Origins of the AirCam

The AirCam can do things no other light airplane can. Here's the inside story on how it got its start. Photos courtesy of Lockwood Aviation

AirCam
AirCam
** Blasting off in the AirCam from a 600 foot dirt
strip in the Ndoki Rain Forest.**

Editor's Note: The Lockwood AirCam is a one-of-a-kind airplane, tough, capable, ingenious and elegant all at once. Designed as a photo platform for a National Geographic_ story on the remote and pristine Ndoki Rain Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the AirCam soon evolved into a commercially available product that continues to attract a cult following of adventurous souls._

When Phil Lockwood, the young man who would one day create the AirCam, graduated from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1982, the aviation industry was already looking grim as it prepared to enter what would turn out to be a 10-year downturn, during which time light plane manufacturing came to a near halt. The prospects looked anything but promising to a young man with a dream of making a living working with airplanes.

But as fate would have it, at the same time as Wichita was entering its protracted funk, the ultralight and kitbuilt craze was just gathering steam, and Lockwood was lucky enough to catch on with one of the new companies, Maxair Aircraft Corp., that was riding the wave. Maxair built a lineup of light airplanes based on its Drifter model. The Drifter was and is a well-regarded design. You can still buy a Drifter today. At the time there were single and two-seat models, and there was even an ultralight-legal version. All the models featured the classic single aluminum tube “fuselage,” onto which the seats were bolted, and a high-mounted pusher engine just behind the wing. Lockwood got hired as marketing director, and was soon selling lots of Drifters.

Maxair eventually changed hands, and Lockwood reluctantly parted ways with Maxair. About two years after Lockwood left, the company went belly up, and Lockwood bought the rights to the Drifter and the tooling to make it at a bankruptcy sale. And just like that, he had an airplane company. Hundreds of Drifter owners were very happy for that fact.

Now, if you get to know Phil Lockwood, you’ll quickly realize that he’s the kind of guy who is nothing if not prudent. He is, in fact, the kind of guy for whom FAA regulations exist as a guideline for doing what he’d do anyway. When you market a kit airplane, as you probably know, there’s no requirement, for example, for you to conduct the kinds of safety testing that we take for granted with conventionally certificated airplanes, like load testing of the wings. But Lockwood, like many reputable kit makers conducts such tests anyway. In fact, he wouldn’t think of not doing it. He quickly established a reputation in the industry as a designer you could trust.

At one point in the early 90s, Lockwood got a call from Des and Jen Bartlett, a journalist team who were working on a story for National Geographic. The Bartletts had bought a couple of Drifters and asked Lockwood if he would come to Namibia and teach them how to fly the airplanes. It was an amazing opportunity. The Bartletts were responsible for a number of wildlife film specials for National Geographic, including Survivors of the Skelton Coast, which was an hour-long special and a cover story on the magazine. The experience would change Lockwood’s life.

"I doubt I taught them anything about aerial filming and photography," Lockwood told, me, "but during my three trips to help them with the aircraft I was able to learn a lot about the art of photography. Des was a great teacher and photography had always been a passion for me. In the short time I spent with them I was able to learn a great deal but my job was to help them get the most from the aircraft and help out with the bush flying. My visits with them were most enjoyable."

During his trip to Namibia, Lockwood found himself flying on several occasions at low level over terrain that was unlandable, and he started to seriously think about a twin-engine version of the Drifter. The extra powerplant, Lockwood reasoned, would make losing an engine little more than an inconvenience.

As fate would have it, the next National Geographic story for which Lockwood would get recruited would require the creation of that airplane. When he pitched the idea to National Geographic, they simply said, “Build it.”

He did. And he brought this new airplane (dubbed the AirCam, for its raison d’être) to Africa (a story in and of itself) and used it as a camera platform, helping National Geographic photographers capture remarkable footage of the Ndoki, including areas never before captured on film.

The Ndoki project was a special one. Renowned NGS Photographer Nick Nichols was working with Dr Michael Fay with the cooperation of the Wild Life Conservation Society to document the story of the Ndoki rain forest in northern Congo, a place they came to call "the last place on earth."

The demands placed on the AirCam were great, but it surpassed Lockwood's expectations. The airplane had to be able to operate from a makeshift 600 foot dirt strip in the jungle, and to be able to fly low and slow over the dense rainforest while using very little fuel, as fuel was incredibly scarce. There were, in fact, no roads that ran into Bomassa, the tiny village that was the base of operatoins, so all the fuel used by the AirCam had to be brought in 55-gallon drums, transported up the Sangha River in dugout canoes.

When the story appeared, the phones started ringing, and Lockwood realized he had a product on his hands. His company soon started producing kits for the AirCam, applying lessons he’d learned from the National Geographic project. He abandoned the aluminum tube “fuselage” design for a built-up aluminum monocoque structure, and he replaced the two-stroke Rotax 582 engines with four-stroke Rotax 912s. The resultant product was a thing of beauty.

I flew the AirCam soon after and was impressed by its solid construction, its terrific engine-out handling and its unsurpassed visibility. It handles like an airplane, albeit one with a lot of drag and a fair amount of adverse yaw, though nothing compared to many other ultralight-style designs. Bear in mind, that the AirCam weighs around 5 times as much empty as a legal ultralight, so even though it might look in some respects like a Part 103 design, it is anything but. Still, landing and takeoff distances are crazy short, just a couple of hundred feet when flown right, and the airplane can take off and land on a single engine, even on lightweight amphibious floats, if you can believe that.

There are today more than 160 AirCams flying. A complete kit for the airplane costs right around $100,000, and it takes a while to build one. But once you do, you’ve got an airplane that enables a pilot to do things that one couldn’t or, more often, wouldn’t do with a light airplane. Which was, as you’ve read, the original idea behind the AirCam.

Who knew it would turn out to be an idea that captured the imagination of so many pilots who just wanted to have fun. Then again, it also captured the imagination of a lot of pilots who saw whole new ways to take advantage of the AirCam’s three most desirable features: its remarkable visibility, its twin-engine safety and the rewarding flying experience it provides every time out.