Homebuilders of aircraft are surely a breed apart. Many pilots use a licensed mechanic to maintain our flying machines. We would never think of modifying structural aspects of the design. We wouldn’t even ask our mechanic to do it for us.
Mike Lotz was willing and able. He built his Arion Aircraft Lightning from a kit. That’s an undertaking beyond what most pilots would tackle.
However, to then change the manufacturer’s design to personalize it to your wishes and to be the very first to make such an alternation…well, Lotz is clearly a singular individual.
This is the story of Lotz creating a one-off taildragger version of one the sleekest aircraft in the Light-Sport Aircraft fleet.
Many pilots find Arion’s Lightning LS-1, its Special LSA model designation, one of the most appealing in the LSA fleet, which is saying something as aviators enjoy dozens and dozens of beautiful aircraft in this sector.
Lightning is also all-American. Design and manufacturing are Done-in-USA operations.Lightning lives up to its name, running easily to the 120-knot maximum for LSA, especially when powered with the muscular six-cylinder, 120-horsepower Jabiru 3300 powerplant. This plane is built to cruise.
Every Lightning to date has been a tricycle gear airplane and, for most pilots, that is the right choice.
However, many aviators — like Mike Lotz — love the look of a taildragger.
What you see here is a product of seven years of work by Lotz.
“My wife, Kathy, and I live in Chautauqua County in western New York,” he said. “I’ve flown a converted Piper Colt out of a small grass strip airport (D79) at the end of Chautauqua Lake since 2004.”
“After a few years, I thought I would like something a little zippier,” he continued. “In 2008 I came across the Lightning at Oshkosh. I loved the look and specs for this Light-Sport Aircraft design.
“I spoke with company leader and designer, Nick Otterback, and asked about the possibility of a tailwheel version. He thought that might be a possibility down the road. I saw Nick again the next year, but he still offered no tailwheel. However, I did schedule a demo ride. I was sold and bought my kit.”
“Home builders are a resourceful group,” said Otterback. “We don’t offer a tailwheel yet, but Mike went and did it! She looks so sexy with her low tail!
“That’s a big undertaking,” said another Arion enthusiast, Leroy Brandt.
HOW DID HE DO IT?
“While doing first basic construction steps, I kept toying with the tailwheel idea,” he reports. “I started researching plans and books: Tony Bingelis’ Sportplane Builder and my favorite, Ladislao Pazmany’s Landing Gear Design For Light Aircraft.”
While in construction, Lotz decided to commit to the tailwheel conversion.
“At the same time, just to see if it could be done, I decided to modify Lightning’s controls to create a center stick, another thing the factory had not attempted,” he said. “I thought this would make entry easier and also let my wife have her own uncluttered space.”
Lotz noted that this was his first homebuilding project. “At the rate I was going, I figured I wasn’t going be doing too many of these, so I wanted to do this one exactly how I wanted it,” he said.
He wisely tapped all the resources he could and he found Arion’s Otterback abundantly helpful, even though his factory had never tried these conversions.
“I contacted Nick and got some better clarity on center of gravity and possible wheel positions and applied them to Pazmany’s formulas until everything came in within the guidelines,” continued Lotz. “Theoretical weight and balance and prop clearance were also considerations. I am a retired machinist, so the metal work and fixturing was very familiar to me, although I did have to ‘tune’ up my welding for about a year and a half before I attempted the landing gear legs and supports.”
As of now, Lotz has spent about 2,500 hours on the project.
Of course, this is far longer than it commonly takes to assemble a Lightning kit.
Lotz readily acknowledges that his tackling of a one-off effort and having to refresh skills, such as welding, significantly extended the project build time.
An unaltered Lightning kit takes only a few hundred hours, a range that varies depending on a builder’s mechanical aptitude and previous experience.
“Although the empty CG moved a little more than an inch aft with the tailwheel, we are still well within the envelope and Light-Sport Aircraft limit with two people and 20 gallons of fuel,” he added. “I’m using the Jabiru 3300 and without the nosewheel, I hope to add a few miles an hour in cruise and lose a couple on landing.”
Lotz hasn’t decided if he’ll do the test flight on his Lightning TD.
“I’ve spent more time building than flying lately,” he admitted.
It’s a smart move to let a person other than the builder do the test flight.
“Buzz Rich, who is very involved with Nick at Lightning and has a ton of time in the Lightning and tailwheels, has offered to do the first flights and it would be a kick to get his take on my project if we can work it out,” Lotz said.
At the recently-concluded EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017, Nick Otterback confirmed that Arion was likely to supply someone to perform the test flights.
“We want to learn about Mike’s project as much as anyone,” he added.
“This is way more plane than I could have ever imagined for myself,” Lotz expressed.
“I’ll be flying amateur built,” he clarified, “but Lightning TD will stay within Light-Sport parameters.”
This means he needs no medical or even BasicMed. An LSA-eligible aircraft can be flown with a driver’s license in lieu of any kind of aviation medical.
While he is clever with technical skills, Lotz also showed he understands diplomacy as he added an essential acknowledgement.
“Thanks to my wife Kathy for the great seats she sewed, for helping me move, lift, hold, and generally assist in the barn and for tolerating airplane parts in rooms around the house for seven years now,” he said. “In fact, I think she misses the propeller not being in the living room anymore,” he finished with a grin.
Mike also added thanks to Nick, Mark, and Buzz at Arion Aircraft.
So, now that you know Mike’s story, what will you do this weekend?