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Mon, Aug 02, 2004

Perfect Symmetry: Part One, Construction

Scaled Composite's Cory Bird Creates What Could Be The Most Accurately Built Aircraft Ever

By ANN Contributor Christopher Armstrong

At this year's Airventure in Oshkosh (WI), parked right next to the old entryway arch, is a yellow, two-seat airplane that is so perfectly built it grabs your eye from a hundred feet away.

You stop dead in your tracks. You forget what you were doing and walk straight up to the plane.

Up close, it's even more impressive. Built to the closest machinist tolerances, the plane was, at one time, perfect to 1/1000th of an inch when it was unveiled. You would still be hard pressed to find any flaws now, but its creator says there have indeed been few dings and chips since he started flying it last year. Cory Bird, a project engineer who worked on Scaled Composites' White Knight carrier plane, also says he has overheated the brakes, which softened the epoxy of the carbon fiber wheel pants. Still, "Symmetry" is near-perfect.

The access panels, inspection plates, fasteners and imperfections that trip the airflow over most aircraft are nowhere to be seen on Symmetry. The joints in the cowling, flying surface to fuselage joints and control surfaces are so tight they can barely be seen. Only a few screws are to be found on the exterior of the aircraft. The large pitot tube found on most planes is replaced by a tiny opening on the nose of the left wheel pant.

The tail wheel retracts into the fuselage and the opening is perfectly sealed by the gear door. Even the fuel tank drains are flush with the belly of the plane, not protruding below the surface as most fuel drains do. Bird took the time to machine the fuel drains so they would fit perfectly.

The cowling is another example of the lengths to which Bird went to keep his aircraft aerodynamically clean. Most airplane cowlings are held on by dozens of fasteners. Symmetry's cowl is attached to the firewall by a circumferential groove and three locking pins. The pins are released by a handle hidden under the oil check door and locked closed using a rivet as a safety pin.

The oil check door is cable-released by a remote flush fitting button located inside the right side cooling air inlet and holds the safety rivet in position when closed. The sides of the cowl are held together using hinge pins inserted through the air inlets. Access to these is achieved by removing the inlet to engine baffling skirts, which are removed by the only two screws on the front of the plane, which are hidden deep inside the inlets.

With top cowling removed the engine compartment is revealed and it is as carefully finished as the exterior of the plane. The firewall is polished to a mirror surface which reflects engine components and the carbon composite baffles that Bird says where among the more difficult parts to complete to his standards. Even the insides of the cowling look better then the outsides of most airplanes.

The fuselage was built by pulling a mold off a plug the shape of the fuselage. The fuselage halves were then made by hand-laying fiberglass into the molds. The wing is one piece tip to tip. Both the wing and the horizontal stabilizer are constructed using the moldless composite techniques developed by Burt Rutan for his VariEze in 1976. To remove the wing, the wing to fuselage fairings and instrument panel are removed. Then the wing attach bolts are removed and the wing slides straight out the side. Most of the plane is constructed using fiberglass, with carbon fiber only used in the high stress areas.

  • Continued in Part Two: Symmetry's Interior and Performance



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