First flight near disaster Long-EZ, Varieze and other Burt Rutan Aircraft

Near disaster on maiden flight of Long-EZ

Tim LoDolce

On my maiden flight in my newly certified VariEze I experienced an in-flight "shudder" and perhaps a little bit more. After exhaustive checking and taxi tests the following happened:

Got airborne right as I expected (after many high speed taxi to rotation tests) and started the climb-out. Everything was in the green and my VariEze was flying and handling well as I expected. Started a left crosswind and all of sudden the plane rolled hard into the turn. In what seemed like a millisecond I was nearly inverted less than 300 feet off the ground and it took both hands to roll back right and full right rudder. As it rolled back level I felt a shudder???

Past training and thousands of hours paid big time as all I thought about was "FLY THE AIRPLANE". Once level I dared not take both hands off the stick since it felt like it wanted to enter the left roll again but I had to turn to the left downwind. With the knowledge of what happened the first time I entered the left turn to downwind very gingerly . She came around hard once again but this time with me having more control. As it rolled level for the second time I felt a little shudder.

I had no opportunity to adjust my seat position from the initial roll experience and found myself sitting like a low rider but too terrified to let go of the stick. I was now on downwind I managed to look at the airspeed indicator and altimeter. I was turning 160kts at 900feet agl. Since I dared not take both hands off the stick to this point I had not adjusted the throttle from 100% power. I glanced over my left shoulder and saw the approach end of my landing runway whizzing by. I looked straight ahead at a lot of Sierra Cement which was fast approaching (I live in a valley with mountains ringing the area exceeding 10000ft and the airport is at 5900ft). I very quickly reached over and closed the throttle (gear was never retracted) and gently rolled into a 180 degree turn to final using no rudder at all.

Things seemed a little better now but I was not taking anything for granted. Wound up hot and high so I started "S" turning on final to try and lose altitude and airspeed and told myself I was not going to go around.

I came across the numbers at well over 130kts and on my very first landing in my VariEze I ate up over 6600ft of the 7000 foot runway getting her stopped. I already experienced brake fade during taxi tests and knew my brakes had to be red hot after that landing. I very gingerly back taxied to the last turnoff (I ate up every inch before it stopped) and let her sit in the run-up area for a few minutes while the brakes cooled and I gathered my thoughts.

My support crew wanted to know what happened and I all I could say was "see you at the hangar". In fact, I cannot remember ever calling out my position in the pattern during this flight but my support crew told me I called each position without a hint of stress (this I attribute to my 14 years a Chicago ATC specialist). They had no clue of what had just taken place nor how close I had come to becoming the proverbial "lawn dart".

As I pulled up in front of my hangar door all the guys were waiting. In my mind I was congratulating myself for handling the "situation" like the pro that I once was and reconfirmed in my heart that I hadn't lost the "touch". Now it was time to find the culprit that tried to kill me!

I unbuckled myself and calmly egressed from the cockpit, jumped down to the asphalt and found my knees quaking like aspen leafs in a fall breeze. When the crew learned of what just happened they immediately checked all flight controls. All seemed normal. We took off the cowling and LO and BEHOLD we found the answer. I experienced a stuck rudder!

NOW in the VariEze the rudder cables are routed through a pulley system into the trailing edge of the wing out to the rudder. The design calls for a "quick release" buckle to be located somewhere in the cowling so as to not interfere with control which requires two (2) swaged eyebuckles. This I did and checked and rechecked prior to the first flight and all was fine. I had read the CP's and had required maximum rudder travel to the 2 1/2 inches mandated by Burt.

What had happened was this. I had built a cowling rib into the cowl rather than glassing in a rib along the wings inner edge as most do today and I cut a hole for the cable to pass through. We found that when the cable was put under pressure by air entering the cowling it pushed the cable to the back of the pass through hole in the rib. When I pushed left rudder for the first time under pressure, the cable swage got caught on the rib and would not release back to normal at lower speeds. We speculate that the shudder came from the rudder finally releasing under air loads and in the turn. As the air load built up on the stuck rudder it started to vibrate and hence allowed the swage to unstick from the rib. That's why things felt more normal on downwind, base, and final. Moral of this story: When things go wrong "Fly the airplane".

In retrospect I probably should have gotten to some altitude and checked everything out very carefully. I could have elected to make right turn only after the initial event but that's in hindsight now. All I could think about at the time was getting the thing I had been working on for 5 1/2 years back on the ground ASAP. I did not want to further complicate things by entering a non standard pattern for my field.

I did not declare an emergency but I probably should have. Then, had I ran off the runway or crashed, help would have been immediately available.

Well, I hope some of you learn from my experience and never find yourself in that situation.

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