In February's Flying I described the first flight of Melmoth 2 on November 1, 2002. To tell the truth, however, that wasn't really the first flight. It was the first up-and-away flight. The airplane had actually lifted off the ground for the first time the day before.
Blustery winds blew through Mojave for three days after the FAA signed off my certificate of airworthiness, but it was quiet on Halloween morning. I taxied out to Runway 30, where I had done many fast taxi runs before.
"Two Mike Uniform's ready. It'll just be a runway hop."
There are two schools of thought about runway hops. One holds that any unexpected flying quality, for instance a tendency to porpoise, is more safely dealt with away from the ground, and also that the first landing should be preceded by some approaches to stalls at altitude; therefore a first flight should be an up-and-away one. The other holds that it's better to fall four feet than 4,000. After mulling over these propositions for some time, I decided that I found the briefer one the more persuasive.
I made three short hops that day. I suppose I was airborne for about 10 or 15 seconds on each. Subjectively, it was impossible to tell. There were no surprises; except that I was moving a little faster, it was no different from flying a Cherokee. Still, there's a curious emotional transition as the wheels leave the ground on a first flight. I'm looking for the combination of speed and deck angle at which lift equals weight. Suddenly it's there, the texture of the runway surface under the wheels vanishes, the airplane gives a little sashay and then settles down perfectly steady and solid. Throttle back to hold altitude, and the crisis-which is entirely mental in any case-is past. I'm flying this airplane as if it were any other.
Later that day, I picked up my repairman's license at the local FAA office. "Now," the FAA guy said, "you can work on it." The point of his joke, of course, was that he knew I had been working on it for the past 21 years.
When I built the first Melmoth in 1968-1973, it was unusual in being larger and more complex than most other homebuilts. Jane's All the World's Aircraft generously called it a "lightplane research prototype." With its 210-hp Continental IO-360-A engine and constant-speed prop it was quite powerful for the time, and it had hydraulically retractable landing gear, double-slotted Fowler flaps, cockpit-adjustable aileron incidence and a cruising range of more than 3,000 miles. It had a 48-inch wide cabin and a windowed baggage area so large that a third passenger could ride in it. It eventually acquired IFR avionics, automatic fuel-tank cycling, airbrakes, an all-flying T-tail, an autopilot, a turbocharged engine (of slightly lower rated power), and a built-in oxygen system. It could cruise at 200 knots at 17,000 feet. This was at a time when the typical homebuilt was something more like a Wittman Tailwind, Midget Mustang or a sport biplane. Today many homebuilts far surpass it in performance, but I think that if it had not been demolished in a 1982 runway accident, the original Melmoth would still lead the pack in sheer gratuitous complexity.
In the late '70s, entranced by my friend Burt Rutan's seemingly effortless and rapid creation of novel prototypes, I yearned to build something with composites. I imagined it would be quicker and easier than the metal Melmoth had been. I toyed for a while with a push-pull canard twin I called Garuda. Rutan informed me that its high-wing-low-canard configuration was ill-advised-it puts the wing in the canard's wake at high angle of attack, risking a deep stall-and I eventually realized that I couldn't afford the purchase and upkeep of an additional engine anyway; so I set that design aside.
Then, with a baby in the offing, I decided to build a new, stretched fuselage for Melmoth so that the little tyke would have a nicer place to sit. At first I naturally thought of just adding a plug to the existing fuselage. That would have made a lot of sense, but it would have meant grounding the airplane for quite a while, and besides, I still wanted to try a composite project; and so in August, 1981, to show me how it's done, Rutan and Mike Melvill came down to my hangar and laid up the inner skins of the top and bottom shells of the aft end of a new fuselage.
Melmoth was wrecked about a year later. Accordingly, I designed a new wing and recontoured the bottom of the still-incomplete fuselage to accommodate it, sincerely believing that by working hard I could get the new airplane built in a year and a half. What an idiot! Ten years later I was still working in my home garage, which by this time had so much junk packed around the fuselage and wing centersection that I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get from one place to another. Progress had almost ceased. In 1992, I finally moved into a hangar. The vast space made a difference; suddenly reinvigorated, I moved ahead rapidly. Nevertheless, another 10 years passed before I finally flew the quick, easy-to-build, all-composite Melmoth 2-still not entirely finished.
I did try to think of a new name, but I couldn't come up with anything incomprehensible enough.
The required 25 hours of "Phase One" flight testing at Mojave were over just before Christmas, and I brought the airplane back to Whiteman Airport in Los Angeles. Almost half of the hours, and all of the really useful ones, had been flown by Mike Melvill. A professional test pilot, Melvill, who, unlike me, is not given to dithering and hesitation, did all the scary stuff: the first stalls (which turned out to be unremarkable, although without warning) and the flight envelope expansion to demonstrate freedom from flutter at high speed. He also spontaneously fixed things that broke, made improvements and provided hangarage, tools, help, advice and encouragement. I can't say enough about Mike, and so I won't try-but this world needs more people like him, and fewer of a lot of other sorts.
Once back at my hangar I woke up to the fact that, being within a 30-mile radius of a Class B airport, I couldn't continue to operate without first installing a transponder. There were many other things to do as well-minor repairs, and modifications of systems whose original design I'd thought better of-and Melmoth 2 ended up spending 10 weeks in the hangar before I got back to flying it.