BD 5

The Bede BD5 was the kit aircraft that firmly established Bede's reputation as the 'bad boy of the kit building industry'.

Few airplanes in the history of aviation have fired public imagination like the build-it-at-home-from-a-kit BD-5. It promised tremendous performance at a minimal cost in money to purchase and operate, and time and space to build. James R. Bede had ambitious plans for this aircraft. His poor execution of those plans, and the ultimate failure of the original BD-5 concept, should not obscure the many original and innovative aspects of this design.

By 1970, Bede (pronounced 'beedee') 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). This was the first light aircraft mass-produced using bonded (glued) metal construction. A BD-2 soon followed. Bede designed this airplane to fly non-stop around the world without refuelling. He did not make the flight but the project stirred considerable interest among designers and pilots. Bede pushed the kitplane design envelope again with the BD-4 by building the wing using his patented "panel-rib" process. The four-seat BD-4 was moderately successful and Bede sold about 600 kits. This encouraged him to push the design and performance envelope further on his next project.

Bede began to refine the concept of the BD-5 as early as 1967 but the demands of other projects slowed the work. By 1970, he had progressed far enough to begin selling information packets and on February 24, 1971, he accepted the first deposit from a prospective builder to reserve a BD-5 kit. The airplane had yet to fly, but marketing hype had already displaced common sense in the minds of many homebuilt enthusiasts.

Jim Bede first flew the BD-5 prototype on September 12, 1971. Public interest in the tiny speedster soared and by December, the company had received 4,000 kit orders. A kit consisted of different materials that the builder formed, cut, drilled, bonded, or riveted into a finished BD-5. The first kits cost $2,100. For toiling about 300-400 hours (assembly time claimed in the advertisements as a rough average, but one owner spent 7 years and $20,000), a builder could expect to finish an airplane that looked and flew like no other.

Pictures of the prototype showed a sharp, smooth nose that flowed back to an exotic, vee-tail. The single-seat fuselage was miniscule, barely 4 m (13 ft) long, but this appealed to homebuilders who were loath to take on projects that required more space than a garage or apartment. The wing was mounted low and spanned just over 6.4 m (21 ft) and the airplane took-off and landed on tiny, retractable, tricycle landing gear. The factory offered a set of shorter wings (4.3 m/14 ft 4 in span) but almost no one flew with them. With the long wings attached, the airplane officially became the BD-5B.

In the hands of a qualified pilot, the BD-5 could perform a full range of aerobatic manoeuvres. Virtually everyone who flew the '5 called the handling qualities at speed and altitude delightful. Control pressures were very light because Bede plumbed the control circuits with push-rods supported on ball bearings. One pilot described how he simply 'thought' himself into a turn, without consciously moving the stick or rudder pedals. On takeoff, these same characteristics could cause inexperienced pilots to over-rotate the nose on takeoff to dangerously high angles. There was no fix for this characteristic and pilots new to flying the BD-5 receive stern warnings to use tiny movements on the control stick. Bede fixed the lack of directional stability as soon as flight-testing began late in September 1971. A conventional horizontal stabilizer, elevator, vertical fin and rudder replaced the vee-tail.

Maximum cruise speed was impressive at 322 kph (200 mph). The BD-5 weighed about 270 kg (600 lb), and it could fly slowly, and even soar like a motorglider, according to the slick brochures. Bede claimed that the powerplant sipped just 4 gallons per hour of fuel to give the BD-5 the range to fly about 1,610 km (1,000 miles) at a ceiling of 4,256 m (14,000 ft). After some practice, a competent pilot could land or take off in 152-182 m (500-600 ft).

To enable a BD-5 to achieve this performance level, a very special engine had to propel the kitplane. Such an engine did not exist. Initially, the BD-5 came with a two-cylinder, two-cycle, in-line and air-cooled Keikaefer power plant that made 40 horsepower. This engine proved unreliable so Bede began a frantic hunt for a substitute. He tried the Hirth two-cycle engine and announced that a builder could order one of three models for the BD-5: a 40, 55, or 70 horsepower version. In addition to the kit, Bede announced a full production version designated the BD-5D, and promised to certify this model and sell it for $4,400, but the factory never built this model. The factory did complete about 3,000 kits.

Most builders found the kits extremely difficult to work on. They had to fabricate many complex parts including the drive system required to transmit power from the engine to the propeller. 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 and Bede never found a suitable alternative. He tried motors from Polaris, Zenoah, Kawasaki, and others without success.

By the late 1970s, Bede had run out of time to save the BD-5. Many of the people who bought kits began to sell them at a fraction of initial cost. Hoping to generate cash, Bede dabbled briefly with a sailplane version, and his jet-powered BD-5 became popular at airshows. By 1979, Bede was bankrupt and the BD-5 kitplane saga ended. Budd Davisson summed it up well when he said: "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."

To this day, the BD-5 remains a compelling airplane. About 150 were flying in 2002, primarily because entrepreneurs formed several companies to supply knowledge, experience, and hardware to BD-5 builders. The Bede factory shipped kits that consisted of little more than raw materials but no engines and drive trains. 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. Keith was a former BD-5 owner and dealer. He and his staff had one workable solution to the engine problem, a turbo-charged Honda automobile engine. This engine is installed in the NASM BD-5. Bede-Micro improved other aspects of the BD-5. They designed and sold parts and plans to strengthen the wings and the top of the rudder, improved the landing gear and flaps, and stretch the fuselage 5 inches to accommodate different engines. Bede-Micro was still providing support, parts, and upgraded kits for the BD-5 in 2002.

A jet version was developed and became famous for flying through a hanger in a James Bond movie

It is not permitted to fly this aircraft in the UK

Wingspan 6.6 m (21 ft 6 in)
Length 4.1 m (13 ft 4 in)
Height 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in)
Weight Empty, 243.2 kg (535 lb)