Built lighter to fly better
It may be hard to believe that a company established in 1995 can be considered an old-timer in an industry, yet that’s precisely the case with Heldeberg Designs LLC and its line of Blue Heron powered parachutes (PPCs).
Nick and Marie Viscio founded Heldeberg Designs a decade ago and believe they are the second oldest, continuously operating powered parachute company in America. Only Six Chuter has a longer history under the same management and ownership.
Nick and Marie run the enterprise with help from son Nicholas D., who has a degree in mechanical and aeronautical engineering, and three part-time employees assisting with fabrication and welding. “Nick is very hands-on in operating the company,” said Mark Bayer, Heldeberg’s New York dealer with whom I flew at Sun’n Fun 2004. He added, “They’re not trying to be the biggest manufacturer, just the best.”
Why did the company choose the Blue Heron name for its machines? Because blue herons populate a large wetlands area near the Viscios’ home near Albany, New York. “We had a blue heron ‘frequent flier’ that often visited our house,” Marie began. “In the water, the blue heron seems a small bird, but when it takes off, its wings grow large. I thought a powered parachute was like that|small while it sits in your garage, but sprouting big, beautiful wings for flight.”
If a small business is lucky, it’ll get a break that puts it in people’s minds. Heldeberg had such an experience when it furnished 17 airframes to the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. The specially faired Blue Heron PPCs supplied some riveting footage for the action/adventure motion picture.
Ten of the special James Bond Blue Heron PPCs were destroyed by special effects teams blowing them up and shoving them over cliffs, reported Mark. Seven aircraft remain, and Nick and Marie have one, its racy fiberglass body bristling with plastic machine guns.
In 2004, Heldeberg Designs shipped 21 powered parachutes to China. Over the past decade, the company has built nearly 500 aircraft. By anyone’s measure, that’s a nice business.
Ready for Light-Sport Aircraft
Son Nicholas served on the ASTM International committee developing the consensus standards for powered parachutes in the light-sport aircraft (LSA) category, so Heldeberg is well prepared to produce PPCs as LSA when the consensus standards are published by FAA. Dad Nick said, “LSA readiness has been a big part of our work for the past three years. Because of our in-house engineering advantage and involvement with the ASTM committee, we are well along in the process to produce PPCs that will qualify as LSA. Our standardized manufacturing procedures encompass design, tooling, testing, and documentation.” Heldeberg’s PPC components are built using computer aided design (CAD) drawings, and a majority of the parts are manufactured in-house. For example, bracket and specialty pieces are machined or punched from raw materials in the company’s fully equipped machine shop.
Lighter Is Better
Nick designed the first Blue Heron in 1995, and like many successful entrepreneurs in emerging fields, he feels he pioneered some design aspects of powered parachutes. One innovation was the use of a taller mast to reduce problems during rollovers. Today, some variation of this idea is commonplace on all PPCs.
Nick also pays special attention to keeping Heldeberg’s aircraft light. In 2002, he designed a new undercarriage truss system to use lighter components while still strengthening the unit. The truss work consists of a welded “deflexor” system under the fore/aft main frame tubes.
If you use less tubing, then you can use stronger tubing, or so goes the theory. Nick said Heldeberg uses a large diameter, 1/8-inch (0.125) wall thickness tube for the main. Other manufacturers use smaller tubing and tend to experience some permanent “sag” in their undercarriage rails after repeated landings, said Mark.
Compare the lean lines of the chassis of the Blue Heron Marathon, the company’s latest model introduced at Sun’n Fun 2004, to other PPCs, and with few exceptions, you’ll note the other brands appear to have more complex structures. Complexity almost always means more weight, and in light aircraft, weight usually equals less responsive performance. For example, the test aircraft Mark and I flew at Sun ‘n Fun had a pull-start Rotax 582 engine because an electric-start system adds substantial weight. (Eliminating the electric start also shaves about $750 off the price.) Mark indicated Blue Heron PPCs could be 50-100 pounds lighter than other two-seat powered parachutes.
Like its competitors, Heldeberg uses the 65-hp Rotax 582 engine on nearly all of its models, though the 80-hp 912 has made inroads recently; Heldeberg’s model with that engine is the XC-912.
Nick has worked hard to create a low-vibration engine mount, designing an isolation system that uses two shock-absorbing mediums. It seemed quite effective at reducing vibration to the airframe components and the occupants. However, differences in smoothness may be difficult to compare between aircraft.
The Marathon’s suspension system is a simple bungee or shock cord wrapped around a link arm, a method used widely on light general aviation aircraft. Combined with large rear tires, the system affords plenty of suspension. Because the aircraft is lighter, the landing loads are less, so the structure to support it can be lighter-an “unvicious” circle, if you will.
Mark also explained that Marathon’s front fork assembly is welded as a single unit, compared to other brands that use a “gooseneck” construction of several pieces that are butt-welded. Mark said he and Nick tested the assembly by repeatedly going aloft, shutting the engine off, and without flaring, allowing the aircraft to contact the ground. In the first six landings, they saw no damage, though by the seventh some minor deformation could be seen. What yielded was the rear axle, which dimpled under the load. That axle member now has an inner sleeve welded into place to provide added strength.
When any aircraft lands hard, the airframe can flex. If an airframe is rigidly bolted or welded together, those connections can fail under sufficient load.
To address this possibility, Nick employs stainless steel brackets to attach the aluminum fuel tank with rubber straps so the tank can move during flexing without spilling its contents.
To add stability to the Blue Heron Marathon model, the Rotax 582 engine’s radiator is located below the engine. When radiators are mounted high on the airframe, the passenger’s body can restrict airflow to it. Heldeberg designed a new chute cradle suspension system in 2004. A curvy side support bar replaced a telescoping tube that was used for center of gravity adjustments because flying with different weight passengers affects the balance of the machine under the canopy. A multi-position bracket atop this new bar now makes it easier to change the riser line attachment points in the field to accommodate the weight of different occupants and maintain an appropriate center of gravity.
These brackets have been tested thoroughly; the combination of the dual plates with dual bolts withstood loads of 13,000-pound ultimate yield. The links at the top of the riser lines have a 4,500-pound capacity, and they are used in pairs. It’s hard to imagine how you’d ever come close to the limit loads for this construction.
“Each improvement we make can be retrofitted to all previous models of Blue Heron PPCs back to model no. 1,” said Marie. That policy eases the minds of buyers who fear next year’s improvements won’t be available to them. The computer industry calls this “backward compatibility,” and customers always appreciate that. It helps people make purchase decisions when they know they can add the latest and greatest ideas.
Can’t Stop Innovating
Nick continues to make innovative changes to the company’s designs. While many are aimed at making the airframe lighter and stronger, some are aimed at improving pilot ergonomics. Knowing that people of different height, weight, and width will fly the company’s machines, Heldeberg offers three variations of foot steering bars.
The prototype Blue Heron Marathon that Mark and I flew at Sun ‘n Fun had the standard straight steering bars with grip tape for your feet-simplistic-to keep the Blue Heron light. However, the production model Marathon offers three lengths of steering tubes-standard, medium, and long-to accommodate pilots of different heights. The medium and long steering bars are contoured to allow versatility in leg positioning during flight, said Nick. If you’re 5 feet 8 inches or shorter, you’ll want the standard straight steering bars. Otherwise the medium might be right for you.
The medium steering bar has an S-shape to help taller pilots extend their legs, giving them an optional foot position on longer flights. The long steering bars, which are ideal for pilots taller than 6 feet 3 inches, have an additional compound curve that swoops down, taking the bend out of the pilot’s knee and hip, increasing comfort in flight.
Time to Fly
Because powered parachutes are best flown in the early morning and late evening when winds are predictably light, I met Mark at 8 a.m. to fly.
Mark unfolded the canopy in the conventional manner: sides that had been folded on top were spread out, then the line socks were removed and stowed in the side bags. All this was done with the canopy facing upside down. The next step was to check the integrity of the support and steering lines, looking for tangled lines. Mark grouped the lines by the section of the wing to which they’re attached. After that he took the steering line, which is somewhat longer, and flipped it around another line group, a technique he said helps keep the longer line from getting into the prop during engine start and chute inflation. Mark took special care to route the lines back over the hoop rings and place the line bundles in their hooks, to keep everything in its place.
Entry to the Marathon is easy because of the lack of overhead tubes. While rollover structures offer protection, multiple tubes can get in the way and obstruct vision. Heldeberg Designs makes a good compromise. It does not offer the forward sloping brush bars some powered parachute manufacturers do, so you don’t have to duck underneath them to climb into the seat.
Blue Heron’s completely separate seats have well-padded cushions with large seat backs. They’re filled with two types of foam 4 inches deep with differing compression ratios to provide protection and comfort. Saddlebags on both sides of the rear seat are handy storage compartments.
As part of our preflight discussion, I was pleased to hear Mark practices engine-out landings frequently. In conversations with powered parachute pilots, I find such training to be quite rare, yet it helps prepare pilots for an unplanned event.
Our test model Blue Heron Marathon had a single throttle and steering lever, though you can order optional dual controls for instructional purposes. I was happy to see Blue Heron’s throttle is pushed forward for more power and pulled back for less, like nearly every other aircraft I’ve flown.
However, the taxi steering lever on the Blue Heron uses a front/back action. Its forward and back motion to direct left or right movements seemed counterintuitive to me. Fortunately, you can get used to this method quickly enough. Besides, taxiing isn’t something you spend a lot of time doing in a powered parachute.
We flew under a canopy manufactured by Performance Design (PD) that Nick called “lofty,” referring to the higher lift generated by the 550-square foot canopy, the larger of two commonly used sizes (500 and 550). Mark prefers the PD Sunriser 500 canopy because it inflates well, is stable, and can fly at about 400 rpm less than the 550-square-foot size.
With the PD Sunriser 550 canopy and Mark and I on board, our descent rate was about 4-to-1. With a single occupant, Mark believes the Marathon can achieve a 50-percent better descent rate. Further, a single occupant using the larger 550 canopy will see another 10-15 percent reduction in sink rate.
Blue Heron Choices
Heldeberg Designs offers four Blue Heron models, two single-seaters and two two-seaters, and most are aimed at the LSA classification. Variations on each model add to customer choices:
The Spirit 103 with a 40-hp Rotax 447,whichsellsfor$10,545instandard airframe and canopy colors. You can upgrade to the Rotax 503, raising the total price to $11,995. If you choose the latter model, you’ll have to build it from a kit and certificate it as an experimental amateur-built aircraft until the LSA consensus standards are published and manufacturers can sell experimental light-sport aircraft (E-LSA) kits and ready-to-fly special LSA.
The Blue Heron Express is a single-seat machine powered by the 50-hp Rotax 503. It comes with a 10-gallon fuel tank, an extra-long airframe design, and a 64-inch Ivo prop. It sells for $13,625. Like the 503-powered Spirit 103, it currently must be built as an experimental amateur-built aircraft until the LSA consensus standards are finalized.
The Marathon LSA, the model we reviewed for this report, is powered by a pull-start 66-hp Rotax 582 engine, sells for $16,995 with a full engine information system (EIS), and comes in a choice of colors. You will also be able to purchase a Marathon E-LSA when the consensus standards are published and save $1,145 ($15,850 total). As with all Rotax-powered aircraft, the prices are subject to change because of the changing dollar/euro exchange rates.
At the top of the line is the 80-hp XC-912, which sells for $24,795, with a stainless steel exhaust system and a heavy-duty strut. Though this model weighs about 50 pounds more than the Rotax 582-powered Marathon, the fuel economy of the four-stroke engine extends your range. You can also select the 100-hp Rotax 912S.
Heldeberg Designs offers a long list of options to help personalize your Blue Heron. You can choose analog instruments for $750 or the Taskem EFI digital system for $950. Electric start adds $1,200 (another reason to do without it). Other options include balloon tires ($175 with kit), front wheel brake ($320 as an add-on), instructor dual-control system ($350), saddlebags ($125), and a nylon aircraft cover ($250).
If your budget is tender, you can purchase an airframe kit for the Blue Heron Marathon model ($7,595), build the airframe kit (approximately 50 hours to assemble), and add an engine when ready. With the airframe kit you’ll get Heldeberg’s undercarriage truss system and the dual-media vibration isolation system plus a radiator, aluminum fuel tanks, standard powder-coated airframe, fender, and assembly manuals. You also have several choices in canopies. Heldeberg Designs offers Performance Designs, Apco, Elan, Chiron, and High Energy canopies. Each has its proponents, but Heldeberg often steers customers to Performance Designs.
Mark prefers Performance Designs because of the company’s superior customer service. The Florida based facility is good at making repairs promptly and maintains a large inventory of fabric so color matching is possible. Performance Designs is one of the country’s largest producers of gliding canopies for skydivers, and powered parachutes.
Working with Nick and Marie Viscio is a personal experience, Mark assured me. Given the couple’s close attention to their business, a good safety record for the large number of aircraft produced, a lengthy list of innovative features, and the designer’s penchant for lightweight designs, one of Heldeberg Designs’ Blue Heron PPCs will probably satisfy your powered parachute interest and offer you a machine that performs well.
|Empty weight||308 pounds|
|Gross weight||850 pounds|
|Canopy Span||39.5 feet 1|
|Canopy Area||550 square feet 1|
|Canopy Loading||1.6 pounds/square foot|
|Useful Load||542 pounds|
|Fuel Capacity||10 gallons|
|Baggage area||Side saddlebags|
|Kit type||Fully assembled or Kit|
|Build time||30-50 hours|
|Notes:||1 Several choices of canopy are available from
Performance Designs, Apco, Elan, Chiron, and
High Energy Chutes.
|Standard engine||Rotax 582|
|Power loading||13 pounds/hp|
|Max Speed||32 mph|
|Cruise speed||26-32 mph|
|Stall Speed||35 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||900 fpm|
|Service Ceiling||10,000 feet (estimated)|
|Takeoff distance at gross||150-200 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||150 feet|
|Range (powered)||115 miles (4-plus hours)|
|Fuel Consumption||2.2 gph, minimum|
|Standard Features||Rotax 582, 2-inch x 1/8-inch 6061-T6 rails, pylons, outriggers, double-ring prop guard, dual-media engine mount, aluminum fuel tank, one-piece steel nose section, self-centering nosewheel, adjustable foot-steering tube position, Taskem electronic instrument, bungee suspension system, chrome nosewheel fender, aluminum wheels, PVC tube inserts and machined aluminum saddles, individual upholstered seats, 3-point seat belts, primer, Monkey Bar roll cage.|
|Options||Choice of canopy/wing from Performance Design, APCO or Elan, engines up to 81-hp Rotax 912, electric starter, prop spinner, analog instruments, undercarriage truss system, dual control for instructor, rear-seat throttle and kill switch, strobe lights, 4-point pilot restraints, plus additional items.|
|Construction||Aluminum airframe with steel components, fully sewn and rigged ready-to-use nylon canopy/wing. Made in the USA; distributed by U.S.-owned company.|
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – Heldeberg Designs worked to keep their chassis light, and they succeeded. The Truss System braces fore/aft rails without using heavy components. Bungee main suspension couples with the truss system to make a strong chassis. Double prop hoop. Dual-media engine mount reduces vibration sent to carriage frame. Frontal bars added in 2005.
Cons – Some buyers are moved by carriages that look robust, even if Heldeberg Designs’ carriages may be stronger. Being different from other designs can cause some buyers to question Heldeberg Designs’ decisions. Smaller producer (though steady in business for more than 10 years).
Subsystems available to pilot such as: Flaps; Fuel sources; Electric start; In-air restart; Brakes; Engine controls; Navigations; Radio; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Test aircraft used a Rotax 582 with pull starter to save weight. Fuel tank is secured in such a way as to withstand hard landings. Main gear suspension can be adjusted for tension by moving the bungee cords on the scissor strut. Very easy repair access to all chassis components. Trim brackets allow you to adjust for different occupant weight.
Cons – You must set trim on the ground with the canopy lines and it needs to be done correctly, so get advice before you make changes. Dual throttle is only an option (recommended if you plan to instruct). No brakes fitted to test aircraft (though this was part of restraining weight). Engine kill switch only in front seat.
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – Curved steering controls make for better creature comforts and fit more pilot sizes. Independent, well-padded seats with high back support and 3-point seat belts (4-point optional). Saddle bags available for items you want to take along. Wide-open view unobstructed by structure.
Cons – Buyers preferring 4-point pilot restraints must add them as an option. Limited room and fixtures for radio installations or additional instruments (though Taskem EFI offers all you need). If you like the idea of frontal bars for added protection, Heldeberg Designs sells them as an option.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Superb visibility – better than some powered parachutes – for pretakeoff traffic check and for general visibility while aloft (one of the great qualities of powered parachutes). Steering works effectively (even if counterintuitive to control). Excellent suspension with the Blue Heron Strut. Chassis felt very rigid, not loose.
Cons – Push forward to steer right/pull lever to steer left is a counterintuitive method you have to practice to learn. “Taxiing” a powered parachute is a learned skill of keeping enough speed to fly the canopy; limited capability without bagging canopy first. Large tires give extra bounce on rough strips (though Blue Heron Struts lessen this somewhat).
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – Excellent suspension system and truss-braced front-to-rear structural rails make even engine-off landings less uncertain. Wide-open visibility in virtually all directions, good for traffic watching and sight-seeing. Good ground clearance and specially fitted fuel tank lessen chance of problems on hard landings.
Cons – Landing without engine should cause no damage to the Blue Heron Marathon, but low energy retention of powered parachutes demands sturdier gear and structure. Forget crosswind capability; plan good approaches to wide-open fields or land across the runway. Little penetration capability if winds rise (a common powered parachute limitation).
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – Curved steering bars make in-flight controls easier and fit pilots of different shapes and sizes better. Foot steering and conventional (non-elliptical) canopy allow surprisingly quick response. Precision turns to headings are very achievable. Setting up good approaches is easy (with good planning). When in doubt, get off the foot bars and a powered parachute will straighten quickly.
Cons – Turn initiation is relatively quick but turn rate is somewhat sluggish (though elliptical canopies offer faster maneuvering). Powered parachutes have no diving capability if needed (though reducing power sets up a relatively steep approach). To increase turn rate you must physically pull steering lines with your hands.
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – Heldeberg Designs’ Dual-Media Vibration Isolation System does an excellent job of absorbing energy through two sets of rubber mounts. Virtually no aircraft can do better than a powered parachute at low-and-slow flying over friendly fields (though you must plan such flying carefully to avoid conflicts).
Cons – Even with powerful engines like the Rotax 582, powered parachutes require a high percentage of power to maintain flight (though somewhat better with a larger canopy). One speed fits all flight realms on (all) powered parachutes. Sink rate is rather high. Endurance is not a strong point.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – All powered parachutes enjoy a good reputation for in-flight stability, one of the best in aviation; even an improperly controlled powered parachute tends to return to level flight by releasing steering controls. Heldeberg Designs offers strong, adjustable brackets to allow more level flight for occupants of varying weights (though only ground adjustable).
Cons – Some potential buyers might prefer four-point pilot restraints. Any powered parachute can suffer canopy collapse and can enter something referred to as a meta-stable stall (though both conditions require significant error to enter). Rigging for trim flight is done on the ground and requires understanding of line arrangements.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – Heldeberg Designs’ steady improvement of their line has resulted in a feature-laden powered parachute with many interesting components, yet all are coordinated to keep the weight down, which serves their powered parachutes just as it does with any aircraft. Family operation wins points from dealers and customers for caring service. Improvements are retrofittable to all models the company has ever sold (quite an achievement).
Cons – Despite Heldeberg Designs’ familiarity with Light-Sport Aircraft ASTM standards, customers are still waiting on a finished statement of compliance even though the standards have been complete for some time. As with all powered parachutes, common use of canopies by a few suppliers means they all perform essentially the same. o