The Thrill of Flying the World’s Smallest Jet

Jim Bede and the 1975 BD-5 Jet Team

Bede jets fly again! A-10 Air National Guard pilot Justin Lewis (opposite, top) zooms at last year’s EAA AirVenture. (Lewis & Clark Performance, LLC)
Air & Space Magazine

Last summer while I watched Justin Lewis perform at an airshow in his polished silver BD-5J, that old feeling came back. I longed to strap into a BD-5 jet again. I wanted to dive it along the show line, pull up vertical, gyrate through a Wild Turkey, drift backward into a tail slide, bop the gear up and down, then zoom past the airshow crowd the way we used to in 1975, when I was the third pilot of the BD-5 Jet Team.

Sleek as a bullet, efficient as a sailplane, sexy as a little Reno racer, the BD-5 was the key piece in Jim Bede’s 1970s dream of affordable, fun flying for the masses. Bede had already hit a home run, selling more than 800 kits for his boxy, practical, build-it-yourself BD-4. But orders for the BD-5 soared into the thousands.

The airplane whispered fantasy and adventure. Nothing about it said wife and kids. Built at home, slipped on at the airport, it was a single-seat, man-size toy. With a fuselage not much bigger than a motorcycle (empty weight: about 450 pounds), it earned a Guinness record as the world’s smallest jet. Its wings and tail could be removed for storage in a garage instead of an expensive-to-rent hangar. The public panted for it. Even before the airplane flew or the engine ran, people sent deposits hoping for kits to build or places in line for the production model.

At the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, last July, Lewis told me that seeing BD-5 jets in the 1980s and 1990s inspired him to fly. He also talked about building his own Flight Line model with Skeeter and Richard Karnes at BD-Micro Technologies in Siletz, Oregon, one of the places where amateur builders can get help putting a BD-5 together. Because the Federal Aviation Administration classifies the BD-5 as “experimental,” the Karneses, who bought parts from one of the original dealers, are able to make any modifications they like. Lewis described the changes. “It has beefed-up wings, a more powerful engine, and a five-inch stretch to the fuselage. It still flies like a dream,” he said with a grin. For my part, I told him stories from when I was left wingman on the demonstration team with fellow airshow pilots Bob Bishop and Corkey Fornof. Back then the jet was relatively new, full of surprises, and watched enviously by crowds of people who wanted one of their own.

The author in 1975. (Courtesy Debbie Gary)
At the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron in Yuma, Arizona, Marines examine the Small Manned Aerial Radar Target-1, a BD-5J that simulates a cruise missile during training exercises. The military-style canopy is one of the features that makes the BD-5 desirable. (USMC / SGT Benjamin R. Reynolds)
From the tight cockpit of the word’s smallest jet, Justin Lewis waves at the fans. (Jacobus Saayman)
Today Bob Bishop offers the BD-5J as an aerial target for the military. (Arizona Daily Star / Benjie Sanders)
One of the greatest airshow performers in history, Leo Loudenslager dazzled audiences in a BD-5J sponsored by Budweiser. (Ty Greenlees)
Paul Griffin ( left) modeled Jim Bede’s designs in the 1970s. (Courtesy Paul Griffin)
The conventional BD-4 kitplane. (Courtesy David Rider)
Jim Bede (in ball cap and white shirt) introduced the BD-5 in 1971 at the Experimental Aircraft Association airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Martt Clupper)
The revolutionary BD-5. Only experienced builders could finish the -5. (Courtesy Jim Bede)

Bede Aircraft had already begun its historic tail slide when I flew my first airshow with the team in May 1975, but I did not know that. Marketing was so far ahead of development that incomplete kits were being shipped to customers; necessary parts simply hadn’t been made. More ruinous, there was no off-the-shelf, airworthy, two-cycle piston engine for the -5, and it was the low-cost piston engine model that homebuilders wanted, not the $20,000 jet. No airplane had ever used such an engine, and in trying to develop one, Bede’s team of engineers and the snowmobile engine manufacturers they were working with seemed to be running in quicksand.

Still, everyone I worked with was under the airplane’s spell. Bede Aircraft in Newton, Kansas, was a magnet for pilots, mechanics, and engineers excited about homebuilding airplanes. Fornof, who led the jet team and had flown airshows in the P-51 Mustang and F8F Bearcat, acquired a Bede dealership to sell kits and later, he hoped, production airplanes. Bishop, who had become famous for his airshow performances in the Bellanca Super Viking, flew right wing and had put a deposit on one of the production models. Dan Cooney, destined to solve mysteries in the drive train that linked the mid-fuselage engine to the rear-facing propeller, showed up in Newton with his Cessna 172 ready to camp out until they found him a job. Engineer Al Thompson, who worked out how to build the unique mechanical landing gear, arrived from Boeing. Now-famous aircraft designer Burt Rutan left a civilian job at Edwards Air Force Base to become Bede’s flight test director.

“This was the only real job in the homebuilt industry,” says Rutan. “There wasn’t any place else where I could work a day job that was something I did for fun at night.” Rutan arrived in Newton with his own, nearly finished design, the VariViggen. While he was at Bede, from 1972 to 1974, he improved the BD-5 prop version, converted the propeller -5 to the jet -5, and developed Bede’s concept of a trainer called Truck-a-Plane: a BD-5 airframe suspended from a trapeze in front of a pickup truck. It offered a simple, ingenious way to practice the critical first and last 20 seconds of flight, close to the ground. Since the BD controls were extremely sensitive and the airplane sat as low to the ground as a glider, takeoff and landing were tricky for inexperienced pilots.

Rutan’s other contribution was to make Les Berven the BD-5’s test pilot. Rutan and Berven worked together at Edwards and flew the airplanes in the base’s aero club. “Even though Les was a flight test engineer like me, he was bonkers about flying,” Rutan says. “He was a stick-and-rudder guy. I knew Les would be a better pilot for a BD-5 than any military test pilot stepping down from Phantoms or F-15s.” Bishop called Berven our cowboy test pilot. He was serious about his test flying, but everything else was fodder for his wacky humor, like the rivet gun recording he hooked to his radio, which in our cockpits sounded like a machine gun shooting us down.

Even people in the office felt the little jet’s magic pull. Carol Hall worked with her husband John, who was marketing vice president. “It was almost a cult,” she says. “You belonged to something. You worked for a cause. If you didn’t get paid, well, you could live on creativity. John and I worked in the car driving to Newton from Wichita with boxes of folders and files, answering letters. We took the kids there in our Volkswagen camper on weekends. We were all working to provide this wonderful airplane to all these customers who put money down. Those $200 checks that came in just to hold a spot, they just poured in. You couldn’t count them fast enough.” John Hall was critical to Bede’s business in two ways: He directed the BD-5’s extensive publicity campaign, and he lovingly drew the BD-5 building plans, famous for their meticulously planned build sequence.

I showed up in Newton because Bishop and Fornof said there might be a job for a wingman if I had time to hang out. I had just finished a year and a half in Canada as a pilot on the four-Pitts Carling Aerobatic Team when Bishop called me to replace their number three pilot, Ed Mahler. The little jet is slippery and sensitive, and the six-foot-four Mahler found it awkward in formation. So he became their solo pilot until the day his jet sucked in contaminated fuel at Corpus Christi and flamed out, and the aircraft went down on a sandy patch near the airport. Mahler peeled off the fuselage and escaped with a broken palate. Fornof and Bishop flew the rest of their 1974 20-show season without him. (Mahler went back to flying his Parsons-Jocelyn biplane; in 1977, he crashed it in a show and died.) Bishop had seen a video of me flying in the Carling Team, so he figured I could do the job, and he thought a woman on the team would increase its market appeal for a corporate sponsorship. Fornof was skeptical; he didn’t know any professional women formation aerobatic pilots, because there were none—except me. I’d led a team for acclaimed airshow pilot Jim Holland from 1971 to 1973, then flew the number four, or slot, position on the Carling Aerobatic Team. (The slot flies right behind the leader in a diamond formation.) When I showed up in Kansas that May, Fornof said I could try out, but that I would probably not be ready to perform with the team before Oshkosh, at the end of July.

But when we flew together, I felt at home in the jet and comfortable with their formation routine, and Fornof changed his mind. In the journal I kept in 1975, I noted what he said: “If a man had flown that well, I wouldn’t have been quite so surprised.” We both laughed. It was the sort of thing people said in the 1970s, but I didn’t let it offend me, and I never let it stop me. Our new team flew our first show 10 days later there in Newton for Bede customers and employees, and the rest of the summer the three of us had a wonderful time flying together.

Our job on the jet team was to keep the BD-5 in front of the public. At the start, Bede invited us all to his office for a welcoming toast. I looked around. Bookshelves held thousands of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics manufacturing reports dating from the 1920s and 1930s onward, some printed on cheap, fragile paper from World War II. “Have you read all these?” I asked.

“I live on them,” Bede said, reaching for the one titled The Hinge Moment of Control Surfaces. “Here is one of the secrets to the BD-5’s beautiful flying characteristics.”

Handmade models on a cabinet across from his big desk gleamed under a spotlight. With Bede’s drawing on quadrille paper as a guide, Paul Griffin designed them. In 1964, after reading a Mechanix Illustrated article about the BD-1, Griffin joined Bede Aviation (which became Bede Aircraft) as an illustrator. His models gave life to Bede’s ideas. At the flight test center, he would work a full day on the BD-5 project, then stay late sanding a model of the next Bede concept.

Because of the slow and partial shipments of kits, the initial intoxication over the propeller version of the BD-5 needed reinforcement. We all got a chance to fly the prop plane too. In fact, right after the Newton show, we took one to the big airshow in Reading, Pennsylvania, because our jets had been shipped to Edwards for testing and research by the Air Force. With Bishop’s supervision, the U.S. Navy had used the jet to mimic a cruise missile in an effort to convince the Carter administration that a cruise missile was a better cold war weapon than the B-1 bomber. Now it was the Air Force’s turn. It was fun to imagine this seemingly frivolous little machine having a secret life as a military weapon, or as a spy’s tool. Hollywood also saw its spyplane potential, casting it in the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy, with Fornof at the controls as Roger Moore’s double.

About Debbie Gary

Freelance writer Debbie Gary is a former Bede Jet Team pilot who still gets a thrill out of airshows.

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