Belite’s Chipper Aircraft Continues Evolving

Could this be the future of aircraft manufacturing?

Chipper PWK
Belite's Chipper has come a long way since we first saw it at Sun N Fun in Lakeland.Rob Mark

Being a tail dragger aficionado since my Citabria ownership days probably gave me a leg up on taking to Belite Aircraft's Chipper when I first saw it at Sun N Fun in April. Belite's president, James Wiebe, made it clear from the start of our conversation in Lakeland that the Chipper was a work in progress and indeed had been shipped to Lakeland aboard a truck. Wiebe said he was creating the experimental Chipper two-place tail dragger as a kit powered by either an 80 or a 100 hp Rotax engine. The Chipper would be a fun airplane to build and fly, especially if short-field characteristics were important to a pilot.

Back in April the airplane had no cowling and there was some discussion about how well the original tail wheel design was going to work. The aircraft’s instrument panel was pretty bare and of course the airplane hadn’t even flown.

In Lakeland, I learned James Wiebe came to aircraft design from the IT world, so he could certainly run a CAD system, but he was no aeronautical engineer. Wiebe didn't seem to let that stop him from designing and creating the prototype airplane that had been a dream of his for years and was what motivated him to dump IT for aviation. I was surprised to learn that the prototype Chipper moved from Wiebe's CAD-machine design to the airplane I touched at Lakeland in just four months.

Wiebe explained the art behind creating the parts that make up his kit airplane. One of Belite’s secrets is to use the best materials for the job. That translates into very little welding and little use of aluminum, both traditional materials for homebuilders. They cover much of the aircraft with Oratex and use composites and a honeycomb material where they fit. Another secret is keeping parts-manufacturing labor to a minimum. Belite uses two CNC machines for that work. Put a piece of honeycomb material on the cutting table, hit start and the computer creates a perfect part quickly.

Chipper PWK
An up close look at the paint scheme for Belite's Chipper.Rob Mark

The Newer Chipper

I couldn’t attend AirVenture this year where Belite’s Chipper, having flown off its initial 40-hour flight waiver, spent much of the week competing for shortest takeoff distance with the other LSAs at the grass strip on the south side of the show. As AirVenture drew to a close, I managed to convince James to stop by KPWK just north of Chicago O’Hare on his way back to Wichita to take me for that ride I missed in Oshkosh. I really wanted to see how the airplane had changed in the three months since I’d last laid eyes on it.

The Chipper’s sunflower yellow paint scheme trimmed in a military gray with a couple of invasion stripes looked pretty much the same to me as it sat on the Signature Flight Support ramp at PWK. A ramp normally reserved for jets had changed a bit last Sunday with the Chipper sitting next to a cherry rebuild of a Cessna 140 also fresh from Oshkosh.

But inside the Chipper looked like a new airplane. The panel of the VFR-only airplane had been finished and accented with a number of instruments Belite Electronics created and currently sells, including the newest: a fuel/water discriminator that warns of water in the fuel, or hazards like a mis-fuel with Jet-A rather than AvGas.

Time to go fly the Chipper, but since the airplane James brought uses a center-of-the-cabin control stick but came with only a single set of rudder pedals and a side throttle on the left, James flew and I watched from the right seat. Additional rudder pedals are in the works, as are a host of other changes James showed me on a pad of Chipper upgrades and ideas he carries around with him.

With approximately seven gallons of fuel on board and the two of us, the Chipper weighed 927 pounds, against the airplane’s 1,000-pound max gross. The Chipper weighs in at about 520 pounds empty.

With a temperature near 80 Fahrenheit, we lined up for takeoff on runway 6. I tried to calculate the takeoff roll but found it impossible the first time because we became airborne too quickly, something less than 300 feet was all I could estimate. As we climbed, we passed by four WWII airplanes the Collings Foundation had parked on the east side of the airport for a visit. With all the Plexiglas in the Chipper, even the lower door panels, it was easy to see people on the ramp below stop and look up as we passed over, some waving as we passed.

We stayed in right traffic for runway 6 and climbed to 1,000 feet AGL, a pattern Wiebe said he seldom sees anywhere he usually flies. Turning base leg, he dropped full flaps, pulled the power to idle and while the Chipper slowed, it didn’t seem to want to come down. While I had no idea of the precise glide ratio with full flaps, at 42 mph on the digital airspeed, we simply floated back down to the runway for a touch and go.

Each time we passed the end of the runway, the little yellow bird attracted a growing pack of people on the ground that insisted on waving as we passed. James made a three-pointer on the final circuit and stopped us somewhere between 300 and 400 feet along the runway before we turned around to head back for the ramp. I was itching to fly the Chipper myself, but that would need to wait for another day.

Chipper PWK
The Chipper's instrument panel features everything a VFR airplane needs today, including an iPad mini functioning as the Nav display.Rob Mark

Beside its new instrument panel outfitted with everything a VFR airplane needs today, including an iPad mini functioning as the Nav display, what makes the Chipper intriguing is not simply the way it looks or even flies, but rather the never-ending curiosity of its designer to improve the airplane. Imagine a mod shop calling every few months to tell you about some inexpensive option they just designed to improve your airplane’s performance. And as a kit of course, the pilot can handle the installation work. Wiebe’s said he’s never been quite sold on the idea that an aircraft’s design should be frozen in time as some point. I think he sees that as surrendering to the notion that improvement has ended. That’s added value to the builder.

Belite coincidentally displayed a bit of their marketing acumen this week when James Wiebe created a CAD drawing of the Chipper with a folding wing option that he posted on their Facebook page to gather feedback. At last count, just a day after his initial post, Wiebe's folded wing drawing had been liked by nearly 700 people, a hundred and thirty of whom took the time to offer suggestions and encouragement for the option.

A Chipper kit costs $8,995, however that price doesn’t include the engine, propeller or cockpit instruments. Wiebe believes a finished Chipper will run about $32,000. The next iteration of the Chipper – hopefully with rudder pedals on the right side – is expected to be on display at the Midwest LSA Show in Mt. Vernon IL next month.