Raceplane Builder Par Excellence

The Reno Kid, Andy Chiavetta.

Andy Chiavetta inspects a new carbonfiber wing for his LT-1 kitplane at his shop in San Clemente, California. (David Levin)
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It worked well there because it’s high and it can be hot. [Next July] we’ll do that, if we have it all ready to go.

A & S: What’s your plan for Reno this year?

I’ll be there the last part of the week. I usually pit for a few airplanes because a lot of the planes we build go right into Reno. But three of the planes I normally pit for won’t be there.

Usually I don’t get to watch the races at Reno because I’m so busy working. So this year, I’m going to just enjoy it.

A & S: Did you and Darryl work together on the modification to the Legacy?

We went to Lancair and talked to chief engineer Greg Cole and the general manager at the time, Bob Fair. We said, “This is what we’d like to do. How do we get there?” I worked with engineer designing the systems.

I’ve done a lot of work with Greg Cole over the years. And the Evolution that Lancair is building now [a pressurized, four-place, turboprop introduced in 2009] is his brainchild. Their wing is similar to the wing of the LT. I had designed a wing for my plane, and I showed Greg my data, and he’s a great aerodynamicist. He said, yeah, that would be good, but would you mind me designing a new wing for it. That’s when we decided to use the CNC [computer numerical control] machine because the shape that he wanted was an elliptical. That’s the beauty of CNC. You can do really complex airfoil shapes. Greg’s much better at picking out airfoils than I am, and I trusted him. I’m glad I did because the plane flies really nice.

A & S: How did you first turn the Legacy into a racer?

The Legacy was not designed as a raceplane. It was meant to be an every-day flyer. So for us to go faster, we had to do a lot with horsepower. Compared to most certified airplanes and most planes out there [at the air races], the Legacy is a very fast airplane. There’s no certified aircraft that performed like that so we had something good to start with. But we had to do a lot with horsepower. And when you push a lot of horsepower out of the engines, the reliability goes away. And that’s why we haven’t done well at Reno for the last three years.

A & S: What happened in the last three years?

We’ve gone to a new geared engine, and we’re trying to get more power out of it. And we were becoming engine designers.

The geared engine is really beneficial for racing. The prop can spin only so fast—if it goes supersonic, you lose efficiency. But the engine doesn’t get its peak horsepower until it gets higher rpms. So you have this conundrum, if you don’t have a gear drive. The gear drive slows the prop but keeps the engine rpm high. You’re getting the horsepower, so you trick the prop, by keeping it at the same speed, but you have a higher rpm, which is giving you more power.

But the gear drives are very finicky. They have a lot of harmonics because you have a spinning mass on one end and the engine on the other, and they fight each other. And it takes a lot of engineering to design a gear drive. We tried to make our own gear drive, and that was a bit naïve I guess on our behalf (laughter) because it’s really hard to do.

A & S: What does the future hold?

If the Legacy isn’t performing as well as we expected, then I need to design a new airplane from the ground up. I kind of saw this coming when we were winning. I saw the Sharps with their plane, and you could see the potential in the airplane. But it takes a long time to get all the systems working—getting the engine, and the gear, everything lined up to make a winning combination. I tried to drum up interest in designing a new airplane then, because it takes five years from the time when you say “I have a new design” to the time when you get something flying. So realistically you have to look five years into the future. So the plans were to try to interest Lancair, to try to do something with Lancair, but that’s about the same time the company changed ownership.

But Greg Cole and I were working on the new design, and a lot of it has been thought out and designed. We just have to find the funding to do it.

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