One of my joys at AirVenture 2011 was visiting a seemingly revitalized Ultralight Area. Though a shadow of its former self in the 1980 heydays, new life seemed to be springing up, whether through electric powered aircraft or affordable Part 103 fixed wing designs. *** Proving the naysayers wrong (again!) were at least two intriguing Part 103 airplanes you can buy and fly today for less than $20,000. That’s well the under the average price of a new automobile for a ready-to-fly aircraft with desirable features, not a stripped-down machine that no one really wants. I wrote about Terry Raber’s lovely little Aerolite 103. A day after looking over his work, UltralightNews and I shot a video review of the Valley Engineering Backyard Flyer. Once again, I had my eyes opened. *** If you’ve ever visited AirVenture’s Ultralight Area, odds are you saw a pilot known as the “Flying Farmer” doing circuits of the Ultralight Area pattern. Seemingly a different (though vaguely similar) aircraft would do pattern flights each year accented by a throaty, guttural four-stroke sound that did not mimic the ubiquitous Rotax or the smooth Jabiru, or even the also-distinctive-sounding HKS. Powering the Flying Farmer’s aircraft was a Generac generator motor converted to airplane use. It pulled aloft a welded aluminum structure under a semi covered, or semi enclosed, aircraft that also didn’t imitate any other airframe you saw. They all looked to fly energetically. *** I refer to Gene Smith (the “Farmer”) and his Valley Engineering airplane designs. All feature Culver Props as well because that’s the most famous brand in the Valley Engineering family. *** Now Gene’s son, Larry Smith, is the front man for their newest-yet Backyard Flyer, a legitimately Part 103 aircraft that looks as solid as much heavier aircraft — “251 pounds even with tricycle gear,” said Larry. Welded aluminum permits larger diameter tube-frame construction that has a reassuring beefiness to it. *** Perhaps the most unusual feature of this not-like-the-others airplane is the swing wing. Four bolts allow movement on a “turntable” so the one-piece wing pivots 90 degrees to sit over the tail and protrude beyond the nose. The “swing wing” requires a 30-foot trailer but would truly be useful in a crowded hangar as it measures only 83 inches wide. Aileron disconnects took a couple minutes; the whole process didn’t consume five minutes. *** Backyard Flyer UL pricing could not be better: “$19,500 open cabin ready-to-fly; $20,000 enclosed.” That includes a four-stroke electric-start engine plus ballistic airframe parachute. *** Soft-spoken and straightforward, Larry Smith’s easy-going nature belies an active organization that apparently never sits still. (They’re also investigating electric power and hybrid, but that’s a story for another article.) Prop, engine, two seater, or Part 103 single seater, even the trailer… all come from Valley Engineering. Nearly a self-sufficient airplane producer, Valley sticks tightly to its goal of highly affordable airplanes for anyone who wants to fly.
thomas macginnis says
What was the name of the song with Gene giving the interview? Great little plane the Backyard Flyer. Too bad to stop building it. Thanks.
I appreciate your work, guy. But I am after the engine and propeller.
Dean Johnson says
I purchased the next-to-last Backyard Flyer. It has just over 40 hrs and no hard landings. It suffered numerous structural breaks and cracks, including landing gear and engine mounts. I am convinced this was not workmanship but just too light of material and engine vibration, no engine mounts. Just spent $5,500 to have it beefed up because I love the aircraft.
Dan Johnson says
Hi Dean: Thanks for your insight and I’m pleased you like the Backyard Flyer (now discontinued) but we always caution owners about making structural changes. Your modifications may be perfect but without knowledge and analysis, such changes can be a guessing game. Proceed with care.
I have been flying my backyard flyer now for a year since structure “reinforcement.” Once again do not think workmanship the issue and it flies great! On and off grass strip during nice mornings and evenings reminds me why I enjoy the fun of flying.
Ken Nelson says
I love the concept of four cycle. The two stroke, high rpm, never interested me. I’m just now retired and toying with the idea of building or buying something ultralight. How far are you from Kansas City.? I live in Naples, Florida but visit my daughter in Oletha and would be interested in visiting your facility. Is there a publication or material that could be sent this way?
Dan Johnson says
Hi Ken: Unfortunately, bad news from the maker of the Backyard Flyer. They have discontinued manufacture of aircraft. For something equally well priced and much closer to you in Naples, Florida, I recommend LSA Aeromarine and their Merlin PSA. They offer this aircraft with the four stroke HKS, a well regarded powerplant.
I also love the idea of a Part 103 with a four stroke, and 90 degree swing wing in to a box trailer for transport/storage under $20k was a plane that could have made a backyard budgets possible. Any news of a return?
Dan Johnson says
Hi Kevin: That looks unlikely but you do have other choices. Good luck!
Timothy Tealey says
I would have been a candidate for [Backyard Flyer’s aircraft] – “Swing Wing to Trailer” Other 103 aircraft are permanently ‘stiff’ therefore take hanger space!
Did Culver Props go Boobs up also? Did Backyard Flyer go away due to aluminium weld failure? Tim T – TealzTimz@Yahoo.com
Dan Johnson says
Hi Timothy: You are incorrect that all Part 103 aircraft have no folding wings. Kolb’s Firefly qualifies and that company probably has more folding wing aircraft flying than any other producer.
Culver Props continues to operate. When Backyard Flyer was discontinued, the reasons stated had nothing to do with any weld failure.