Tom Hamilton and the Glasair

How one man’s designs impacted the world of composite homebuilts.

Glasair

Glasair

** Tom Hamilton with the original Glasair I, down
on the pig farm.**

Though he’s spent the last two decades designing missiles for the Navy, the Kodiak for Quest Aircraft and has become the world leader in composite float production at Aerocet, Tom Hamilton still stands out in the homebuilt community for what he accomplished with the Glasair and GlaStar series of airplane kits. Tom’s talents with a pencil and slide rule, along with his youth and entrepreneurial spirit, led to a high volume of kit sales.

After Tom received a degree in business, he went into the science side of schooling for dentistry, but soon realized “That clearly wasn’t what I was being called for.” He switched over to aeronautical engineering in a non-matriculating manner. “I studied specifically for designing an aircraft that I could end up flying. Following some wind tunnel tests at the University, my dad was gracious enough to let me start the building process in his garage.”

Tom’s intentions were to fly his creation and then put it into production as a homebuilt kit.

“Looking back on it, it was very, very crude…but it was a molded airplane.” He had spent two years building the aircraft. “I made the first flight at Arlington and scared myself to death! I made a few changes to the airplane and then realized that I was playing with fire. I’d invested two years of my life in an airplane that no one should fly. So, what do you do?”

In the two years that had elapsed since he’d started on his first concept, composites had gone through a lot of changes and the processes for laying up fiberglass structures had improved dramatically. Tom decided to try again. This time he recruited one of his friends from the dental program, Ted Setzer, and the two of them began work on the Glasair I. They needed a cheap place to work, so Tom rented a former pig farm with a small grass and gravel airfield and some old buildings large enough to work in.

The design focused on two seats, in side by side configuration with a low wing. That first Glasair was fitted with the 0-235 from Tom’s first airplane and it flew at nearly 200 mph! The real pioneering with the Glasair was in the use of “sandwich” construction. Tom built female molds for outer surfaces of the aircraft. Once the layups for the outer surfaces were cured, he laid in a sheet of foam and covered that with another layer of fiberglass. Vacuum bagging brought the foam and second layer of glass up against the curve of the outer layer. Burt Rutan had chosen to go without molded parts, by laying glass over a male part that was carved out of solid foam with a hot wire. Though quick, it required a lot of work to get a smooth surface.

Tom’s sandwich construction had a smooth surface and the skins had a gap between the upper and lower parts of the wing, providing ample room for fuel. Composite sandwich ribs were installed to maintain the shape of the wing, but at much wider spacing than is found in a wood wing structure. Homebuilders had never seen anything like it.

The plane was first flown in 1979 and was then taken to Oshkosh ’80. He went home with a hundred orders for kits. Then Tom began to realize that not everyone is ready to fly a high performance aircraft.

He began to detune the aircraft, extending the fuselage of the Glasair I in both directions to increase the gear coupling and to give the elevator a slightly more docile effect. The new model designation was the Glasair IIS. Like the Glasair I, it started as a taildragger, then became available as a retractable tricycle and fixed tricycle. The first IIS flew in 1990.

Before the IIS, in 1985, Tom flew the Glasair III. No, it’s not a mix-up in the sequence. It was called the Glasair III because it flew with 300 hp and went 300 mph, making it one of the fastest homebuilts on the market. It was basically a steroid version of what they had in the Glasair I.

The flutter analysis indicated that the tail wasn’t strong enough so they wound up being one of the first shops to use carbon fiber in the horizontal tail structure. With that, the airplane was bullet proof.

Shortly after the IIS flew, Tom sold the company to his employees and the name of the company changed from Stoddard Hamilton to Glasair. When sales of the Glasair began to wane, he came back and designed the GlaStar. This represented a big change. It’s a high wing aircraft that has a composite fuselage wrapped around a steel cage with aluminum wings. It was eventually upgraded to the Sportsman 2 + 2.

Today, the Glasair company is still running strong with their revolutionary “Two Weeks to Taxi” program. The process takes the builder from a Sportsman 2 + 2 kit to an aircraft that is ready to taxi in 14 days.

Glasair kits are still being sold, though not as frequently as they used to be.

Content provided by Aircraft Spruce.