When the subject turns to all-composite production airplanes, several makes and models come to the fore: Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, the Cirrus SR20/22, Cessna’s sporty TTx, Austria’s Diamond Aircraft line, the ill-starred Beech  Starship and Bombardier’s $1.4 billion balk, the Learjet 85. What rarely enters that discussion is the very first of the kind, the Windecker Eagle 1. Until now. 

The Eagle can trace its genesis to the 1950s and the Lake Jackson, Texas, dental chair of Leo “Doc” Windecker, whose patients included workers from the local Dow Chemical plant. Through casual discussions with them he learned that Dow was developing glass fiber material that was lightweight but strong, flexible and didn’t corrode. A pilot and irrepressible tinkerer, Windecker thought those properties would be ideal for airplane construction.

In 1958, together with his dentist-wife, Fairfax, he began researching fiberglass-reinforced plastic structures and soon had enlisted the support of Dow. Ultimately, they won a patent for a flexible, non-woven epoxy glass fiber they christened “Fibaloy.” Encouraged by further experimentation, the couple formed Windecker Research in Midland, with the express purpose of building and certifying an airplane.

What evolved was a sleek, four-place, low-wing monoplane powered by a single 285-hp Continental engine, which began flight-testing in early 1969. Since the FAA had no experience with composite airframes and engines, the agency imposed an overdesign requirement of 20% on it. And when the aircraft went into a flat spin due to improper weight distribution and crashed during its final spin test—the pilot bailed out successfully—the agency then insisted the subsequently modified design undergo exhaustive spin testing. Finally satisfied with the design and construction, in December 1969 the agency awarded the Eagle I a type certificate, the first under FAR23.

But just as the Windeckers began manufacturing the aircraft, a recession hit and the light airplane business went into lockdown. Having already spent $20 million and unable to secure further financing, Windecker closed its doors after building just nine airplanes, including the two prototypes and one delivered to the U.S. Air Force, which wanted to test its stealth characteristics.

Only two airframes, both unflyable, remained in private hands—those of Windecker’s son, Ted. Not long ago he transferred ownership to Wei Hang, a Chinese entrepreneur determined to see the Eagle soar again. At the moment, a restoration team in Mooresville, North Carolina, is using elements from the two aircraft plus a new engine, avionics package, interior and prop to create a single flyable one, albeit with an Experimental license. The goal is to have it ready for this summer’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

After that, Hang will have the Eagle shipped to China, where he intends to learn to fly. While the airframes’ acquisition, together with the restoration and upgrade, represent a formidable investment in a failed machine, project chief Don Atchison says because of the aircraft’s “historical significance, rarity, style and performance,” Hang “will own a truly unique aircraft when it’s finished and flying again.” 

 

Highlighting Hazards

What’s the most common type of accident in business aviation? According to the National Business Aviation Association’s (NBAA) Safety Committee, it’s the “runway excursion,” a term for an aircraft running off the runway end or side and into uncharted territory.

These sometimes deadly events occur during takeoff or landing and can involve any number of factors, from an unstable approach to ice or snow on the runway to a mechanical fault. In May 2014, a Gulfstream IV overran the runway end at Hanscom Field near Boston during a rejected takeoff, and in the subsequent crash, both pilots, a flight attendant and four passengers were killed and the aircraft destroyed.

Despite efforts to reduce the rate, the committee says the frequency of runway excursion accidents has changed little over the past decade, noting the rate has hovered around 3.6 per million flights. That’s 60% higher than the corresponding commercial aviation rate.

Runway excursions are often survivable and preventable, based on well-identified risk factors, aircraft performance considerations and recommended defenses, which makes the mishaps a logical target of a focused risk-reduction effort, the NBAA says.

Consequently, the committee has identified runway excursions as one of its two primary safety issues for the year. The other is loss of control in flight, cited as a possible factor in over 40% of fixed-wing general aviation accidents from 2001-11, many involving non-professional, single-pilot operations.

Safety Committee Chairman Steve Charbonneau says today’s congested airspace, complex procedures and the intensity of voice communications invite task saturation and distractions in single- and two-pilot cockpits.