The Right Flyer

Test-flying an inspired amateur's quirky four-seater.
Peter Garrison and Melmoth 2, seen here in the skies over California. Photograph by John B. Carnett

My first flight, at the age of 12, took me from New York’s LaGuardia airport to Nantucket island, a 45-minute ride in a Convair 240 that I pretended was a Martin B-26 Marauder with windows. I still remember the buckety cough of the R-2800 radials, engines that a few years earlier had powered P-47 Thunderbolts and F4U Corsairs during the war. Idling, they loped and chuttered like huge clothes dryers filled with tin cans.

At the end of the runway, the captain held the brakes and ran up the big Pratt & Whitneys, one after the other, in a torrent of sound, every part of the airplane shaking and rattling as the tires skittered, unable to entirely restrain the power. My dad told me they were “checking the mags,” whatever that meant. MmmmWHAAmmmmWHAA — went the props as the gold-striped supermen up front cycled the engines in a strangely fatalistic ritual: If the basic systems worked, perhaps we’d survive the trip. Then, like a sprinter off the blocks, the Convair bolted down the runway (at least
it seemed that way to me) in a whirlwind of prop blast.
Thirty-six pistons the size of sand pails flailed away inside the oil-streaked yet shiny nacelles.

That ride in a 5,000-horsepower airliner took place half a century after Orville Wright somehow managed to survive the first powered flight in an airplane almost as unstable as today’s computer-controlled F-16 fighter. Fifty years after the Wright triumph, slipping the surly bonds could still seem a noisy and tentative process, and boys still dreamed of becoming airline pilots. It was a joy to fly.

A decade later I was a young magazine staffer, assigned to write about a senior Pan Am 707 captain who commanded various legs of the line’s famous around-the-world flight, PAA 001. He ate sushi in Tokyo, overnighted in Rangoon, took time out to visit the pyramids, partied in Rome, stopped in London to be fitted for bespoke shoes on Bond Street. After landing at what was then called Idlewild Airport (now Kennedy) in New York, he commuted home–
to Bermuda. What a life.

It’s hard to overstate the allure that airline pilots had back then. I recall a Ford ad that showed nothing more than a car’s overhead-cabin-light switches and a hand in a four-striped sleeve reaching up to activate them; the gold bands said everything you needed to know about the sort of man who drove a Thunderbird. Being a baby editor, I
wasn’t permitted to accompany the Pan Am sky god. A famous photographer did that, and I wrote from his notes. But I needed a taste of jet travel, so I got a ride on a 707 to Ber-muda and immediately back. I spent most of the time looking out the window in awe at the Atlantic, 7 miles below.

Today, as 10-wide ranks of passengers sit placidly, staring at newspapers or nothing much at all, waiting for the movie to begin, the thrill of aviation seems to have been smoothed away by the electric-train hum and the steady takeoff torque of today’s winged mailing tubes. But there is joy yet to be found in flying. To find it, you need to leave the Airbus behind and fly with someone like my friend Peter Garrison.

Garrison taxis his one-of-a-kind single-engine Melmoth 2 into position on Runway 12 at Whiteman Airport, in suburban Los Angeles. Melmoth‘s wings are as long and narrow as bread knives. They seem far too insubstantial to hold aloft the large, bubble-canopied fuselage. Unlike any production aircraft currently flying, Garrison’s airplane is configured with two conventional front seats and a pair of rearward-facing seats in back, an ergonomically clever piece of passenger-packaging under a Plexiglas solarium. It allows the canopy to have a proper airfoil shape, because the occupants’ heads are all clustered in the middle.

The pilot holds on the centerline briefly as he carefully pushes up the power. The 200-horsepower Continental’s turbocharger surges and settles down, and Garrison
releases the brakes. He flicks a glance at the oil pressure, rotates at 75 knots, and brings up the gear. I am next to him in the right-hand seat, and a fat aluminum torque tube turns slowly next to my right ankle as it activates the nosewheel. On it, the legend “gear up,” handwritten, rotates into place on the tube.

We climb out at — well, it’s hard to tell. The vertical-speed indicator is pegged at its maximum of 2,000 feet per minute, and Melmoth 2 is leaving astern its twin-engine chase plane as though that Beech Duchess were a rusty Camaro blown away by a Dodge Viper.

Our fiberglass seat shells are unpadded. Peter sits on a tiny throw pillow, I perch on a sheet of something a step up from bubble wrap. The cockpit is bare, the airplane’s reinforced-plastic structure naked. Through a small area where someday a flap-actuating mechanism will pass, I can see the ground rushing by below, like a road seen through the lacy floorboards of an old VW.

Melmoth 2 is placarded “experimental,” a homebuilt. It’s also unfinished, a work in progress, and Peter and I are taking off on what is in many ways a test flight. “This is the most boring part of building an airplane,” Garrison says. “Testing and refining all the systems so they operate properly for more than 20 hours at a time. The fun part is when you’re working with lines on paper, and every line is filled with so many possibilities.”

Boring for Garrison, perhaps, after more than 20 years of designing and building, redesigning and rebuilding. But for me to be aloft in the creation of a man who for 35 years I have known as a friend and admired as a journalist and aviation writer is thrilling.

In 1981 Garrison began to build Melmoth 2 in a one-car garage along a steep L.A. backstreet. It was an old shack so narrow that passengers would have had to debark before a car could have been parked inside it.

With the help of his friend Burt Rutan, the plastic-airplane pioneer, Garrison learned the craft of “laying up” and vacuum-bagging carbon-fiber-reinforced composite, a process in which the resin-wet plies are draped into the mold that will shape them into wing panels or fuselage pieces. The whole assembly is contained inside a big
baggie. A vacuum pump sucks the air out of the bag, squeezing the layup tight and forcing excess resin out–and a piece of aircraft is made.

Garrison admits that making Melmoth 2 out of carbon-reinforced composite rather than the classic sheets of riveted aluminum saved little if anything in weight, and the process added considerable construction time. “And there’s always the fear that you’re not doing it right,” he says. “Your mistakes are hidden inside the composite, while with metal, you can see if you’re doing it wrong.”

Composite construction did, however, allow him to “loft” the airplane’s shape into whatever combination of compound curves he and the wind wished, rather than fashioning the traditional straight-line bulkheads, stringers and longerons that are familiar to any model-airplane builder.

What curves did Garrison and the wind wish? This is the fundamental question for an airplane designer. To find out, Garrison created a complex computer program called Loftsman and, with a partner, assembled a suite of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software called Personal Simulation Works (PSW). CFD analyzes the effect on a fluid–in this case, air–of a body moving through it, numerically indicating where the body creates various degrees of lift or drag, friction or pressure. The beauty of Garrison’s PSW is that it reads out in vivid hues flowing over a digital wire-frame representation of whatever shape is being tested, rather than a chart of stark numbers. Picture the ebb, flow and force of the wind, in color.

Wilbur and Orville, who built the experimental airplane we now call the Wright Flyer, would have been stunned to see Loftsman or PSW, but they would have recognized and appreciated Garrison’s from-scratch approach. They were the world’s first designer-homebuilders, and today this breed is very rare indeed.

There are three kinds of aircraft homebuilders. Most (including me, when I built
a two-seat Sequoia Falco) assemble a kit, a proven design that UPS drops on the porch as boxes of parts
plus a thick some-assembly-required instruction manual. More ambitious homebuilders start with blueprints, again of pre-tested designs, and do all of the fabrication as well as assembly on their own–an enormous job. A precious few, the elite, not only fabricate and assemble but design and engineer their own flying machines. Garrison is part of this tiny club, and Melmoth 2 is the second Garrison Flyer.

Melmoth 1, a substantially different Garrison-designed two-seater, flew throughout the 1970s. It had a long enough range to cross the Atlantic and, with a single stop, the entire Pacific. It also made it from L.A. to as far south as the northern tip of Chile. These were feats far beyond the capability of factory-built Cessnas, Pipers and Beeches unless they were outfitted with special ferry tanks and, typically, flown solo.

Melmoth 1 was destroyed in a freak accident when an out-of-control Cessna ran into Garrison at Orange County Airport, just south of Los Angeles, and Cuisinarted his airplane with its spinning prop. “Everything that I built was destroyed,” Garrison says. “Everything that I bought off somebody’s shelf–the engine, the avionics, the instruments–survived.”

They survived to become part of Melmoth 2, a remarkably advanced flying machine that is the product of a singular engineering talent, notable because Garrison’s only degree is in English, and not even from MIT but from its Cambridge neighbor Harvard. As an aerodynamicist, stress analyst, structural engineer, software writer, loftsman, draftsman, computer-aided designer, fabricator and test pilot, Garrison is entirely self-taught. As were, of course, the Wrights.

Over the San Gabriel mountains, north of Los Angeles, Garrison cranks Melmoth 2 through a series of steep turns, the barren hills sliding past not far below. As we bank, I recall how my shoulders used to ache after a flight when I took lessons in the mid-’60s, because I had unconsciously resisted the feeling of sliding out of the airplane, of falling, which sometimes overcomes novices when they are inside a lightplane’s airy, too-thin shell of Plexiglas and aluminum skin.

The sensation soon passed, replaced by a pilot’s pleasure at being able to make the world tilt and revolve, to displace the horizon and reverse the natural order of up and down in a way not possible in any other human activity. There are pilots who enjoy the gut-rattling, face-warping slam-and-bam moves of high-G competition aerobatics, but I’m not one of them. Better the balletic swooping of a lazy eight, or a slow, spacey barrel roll.

There is no racecar, motorcycle or hydroplane, indeed no earthly conveyance that can provide the spectrum of pleasures available to a pilot. The extra dimension of verticality, if we can call it that, has allowed me to climb to heights where the earth stands still–4 miles up in an airplane I built with my own hands–or the horizon begins to bend (10 miles high in a Learjet 31 that I once co-piloted). Yet I’ve also flown with my wheels in the weeds: I once rode in a big old Stearman biplane with a crop-duster pilot who flew across a road under the telephone wires, and I’d swear I looked up at the field hands we flew past.

One of the eeriest games a pilot can play is to sport with a cloud. This is illegal if you’re flying VFR, under visual flight rules, but OK if you’re on an instrument flight plan that happens to take you through a thicket of cumulus. Clouds are solid, stately monsters from a distance but increasingly take on evanescence and motion as you near them. This is one of the few times a pilot senses how fast an airplane is moving–when a bunch of roiling vapor goes past at 200 or more miles per hour just a wingtip away. Dip the wing into the whiteness and almost nothing happens. There’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein put it.

Garrison is a pragmatist, not an airplane-worshiping enthusiast–a trait he shares with the Wrights. He creates airplanes not to indulge in the new pilot’s fascination with boring holes in the sky, as the enthusiasts self-deprecatingly call it, or to fly pointlessly from airport to airport to eat $300 hamburgers (which is what hamburgers cost when aviation fuel and other operating expenses are factored in). Peter began designing and building airplanes because he wanted to go places. The original Melmoth had two seats, for Peter and his companion, Nancy Salter. Melmoth 2 has space as well for their son and daughter, 22-year-old Nicholas and Lily, 15. But the joy of this sort of flying is not for everyone. Sensible people approach handmade airplanes carefully.

“But Nick was deeply affected when the airplane flew for the first time,” Garrison says. “I thought maybe it was because it showed
that his father wasn’t a deluded crank after all.” In fact, it was probably because Melmoth 2 had been in the background–and sometimes the forefront–of young Nicholas’s life literally forever.

If Garrison is brave to fly untested airplanes of his own amateur design, Salter is indescribably fearless. She crossed the Atlantic behind a single engine in Melmoth 1, reading a book the entire way. Over the Pacific for 12 hours, she slept. Above the impenetrable jungles of South America, she at one point seriously considered having to use her parachute, when Peter got lost and ran Melmoth 1 perilously low on fuel. Such a woman will surely soon take her rightful seat in Melmoth 2, leaving Nick and Lily plenty of room in back.

Shadows stretch east at the end of the day as we hurry back to Whiteman in a long, smooth, power-on descent among scattered clouds. Melmoth 2 doesn’t yet have nav lights, for they’re far down Garrison’s to-do list, which currently includes some 51 items, from “install longitudinal restraint for turbo” to “fix shimmy-damper leak.”

We beat the sunset, the mainwheel tires squeaking briefly as Garrison holds Melmoth 2 off the runway for a gentle, nose-high touchdown. As we taxi back to Peter’s hangar, pilots standing in small groups outside their own hangars turn to watch, aware that they are seeing something very special, an airplane that is the product of individual ingenuity and perseverance. Some small measure of what the Wright brothers realized a century ago endures here–a beautiful aircraft imagined, designed, fashioned and flown by one man.

Man & Machine columnist Stephan Wilkinson wrote last month’s cover story on ejection seats and other escape tech.