B-Model Sonex Excites, Reminds Me of Heroes

"Never fly the 'A' model of anything."

If you're been involved with aviation for very long, you're probably familiar with these famous words attributed to Ed Thompson. While we like to joke about how wise they are, the truth is that most of us are probably so desperate to get into the air that we'll fly whatever we can get our hands on.

I suspect the kit making gurus at Sonex may have been influenced by this quote when they chose to name the updated versions of their popular kit planes that they just announced. The Sonex-B and Waiex-B are updated B-models of their very popular kit aircraft. Most importantly, they offer more cockpit space and more fuel (range) without compromising on performance. Beyond that they offer a larger panel, options for even more engine choices (adding the UL-Power series and very popular Rotax 912 to options for AeroVee and Jabiru engines,) and claim faster build times.

I haven't flown a Sonex yet (it's a grave personal shortcoming I hope to remedy this year.) The aircraft sound like a lot of fun though. They're maneuverable (aerobatic,) and relatively fast...especially given the fact that they're very economical. They qualify as LSAs, but since they're experimentals they give builders lots of options.

When I saw the announcement about these B-models, it got me thinking about the experimental aircraft industry as compared to the certified one. I've always been impressed by the levels of innovation, efficiency, speed, and technology that are only available in the experimental aircraft market. There's truly no comparison - you can get so much more airplane for your money when you go experimental rather than certified that it's really pretty embarrassing. (It'd also just heard about the Cobalt Co-50 Valkyrie...another aircraft that threatens to further highlight this disparity.)

Yes it takes time to build an experimental, but nowadays you can pretty much hire someone to do that for you. Even including that person's labor you still get more for your money than buying certified. Truly, the only argument against experimentals has been the fact that their safety record hasn't been as good as the certified market. It makes sense...designs that push the limits of what we understand in the hands of potentially unseasoned aviators have the potential to be more accident prone. Thankfully, organizations like the EAA have been working tirelessly to counter this effect. The kit designers/manufacturers have also been working on this. It used to be that building an airplane meant starting with flat sheets of aluminum or square blocks of foam and sheets of fiberglass. Now, kits are standardizing the build process and helping to ensure the quality of the work done. Builders networks are strong, and most factories even offer to let builders work at their facilities under the supervision of the experts who designed the airplane in the first place. (There's a fee for taking advantage of this, but it's probably worth every penny!)

The maturity of these kits is helping to make experimental aviation safer for everyone. Many of the most popular kits have evolved through repeated iterations...essentially reaching B-model or later status. Lancair offers a refined version of their original speedsters as the Lancair Legacy. They also took decades of know-how and developed the Evolution, a private aviation powerhouse that epitomizes everything awesome about experimental aviation.

Glassair has evolved its basic model through three versions over more than 30 years into a plane that can keep pace with any other piston out there. Their Sportsman has consolidated their legendary efficiency and modern building techniques into an aero SUV that can go anywhere. Their factory building assistance program promises to take you from a kit to taxiing your airplane in just two weeks.

Velocity made Burt Rutan's design ideas practical decades before Cobalt showed up. They have several mature models and have even released what may be the most interesting twin aircraft designed in the last 30+ years, the V-Twin. (Don't tell my wife, but if the price for the kit ever drops enough, I will probably place an order for one the same day!)

This list is far from complete, but for the sake of space I'll just mention one more. I'd be remiss if I mentioned experimental aircraft without talking about the most successful kit company of all time: Van's Aircraft. What started as one man trying to modify a Stits Playboy has evolved into 10 aircraft models, of which more than 8,000 are flying today. Van's RV-series of metal aircraft have evolved into fun, efficient, versatile airplanes. Pilots who fly them are known to bear a characteristic "RV Grin." What better testament could there be to the success of an aircraft?

I'm glad to see that experimental aviation in the United States is alive and well. The innovations happening here will continue to drive worldwide aviation development far into our future. I'm glad to see that the designs available are maturing, offering more room, performance, and safety. I'm sure that the Sonex-B and Waiex-B will be awesome examples of that growth. Now I just need to get to Oshkosh so I can get a demo flight....


Afterword

I did some digging to try to figure out where the Ed Thompson responsible for today's quote might have come up with his words of wisdom. While there are dozens of websites happy to attribute this quote to him, I had a very difficult time finding his name on anything beyond a brief mentions in long lists of aviation quotes.

I found a blog called Crown and Star that describes the fate of an aviator named Edward Henry Thompson, a Pilot Officer who served in 433 (RCAF) Squadron in World War II. (If I'm wrong in assuming this person is the originator of our quote, please let me know.)

According to Crown and Star, P/O Thompson was killed in action while serving as the flight engineer on an Avro Lancaster returning to North Yorkshire after a bombing raid into Germany. The aircraft was damaged by flak and crashed just miles from home. P/O Thompson and all but two other members of the crew were killed.

I'm always humbled remembering the brave men and women who've given their lives to protect ours. P/O Thompson was young when he died. Who knows what else he could have done in aviation if we hadn't lost him so early. Thanks to him and all the others who have sacrificed everything to protect our freedom to fly. Here's a toast....