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

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At our next jet show, in Mojave, California, I made five practice flights, and each time I rolled or dived, my engine made harsh sucking noises and flamed out. No formation flying for me that weekend. Instead, the show was memorable for a different kind of experience. I allowed one curious fan to sit in my jet, and as I was telling him that its range was 550 nautical miles, another man interrupted. “You can cut that by 90 percent. You can cut anything Jim Bede says by 90 percent,” he said. “Jim Bede is all talk, and anybody who works for Jim Bede is a liar!”

Although I’m embarrassed to admit it today, I thought he was a crank slandering a guy I believed in, and I told him to get lost. Recently I asked Bede about that tough time for him and the company. “Out of about 10,000 customers I got some very mean hate mail from about 100 people,” he says. “Some people thought that if they really put pressure on me and made me feel bad by writing to the magazines and the government that I would solve the problem.”

But making Bede feel worse didn’t solve the engine problem. “When you are running as fast as you can and somebody says ‘There’s a flaming torch behind you, run faster!’ you go ‘This is as fast as I can go here,’ ” he says today. “So many good people like Paul Griffin and John Hall put all their effort into it.”

And enthusiasm for the BD-5 was so broad, way beyond the homebuilt market, that Bede believed the way forward was to manufacture a production airplane. This required getting the airplane certified by the FAA, a tedious process involving unimaginably vast amounts of time, money, and red tape. In 1972, right after Curtis Pitts got his aerobatic Pitts biplane certified, he told me, “If I had ever known how difficult and expensive it was going to be, I never would have done it. It cost more than a million dollars.”

Bede sank his house, his personal accounts, everything he and his family owned into the company to try to save it, and somehow remained optimistic about future deliveries.

Our jets spent a lot of time at Edwards in the summer of ’75, and the next time we climbed into them was to taxi out for the Fourth of July show in Lancaster, Texas, near Dallas. I had gone six weeks with no three-ship practice. Formation aerobatics is all about timing and practice. On the Carling Team, we had a big budget and plenty of control, so our training included six weeks of winter practice. The Bede Jet Team was on a very tight budget, but after the Lancaster experience, we never did another show without practice.

The Fourth of July weekend in Texas was so hot that 40 people in the crowd fainted, and the air was as rough as stones. We dived in for our first loop and I cranked my elevator trim to the full nose-down position to make my controls so heavy that I would not chase the bumps and have the jet’s nose bounce up and down like a truck with bad springs. Don’t move the stick, I told myself as the plane rode over the bumps. In an aircraft as light on the controls as the BD-5, it is easy to overreact. It was hard work, but that’s the fun of formation flying.

Another part of the fun of being on the team was traveling to shows in Bede’s DC-3, which also transported our jets. For four years I had traveled to shows in a Pitts with all my belongings stuffed in a tiny back hatch the size of bread box, so I was giddy over all the space and freedom the DC-3 gave us. We three took turns: up front as the copilot, or in the back on a bench. It was a party back there, with buckets of fried chicken and magazines we read aloud to each other. The jet fuselages were turn-buckled to the floor with the wings and horizontal stabilizers tied down under them, wrapped in blue sleeping bags. It was especially fun arriving together for my first airshow at the yearly Oshkosh convention.

We performed both solo and team flights, and when not flying, we manned the Bede booth. By the second day I was hoarse from raving about the BD-5 and shouting hello to what seemed like everyone I had ever met in aviation. Although we performed our formation flight in the rain, we flew the routine with rhythm and finesse, and I remember feeling great; but I also remember that I got a slow start on takeoff. From the left wing I saw Corkey’s mouth move, then his jet crept away before I realized I was on the wrong radio frequency.

What I was really looking forward to was my solo flight; I had practiced a surprise. Our jets had been home with us for a week, so I’d had a chance to experiment. The Bede jet could do things that other jets can’t: snap rolls, tail slides, and our signature level pass, called Now You See Them, Now You Don’t, with the landing gear popping in and out as we moved the mechanical landing gear lever forward and back. My surprise was to do an inside/outside figure eight, the first and maybe only negative 3-G maneuver done in a Bede jet at an airshow. Before I tried it back in Newton, I checked with Berven and the company mechanics and engineers. I stayed within the airplane’s G and oil pressure limits, so I expected no problems. The airplane sailed through the inverted portion of the eight as if it was built for negative Gs. It delighted me, but not Bishop. “The nickel cadmium batteries are right under your legs,” he said after I flew. “The caps on those batteries are only certified for three negative Gs. If that stuff got loose on you, you would have been in very bad shape. You could have lost the use of your legs.” I didn’t perform another inside/outside figure eight.

Bishop was not just a talented wingman, but also the one who gave us reality checks. He knew the airplane better than anybody else. Not long after Oshkosh, something happened that made him say our days as a show team were numbered. For a long time, the engineers and mechanics had been working to perfect the “conformity model” BD-5 so the airplane could meet FAA certification requirements. We all thought the BD-5 production airplane was just around the corner. That’s what we told people we met on the show circuit, and deposits rolled in from customers wanting places held in line for them. But Bishop sensed that the delays were not the ordinary hurdles that every airplane has to overcome during development, so he introduced Bede to Rod Absher, the aircraft production expert who saved Bellanca Aircraft 800 man-hours per airplane when the company set up its new production line. After a couple months at Bede’s, Absher took Bishop aside and said the company was a long way from starting production.

In September, I left Bede’s to fly solo shows in my new Pitts S-2A and to set up an aerobatic school at Art Scholl Aviation in California. Bishop and Fornof left a couple months later to build their own jets and find other sponsors. They flew together for a long time—first as the Acrojets, then as the sponsored Sonic Jets. Then they split; Fornof headed for his movie stunt flying career, and Bishop formed the long-running Coors Silver Bullet Team. Bishop did some BD-5 test flying for Ames Industrial Corporation, which had built the original BD-5 jet engine under license from the French engine builder Microturbo (then Sermel). The company had purchased 20 BD-5 kits, and Bishop negotiated a good deal for 19 sets of parts. He has since used the kits to build many of the jets he now owns and flies under contract for the military as the Small Manned Aerial Radar Target, or SMART-1. Justin Lewis, an Air National Guard pilot as well as an airshow performer in the BD-5FLS, sometimes flies missions for Bishop.

In 1979, Jim Bede lost his company, his savings, and his home to bankruptcy. Customers lost their money too. Bede didn’t intend to cause harm; he just didn’t see how bad things had become.

Bede has written a book about his experience: The BD-5 Story. It’s sold by the company he formed with his two sons in 1998, Bedecorp, which also sells kits for four models, including the BD-4. But not the BD-5. Bede calls the BD-5 a dream. It was a dream I got to live in the summer of 1975.

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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