Technical Side of Flight to Oshkosh

My flight to #Osh14 started with a general flight plan.  Actually, several.  I had worked on the route in anticipation of wind and weather management.  I ended up taking a southerly route, as this aligned with winds aloft and also kept me close to my chase crew for the first leg of the flight.

My flight started on Saturday.

I had 5 gallons of fuel on board, and with a strong tailwind at 3000 feet, I headed towards Kansas City.  My ground speed was showing 95 to 100 mph.  My first stop was to be Emporia, but with well less than half a tank of gas used, I just kept on going.   I communicated with my ground crew using texts.

Here’s the flight from the gliderport to Gardiner, KS.  With a very strong southerly wind down low, I landed on a grass runway, and Gardiner became my first fuel stop:

Leg 1


At Gardiner, I added about 3 1/2 gallons of fuel, and I had been in the air about 1:45.

After talking with some local pilots, and discovering that I had a customer based on field, I took off.  I skirted around the south end of the Class D, and stayed out of the Class B / 30NM veil entirely, then headed into Missouri for my next stop.  I was losing some o my tailwind, but still showing probably 75mph ground speed.  Nice.

Leg 2


North Central Missouri Regional airport was my stop, and I picked up more 100LL from the self serve pump.  Of course, I was always adding oil to the fuel for my Polini Thor 250 engine.  It runs 50:1 on the premix.

Now my tailwind left me entirely, and I made a short run barely into Iowa, landing at Bloomfield.

Leg 3Then I headed to Iowa City, where my chase crew met me and brought me lunch.  :-)

Monticello, Iowa was the next stop.  The crew met me again (I got there before they did — nice!) but that is also where the starter motor failed.  Bummer.  Our day ended there.  Christian got it fixed, but we were out of daylight.

The following morning (Sunday morning), I flew from Monticello to Mineral Point, Wisconsin (Iowa County) and I did a very unusual landing into strong wind.  It was at the edge of my skill level, and I don’t want to repeat it.  In winds gusting around 25 knots, I set the plane down, and flared.  With nearly zero forward energy, my ground roll was a literal 6 feet.  I carefully taxiied back to the ramp, and waited for the ground crew to arrive.

We waited out weather for 6 hours.  The wind needed to decrease, and some rain needed to move through.

Leg 5

I then left for Madison.  Well, not really Madison (I avoided the class C entirely).  I avoided a squall line to the North, but then ended up colliding with it as I passed Madison on the south.  Using radar on my cellphone, and my visual view, I popped around the bad storm and ended up on the north side of the weather.  But the wind was still very turbulent, and the headwind was very strong, so rather than push on, I set down at Blackhawk airport, using the grass infield as my landing strip, so I could directly line up with the wind.  I ignored the paved runway.

Leg 4


My chase crew met me at Blackhawk and refueled me.  We had 90 minutes of daylight left, and a strong headwind.  I hopped in the ProCub and continued to Dodge County, where the plane spent the night.

We drove into OshKosh and spent the night in our rental house.

Monday morning, Neil and Christian drove me back to Dodge County, and I uneventfully flew the plane into the ultralight field at #Osh14 at around 9:30 in the morning.

I was elated.  Mission accomplished.


A note to United Air Lines

(Longtime blog readers — occasionally James writes about topics other than ultralight aircraft.  This post reflects on James’ experience with United Air Lines.  It was also posted on UAL’s FaceBook page.)

Dear United Air Lines:

I’m having some real trouble with your customer service.  I’ve flown 29K miles so far this year with you; maybe it’s time for a switch to another airline.  I am so frustrated.  I am writing this to help all of us – your company, myself, other flyers – understand what the problem is.  My hope is that this chronicle of events and frustrations will facilitate change within your organization.

Here’s the facts from a bad experience with United Air Lines earlier this week:

I arrived early for my flight from Wichita, KS to Las Vegas, with a connection through Denver.  The flight was posted “on-time” through your app and on the airport monitors.  As passengers waited at the departure gate, a sense of unease built as departure time approach:  the flight crew had not shown up.  I could hear the gate agent questioning aloud where the crew was.  With each passing minute, it became clear that United did not have a handle on the situation; the ‘on-time’ departure time was erroneous, and everyone was in the dark.  The gate area was filled with expectant passengers; a gate agent was on hand; the jet was outside and sitting on the tarmac.  The gate agent announced that no one knew where the flight crew was, and asked the passengers to please be patient. 

A typical airline-angst frustration settled over the crowd.  Adding to the weirdness was the fact that our departure gate was a re-purposed flight view lounge, complete with random chairs and a series of four wooden rocking chairs.  Weirdness.

A second gate agent showed up, clearly with a little more supervisory tone.  He attempted to diffuse the situation with what was Ill-placed, heavy handed humor.

More time passed.  The scheduled departure time came and passed.  No crew.  No word from the crew. 

The crew showed up 10 minutes after the scheduled departure time, and avoided the passengers entirely by walking the concrete tarmac directly to the jet.   Realizing the flight was going to happen, the supervising gate agent voiced a quick question to the crowd of passengers:  “Who’s going to Vegas (from Denver)?”.  Several hands went up, including mine.   “We think you’ll be able to make your connection, and if you miss it, you’ll be rebooked on a later flight,” from the gate agent.

[An important aside, from my inner voice:  in my 35 years of flying commercially, my ability to discern how long things will really take is usually more correct than the glib statements made by airline personnel.  I was to be proven correct, again.  Read on….]

After we were underway to Denver, the flight crew announced that we’d still be on time into Denver with a 7:40AM estimated arrival.  The original scheduled arrival was actually 7:25AM.  I don’t know how this fits the definition of ‘on-time’.  My connection out of Denver would leave at 8:00AM. 

I went to my outbound gate, the flight to Vegas had left.  The inner voice had been correct;  I missed my flight!  Because the flight crew showed up late in Wichita!

So I walked over to a United customer service counter.   There was no personnel there; just a series of kiosks.    I used one of the automated kiosks, and it gave me a ticket for a later flight.  I had a conference to get to, and I wanted a better option.   I continued walking to the next customer service counter, looking for a real human being to help me.  This counter was staffed with United personnel but was hopelessly slow with a long line. 

While standing in line, I called the usual Premier customer service phone #, got a real person, explained my problem.  I asked her to put me on another airline.  She was unable to find any option which would help me, and she would not consider putting me on Southwest (they had several flights to Vegas which might help me out).   

As I hung up, I gave up waiting in line.  It would take too long to sift through and get real help from one of the United personnel there.  Too many people with flight challenges and too few United agents to help.

I called the person I was meeting for conference setup and lunch in Vegas and explained the delay.  He took the news of my delay with a fair bit of grace, and I appreciated that.  He would end up setting the conference booth up mostly on his own.

Time passed; I did some email; I went to the departure gate for my reassigned flight to Vegas. 

I was pleased that I’d been able to select an economy plus seat that was not a middle seat.  I’d done this at the automated Kiosk.  (I’m 6’ 2” tall; I always fly in Economy Plus; and I try to make my seat selection early so that I end up with a window or an aisle seat.  Then I can flop my legs away from people.  Good for them and me.)   I had a new printed boarding pass in hand that showed my reassigned flight along with my excellent seat selection.

The flight was called for boarding.  I was in boarding group 2.

The gate agent took my boarding pass and scanned it into the reader.  The system flashed a message:  “record not found” or something similar.  She did it again:  same result.

She spoke to me:  “You need to step over to the counter to resolve the problem.”

Unbelievable.  Simply Unbelievable.

I pulled out of the boarding line and stepped over to the counter.  An agent took my boarding pass, tapped away on the system, and I heard another boarding pass printing out.  He handed it to me, and explained that I was now assigned to a middle seat in an exit row.  I had no problem with the exit row but I had a big problem with the middle seat.  I also had a bigger problem with the fact that just moments earlier I’d had a boarding document in hand that showed the seat that I was supposed to be in, and it was gone, and so was my desired seat.  And United would not honor the boarding document.

Unbelievable.  Simply Unbelievable.

Yeah, I was angry.  It didn’t matter how I voiced my anger; there was nothing that could be done.  Somehow, the computer support system for United Airlines couldn’t keep a boarding pass and seat assignment straight for 180 minutes.

Another technical observation:  my boarding pass had a note printed on it that indicated that I’d been added to the first class upgrade list for the flight.  Once in a while in my travels, I get an upgrade to first class, but most of the time, it is just humorous to note just how deep I am on the wait list.  (Upgrades are a rare commodity.)   And so I saw this note on my boarding pass, and I thought I might have an opportunity for an upgrade to first, given the big errors on the part of United earlier in the day.  I looked up at the computer screens showing flight status, standby information, and upgrade eligibility.  My name was not on the list.  Interesting:  a boarding pass in hand that shows that I’m on the list; a situation begging for an upgrade; a computer monitor showing I’m not on the list.  A broken system at United?  It appeared that way.

Let me make some suggestions as to how the various situations could have been better handled.

1)  LEARN HOW TO DELIVER A HEARTFELT APOLOGY.  When you make a mistake (such as the unannounced late flight crew), make a real and sympathetic apology:  you should say “We’re sorry, we screwed up,” or “We’re sorry that we’ve caused a problem.”  Use plain English words, not obfuscation and excuses as was offered:  “You’ll probably make your flight…”  I hate that.  So do most other customers.  The apology should come from the gate agent, as well as from the flight crew.  You need to especially avoid the words that make blood boil:  “Inconvenience” is a pretty good example of a word that now causes most people disgust, as in:  “We’re sorry that we inconvenienced you.”  You haven’t inconvenienced me — you’ve caused me a major headache.  I had some pretty good reasons why I needed to get to Vegas on time.  It adds stress to my day, but I can handle it a lot better if I feel like I’m being given good information with good empathy.  If you’d apologize with empathy to me, my anxiety level will decrease, and my comments to other about your airline will not be so disparaging.  And I will be far more likely to book you in the future.

2)  IMPROVE YOUR INTERNAL CREW / SYSTEM COMMUNICATION.  If your flight crew knows they are running late – they need to let your operations and schedulers know.  United has a wonderful system of providing me and other travelers text alerts as to late flights.  But, it is meaningless when your employees have not provided accurate information as to their status.  It is hard to fathom how an employee would knowingly act like that.  Yes, I suspect the crew had a very late night from their inbound the night before.  It is important to differentiate between a reason for lateness and an excuse for non-communication.  They showed up at the plane 10 minutes after scheduled departure, and they didn’t let anyone know they were running late.  (Or you didn’t let us know – but I doubt that.)

3)  USE MORE REAL PEOPLE TO HELP ME.  If you do screw up, provide me with a real customer service person, in person, promptly.  The lines at customer service in Denver are as long as the airport and state are high and, seemingly by design, creates ill will.  (You had an alternate service counter area which had no employees manning it.)  It is maddening when the flight options are disappearing because of the wait time.  Don’t tell me to “see a customer service person”, when, in-fact, that is not an realistic quick option.

4)  HELP ME.  SPEND YOUR OWN MONEY TO HELP ME.  If you can’t solve my problem on your airline, provide me with an alternative on a competitive airline, at your expense.  Make ‘my problem’ into ‘your problem’.  Don’t make me feel like I have no options — because I do.  Flying is a commodity, and the only real differentiators are schedule and quality of service.  As someone who has flown nearly a million miles with you so far this lifetime, and around 30,000 so far this year, can’t you help out once in a while?  Yes, I do wonder if that’s unreasonable.  But I ponder these things after I’m overloaded with cumulative small failures. 

5)  MAKE YOUR SYSTEM WORK PROPERLY.  A little less than 3 hours later, when I presented my boarding pass for the later flight, your computer system could no longer find me.  My reservation and seat assignment?  Who knows.  My assigned seat, which I’d picked earlier in the morning?  Taken, by someone else.  The agent kicked me out of the boarding line to resolve this with a gate agent.  I was denied boarding to the aisle seat on my freshly printed ticket, and I was offered a middle seat in the exit row.  I took it, as I had no option.   And where was my name on the upgrade list?   I did take a moment to vent on the gate agent for the generally poor way I’d been handled by United.  and that takes me to my final observation.

6)  DON’T MAKE EXCUSES.  I told the agent how the crew had not shown up in Wichita.  He started to mumble something about probable overnight problems from the prior day for that crew.  I understand that!  The real problem is that no one said:

    *  “We’re sorry they overslept.”  This could have come from the gate agents in Wichita.

    *  “We’re sorry we overslept, and we’re sorry that we didn’t pass that information on to our flight scheduling.”  This should have come from the flight crew on the Wichita – Denver leg.

    *  “We’re sorry that our system lost your boarding pass and seat assignment information for this flight.  There is no excuse for that; we’re sorry. “

    *  “We’re sorry the system dropped your name off the upgrade eligibility list.“

It boils down to transparency and humbleness.

Footnote:  As I had just entered the airplane cabin, the gate agent came on board the airplane and reseated me to a window seat in economy plus.  I am grateful for that.


1)      Learn how to apologize.  Be real.  Be authentic.  Don’t use weasel words.

2)      Improve your crew / system communication, so that passengers aren’t left in the dark with wrong information.  We’re not fungible material.  And so that you won’t look…  well…  so inept.

3)      Add many more bodies in customer service.

4)      Help me with all of your resources.

5)      Make your system glitch free.  You are a big company and technology infrastructure is an important, if not paramount, part of what you are.  There are no excuses.

6)      Speaking of excuses, don’t make excuses.  Be transparent.

I’ll sign off with the same comment that I started this note with:

I’m having some real trouble with your customer service.  I’ve flown 29K miles so far this year with you; maybe it’s time for a switch to another airline.  I am so frustrated.

Submitted by James P Wiebe, Wichita, KS.


Procub demonstrates 350 FPM climb at 3900 ft density altitude.

Belite ProCub Rate Of Climb

Belite ProCub Rate Of Climb

Remember, this is a Belite ProCub ultralight aircraft with a tiny 36.5 HP engine.  It should not perform this well, but it does! And the airplane has massive 21″ tundra tires slowing it down…

Starting from a field elevation of 1400 feet, an immediate full power climb was established to 4000 feet AGL.  Temperature was approximately 90 degrees for a calculated density altitude of 3900 feet.  (Final density altitude for this demonstation would be about 6500 feet!).  The blue marks are 640 feet apart in altitude and 110 seconds apart in time — this calculates to 350 fpm.

Based on the standard rule of thumb that Density Altitude causes a loss of 3.5% of power per 1000 feet; the initial climb was started at a real power setting of (100% – (3.9K x 3.5%)) = (100% -13.65%) = 86.35% of full power, which is equivalent to (86.35% of 36.5HP) = 31.5HP.

Stay with me here:  we’ve just lost 5 HP due to density altitude issues.  If we had that 5 HP back, it would contribute to climb rate according to the following formula:

(Excess HP x 33000) / gross weight = rate of climb

With a gross weight of 550 pounds for our Belite ProCub, the math looks like this:

(5 HP x 33000) / 550 = 300 FPM increase in rate of climb

This means that the sea level performance of the same engine / ProCub combination would have been 650 FPM, given standard altitude conditions.  I’m thinking that’s a little optimistic, but without argument, the performance would be a lot better at sea level with the little 36.5 HP engine.

Conversely, we can use the same type of math to deduce when the climb rate would degrade to 100 FPM, which is the standard definition of service ceiling.  I’ll spare you the math and just tell you the result:

The calculated service ceiling of the ProCub with the 36.5HP Polini Thor engine is 7100 feet with 21″ tundra tires.  Changing to smaller tires will improve this number considerably.

Crashing a Belite Airplane

Crashing a Belite Airplane

(c) 2014 by James Wiebe

Chapter 1:  THE EVENT

An Observer saw it happen, and commented as follows:  “The plane had entered a departure stall, then spun into the ground.  When the Belite hit the ground, it sounded like a grenade went off.”

The Observer had past military experience, and brought his remembrance of ugly scenes into his thoughts:  “I ran up to the point of impact, expecting to see a bloody body.  Instead, the pilot was walking around the crashed Belite, looking at the wrecked airplane.”

The Belite UltraCub had just had its first major accident.  I’d received the call from the Observer (who happened to be the owner of this particular Belite, and our customer), and the very next day I was having lunch with him, along with the pilot who’d survived the stall / spin / smash accident.

I’d never heard of someone surviving a stall / spin, much less surviving without hardly any damage to their own body.

We’ll get to the pilot’s story in a few paragraphs.  In the meantime, the pictures of the wreckage tells a fascinating tale of impact energy, dissipated by a cabin constructed of aluminum, with impact loads absorbed by the Belite Ultracub’s lightweight and strong boxed aluminum structure.

Here’s a view of the accident site, exactly as it was:

A wrecked Belite, after a stall / spin into terra firma.  The pilot survived with a scratch and two bruises.

A wrecked Belite, after a stall / spin into terra firma. The pilot survived with a scratch and two bruises.


According to the Observer, the aircraft hit the ground at an impact angle of around 45 degrees.  The impact caused the following damage:

  • The carbon fiber composite propeller was destroyed.  Well, of course…
  • The single cylinder Hirth F33 engine was severely damaged.  As the engine was mounted cylinder down, the muffler and cylinder head sustained damage.  The redrive was not damaged.
  • The motor mount was destroyed, bent downwards by the impact to the engine lower side.
  • The front cabin angle aluminums were severely bent.  These angle parts are supported by gussets.  OK, a lot of stuff was severely bent!
  • The wings appeared largely undamaged.  (One wing which had hit a wingtip had subtle but substantial internal damage – the sail / anti-sail tubes were either bent in compression or snapped in tension; the main spar and false rib spar had a subtle bend.  The other wing had one sail / anti-sail mount fitting sheared off from the spar.  You can see the subtle bend in the front wing spar in the above photo.)
  • The impact of the wings caused their AN-5 attachment bolts to bend – a shear stress load which was many, many thousands of pounds.  The top cabin cross connection tubes had deformation damage around the attachment bolts.  These cross connection tubes are constructed from 6061T6 1” square aluminum, with a wall thickness of .063.  Their partial deformation indicates that the shear load at the bolts (and the consequent deformation of the aluminum) was approximately 9000 pounds.
  • The landing gear had bent backwards and upwards, folding into the underside of the cabin and tucking upwards towards the pilot’s bottom.  (But the landing gear and wheels never reached the pilot’s lower torso).
  • The rear fuselage had a couple of bends in the aluminum longerons, immediately below the tail feathers.  These compressive bends were caused by forward impact G forces of the tail feathers, transferring into the rear fuselage.  The G force required to bend the 2024 aluminum alloy extrusions is difficult for to calculate, (because of Euler’s buckling principles), but I’ll take a stab at it – a force of around 1000 pounds was required to bend these longerons.  So perhaps the momentary G forces on this area of the structure were around 50 G’s, based on a tail feather weight of 20 pounds.  Truly this is guess-timation.

Here’s a look through the top of the cabin, taken directly downward at the pilot’s seat:

The wrecked cabin of a Belite UltraCub aircraft.

The wrecked cabin of a Belite UltraCub aircraft.

The Belite UltraCub’s cabin is composed of two aluminum side boxes and four cross boxes.  The side boxes run along the sides of the cabin, and they absorbed crash loads from the front of the cabin heading backwards; the four cross boxes under the pilot absorb loads coming up from the ground and protect the bottom part of the pilot’s torso.  Three of these undercabin cross boxes are partially visible in the above photo.  The front cross box is clearly visible, just above the control stick, with two lightening round holes of about 3” diameter.  These boxes are constructed from square tubes with very thin walls and from a front side and a backside continuous aluminum frame/gusset, which spans the entire length of the tube.

Note that the pilot’s seat is bent but intact.  Not visible below the pilot’s seat is what I call a “butt plate”, which is an aluminum plate with angle reinforcements below and extra gussets.  It did its job very, very well.  It connects to two of the cross boxes, and the pilot seat sits on top of the butt plate.

The four point safety harness did its job.  It did not break.  In the event that it had failed, the pilot’s head and torso are likely to have impacted forward, with severe consequences.

Our cheap $12 fuel tank from the home improvement store held together without any problems.

Fuel tank in a wrecked Belite ultralight airplane

Fuel tank in a wrecked Belite ultralight airplane


Now, back to the pilot’s side of the story: he had a small round scrape (about the size of a large coin) and a couple of bruises.  He was fine, but in some sort of reasonable shock as to what had just happened.  The Belite UltraCub cabin had crushed, like an accordion, collapsing around the pilot.  No broken body parts, no lacerations.

The pilot’s story:

“I’m a multi-thousand hour commercial pilot.  I have a lot of flying time in general aviation aircraft, and I fly for a living.  I’m embarrassed by what happened, so I’ve chosen to remain Anonymous.  I’ve also chosen to share this story with others, so that the pilot community can learn from what happened.

“I’d never flown an ultralight aircraft before, much less one with just 28HP, but I was eager to try it.  Although I’d been warned not to over pitch the initial climb, that is, in fact, what I did.  I climbed through ground effect, then it felt like I lost control of the aircraft, but what was really happening was a departure stall, which quickly turned into a spin.  When I realized what was happening, I slammed the stick forward and recovered just as the aircraft impacted the ground.  Of course it was too late.  A few seconds later, I was out of the aircraft, walking around the wreck, and pondering what had just happened.

“In hind sight, it’s so obvious:  allow the aircraft to gain speed before climbing out of ground effect.  Listen to what I was briefed on.  Perhaps spend more time acquainting myself with the aircraft in ground effect hops.

“The next time I fly this aircraft–and I will fly it again after it is repaired and rebuilt–I will note the indicated airspeed at lift off and keep a healthy margin of additional speed until I flare to land!

“I am amazed that I came through this essentially unharmed.   What a great job Belite has done making this aircraft safe.  One might say the Belite people protected me from my own mistakes.

Chapter 4:  EPILOGUE

The aircraft is currently being rebuilt.  As stated, the rear fuselage had a minor bend in the lower longerons, which we easily repaired.  One wing is being replaced, the other wing is being repaired and the cabin is being replaced.  One tail feather had a minor bend in the Chromalloy steel, also easily repaired.  The engine has been repaired, and is awaiting installation.  A new Ivoprop composite propeller will be on the rebuilt aircraft.  As of this writing, the first flight of the rebuilt aircraft is scheduled for late April.

I can’t express strongly enough how pleased I am with the crash capability of the cabin.  Everything in the cabin structure ‘gave up’ under mostly compressive forces in a way which unwound energy from the impact, without causing any appreciable damage to the occupant.

If I wanted to add more strength to the cabin, I would add it on the side boxes, but this would be at the expense of weight, and FAR Part 103 is always a balancing act between the mandate for low aircraft weight and safety.  According to the law, it’s more important that the aircraft be light than it be strong.  Such is the oddity of Part 103.  Part 103 is not a safety standard, it is a weight standard.  Sigh.

Another concern is lacerations caused by sheet metal.  A possible solution is the use of rubber slip-on edging, especially around the interior pieces of the cockpit.

I’m aware of a lot of aircraft accidents.  I’ve lost a Belite customer to an aircraft accident – but not in a Belite.  He had a departure stall in a Rotax powered aircraft of another experimental design.  We’ll never know the exact details, but things went very poorly for him.  So I know how these kinds of takeoff accidents often end – poorly.  I’ve also heard of a new owner who crashed his Kitfox Lite on his first departure.  He did not survive.  That was with an engine significantly larger than our F33 28HP Hirth, but also at a higher field elevation.  The original KFL looks a lot the same, but uses a different wing, (smaller), different flaperons (smaller), different fuselage (steel instead of our aluminum), and other differences as well.

I have developed very strong personal biases towards my aircraft design.  We’ve lost sales of Belite Aircraft over perceived differences in design philosophies vs. competition, and this maddens me.  I’m aware of what happens when a non-enclosed light or ultralight aircraft impacts the ground, with the pilot’s feet literally hitting the ground before the aircraft structure.  It rarely ends well for the pilot.

I’m also confident that some percentage of the readers of this article will think I’m wired a little oddly for publishing this article.  Yes, I am.  Ultralight aircraft accidents are never investigated by the FAA, and pilots rarely ‘fess up to how that stall-spin accident actually occurred.  This is a unique opportunity to see what happened to the airplane, and hear what we can learn from the pilot’s story.  Let’s do that.

It takes a little bit of bravery to publish this story.

I haven’t hid the fact that this event happened:  We’ve had prospective customers come to our facility and see the wreck, and then order our assembled aircraft or kit.

If you have any questions about this, please send them to info AT

Here are several more photos of the wreck:

Wrecked engine, mount and prop on a Belite UltraCub

Wrecked engine, mount and prop on a Belite UltraCub

Cabin view inside a wrecked Belite ultralight airplane

Cabin view inside a wrecked Belite ultralight airplane

Gear folded up under Belite UltraCub ultralight wreck

Gear folded up under Belite UltraCub ultralight wreck

Bent rear fuselage aluminum angle longerons

Bent rear fuselage aluminum angle longerons

Cross tube on top of cabin showing deformation

Cross tube on top of cabin showing deformation

Wing attachment bolt, AN5, showing bend.  9000 pounds of shear?

Wing attachment bolt, AN5, showing bend. 9000 pounds of shear?

a Belite is Broken

“Blue Highways; Flint Hills”

Originally published © 2009 by James Wiebe; all material and photos are copyright. No use without express permission of Belite Aircraft.

Additional material © 2014 by James Wiebe

A Belite Aircraft, after an incident in the Flint Hills near Olpe, KS.

A Belite Aircraft, after an incident in the Flint Hills near Olpe, KS.

1.  Background on the accident.

On July 22, 2009, a Belite ultralight aircraft made a precautionary landing in a remote pasture in the Flint Hills near Olpe, KS. The uneventful landing was caused by concerns of fuel exhaustion.  After refueling, the aircraft taxied uphill for a downhill departure and encountered a hole in the ground, causing the landing gear to buckle and also causing destruction of the propeller.  The pilot was able to contact rescue personnel via cellphone and was subsequently rescued approximately five hours after the incident.

The aircraft in question was a Belite single seat, steel frame ultralight with carbon fiber wing spars.  The flight had originated from KAAO – Jabara airport, Wichita, KS and was destined for KEMP – Emporia, KS, with an ultimate destination of the AirVenture (OshKosh, WI.)

Belite Ultralight Aircraft

Belite Ultralight Aircraft

The engine was a Compact Radial Engines MZ-201.

As the aircraft operated under FAR Part 103, FAA authorities were not notified.

Damage to the aircraft was relatively minor.  The aircraft was repaired and hauled by trailer to OshKosh for display at the airshow.

Following is the account of this event.

2.  20 Miles.

I am in the middle of the flint hills. I am sitting on the wheel of my airplane. It is sitting at an odd angle, with the left wingtip 6 feet above the ground, and the right wingtip one foot above the ground. I’ve pulled the seat pad out of the airplane, and I’m using it to keep some cushion between me, the wheel, and the grass.  The airplane is broken.  I am OK.

A damaged ultralight airplane after a taxiing incident in the Flint Hills.

A damaged ultralight airplane after a taxiing incident in the Flint Hills.

Earlier, after my airplane came to rest, a group of cows stared at me. They wondered if I have brought alfalfa pellets?  Or some other food?  No, I haven’t, and they wandered off.

Cows looking at Ultralight Airplane.

Cows looking at Ultralight Airplane.

When I stand up, I can see for up to 20 miles, maybe further, depending on which way I look. Looking south, an expanse of prairie grass heads downslope, along my impromptu runway, to a line of trees which look to follow a creek. For miles beyond that, the terrain slowly rises and eventually disappears in a flint hills ridgeline.  How far is that ridgeline?  How long to walk there?  Are there any roads?

A south view from the Belite Aircraft incident in the flint hills.

A south view from the Belite Aircraft incident in the flint hills.

To my east, far in the distance, are what appear to be cell phone towers. They are at the top of a ridgeline. I can also see continuous green pasture between me and the cell towers. The landscape is typical of the flint hills: It is beautiful, and alive, and explodes with a slightly muted green and a tinge of summer brown heat, just burning into the grass. I hear the constant buzzing of insects.  I am not aware of the ticks, but their evidence will appear (in the hundreds) the following day.

Just a couple of hundred yards to the north, the land forms a grassy knoll and then the terrain disappears behind the back side of the knoll. The cows went that way.  I make a mental note to explore in that direction.

Looking west:  the terrain to my west is grass, with a road far, far off in the distance. I see a car on the road; it is visible because it is traveling rapidly and raising a ball of dust. I also mentally note this obvious landmark, and later, I will decide to hike towards that road.

The scenery is green and gorgeous.

Flint Hills Ridgeline in distance

Flint Hills Ridgeline in distance

View looking towards tree lined creek; near abandoned farmstead

View looking towards tree lined creek; near abandoned farmstead

Flint Hills and sky

Flint Hills and sky

Scenery 4

A tree, a windmill and a vista in the flint hills.

Flint Hills Pasture

Flint Hills Pasture and trees by creek

To my south, about 1.5 miles away, is county road 50.  (I have a GPS, and it tells me that.)  A line of trees is in that direction, and I’m not sure if the road is before or after the trees. Is that creek over there as well? I have no idea, and the GPS doesn’t offer that clue.

I don’t know how to get to that road:  I think the creek does block it.   There is no airport, here, of course. I am here. My airplane is with me, sitting, wounded.  My thoughts play with me, and I am not comfortable, so I take a hike, toward the northeast.  The GPS shows that a road is there.

But I can’t get to the road; I am stopped by another creek. The creek was slightly flooded as a result of heavy rains a day or two ago. I could have crossed it, but it would have meant soaking my ankles. I see a tree which has fallen perfectly across the creek. Considering giving it a try; but NO, I don’t want to risk soaking myself, my Nikon D300 camera, my GPS.

Along the way, I encounter evidence of an old farmstead.  My GPS is not great and it can’t get me around the obstacles.

I’m not sure what I’m doing anyway, other than killing time, waiting for rescue, so I head back to the airplane.

I finish a bottle of soda, and then I have no water, and it is very hot.

3. Formation flying.

The day started with last minute details for a flight to Airventure, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. We wanted to fly our demonstrator airplane up, as a promotion for our new aircraft and our new company, Belite Aircraft.

My friend Terry Alley and my coworker Gene Stratton had been working with me at Jabara airport (KAAO) to make some last minute tune-ups to the bird. We’d installed a rudder trim tab because of nagging right foot pressure, and that had solved a problem. The plane had been loaded. The electrical system on the plane was acting up, probably due to a bad voltage regulator. In a fit of disgust, I had disconnected the voltage regulator. Electric operation is not a necessity in an ultralight.

Our demonstrator airplane was flying nicely.

Terry and I took off in a formation flight towards Emporia. It was an extraordinarily beautiful morning! Blue skies. Occasional radio calls. A little maneuvering for photographs on the part of Terry. As we reached Cassoday, KS, I no longer hear from him, and decide that he has headed back home. He’d told me he’d break off there.

The plane is remarkable, and has a gas gauge which shows my fuel quantity. It showed a full tank at the start of the flight. I had ‘tankered’ an additional 2 gallons of fuel so I could land and refuel anywhere, if necessary. (FAR 103 regulations prohibit a tank capacity of more than 5 gallons).

My fuel gauge hung on full for a while, then started to descend a little too quickly through ¾, ½, and down to ¼ tank. Over the flint hills, there are few options for roads, but many options for pastures. Even though only 8 miles short of the Emporia airport, I determined that the smartest thing to do would be to make a landing, refuel, and finish the leg. (Why was the fuel consumption so high? Probably an incorrectly set carb. We’ll figure that out after Oshkosh.)

I decided that instead of staggering into my Emporia on fumes, I’d make a precautionary landing and resolve the issue.

You are probably thinking that the airplane broke on landing, because of a rock or cow turd. Not so… the landing was silky smooth; the plane floated onto the field of grass as if I had edged onto a down pillow. It was smooth.

4. Landed on the prairie.

I’m grinning. I don’t even shut the engine down; it idles smoothly as I refuel the plane.

After adding two gallons of fuel from my spare tank, I tried to take off.

Trouble; I can’t get enough airspeed. The grass is a little high and I may have a touch of tailwind. I try to takeoff twice; it doesn’t get airborne. However, I’ve got several degrees of downslope on the hill, and I can taxi up the hill for a long ways; no problem! I can resolve the takeoff speed issue.

Turning around, I headed up the hill. As I approached the spot to turn around and try again, my right main gear axle sheared off. In a quarter second:

The right landing gear collapsed as the tip of the steel, now without a wheel, punched into the dirt, and bit hard.

Broken wheel on a Belite ultralight airplane.

Broken wheel on a Belite ultralight airplane.

The propeller disintegrated. All three blades snapped off.

Broken carbon fiber propeller on Belite Ultralight.

Broken carbon fiber propeller on Belite Ultralight.

Dirt was thrown on the plane as the propeller augured through the ground.

The engine quit, now.

The right wingtip of the plane hit the ground, bending a clip.

“Well, that’s that”, or something to that effect went through my head.




The plane is completely undamaged, except for the prop, the right gear (it looks like a pretzel), the bent clip and unknown engine damage, if any. There is absolutely no damage to the fuselage. The gear attachment points are unharmed.

I’m already considering what’s and why’s.

5. Cellphone service while waiting for the rescue.

I pull out my cell phone and call my wife. Over towards the northeast, I can see the cell phone tower which is almost certainly carrying the signal to my wife. The connection quality is perfect.

I’m bright and cheery as I talk to her. She asks if I’m at Emporia. No… I carefully explain the sequence of events. She is not angry, (for instance: why did I try and take this trip in an ultralight?!) but seems just pleased that all has ended well. She and I begin to strategize about how to get the plane back to Wichita, so it can be trucked to Oshkosh. We agree to leave the retrieval task to our able helper Gene Stratton, also my friend Terry Alley.

A weird thing happens. A few moments later, my cellphone rings. I look at the caller ID, and it is someone calling from CRU-WiebeTech, my old company. She is of course completely unaware of my circumstances. She has a marketing question. I answer it, I consider telling her what has happened, I think better of it. I say nothing about my where and why I am.

4 hours pass.

I took that hike. I got sweaty. I rue my decision to not pack any more water in the airplane. I had my one diet Dr Pepper, and it is long gone.

My daughter calls me (my cell phone service continues to be perfect.)

My USB internet dongle and my laptop computer works great, and I get caught up on my personal email for the first time in a while. I send an email to Don Hackett, at Wichita State University, hinting that I am in the middle of the Flint Hills with a big story to tell. He emails me back, saying he can’t wait to read it, that it will certainly entertain my grandchildren some day.  Don, what do you think of the story?

Since I am back at the airplane, I work on the computer while I am sitting either on the airplane tire (the good one, not the snapped one) or while I am sitting on a cushion on the ground.  I consider that if I had to spend the night, I could do so, as I brought a sleeping bag. But I do not consider the ticks. Hours later, when I was safely back home, I look at my ankles and see that they are covered with small ticks. Dozens of ticks; even smaller than a pinhead.

I’m told by my wife that Gene and Terry are coming, also my daughter, Jennifer. If they can get in the pasture, we’ll have no problem dismantling the wings and loading the plane on a trailer.

There they are, driving across a sea of green grass.

Please hand me a bottle of water.

Can I have a cheeseburger?

Those last lines are a fantasy, driven by heat, thirst and hunger.

Gene, Terry and Jennifer are not here yet. It is late afternoon, and I am very thirsty. My cellphone continues to work great. Kathy and I continue conversations on marketing and logistic issues related to the upcoming Airventure show.

Jennifer calls and texts me, they are very close to me. I have picked a flint hills pasture which is several square miles in size. They have found a locked gate. They want to know if they should find someone with a key first, or hop the fence and bring me water and food. I ask them to hop the fence. I think they are about a mile east of me; if I walk towards them, and they walk towards me, we’ll meet, right?!

I’m eager for the water. I stupidly leave my cap and GPS at the airplane, but I do take my cellphone. I start hiking east. My wife calls again, and I explain what we are trying to do.

About 20 minutes later, I see two dots far away. One is wearing a bright orange shirt – that’s got to be a Belite T-shirt, which is one of our corporate colors. The other is my daughter. I call Gene. He can’t see me, but I can see him plainly. I tell him to turn left 45 degrees and walk towards the sun. He proceeds to do so, then his image dot disappears as he descends into a gully. I also descend into another gully. 15 minutes later, we are both out of our respective gullies, and finally in sight of each other.

When we finally meet, he and Jennifer are on one side of a barbed wire fence, I am on the other. He hands me a bottle of water. It is gone inside me immediately. He hands me a Diet Dr Pepper, which is still cold, and a cheeseburger.  My fantasy turns to reality.

6. What does an Angel look like?

We have to figure out how to get the trucks and trailer from the locked gate, across a pasture, a mile to the East, over to the barbed wire fence, through the fence, to the downed aircraft, a mile or more behind me.

My friend Terry remained at the locked gate, then went looking for someone with a key.

While all of this is being considered, Gene spots a pickup truck driving slowly across the flint hills, inside the pasture which contains my airplane! He hands me his hiking pack, and takes off quickly towards the truck.

Jennifer and I walk at a more leisurely pace towards the truck.

Gene catches the truck, when Jennifer and I arrive a few minutes later, Gene is sitting in the cab with our Angel. His name is Calvin, he works for the landowner, and he is here to feed the cattle. He was unaware that a broken airplane is in his ranchland. He is eager to help.

Calvin helps us – taking us through a gate in the barbed wire fence, then to the locked gate beyond the next pasture. He reaches in his glove compartment, pulls out a key, and a moment later the gate is open. Our aircraft trailer is sitting there (it’s actually Terry’s) but Terry’s truck is gone. We can’t get him on the cellphone. He’s out looking for a key; but we already have the gate unlocked. Gene and Calvin drive off, looking for Terry; Jennifer and I get in the company pickup truck, which we turn on and crank up the AC.  We talk. We smile. Jennifer is so glad to see me.  I am glad to see her.

Eventually everyone returns. Terry has found some other people, who were trying to get ahold of Calvin. (And of course, we already found Calvin.) We all head back towards the downed aircraft. There are three pickup trucks and one aircraft trailer heading across a cattle road in the flint hills. Calvin knows the pasture extremely well. He tells us they recently had heavy rain; he keeps us from heading down gullies.

Soon the work begins on dismantling the aircraft.

Dismantling a Belite ultralight airplane

Dismantling a Belite ultralight airplane

Help 2

Belite on a trailer, heading home.

Help 3

Terry Alley and another friend help dismantle the airplane.

7. The cattle watched, and a plane went back to Wichita.

The landowner and his wife show up. Another lady shows up. A child is along with the couple, cheerfully tossing alfalfa pellets from the back of yet another pickup truck to the cattle, who have also showed up. There are a great many cows, all milling around the pickup trucks, the airplane, and the people.

There isn’t a great deal of work involved with disassembling this airplane. The wings unbolt, the flaperon cables unclip, the flaperons also unbolt. In about an hour and a half, the airplane changes from wounded to disassembled and stored on the trailer and one of the pickup trucks.

3 hours later, we are back in Wichita, at our workshop.

8. Grateful.

I had the opportunity to muse on things which I am grateful for, and people rose to the top of my list. First of all, to my wife, who shares this adventure with me. To Gene, who has become more than a coworker. I value his counsel and ability to get any job done. To Terry, who quickly has become a great friend. And of course, my daughters, who are intelligent and loving. Thank you Jennifer, for your insistence on being part of the rescue squad.

I am especially grateful to Calvin and the others who helped us get the plane out of their grazing land. Thank you! I’m sorry I didn’t get all your names. Your cheerfulness and desire to help made an indelible, wonderful impression on me. I was worried that I had landed in your pasture. You were simply pleased that I wasn’t hurt.

Finally, I am grateful to God, whom I believe in. The gear was destined to fatigue and shear off, sooner or later. (Although hitting a hole in the prairie sure speeded up the process.)  It could have happened while landing on concrete, or it could have happened while taxing around in the flint hills. My demonstrator plane will be at Oshkosh (this was 2009), hardly the worse for wear, but it’s not flyable until the engine is torn down. The shaft still turns freely, but there clearly is a raspy feel to it. Cracked bearing? Bent crank?  We’ll see. Also, we’ll redesign the wheel axle shaft immediately to improve strength.  (We subsequently went to solid axle designs.)

9. Final thoughts.

Whose fault was this? There is no debate – it’s entirely mine. Inadequate fuel planning; perhaps improper carb setup; inappropriate landing location. The plane handled the situation with sweetness amidst difficulty.

I will never forget the feeling of sitting in the airplane after a soft uphill landing, with the green of the flint hills swirling around me, and soaking it in.

One more thought on Angels:  my original writing identified just Calvin, but there were several: Gene & Terry; for instance.  My apologies to Gene and Terry, along with my continuing gratitude.

William Least Heat Moon writes of Blue Highways, which are lesser traveled roads. This was my lesser traveled road.

— James Wiebe, written somewhere in the flint hills near Olpe, Kansas, and completed the following day. Wednesday, July 22, 2009, and Thursday, July 23, 2009.  Additional material added

January, 2014.


New Fuel Probe Breakthrough Technology patent application filed

This is not a product or news announcement, just an update on our technical development.  The product will be formally announced next year.  Currently, we’re seeking OEM interest in the product.

We recently filed a patent application on a new fuel probe technology.

This new technology is not a resistive float sender, nor is it a capacitive tube sender.  (Both of these are very common in aircraft and vehicles of all types, and both suffer from deficiencies overcome by our technology.)

This is what it looks like:

Fuel Sensor


And this is how it is inserted into a fuel tank:

Tank Cross Section



Here are the features and benefits:
•No moving parts such as resistive probes (they break)
•No capacitive probes (they short out if water contaminated)
•Ability (in certain circumstances) to discern if aircraft is misfueled and provide alarm (improves operator safety and reduces aircraft manufacturer liability)
•Ability to calibrate to any tank shape or size
•Ability to compensate for most flight conditions, including sloshing and high-G maneuvers
•Ability to work with multiple sensors for greater accuracy
•Ability to work with many fluid types
•Ability to have alarmable condition for various fluid loads
•Ability to provide display on any type of display device
The unit is currently designed for use with experimental aircraft.  Non-TSO’d.  Non-PMA’d.  We also plan a version for certified aircraft, and we’re targeting LSA mfgs as well.
It’s small size, low weight, and high reliability make it ideal for:
•Experimental Aircraft
•Agricultural tanks (especially aerial applicators)
Pricing TBD.
Interested in discussing this technology for your OEM application??
Contact James Wiebe for more info.