Cricri: Adventures in the Smallest Airplane in the World
When questioned about my aviation background, the easiest answer follows the line “I’ve always been interested in airplanes.” If pressed further, my thoughts fragment into a million different beginnings and leave me splashing about in memory, doggedly trying to locate the headwaters of a river in a rainforest. Some experiences have left huge impressions, however, and the Cricri, despite its small size, has literally shaped the bulk of my aviation history.
An idea so crazy it just might work …
In 1992 I had a little over two-thousand hours of flight instruction given, and I felt ready to move to airline flying, but lacked required experience in multi-engine airplanes. At the time, the one-hundred hours preferred by the local regional airline would cost me over 10,000 dollars. Most of my colleagues simply borrowed the money to rent expensive airplanes. Although admittedly quick, the thought of starting a low paying job with a large, high interest debt sent me down other paths.
I remembered something about a tiny experimental French design that made a sensation when it debuted in the mid-eighties. Since then, I hadn’t heard a thing, until noticing a MC-15 Cricri for sale in trade-a-plane. The ad began with “Cheap multi-time..,” described the airplane, and ended with a price of $9,500. Although nearly as expensive as rented experience, the plane would redeem its costs when re-sold, and the operating costs were a small percentage of larger airplanes. My curiosity peaked, I talked to its owner and learned that he bought it for the same purposes I had in mind, and that he wanted to sell because he had recently been hired by a cargo carrier in California. Unfortunately, I could barely muster a few hundred dollars on flight instructor earnings, $9,500 seemed practically impossible.
Hoping to share the costs with a few interested partners, I presented the idea to my fellow CFI’s. Multi-engine experience at $10/hr looked very appealing until I showed them a picture of the airplane. It is only 12 and ½ feet long, about the same as a compact car, and with a wingspan of just 16 feet, could easily taxi into the average two-car garage. Furthermore, despite its aluminum construction, it weighed much less than two hundred pounds and looked like a crash between George Jetson’s space car and a kid’s pedal plane. Every potential partner would invariably gawk for a minute and then leave, shaking their heads.
My boss at the airport where I was a flight instructor said that it couldn’t possibly count as multi-engine experience, being such a small and simple airplane, and the effort would be wasted when future employers learned of it. I countered that it sure couldn’t be logged as single engine experience, since it had two, and the idea was simply to pad the logbooks in the first place, get the minimums required for an interview and then impress the hiring people with skill in the simulator—flight experience, at that point, wasn’t supposed to matter anyway. Besides, I intended to salt the experience with time in larger airplanes. Although a little more diplomatic, he smelled failure.
The loan officer at the bank actually laughed at me …
So did the bank, when I asked them for a loan—except the loan officer actually laughed, when I showed him a picture. He said there was no way the bank would make a loan on such a goofy-looking airplane of dubious value, even if I had talked the seller down to $9000 even.
With a serious lack of funds, partners, and options on my end, someone else bought the plane. The idea, however, simmered in the back of my mind for a couple of years. During this time I continued instructing, taught religion part-time at a downtown High School, and assisted my brother as he built an airplane.
When there’s a will there’s a way …
Then in 1993 my circumstances finally changed after living with my in-laws, and acquiring two willing partners—Greg and Dave.
Greg is a pilot who felt the same need for multi-engine experience as I did. Dave, also a pilot and family friend simply thought the little airplane looked fun. I borrowed three thousand dollars from my father-in-law, Greg got money from his Dad, and Dave—who worked as a contractor—used a credit card.
I find a Cricri for sale…
To my surprise and delight, I found the very same airplane for sale again, but in Texas, and with a spiffy new paint-job. We offered 9000 dollars over the phone and then Linda and I set out on a long road trip to meet Bob Sears. Bob had been working the air show circuit in a modified Great Lakes, and later with a Bellanca Viking. He’d bought the Cricri for its air show potential, and had it painted, but never ventured to fly it.
We assembled the airplane in a few minutes; it rolled out of its trailer like a glider, the wing panels sliding into sockets in the fuselage and control hook-ups clipping together. I grinned from ear-to-ear, while taxiing around on the ramp. If you put wings and a tail on a go cart, and ambled slowly around the tarmac with it, you’d feel like I did at that moment—having fun, but feeling a bit ridiculous at the same time.
Excitement eclipsed my judgment …
Excitement eclipsed any serious judgment during that sale—the plane looked good, and I had visions of airline interviews by the end of the summer. I didn’t examine the logs very carefully until getting home.
Bob wished us luck, and suggested that the airplane really did have air show potential. The idea floated around the table for a few minutes until Bob’s wife said that the air show business was more fun than lucrative, and suggested that we “not quit the day job.”
We actually own an airplane …
Pulling a little airplane in a trailer on the interstate invites conversation—I could hardly resist showing anyone who would care to look—we finally had an airplane; it had two engines; and a real flying job waited just around the corner. Optimism buoyed our spirits all the way home—even through a miserable night with food poisoning at Mesa Verde national park. The real adventure waited beyond the horizon.
We began with a meeting of partners and costs to share. Gas and expenses to retrieve the airplane amounted to a little over $600. Insurance for the three of us would be $1200/year, paid in advance, and wouldn’t apply unless we had five hours experience, each. We figured on taxiing around for five hours before risking flight. Maintenance would amount to $3/hour and fuel would have to be pre-mixed with two-cycle oil. The airplane could live in its trailer, thereby avoiding any hangar expense. The grand-total operating costs looked like $7-8/hour, based upon 30 hours/month each. I think we all grinned and chuckled at that.
An airplane in the backyard …
We assembled the airplane in the backyard, between the fence and the tire swing, then took turns sitting in it. We posed for pictures and my in-laws smiled and wondered at the sight of an airplane under their big shade tree.
As explained to me in Texas, the starting procedure began at the compression relief valve on top of the cylinder—I forgot to push it open once, and hurt myself pulling on the starter. Cover the carburetor intake with your hand and spin the propeller a couple of times to prime the engine. Reach into the cockpit—this could easily be done with one hand still on the engine—and flip the ignition to “on,” wind the pull-rope around the magneto and pull hard. With practice, I learned to whip the rope with my wrist as it came away from the engine, thereby avoiding a nasty welt on my forearm. The engine idles noisily and bounces a little in its mount as it sputters and pops very much like a large model airplane. We made mixture adjustments with a screwdriver on the carburetor and the engine at full throttle.
The noise attracted the neighbors, and soon a lot of people visited the backyard—that was one of the more interesting features of the Cricri—it could attract people like free food at the county fair.
This plane might need a little work …
The logbooks indicated the plane recently changed hands twice. The first owner flew it a short time before crashing short of a runway in Colorado, tearing off the main landing gear. The crash destroyed one wing, as well the fiberglass landing gear spring. He built a new wing and made an aluminum gear spring—Cricri parts were absolutely NOT available—and sold the airplane when he finished. I called this gentleman to ask why the plane gained so much weight—from the original 178 lbs, all the way up to 195—he said they added nothing out of the ordinary, and perhaps the airplane wasn’t really that light to begin with. He also warned us to precisely time the engines, or they will quit, and suggested that I/we follow the manual to the letter to avoid a similar mishap.
My boss describes the Cricri as a “good looking coffin” …
I promptly trailered the airplane to the flight school maintenance hangar and asked the mechanic to help me time the engines and do a condition inspection. The usual crowd gathered, and my boss said the plane was a good looking coffin. We put a feeler gauge into the spark-plug hole and centered the piston at the top of its stroke. From there, we measured back the appropriate amount and set a cam to open the single magneto contact at that point. That’s when the cam stuck to the crank-shaft and fiercely resisted any adjustment. We used pullers, but couldn’t get a grip on beveled sides and eventually launched them across the hangar like metal rubber-bands. We drilled the cam for a better grip and pulled until the cam broke. It broke! No parts available, no multi-engine experience and the remainder of the cam still clinging stubbornly to the crankshaft.
Visitors and advice …
One of our many visitors heard about the remarkable plane and came especially to see it. Wayne Loeber had a Cricri too—and right here in Salt Lake City. After looking ours over, he informed us that the little engines’ best use involved boat anchors, that he’d modified his airplane with better motors, and that he would sell us his originals. We offered $1000 for both and he agreed. In retrospect, that’s a lot of money for a couple of boat anchors.
He said to change the rubber-bands on the coat hanger frequently. By this time, we already knew about the “coat hanger.” Buried under the nose cone, and extending up both engine pylons, is a wooden framework shaped like a capital letter “A,” but positioned upside-down. Small pegs on this coat hanger hold heavy rubber-bands that tie parts of each engine mount together. The engine mounting system allows both engines to float, almost free of the airplane itself, but ties them together in a way that reduces vibration. When the rubber bands on this contraption get old the engines shake until they go out of focus. So we changed the rubber bands in the engine mount, and all of them in the flight control trim-system, as well.
We got two extra cams, props, exhaust pipes, engines, the works for only another $333.30 each. That stubborn cam finally let go of the shaft under the combined influence of a strong puller and an acetylene torch. The heat bought enough expansion to launch the cam, along with the puller, about six feet, with a loud metallic “ping!” We celebrated our progress.
Do we dare actually fly it?
Condition inspection complete, we continued to fuss with the carburetors. One engine screamed like a banshee, while the other seemed comparatively sullen. Although we’d taxied the airplane a good deal, and even made a few dashes on the runway with it, no-one had yet ventured a flight. That’s when Greg appeared at my door and said it had the fastest ailerons he’d ever tried—he’d been around the pattern—and that I should try it.
He spoke true. The aileron response is lightning quick, as though the control stick and wing are a single unit—move the stick, and the wing is already there—but I felt the actual roll rate was a bit slower than it seemed. I made one circuit around the pattern with the left engine hopping around in its mount and occasionally thumping the airframe. The handling was beautiful, but the engines felt weak and I thought the mount was broken. After landing, we found that two of the piano wires holding onto the left engine had indeed sheared. Replacement piano wire cost $6 at the hardware store.
Ready to fly …
We finally began to log some real “multi-time.”
The anticipation of flying the Cricri felt better than the experience itself. We kept the trailer tied down at the airport, resting upon its hitch. We’d lift the hitch up to level and pin a wobbly kick-stand in place to hold it there. The back wall of the trailer folded down to make a ramp for the airplane fuselage to roll out, with the wheel moving along little tracks. The wings hung in cradles on the inside walls of the trailer, tied down with little straps—each wing panel weighed just 18 pounds. Rolling the airplane out and putting it together, with practice, took maybe five minutes. In that time, everyone at the airport turned out to watch and ask questions.
Unusual preflight …
Preflight is short and simple. There are no access panels to be removed. No oil to be checked. Simply pin the wings in place, check the flaperons’ connection, check the engine mounts by physically mobbing the engines around, and look at the usual hinge points and mechanical equipment. Verify the tank is full (5 gallons, positioned under the pilot’s knees) and get ready to start. If using airport fuel, the two-cycle oil goes directly in the fuel tank, and then jiggle the plane to ensure a good mix.
We kept a length of 2X4 for use as a wheel block—it spanned across both main gear. Starting the engines involved considerable tweaking, listening to the sound at idle, making full-throttle runs and sometimes adjusting screws on the carburetors until things sounded right. With both engines running, and standing in front of the wing, we could reach under the plane and pull the block. That’s when the plane would roll forward into my shins, as though anxious to get going. Reach into the cockpit and grab the brake, which was a bicycle brake handle positioned on the stick. It pulled a cable that actuated a simple brake mechanism, squeezing disks made from saw blades with their teeth removed. The brakes weren’t particularly effective, barely adequate to keep the airplane from rolling around while the pilot strapped in. Trickiest part was connecting seat-belts with one hand continuously occupied on the stick—a rubber band might work there.
I am Peter Pan …
After all of that, simply release the brake and go. The fuselage sides came up just above my hips, as I sat in the cockpit. With the canopy open to the right, I could keep my elbows outside and feel the wind in my hair. The propeller blast moved along either side, bypassing the cockpit very comfortably.
I could look well over the small instrument panel, and perhaps another 20-30 degrees down over the nose. The engines popped and chortled in view at 11 and 1 o’clock. Visibility everywhere else, except for the wing, was completely unrestricted. Simply imagine flying a gold-fish bowl with the bare minimum of airplane attached, and you get the idea—sort of like Peter Pan, without the music and tights.
I needed to hunch down a little to fit …
I needed to hunch down a little to fit under the canopy. The seating position reclined comfortably, and there was plenty of leg-room, but the canopy narrowed at my shoulders and forced my head slightly forward and down. Although tolerable, it could be uncomfortable for a long flight.
Pulling the canopy closed, we discovered another surprising effect—things became remarkably noisy. I suppose the closeness of the Plexiglas to my ears and the nearness of the engine exhaust contributed well to the over-all effect of living inside a drum.
This plane was LOUD…
Imagine yourself mowing the lawn. Now listen as the lawnmower engine loses its governor and triples its rpm. Put your head right next to the exhaust, multiply the noise by two, and put the whole thing, including yourself, inside a metal garbage can. That’s how loud the Cricri is. If not for earplugs and headphones together, your eyeballs shake to the point of losing focus.
Even wearing headphones could not reduce th high-frequency vibration that coursed through the airplane. It felt alive. Control response was lightning quick, fluid and smooth—perhaps the best, and certainly the lightest feeling airplane I have ever flown. Put this crazy sound, delicious visibility and fun handling into a single package, and it feels like riding the back of a living, breathing, overgrown insect. Incidentally, the name Cricri, in French, means “cricket.”
I climbed to 6500 feet and sampled the ailerons. The handbook claimed a 180 degree per second roll rate at 60 mph. That’s about equal to a Bellanca Decathlon. To me, it rolled more like a Citabria, maybe 100 degrees per second. We later learned that the plans depict a choice of two aileron bellcrank sizes, and apparently, our builder had opted for lesser control throws. It still handled beautifully, but wasn’t the aerobatic animal I had hoped for.
The Cricri holds the world speed record for airplanes in its weight class …
We spent a lot of time in the traffic pattern. Flyby’s looked super fast at 120 mph indicated—something to do with the small size—and the plane seemed to climb at a good angle, averaging 1000 fpm. Accordingly, we zipped around the pattern during a local fly-in to the amazement of all observers—the little airplane wasn’t exactly the ultralight everyone had come to expect.
Indeed not. The airplane debuted at Oshkosh in 1983, during the height of the ultralight movement. A French airshow tem began their performance with a head-to-head inverted pass, and followed that with several minutes of mirror-image formation work that soon had everyone, even the skeptics, wondering what it would be like to fly around like that. Ultralight rules dictated empty weights and fuel capacity, which the Cricri meets handily, but declared the airplane glaringly out of place in one aspect—it is way too fast. The French team actually set a world speed record for airplanes of its weight class—149 mph. Our airplane cruised about 120, but we had no main gear fairings, and left the engines completely uncowled.
Engine failures and other problems …
We constantly tweaked the engines. The first engine problems were miscarburation difficulties. I actually lost one just after pulling up on a low pass down the runway. The remaining engine at full throttle and a quick turn-around brought me back to land the opposite direction on the runway, pretty ticked that the engine would pick that moment to quit. In later flights one engine or another would quit at every opportunity for simple reasons—look at the engine funny and it would quit, move the throttle too quickly, or perhaps one engine was simply tired, or embarrassed, or sun spots, or bad Karma—who knows the engines’ state of mind; the illegitimate boat anchors seemed to reach the point of insanity, on a consistent basis, shortly before the pilot reached his. Perhaps the best guarantee of an engine failure involved flying the airplane low, where options are limited, and then worrying about it. We averaged an engine failure every third flight.
We averaged an engine failure every third flight.
After quitting, for whatever reason, the engine usually started with ease once back on the ground. There were a few magnificent exceptions, but most engine failures seemed almost baseless. The airplane demonstrated good single engine performance, as long as Greg flew it. He weighed 50 pounds less than me, and could keep the airplane gross weight at it’s designed max of 375 lbs. Like that, he flew the little plane all over the valley with total confidence. Once after losing an engine, he climbed from near ground level up to 7500 ft and happily cruised back to the airport. I, on the other hand, could over-gross the poor machine before putting any fuel in the tank.
I’m a big guy and the airplane is sensitive to weight …
It felt sensitive to weight. My fifty pounds added weight killed any single-engine climb rate. I flew the airplane relatively high, and remained near the airport, or landable terrain. The airplane had great potential for fun and freedom, but the Peter Pan scenario went out the window in the face of engine reliability. Imagine flying like the Pan, but always scared of running out of pixie dust and falling—it takes a lot of the fun out. When an engine quit, I could just maintain altitude with skillful handling and a little luck. The literature claimed these engines run reliably—I suppose that meant relative to the other airplane adapted chainsaw motors in use at the time.
Several hours into our experience with the airplane, a persistent problem emerged—the exhaust pipes kept falling off. This is a far bigger headache than you might think. Our engines only developed 12 horsepower by themselves, but 15 hp with the tuned exhaust—a 20 percent improvement. A loose pipe caused a substantial loss of power. They bolted to the cylinder head in three places. We tightened the bolts constantly, and soon found one broken off in the hole. The good news is at least we gained skill with a power drill and screw extractor. We replaced all the exhaust bolts with a hardened variety, in hopes of preventing a recurrence.
More problems …
Hardened bolts, after breaking, are more difficult to drill out than the originals. After three or four broken bolts, the holes became elongated and wallered out from the action of the drill. We then learned the virtues of a helicoil in restoring threads. That cost another $50. The bolts continued to break, forcing us to cut several flights short. We reasoned that the aluminum cylinder heads and steel exhaust expanded with heat at different rates and severely stressed the mounting bolts.
Engine mount piano wire broke frequently, as well, but remained easy and inexpensive to fix. Greg largely solved this problem when he drilled out the wire mounts and replaced all mounting wire with some of larger diameter—we could get ten or fifteen flights between breaks after that.
We soon trailered the airplane back home for a careful inspection. Pulling off the nose cone, several number 64 rubber bands fell on the floor, many of them broken. The wooden coat hanger came out in pieces, too. We made a couple of new “coat hangers” without much difficulty and bought bags of rubber bands. This became yet another system requiring frequent attention.
From the engines back, the Cricri offered no trouble at all. Everything worked beautifully. It is a marvel of creative engineering. The flaperons, for example, run the full span of the wing, suspended below and behind its trailing edge, Junkers’ style. The wing has no internal moving parts. When deflected downwards, aileron authority increases, with just the slightest amount of adverse yaw.
The actuator mechanism is an aluminum torque tube that lives below the pilots knees, just under the seat. The pilot repositions a lever to one of several detents, thereby rotating the torque tube, which, in turn, moves both aileron belcranks aft, extending the flaperons. A really nifty feature of this mechanical contrivance results from the aileron pushrod attachment location at the control stick—with the flaps extended, they interact with elevator movement and increase pitch response at low flight speeds.
Turbulent history of the Cricri in the United States …
When Micheal Colomban endeavored to market his clever design worldwide, Chris Heintz stepped up for the business. Mr Heinz, already a prolific designer of his own line of airplanes, and a Canadian with French sympathies, obtained the rights for market the newly christened Cricket in the US. Development of a kit product to accompany superbly drawn plans soon followed.
Unfortunately, the kit product diverged from the original design in a few critical areas, notably, the now infamous flaperon torque tube. Mr. Heintz elected to replace the aluminum tube with a steel one of smaller diameter. The steel tube had some tortional flexibility that harmonized well with the flaperons themselves and a few crashes resulted due to sever flutter problems.
A fatal crash …
One crash, in particular, killed an experienced airline pilot as he played with his new airplane in the traffic pattern near Colorado Springs. It seems the flutter in the flaperons shook the little airplane until the tail fell off—which, incidentally, was the point of another Heintz modification. The pilot’s widow sued everybody.
Unaccustomed to the huge damages sought in US lawsuits (10,000,000) Mr. Colomban, whose relationship with Mr. Heintz had soured considerably, pulled the airplane from all markets in the western hemisphere. Mr. Heintz was forbidden to sell kits for the Cri-cri, and spare parts suddenly disappeared.
All of this boils down to a couple of gospel rules: First, the Cri-cri is well designed as originally drawn. (There are no cases of flutter among those flying in Europe) and is resistant to even small design changes; and last, if you find a Cricket kit in the United States, it’s best to modify the parts until they conform exactly with the plans—and you are completely on your own in doing it. I tried to write Mr. Colomban a few times, but could get no reply. Needless to say, we made our small changes to the airplane with great caution and respect for the original design intent.
Reactions from the crowd …
We still endured a good deal of head-shaking. Many pilots scoffed at the airplane, saying they wouldn’t be caught flying that “thing.” Those that have seen it fly, on the other hand, remain thoughtfully silent—it’s a great idea, although they are loathe to admit it.
Construction is light, and a little fragile. Most women observers called it “cute.” Children are drawn to it immediately. At fly-ins, we guarded the airplane as though it were a baby bird in a petting zoo. Children come running, eyes bright, and usually begin climbing onto the wing. In addition to the traditional “Please Don’t Touch” sign, we preferred “no climbing, horseplay or boisterous behavior, dropping small objects, or rude remarks.” Cute appearance notwithstanding, the airplane is worrisome in a crowd.
A near miss accident …
Dave taxied the Cri-cri for a couple of hours, and then made a high speed dash down the runway—he did this with only one engine, because the other one, at the time, had no exhaust pipe. There was no attempt to fly, of course, he just wanted to get the feel of the steering, and put an hour towards the five required for insurance coverage
After accelerating to about 35 mph on the runway (rotation occurs at 55) and leaning on one rudder pedal to counter the single-engine yaw, he throttled back suddenly, and forgot about his feet. With one rudder pedal firmly pressed the airplane made an immediate excursion towards the weeds. He over-reacted with the other pedal and sent the airplane skidding sideways possibly flipping over if it weren’t for the wingtip that scraped along the runway until the plane slowed enough to right itself. Dave decided that was enough experience for him, and never attempted to fly the plane again.
“We survived perhaps 40 engine failures …”
We repaired the wingtip damage beautifully with bondo and a little paint. Greg and I flew the Cri-cri for about 130 hours between us, and survived perhaps 40 engine failures. They were fairly typical, except for two.
Can I use your phone?
Greg happily cruised near the shore of the Great Salt Lake, when an engine failure presented him with an unusual problem—he couldn’t maintain altitude. We had been fiddling with the exhaust pipe on his remaining engine, and it was apparently too long or short—certainly out of tune, since there was insufficient power. He reasoned that, at best, he had about ten minutes before getting too low to maneuver, and spent the time picking a suitable landing area.
The Cri-cri used small tires made for electric wheelchairs, and needed a paved “runway.” Greg picked a rural road and landed, slipping down between power lines and over a couple of horse-back riders. Thankfully, there were no cars to be seen. Greg continued, taxiing up the road, until pulling in the driveway of a startled homeowner. Using their phone to ask his wife to bring the trailer, Greg and the plane were soon safely back to the airport.
Where is the #*#!!! propeller?
During another flight around the pattern, the right engine suddenly hopped and sputtered, but with enormous energy—way more than usual. Since it knocked about in its mount with the force of a jack-hammer, you can bet I shut it down immediately. That’s when I noticed the propeller was gone. The propellers are fixed pitch, but do not require feathering because engine compression always brought them to a stop after shutdown in flight. No propeller to be seen, I couldn’t understand how the darn thing could pull free of the six bolts holding it to the engine. I landed a short time later and was surprised to see a prop slowly coming into focus in the middle of the landing flare. It spun freely, like a pinwheel as I taxied back to the hangar.
A quick check of the engine revealed that the crankshaft failed between the cylinder and prop. I threw my hands up in frustration and didn’t fly the plane for months.
Thankfully, I had finally exceeded the goal of 100 hours multi-engine experience. Not all in the Cri-cri, of course—I had 30 or so in a Cessna 310, another 25 in a Piper Seminole, and even an hour flying right seat in a DC-3. Skywest Airlines required 100 hours multi, and I applied right away.
The goal line moves farther away …
Unfortunately, the airline job market waxed competitive in 1993, and the chief pilot said they decided to cut off the interview qualifications at 200 hours multi. I thought the job would never happen.
Greg arranged to overhaul the airplane, put studs in the drilled out exhaust mounting holes, swap cranks with a spare and restart the Cricri adventure—he needed more experience, too.
We learned to stage cool the engines, as you would with a turbocharged airplane, pulling power very gradually before attempting to land. This eliminated the exhaust problem, but for the continual need to re-tighten bolts. We flew the airplane a little more, took some video, and sold it to a pilot group from Texas made up of a WWII veteran, a 767 pilot and a mechanic.
We sold the airplane and bought another one …
Good riddance, you say? Not remotely. We bought Wayne Loeber’s project, and Dave, bless his heart, remained on board. The airplane gathered so much attention, that we felt a little money might be generated in the airshow business—if only we used better engines.
Wayne made some nice improvements to his airplane, but stopped short of the final inspection and flight. He began by replacing the JPX engines with Limbach 275E’s. These are horizontally opposed two cylinder engines of 20 hp and 16 pounds, with dual carburetors. Originally developed by Pieter Limbach for a rather expensive Israeli RPV, they had some chainsaw ancestry, but rumors held them reliable—really.
The engine mounts retained an extension down the pylon to counter torque, but attached everywhere with little rubber isolated bolts. No more rubber-bands and piano wire. He had a tuned pipe crafted to maximize torque at 5500 rpm and they bolted to the cylinders in four places. He installed custom 3 blade props of adjustable pitch from Precision Propeller.
The canopy latch mechanism opened up and forward—allowing the pilot to reach in from either side. The wheels had new hydraulic brakes, and main gear tires intended for aircraft use—tailwheel from a C-185
Importantly, Wayne’s airplane had begun as a Cricket kit, but painstakingly modified to comply with the Cricri drawings. In some places, like the elevator attach point, the airplane exceeded the French version.
Dealing with a new set of problems …
We did not like a few of his modifications. Wayne rigged inadequate electric starters to the plane which added 30 pounds to the machine. Significantly nose heavy at this point, he intended to counterbalance the affair with a ballistic parachute behind the pilot seat. He also trashed the internal fuel tank and crafted an external tank of aluminum which mounted on the belly, between the main wheels. There were large fiberglass cowlings, as well.
The plane logged a few hours with the original engines, but not at all since being modified, and we bought it without an identification plate or registration, as an unfinished project for ten thousand dollars. We determined to complete the building task, get the airplane past its final inspection and get back to flying.
The FAA pronounces the machine flyable …
Greg rewired the starter system, moving the battery behind the seat. Balance thus restored, the FAA pronounced the machine flyable, and we gave it a shot.
It rolled twice as fast as the first one, and seemed a little quieter. Unfortunately, the climb rate was about the same, or less, and best single-engine performance produced a 500 fpm descent. We suspected some serious drag going on somewhere.
We remove the belly tank …
The belly tank removed easily. I spent the next few weeks building a new internal fuel tank, referencing the construction plans. I took some liberties in its dimensions, trying to cram a little more capacity into the machine. The new engines had twice as many cylinders as the old ones, and nearly twice the fuel burn. My tank eventually could hold eight gallons, but occupied more space in the cockpit than expected, forcing me to fly with my shoes off.
After the tank modification, the plane gained a little speed, but best single engine climb was still a negative 300 fpm. We still had a drag problem, so off went the cowlings. This produced no change in performance, but did improve engine cooling. Perhaps we struggled with a weight problem?
Why we used an electric drill to start the airplane …
The engine magnetos produced insufficient spark at low rpms to allow a pull start. Indeed, the tachometers, which sensed rpm through the ignition coil, had to be turned off to get the engines started at all. All of this, plus the desire to start the plane while sitting in the cockpit, led Wayne to develop the electric start system. Unfortunately, with the starter spinning the engine, someone still had to cover the carburetor intakes to get fuel into the system. The procedure usually meant standing outside the airplane with a forearm over both intakes, while reaching into the cockpit for the start button.
The battery had enough juice to start each engine once, between charges, and the whole system weighed too much. We removed everything in about 3 hours. Without starter motors hanging below the engines, they looked much slimmer. I fashioned a hex-nut fitting around the crankshaft protrusion at the rear of each engine, and Greg made a socket attachment for a big electric drill. The new system required ground power, but worked perfectly—exactly like a model airplane.
After all this, the rate of climb again reached 1000 fpm, and the plane seemed to fly about as well as the first one, when single-engine. Lucky for Greg, because he experienced the most terrifying adventure yet.
The cockpit shatters mid flight …
I’d been working on Greg for weeks to roll the airplane. As an aerobatic instructor and airshow pilot in a Pitts Special, I had the skills to demonstrate the Cricri at airshows, but Greg weighed considerably less, and could certainly fly well enough—he just didn’t have much experience upside-down. We flew the Pitts together and he rolled it beautifully. I had rolled the Cricri many times, and thoroughly enjoyed the new ailerons. Greg finally gave it a try.
When Greg had the plane upside-down, something sharp from his headset nicked the canopy, and the Plexiglas shattered—popped like a balloon. We later understood that the canopy, which is stretch formed of 1/16 in material, is very thin around its curves, and in flight, has a good deal of suction acting upon it. Anyhow, halfway through Greg’s roll, bang! And he’s suddenly flying a convertible.
And suddenly he’s flying a convertible …
With the drag situation suddenly piss-poor, and right about when Greg had the plane upright again, and was just about pulling himself together, he noticed an ignition wire wiggling loose from the magneto. The engine promptly quit. He made a bee-line for the airport, the left engine at full-throttle, and barely made the runway.
I arrived in time to see the plane land, and watched, oblivious to his plight, until he waved to me through the broken canopy. After shut-down, he sat in the airplane for a long time, and said, afterwards, that he didn’t want to fly the plane again—ever.
The next several months saw me building a new canopy plug from which a mold could be taken. The mold guys charged us $900 for their services.
The airplane has other uses …
Meanwhile, Greg contracted with a local bank who wanted to use the Cricri at their convention booth. He made a nice-looking sign which described the little airplane. The convention fee netted us $400. As we suspected, the airplane could make a little money—and in this case, it didn’t even have to fly.
I turned down a couple of requests from the local EAA chapter, who wanted to put the plane on a parade float—no other legitimate airplane could fit. They offered no money. We felt too busy rebuilding the canopy anyway, and besides, we wanted the plane to be a little surprise on the airshow circuit.
A new canopy …
The plastic fabricators wanted another $180 for the Plexiglas canopy. They pulled four attempts from our mold, and one turned out satisfactory. The new canopy featured 1/8 in plexiglas—twice as thick as the fractured one. We also replaced the lexan turtle-decking, as Wayne had sanded it for painting. The new canopy looked great, and flying it revealed a welcome improvement—it made a little less noise.
I finally get an interview with an airline …
Skywest finally agreed to interview me for a pilot job. I had instructed some 3000 hours, and flown a grand total of 200 hours in multi-engine airplanes, perhaps 120 of that in the Cricri. Wanting to be up front about everything, I brought a picture of the airplane to the interview.
The other pilots eyes widened a little and they laughed. The picture passed around the table, and they kidded each other bout whether they could still fly something like that. There was a bit of incredulity, but nobody told me to go home, and after the usual battery of tests and simulator evaluation, I got the job—two years later than I expected.
The air show routine …
I still flew an occasional air show, and we planned carefully for the Cricri debut in the small town of Price, UT.
Greg secured vinyl lettering to decorate the airplane, in exchange for sporting their company name on the tail. We put the words “No Fear” on the wings, and “Radio Controlled” boldly on the fuselage sides.
Dave’s friend, Katee, who worked as a professional clown, agreed to help us put together a skit and costumes. Linda sewed a costume for me out of an old patched pair of overalls, and one for Dave that sported a hula-hoop in the waistband of a huge pair of pants. He could fit anything down there. Another pilot, Andy, who initially approached me about buying the Cricri, agreed to perform with us—he brought some acting experience. Greg manned the video camera, and Linda headed for the announcer stand.
World’s first man-carrying radio controlled airplane…
It went like this: The airplane sat amongst the other radio-controlled models at the airport. People filed by the models on static display, and often commented that our sign “World’s First Man-carrying Radio Controlled Airplane” must be a gag. We made a silly “transmitter” box, and positioned it in a Radio Flyer wagon, nearby. Children zeroed in on the plane, and we felt grateful fort the plastic barricade around the models.
When our turn came, we walked out in front of the crowd in full clown costume. Linda made the introductions and informed the audience that we needed a volunteer to ride in the airplane, as we moved down the crowd line, looking for a victim.
To my surprise, several kids stepped right up, their parents trying to restrain them, but not sure what to say. I measured a kid’s height and felt the muscles in his arms—said he was too big to ride the plane. We conferred together about a couple of adults, and decided they didn’t look too willing. About then, Dave made a show of creeping behind me to whack my head with a big hammer—one of many items he carried in his pants.
We find a “volunteer” …
The other clowns dragged me to the plane and Katee announced loudly that they’d found a volunteer. I meekly protested as they strapped me in, but Dave had the power drill out and began to start the plane. They pretended to run-up the engines, like a model airplane, and with Andy doing an excellent job “flying,” he sent me and the Cricri careening down the runway.
For the sake of the performance, we’d set the mixtures previously and felt they’d be adequate, but the anemic power output while on the take-off roll left me wondering if the plane would fly at all. After a lengthy acceleration, we finally lifted off. Greg, filming amongst the crowd, heard at least one man exclaim “Oh my ____, it flies!” It seemed about a third of the audience still believed the joke.
No it’s not a joke …
Our air show limitations required an altitude of 500 feet before any maneuvering began. I felt lucky to clear the sagebrush, gaining speed, hoping the engines would breathe better at higher rpm’s. I coaxed a feeble climb out of the very marginal power available. In the meantime, Dave had pulled a big paper telescope from his pants, and scanned the sky.
Linda offered running commentary as the to the flier’s predicament. “Folks, it appears they’ve lost the airplane.” Now, this is not to say lost entirely, because the sound carries for miles—at a distance, the Cricri sounds like a hellish mosquito, with echoes resounding from buildings and wafting about like some foul wind.
The clowns fight for the controls with disastrous results ….
I came into view already 500 feet high, and grateful to be there. The plane had finally reached 100 mph or so, and had a little room to maneuver. Dave indicated with his telescope that he’d seen the airplane; Andy snatched the scope away and began to seriously work his radio transmitter. You might well picture Dave, in his huge shoes and pants—the classic clown. Andy wore a military green flight suit, leather jacket and white scarf around his neck. He gesticulated madly, and made a fine show of flying the airplane. Dave, standing nearby, indicated that he’d like a chance at the “controls.”
I flew by, rolling once in each direction, relieved to be able to do anything at all. About then, Andy turned around to receive the crowd’s applause, bowing and blowing kisses to anyone impressed with his flying—having left the transmitter on the ground. Dave took the opportunity to try his hand at radio control flying, toying with the transmitter as I attempted to fly the airplane in response—as crazily as possible.
Aerobatic flight over the runway …
Linda said something about Dave flying, at which Andy fights to get the transmitter back. The transmitter breaks (it was full of rags and feather-dusters, etc…) and the airplane appeared to come unglued. In flight, I did my best rolling and pitching about with what I hoped would look like wild abandon. In reality, there wasn’t a whole lot of power to work with, and altitude became questionable. Meanwhile, Greg observed from his video position that it all seemed to be working for with the crowd.
They stuffed the transmitter back together, and tried to regain control of the airplane. I, at this point was supposed to be flying inverted—and staying that way. Unfortunately, the best I could manage simply continued the former gyrations. No matter, Andy and Dave proceeded to beat the transmitter with the big hammer, hoping to get it working again. Linda observed over the PA that they’d better do something, or I might never come down.
Oh, it’s upside down …
Andy gets and idea, removes the antenna from the transmitter, flips it end for end, and puts it all back together—the plane, at this point, was supposed to return to upright.
After a final pass, I leveled the plane and landed, made a U-turn and headed for the clowns on the runway. Everybody dived out of the way as the airplane, both engines shut down, coasted to a stop. They helped me out of the cockpit, and we all took a bow.
To our surprise, we received an enthusiastic response from the airshow promoter, $2000 for our trouble, and a request for a repeat performance the next year. After all said and done, it appeared that with a little more attention to the engines, we might be in business at last.
Modifying the propellers …
The guy who made our propellers lived in Vernal, Utah, not far from the Price airshow. He called to suggest that the props looked a little oversize for the engines—said that Wayne never told him the speed range of the airplane and that the blades had incorrect helix, or twist. We sent the blades back to Vernal, to be reshaped.
They returned a little thinner, with reshaped tips. The plane flew completely different with the new props—I guess we didn’t have drag problems, like we thought. It climbed about 1200 feet per minute, and flew well enough on one engine. The difference was enough to make next year’s airshow come off like we’d planned.
Seat belt failure while inverted …
Greg liked flying the airplane again, but didn’t want to fly aerobatics. I practiced for the air show in March the next year. I’d flown the routine a couple of times when, to my surprise, the seat-belt let go during an inverted pass at 500 ft. I fell against the canopy, which partially opened before the secondary lap belt caught me. We’d installed a second seat belt the year before, and right then, I felt infinitely grateful. I needed a couple of hours to settle down after that one.
Unexpected disaster at the airshow dress rehearsal …
During the final practice session—a dress rehearsal at the airport, we briefed the legal restrictions in depth. Specifically, no aerobatic flight could be attempted, and I would rock the wings in place of the fancier maneuvers, for the benefit of the clowns on the ground, who sorely needed to time their routine against the plane.
A disturbed (perhaps mentally?) FAA inspector met me after that flight, and made a legal issue of whether rocking the wings constituted an aerobatic maneuver. Thus began a years-long legal battle with the FAA that culminated with a forty-day suspension of my license, the FAA losing a suit to me, my throwing the same inspector out of my airliner jump-seat, and another two-week suspension of my license in response. It’s a long story, the details of which I’ll save for another time.
Mission accomplished. We sell the airplane …
We sold that Cricri to Nawaporn Sawaetawong, of Bangkok, Thailand. He wanted to use the airplane as a commuter over the jungles. I carefully explained the folly of that idea. He bought the airplane anyway, said he weighed only 110 lbs and expected the plane would be a rocket-ship. I suppose he’s right.
The whole airplane disassembled, plans, spare parts and tooling fit in a box measuring 13 feet long, three feet high and 40 inches wide. It was marked as “aircraft parts” and shipped via Korean Airlines cargo to Thailand. We received $15,000 in payment.
Thanks to the Cricri, I have an airline career, a passionate distaste for the FAA, and more adventures to remember than anyone ever wanted.