Designer Jim Bede announced that his BD-5 would deliver tremendous performance at a minimal cost, particulary to those who purchased and built the kit designed for amateur construction. Tremendous enthusiasm for the airplane could not overcome a significant weakness in the design: the lack of a suitable engine. The ultimate failure of concept should not obscure the many original and innovative aspects of the design.
Gift of Albert C. Beckwith and Peter Graichen.
21ft. 6in. span, 13ft. 4in. long, 4ft.3in. high; all-metal, single-place; 1982.
Few airplanes have fired the imagination of sport pilots like the build-it-at-home-from-a-kit BD-5. The designer, Jim Bede, announced that the airplane would deliver tremendous performance at a minimal cost in money to purchase and operate, and time and space to build. Bede's enthusiasm for the airplane led him to market it prematurely with a fatal flaw: the lack of a suitable engine. The ultimate failure of the original BD-5 concept should not obscure the original and innovative aspects of the design.
By 1970, Bede (pronounced 'bee-dee') had earned a reputation for designing and flying innovative, high-performance aircraft. Factories produced more than 1,700 examples of his BD-1 (production designation AA-1), the first light aircraft mass-produced using bonded (glued) metal construction. Soon the BD-2 followed with the ambitious design goal to fly non-stop around the world without refueling. Bede never made the flight but the project stirred considerable interest among designers and pilots. Much more successful was the kitplane BD-4, which he designed so that builders constructed it using a patented "panel-rib" process. Bede sold about 600 BD-4 kits in part because the aircraft could accommodate four people.
Bede began concentrating on the BD-5 concept as early as 1967 but the demands of other projects slowed the work. In 1970, he began selling slick brochures packed with colorful photographs, intricate drawings, and astonishing performance estimates. Word of the BD-5 quickly flashed throughout the community of amateur builders and enthusiasts. On February 24, 1971, Bede accepted the first $900 deposit to reserve a BD-5 kit for a prospective builder. Though promising a lot of bang per buck, years of hard and difficult work remained to make the BD-5 idea practical. The aircraft had not even flown, yet Jim Bede and the BD-5 were coming under increasing pressure from a hyper-enthusiastic market whose patience and reason was fast succumbing to demands for quick gratification.
The slick brochures presented a prototype with a sharp, smooth nose gracefully flowing back to an exotic vee-tail, which soon gave way to a conventional cruciform tail mounted at the back end of a miniscule single-seat fuselage barely 4 m (13 ft) long. Bede mounted the wings low and depending on the version, they spanned (4.3 m/14 ft 4 in span) on the BD-5A, or just over 6.4 m (21 ft) on the BD-5B. The 'A model appeared in most of the early brochures and other advertising but as development continued, it became apparent that the airplane flew much better with the longer wings. To move about on the ground, Bede fitted tiny, retractable, tricycle landing gear. He minimized the physical attributes of the BD-5 to increase performance with small engines and to reduce the cost to fabricate components. Small size appealed to many homebuilders who were loath to take on projects that required more building space than a garage or apartment. Bede designed the wings to separate quickly and easily from the fuselage. This feature allowed the builder to store the BD-5 at home rather than paying to rent a hanger at the airfield.
Interest in the BD-5 soared after company test, Les Berven, flew the prototype on 12 September 1971. By December, prospective builder-pilots had flooded the company with orders for 4,000 kits. As is standard practice within the amateur-built aircraft community, builders had to form, cut, drill, bond, and rivet a variety of raw materials provided by Bede's staff into a finished BD-5 according to a detailed set of instructions. To reduce building time, Bede technicians formed a few of the more critical parts with complex shapes, such as the fuselage skins. Jim Bede sold the first kits for $2,100 and estimated that after toiling about 300-400 hours, the average builder could be ready to fly. Many variables always influence such predictions so kit manufacturers wisely pad their estimates, however Bede's projection appeared remarkable because the airplane was not a simple design of modest performance, but rather a genuine thoroughbred that demanded a high degree of skill and precision to build and fly.
In the hands of a qualified pilot, the tiny BD-5 could become a star performer capable of a full range of aerobatic maneuvers. Nearly all who flew the airplane called the handling qualities delightful. Small size and careful design made the control pressures were very light but the characteristic was due also to Bede's use of stiff aluminum push-rods supported on ball bearings to all control surfaces with the pilot's control stick and rudder pedals. One pilot described how he simply 'thought' himself into a turn, with little or no awareness that sensation of manipulating the controls. Quite pleasant in the air, such light control pressures could be deadly on takeoff when inexperienced pilots moved the controls too abruptly and lost control. There was no fix for this characteristic and pilots new to flying the BD-5 received stern warnings to use extreme caution until they were familiar with the tiny movements required to fly the BD-5. Advertised as 322 kph (200 mph), maximum cruise speed was as impressive as the handling, the result of not only a very clean and streamlined configuration, but also the small size and low weight, about 270 kg (600 lb). It was said that the little airplane behaved equally well at the opposite end of the performance spectrum but the statement that the BD-5 could slow down to soar like a motor glider was certainly a stretch unless really extraordinary weather conditions were encountered. Bede also claimed that the power plant sipped just 4 gallons per hour of fuel to give the airplane sufficient range to fly about 1,610 km (1,000 miles) at an altitude of 4,256 m (14,000 ft).
Great handling, high-speed performance, and economical operation, all beautifully packaged! The BD-5 seemed to have it all, yet to excel in all these areas, a very special engine had to propel the kit plane. Such an engine did not exist. Bede had envisioned adapting one of the many two-cycle, air-cooled engine designs commonly used to power snowmobiles. His first engine was a 40 horsepower unit manufactured by Kiekhaefer Aeromarine that proved unreliable. Next he tried an engine manufactured in Germany by Hirth in versions that developed from 40 to 70 horsepower. After Hirth announced that the firm could not supply enough power plants to meet projected kit sales, the most difficult problem for BD-5 kit owners remained the engine. Bede tried motors from Polaris, Zenoah, Kawasaki, and others but never found an alternative able to withstand the unique demands of aircraft propulsion.
Most builders found the kits difficult to build. They had to fabricate complex parts including the drive system that transmitted power from the engine to the propeller. One owner eventually spent 7 years and $20,000 to finish his airplane. To meet demand, Bede announced a full production version designated the BD-5D, which he would certify and sell for $4,400 but none was built. The factory manufactured about 3,000 kits; however, customers bought less than 1,000. By the late 1970s, Bede had run out of time to save the BD-5. Budd Davisson summed up the disappointing outcome: "Too much was said early in the game, promises were made, performance figures quoted and money taken. So, when things didn't go like clockwork, the BD buying public got a little bit ticked off."
Those who had bought kits began to sell them for far less than they had paid, if they could find buyers. Hoping to generate cash, Bede dabbled briefly with a sailplane version, and his jet-powered BD-5 became popular at air shows but the dream to mass market the little kit plane ended in 1979 when Bede declared bankruptcy.
Jim Bede's BD-5 remained a compelling design in the new millennium as hardy souls managed to keep about 150 flying in 2002, thanks largely to entrepreneurs who formed companies to supply knowledge, experience, and critical hardware. During the mid-1970s, Keith Hinshaw organized Bede-Micro Aviation in San Jose, California, and focused the business on supplying a solution to the engine problem, and supplying parts and assistance to builders. A former BD-5 owner, Hinshaw and his staff worked out a nifty solution to the propulsion problem when they successfully adapted a turbo-charged Honda automobile engine to the aircraft. Bede-Micro also designed and sold parts and plans to strengthen the wings and the top of the rudder, improved the landing gear and flaps, and stretched the fuselage 12 cm (5 in) to accommodate a greater variety of engines.
On 11 September 1984, Peter K. Graichen and Albert C. Beckwith of Stow, Ohio, donated their BD-5 to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Graichen had built begun to build the aircraft in 1972 and he finished six years and 5,000 working-hours later. To power the BD-5, he installed one of the Honda engines modified by Hinshaw's staff at Bede-Micro. The airplane was first flown on 21 October 1978 at Akron Municipal Airport. Pilots logged 9 hours of flying time before Graichen and Beckwith generously donated the airplane to the Museum in 1984.