraft worth of parts.
Phantom has earned an enviable position in the world of light aircraft by enjoying continuous production despite its ownership changes. That means innovation hasn’t lacked and new ideas roll into the design at a steady rate, like the new 4-stroke engine option.
If you feel the need for speed, don’t build a Phantom. But if luxuriously hanging above the earth’s tapestry is appealing, a call to Phantom’s one man wonder might be worth it.
For more information: 269-271-4568, PhantomAero.com