In the Museum: Beautiful Obsession
- By Patricia Trenner
- Air & Space magazine, May 2000
It was 1971 when an unknown pilot in an unknown airplane brashly signed up for the Unlimited class of the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships. There, among the barrel-chested Pitts Specials, the airplane du jour for U.S. aerobatic competition, Leo Loudenslager sliced up the sky in a little razor of a homebuilt monoplane called the Stephens Akro. He placed a mere 10th, but he made a lot of people sit up and take notice. Four years later, the new guy was back with the Laser 200 (right), a highly modified and even lighter version of the Akro that won the championships and changed the course of competitive aircraft design. Loudenslager won another six championships—an unprecedented string of victories—plus a World Champion title in 1980, and by then, competitors were buying lightweight mid-wing monoplanes like hotcakes. In the mid-1980s Loudenslager and the Laser, named Beautiful Obsession, joined the flying circus, bringing his finely honed flying to the public and setting a high-water mark for airshow performances with maneuvers like a vertical outside snap roll, which pulls a whopping 8 Gs.
A few years ago, longtime performer Wayne Handley, who flies a mid-wing monoplane, got the rare chance to fly Loudenslager’s Laser. “Curiosity motivated him to suggest we swap airplanes,” says Handley. “He’d been eyeing my tumbling maneuvers in the Raven.” When Handley climbed in the Laser cockpit, he discovered one of the qualities that gave Loudenslager the leading edge. “He was obsessed with weight,” he says. “He had cut bolts and screws to be absolutely flush. Anything that could have holes drilled in it did. Even the seat belts were trimmed to a quarter-inch of the rollers.” Once airborne, Handley saw the benefit. “We did stalls together, and as we decelerated, Leo in the Raven stalled and fell off. I’m nice and comfortable in the Laser for another 10 knots. And I thought, Aha! This is the importance of weight in an aerobatic airplane.”
All the while, a new airplane, even lighter and nimbler than the anorexic Laser, took shape in the back of Loudenslager’s mind. For some 10 years he planned it, drew it, refined it, shaved off an ounce here and there. In the mid-1990s, the Loudenslager Shark came together under wraps—a civilian “black airplane”—in a hangar in Guthrie, Oklahoma, built by Bill Zivco to Loudenslager and Zivco specs. “He wouldn’t tell me much about the new airplane,” says Handley. “He once said, ‘It has some cutesy little things about it.’ ” Rumors about the mystery ship flew through the airshow circuit: Loudenslager was going to turn the aerobatic realm on its tail again.
In July 1997 a far greater blow shook the airshow community. Loudenslager was in a motorcycle accident, and he died from complications. Last October, Loudenslager’s daughter, Carolyn, loaded the Laser on a trailer in Tennessee and drove it to the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland (left). The airplane will eventually hang in a gallery with a Pitts Special. “I wanted the airplane because of its pilot and its design,” says aeronautics curator Dorothy Cochrane. “People were starting to do more tumbling and all, but he really set the challenge and the standard. Clint McHenry, a multi-time champ and competition judge, said he had only seen two perfect aerobatic routines, and Loudenslager flew both of them. His airplane knocked biplanes out of the Unlimited category for good, as its basic design led to today’s dominant Extra line and other powerful and strong monoplanes.”
Loudenslager never got to fly the Shark, but his admirers will have a chance to see the airplane, which will hang at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “I wouldn’t have built this for anyone else,” says Zivco, referring to the tremendous research and development effort of creating an exotic new aircraft. “He was a special person.” Constructed of lightweight carbon fiber, titanium, and magnesium and featuring a pivoting horizontal stabilizer that would have facilitated a greater array of tumbling maneuvers, Loudenslager’s last design proves that when it comes to aerobatic airplanes, less is truly more.
George Vencelov (right) is a sculptor. That may be a slight exaggeration, but as the resident machinist at the Museum’s Garber restoration facility in Suitland, Maryland, Vencelov’s job is to make aircraft parts out of solid blocks of aluminum, steel, brass, and plastic—whatever the job requires. The work is often tedious, but the results are nothing short of superb.
Vencelov is currently fabricating a part for the Aichi Seiran, a Japanese aircraft designed for the purpose of bombing the Panama Canal during World War II, a mission that was never carried out. The Museum has the last surviving example of the Seiran, which has just finished undergoing a 10-year restoration. Since the Seiran’s drift sight was missing, Vencelov was assigned to replicate the three-foot-long instrument.
Drift sights were used to measure the effects of wind on an aircraft in flight, enabling air crews to make course corrections en route. Drift sights were especially important to airplanes operating over water. Without them, a pilot could arrive over land without knowing exactly where he was, or which way he needed to fly to reach his target. In the case of the Seiran, the aircraft would have been launched from a submarine hundreds of miles from its target, and since the Panama Canal was heavily defended, staying on course was vital in order to preserve an element of surprise.
In the 12 years Vencelov has been at NASM, he has fabricated everything from the beaching gear tail strut on an OS2U Kingfisher to the Parabellum machine gun mount for a World War I German aircraft. “The trick is to visualize what it [the part] is going to look like when it’s done,” he says. For the Seiran drift sight, he started with a long piece of aluminum tubing, fashioning the central body of the sight by turning the tube on a lathe, much as a woodworker shapes the leg of a chair. He monitored the lathe closely to ensure that the bits didn’t overheat and that he did not remove too much metal; every couple of minutes, he stopped to check his progress. Says Vencelov: “Once you’ve removed the metal, you can’t put it back.”
After months of careful work, Vencelov is almost finished with the drift sight. The knobs function, the reflective sighting element looks perfect, and even a small handle acts just like the original—it doesn’t quite lock into place on its own. To prevent confusing future curators and researchers, the new sight will be labeled “Reproduced by NASM” and a note placed in the Seiran’s file.
When he’s finished, the drift sight will be installed in the rear cockpit of the Seiran, and Vencelov will move on to some other project. Most people will probably never notice his work, which is as it should be.