Things can change and yet stay the same. You can comprehend this paradox by considering the tandem 2-seat Drifter. Drifter production is under new management by someone many regard as a “rightful owner.” Yet the basic flying qualities of the Drifter design are basically unchanged.
As 2007 started, Phil Lockwood again has all rights to the Drifter as part of a design, tooling, and inventory deal that rescued the Drifter and 2-seat twin-engine Air Cam from an uncertain future with investor Antonio Leza, who ran the operation for a few years.
Lockwood is associated with the Drifter due to his many years of work with the design. He once worked for Maxair proprietor Denny Franklin who pioneered this enduring shape. In the rough and tumble days of early ultralights, Franklin lost control of Drifter ownership and for a time the design wandered. More correctly, the new owners failed to take the Drifter forward and instead merely exploited its popularity.
Fortunately the airplane persevered. The Drifter ended up in production by Leza, or Leza-Lockwood as the Sebring company was first known.
Now as Lockwood resumes control of the Drifter and Air Cam, Franklin remains a major part of the new operation. So while things have changed dramatically for the Drifter over the years, the airplane continues to fly well and to give enjoyment to those who own them. And it now appears once again in a highly stable ownership situation.
One of our airborne photos captured Jeff Hudson’s amphibious Full Lotus float-equipped Drifter that has 4,000 hours of airframe time accumulated over the past 11 years. Another photo shows a straight Full Lotus float Drifter in Tony and Adriel Anderson’s Miami operation that has 5,000 hours on it. And a Cancun, Mexico, banner-towing operation run by Luis Barocio helped one Drifter amass a remarkable 10,000 hours of service. Such stories are not uncommon, proving the statement, “Drifters work!”
Clearly prized for its ability to deliver training flights, the Super Drifter 912 shows refinement and features that make it an advanced-generation ultralight worthy of moving forward in the age of light sport aircraft (LSA).
How is this Drifter 912 different from the Drifter flown in the late 1990s? According to Franklin the new 912-powered version is a significant redesign of the earlier models. Numerous changes were required to allow fitting the heavier Rotax 912 situated at the rear of the wing.
An extended boom tube and fuselage pan positions the front seat 5 inches further forward to better offset the weight of the 912. It also cures a light nose associated with the first 912-powered Drifters.
Franklin said, “The entire fuselage was beefed up to accommodate the higher weight of the 912.” The changes include sleeving to better brace the main boom, which remains the same diameter. Landing gear legs were also beefed up. All this extra metal does boost the weight a few pounds, he admitted. Despite the strengthened airframe, a 912-powered Drifter is much lighter than common LSA. An empty Drifter comes in under 500 pounds compared to many LSA that weigh more than 800 pounds. Any experienced pilot will tell you that the lighter plane will handle, take off, and land much differently.
The Drifter can deal with the extra pounds because it has larger wings. The Super Drifter has 10 square feet more wing than the 2-stroke powered Drifters. The extra wing area comes from a wider aileron. When the chord went from 8 to 12 inches, it added 4 inches across the entire span. Ailerons were shortened spanwise to allow flaps. Lockwood’s 912-powered Drifter also is the only model that comes standard with flaps (though you can order a flap kit for a Rotax 582 Drifter).
This heavier Drifter (compared to, say, a Rotax 503 version) has hydraulic brakes and aircraft tires just like the more expensive LSA. Flaps are standard on the Drifter 912. “It also has complete instrumentation and a stainless steel exhaust for the 912 engine,” adds Franklin. And, as with all Rotax 912 engines, electric starting is standard gear. Franklin also referred to a new, wider tailwheel that works better in places with sandy soil as is found throughout Central Florida.
During the Drifter’s “drifting years,” Lockwood kept customer support alive. He also developed flaps for the Drifter, not as an employee of the manufacturer but as Lockwood Supply.
While creating flaps to assist floatplane operators, Lockwood also made subtle changes in the airfoil. “We tried many different shapes,” Lockwood recalls and finally came up with a unique airfoil featuring undercamber. It worked well enough that the same airfoil was used on the Air Cam.
Even though Lockwood was keeping the Drifter alive with his developments, others tried to “improve” the aircraft while the Drifter design struggled in the very late 1980s. An Australian company, Tiger Aviation, tried struts instead of cable bracing in an attempt to interest general aviation pilots. With various other additions intended to make it appeal to the Cessna set, their Drifter SB got heavy and flew like a truck.
Tiger Aviation’s Drifter SB had a much higher windscreen; again for the general aviation pilots the Aussies hoped to attract, but the nose pod of the Lockwood Drifter 912 is fuller on the sides, reducing windblast to the rear seat. The American reintroduction of the Drifter has a lower windscreen than the Down-Under version.
Lockwood’s 81-hp Rotax 912 Super Drifter 912 is nearly 100 pounds lighter than the strut-braced version and flies with more agility. Bracing cables may strike some pilots as old-fashioned, but viewed aloft they become almost invisible while struts stand out obviously. If you can see them, so can the wind. Cables also add more rigidity all around which, Phil notes, tends to make the tail more effective via wires connecting boom to wings.
Proven by waterborne use by Hudson, the Andersons and Barocio, the Drifter 912 comes set up so you can add regular or amphibious floats. An engineered location for the rearward float attachment is found near the engine downtube supports.
Why We Fly Ultralights
I’ve been fortunate to fly with all of these folks except Barocio (you are required to have a Mexican Commercial license to fly in Cancun). Each has become highly experienced in flying a Drifter from water.
Still another Florida pilot checked me out in the Drifter 912. An old friend from hang gliding days, Richard Johnson is a pioneering aviator in the Sunshine State. A former professional water-skier and businessman, he and a Japanese partner have been selling water-skiing goods to Japan. Johnson has accumulated almost every FAA rating in the books and has flown several of Fantasy of Flight’s most unusual aircraft. His logbook is full of entries for aircraft most pilots have never even seen.
After familiarizing me with the Super Drifter 912’s cockpit, Johnson yielded the front seat to me and hopped in the rear. I didn’t require much encouragement to return to a seat with one of the best views in all of aviation. It has been called “flying on the front of a pole.” With the wings behind you, some pilots feel deprived of an aircraft reference. I loved it, as will most experienced ultralight pilots.
Entry to the front has some challenge mainly because no step was fitted to help. Instead, I followed Johnson’s technique, which involves starting on the left main tire and swinging your left foot up to the sturdy floor pan of the Drifter. During this entry process, I found it handy to use the trio of support tubes aft of the seat; they offered a firm and sure brace while I slipped into the seat.
The flap lever offered three positions beyond neutral and Johnson suggested the use of one notch for takeoff. When you use full flaps for landing you get a significant nose-down attitude.
The Drifter uses 4-point seat belts, which help people feel comfortable in this out-in-front-of-everything airplane. One drawback of such secure restraints is that I could not reach the switches on the instrument panel with the shoulder belts fully tightened. Since the seats don’t adjust, the distance to the pedals and joystick cannot be varied once the kit is constructed.
Johnson reported visibility from the rear was better than many tandems he’s flown, certainly the enclosed ones.
After twisting the key to fire up the 912, we taxied for takeoff. I was again reminded of the immensely wide view. Taxiing the Drifter is like riding a motorcycle; you can see everything.
Ups and Downs
Launching the 81-hp Super Drifter 912 is an exciting affair. Thanks to the stunning thrust of the 3-blade Rotax 912, I found it unnecessary to use full throttle for takeoff even with two persons on board. We probably weren’t quite at full gross but Johnson and I only required 5,000 rpm to lift off easily. Airport neighbors like the muted noise.
After maneuvering around the practice area for a while, we headed back to South Lakeland Airpark for some touch and goes. I rapidly found it was easy to make landing approaches at 40 mph, speeding up slightly as we neared the ground in order to assure sufficient flare energy. With the powerful 912 engine, the Drifter’s slow-speed behavior assures you can get into some pretty small fields.
Flaps come standard on the 912 model, yet Johnson demonstrated a fairly steep slip, which showed that the Drifter can perform this maneuver well even though it has limited fuselage side. Slips and flaps give great approach path control.
Despite the Super Drifter 912’s overall ease of operation, I experienced some challenge to make smooth landings because I simply did not want to lower the nose as much as was needed. This may be an effect of sitting forward of most portions of the aircraft structure and is something for which non-Drifter pilots need to be aware. When Johnson demonstrated a single main wheel touchdown, it felt like we were going to stick the nose in the ground. (We didn’t.)
Based on Johnson’s exquisite one-wheel landing during which he used a little bit of power to facilitate the maneuver, I concluded that a bump of the throttle on the landing touchdown would help new Drifter pilots (and some flight reporters) make smooth landings.
Easy to Handle
Overall, the Super Drifter 912’s handling is reasonably light to the touch and responsive enough for most pilots. No one would call the roll rate fast but for training and many other recreational flights, the Drifter’s roll rate will prove to be just about right. I was quickly able to do Dutch rolls that were well coordinated but not to very steep angles. Pitch forces are light enough that you’ll never miss a trim control.
The Super Drifter, despite more weight, handles well. The larger, more refined wing is part of the reason, but the move to flaps and ailerons was another contributor. Two-stroke Drifters have full-span ailerons where the Super Drifter has its aileron surface at the tips. Since this is where most work is done and given their larger size, the Super Drifter retains much of the same control feel as its lighter siblings.
I did manage to discover that during takeoff, use of all 81 horsepower could cause you to run short of right rudder range. This may require some adjustment to a fixed rudder trim to dampen the 912’s power, but based on my experience, I can scarcely imagine a situation where you might actually need to add full power to launch unless you were operating at very high elevations.
As Lockwood observes, “You can use full power and control it, but you need to lead with the rudder.” Like most transitioning pilots I was slow in rudder application so I had to back off the power to regain yaw control. And though a couple of 100-hp Drifters have been assembled, Lockwood agrees that 81 horses are more than needed. Even an amphibian Drifter at full gross performs strongly with the less powerful Rotax 912 engine.
Johnson and I cruised around Central Florida enjoying a fine day of flying at a leisurely 70 mph. For me, this is plenty of speed. The Super Drifter 912 may have buckets of extra power, but still flies like an ultralight. Even with the big engine, Lockwood has set the never-exceed speed at 85 mph. The design was never meant to be a speedster.
The Drifter 912 exhibited a surprisingly good sink rate, especially for an ultralight of this weight and size. The day was full of thermals, but I was able to factor out the lift to record a sink rate less than 400 fpm in a couple of long descents, an excellent figure. In a related test of performance it appeared that only 4,000 to 4,100 rpm was needed to sustain altitude. The cylinder head temperature ran so cool (120°) that I began to wonder if the gauge was even working. I was assured this was normal.
Flying low over the fields we were able to sustain airspeeds as slow as 45 mph, which dropped below 40 mph by using full flaps. Many aircraft that add the Rotax 912 and are flown with two occupants can’t explore this enjoyable realm of ultralight flying.
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone criticizing the stability of the Drifter series. My investigations have always found the design very predictable. Of course, I generally don’t do radical maneuvers. Using normal attitudes and some aggressive control inputs, I found the Super Drifter 912 maintains its good behavior.
Only some burbling at the prop and some stick shaking revealed power-on stalls, but none of my trials saw the nose break. I found only a modest break when performing power-off stalls. Accelerated stalls done to the left merely dropped the right wing and straightened out. Accelerated stalls to the right acted like a power-on stall, resisting without breaking over. You can get in trouble with any airplane, but the Drifter will be more forgiving than many.
Flying and Buying
The Super Drifter 912 is similar to many ultralight trainers that made the exemption weight: in the future it will probably have to be a kit-built aircraft licensed Experimental Amateur-Built. That means some with a Sport Pilot certificate or better can take a friend and fly all over the country. But you will not be able to train for hire nor rent a Drifter after January 31, 2010, and that long only if you register an ultralight exemption trainer as an Experimental light sport aircraft (ELSA) by January 31, 2008.
Lockwood and his team have not determined if they will pursue SLSA status. “We’re not looking at that at this time,” says Lockwood. “But we have seen plenty of interest in the kit-built model.” Plus, those operating in active schools can easily get enough value out of a Super Drifter 912 operated under the 2-seat training exemption through January 2010. At that time, the school could sell the plane to a student, likely recovering most of their investment. “A well maintained Drifter holds its value quite well,” reports Lockwood.
Buying a Rotax 912-powered Super Drifter is remarkably well priced at $32,575 for the aircraft and engine. Compared to many light sport aircraft that use this same engine but are priced about three times as high, the Super Drifter 912 is quite a value in a very well proven design.
The Rotax 912 can go 1,500 hours before an overhaul. It sips fuel quite slowly for its 81 horses of power. It runs quieter and introduces less vibration than a 2-stroke engine, and the airframe has been engineered to handle the big power. Still, $35,000 (with instruments and selected accessories) may seem expensive to ultralight pilots spoiled on $15,000 Quicksilvers. That’s the price of 4-stroke power.
A Rotax 503-powered Drifter that costs less is also a whopping 110 pounds lighter (385 pounds empty), which further improves handling and sink rate performance. You won’t climb as fast with two on board (about 500 fpm with the 50-horse 503), but 2-seaters are often flown solo and a Rotax 503 is plenty of power for single-place operations.
Maxair founder Denny Franklin pioneered the Drifter many years ago, at first with a tiny little Rotax 277 (which worked great, by the way) after a few initial Drifters were built with 35-hp Kawasaki 440 engines. By comparison, a Super Drifter 912 seems massively overpowered, but the design remains a workhorse with excellent beginner flight characteristics.
If you run a flight school and need a dependable ultralight to work hard for you until the January 31, 2010 deadline, a Super Drifter 912 may be the perfect choice. Or, if you’re merely a pilot who wants to have a little fun flying in a dependable machine for a reasonable price, the Super Drifter 912 deserves another look, especially now that Phil Lockwood is again running the show.
|Empty weight||495 pounds|
|Gross weight||1,000 pounds|
|Wing area||160 square feet|
|Wing loading||6.25 pounds per square foot|
|Kit type||Assembly kit|
|Build time||50-300 hours|
|Standard engine||Rotax 912|
|Power||81 hp at 5,500 rpm|
|Power loading||12.3 pounds per hp|
|Cruise speed||75 mph|
|Never exceed speed||85 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||1,000 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||200 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||200 feet|
|Standard Features||Rotax 912, electric starting, all stainless exhaust, flaps, ASI, altimeter, CHT, oil pressure, oil temp, Hobbs meter, tachometer, dual controls, nose fairing, dual 5-gallon fuel tanks, wide aluminum wheels, aircraft tires, hydraulic brakes, 3-blade Warp Drive propeller.|
|Options||Straight or amphibious floats, ballistic parachute system, other props and prop leading edge treatment.|
|Construction||Aluminum airframe, spring steel landing gear, presewn Dacron® wing coverings, fiberglass nose fairing. Made in the USA.|
Cosmetic appearance, structural integrity, achievement of design goals, effectiveness of aerodynamics, ergonomics.
Pros – Ownership of the Drifter is back in familiar hands (see article). In light sport aircraft (LSA) age, the Super Drifter 912 adds 4-stroke value without affecting the basics of this ultralight design. More than 1,000 Drifters reported flying. Design retained cable bracing; lighter weight and greater rigidity than struts.
Cons – Pilots interested in LSA may not like sitting on the end of a boom, though ultralight enthusiasts probably love it. Some pilots will regard the Drifter as a dated, older design. Must be assembled from a kit, which complicates resale and adds owner liability.
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 – The Drifter has always offered effective flaps; easy to deploy with lever alongside pilot’s thigh and comfortably reached. The Drifter 912 is well equipped (though 4-stroke engine adds considerably to cost). Stick-mounted, mini-hydraulic brake system is quite powerful. Engine access is excellent, no cowl.
Cons – Since the Drifter can fly two people with a 50-hp Rotax 503, the 912 seems much more engine than needed. No instruments installed for the rear-seat instructor, but you can carry any system you can afford; allowed when amateur building.
Instrumentation; Ergonomics of controls; Creature comforts; (items covered may be optional).
Pros – If you like wide-open visibility, the Drifter is a great choice. Four-point seat belts front and rear, especially appreciated in such a boom-and-floor pan construction. Adequate instrument panel with T-panel suffices for ultralight flying. Entry is reasonable, especially to the aft seat where other tandems are difficult.
Cons – Some pilots do not like the openness of a Drifter and when flown solo from the front, structure around you won’t help acclimate. Entry to the front around the wider pod requires a technique. Rear-seat occupant is subject to considerable wind buffet. Seats do not adjust in flight.
Taxi visibility; Steering; Turn radius; Shock absorption; Stance/Stability; Braking.
Pros – Superb visibility from the front seat to spot traffic. Hydraulic brakes were quite powerful on land version. Spring steel gear offered good shock absorption even with the heavier 912 engine and two occupants. Good ground clearance. Prop well protected by floor pan.
Cons – Land version is a taildragger and therefore not for everyone. The tailwheel was rather small on Florida’s sandy soil (though a larger tailwheel is optional). Suspension is limited to gear leg flex and tire inflation. No differential brakes, though they’re hardly needed.
Qualities; Efficiency; Ease; Comparative values.
Pros – The Drifter visibility is unparalleled in aviation. Low landing approach speeds (40 mph) allows entry to small fields or lakes. Flaps are highly efficient and easily deployed. Slips proved surprisingly effective given the small side area. Short ground roll with the Rotax 912.
Cons – The Drifter 912 is ultralight like and can dissipate energy in ground effect; this requires better flare timing and technique (though the Drifter lands very short). No other negatives.
Quality and quantity for: Coordination; Authority; Pressures; Response; and Coupling.
Pros – While not fast, controls offer plenty of authority for crosswind operations. Response rate is about perfect for training flights. Controls were well rigged and had reasonable pressures. Steep turns went well as the Drifter holds the turn with little input. Precision turns are easy, too.
Cons – The Drifter 912 does not have a fast roll rate (though good authority); Dutch rolls worked well only to shallow angles. Full power on takeoff can cause you to run out of rudder range to counteract it. Lack of visual references in the front seat takes some acclimatization.
Climb; Glide; Sink; Cruise/stall/max speeds; Endurance; Range; Maneuverability.
Pros – More powerful Rotax 912 yields better fuel economy than the lower powered Rotax 582. Climb is breathtaking. Robust airframe has survived challenging duties in many locations. Design has long proven itself on floats. Low-over-the-field flying goes well with flaps deployed. Sink rate is excellent.
Cons – By design the Drifter is not a speedster (an open-cockpit wouldn’t be very comfortable at fast speeds), so the big 912 engine only adds to climb and takeoff distance performance. Plus, powerful engines cost significantly more; a Rotax 912 costs three times as much as a Rotax 582.
Stall recovery and characteristics; Dampening; Spiral stability; Adverse yaw qualities.
Pros – Power-off stalls broke but very predictably with fast, almost automatic recovery. Power-on stalls only discernible by a tail buffet. Accelerated stalls often dropped the high wing and leveled out quickly. Longitudinal recovery from level flight was fast and straightforward, no doubt due partly to a long coupled tail with large area.
Cons – Drifters have long been fitted with emergency parachutes. Typical high thrust line response lowers nose pronouncedly on power addition (opposite of most certified aircraft). Deck angle gets extremely steep in full-power stall practice. No other negatives.
Addresses the questions: “Will a buyer get what he/she expects to buy, and did the designer/builder achieve the chosen goal?”
Pros – In a LSA world full of Rotax 912 engines, the Super Drifter 912 fits in well using this reliable 4-stroke Rotax 912 powerplant. Strong, durable airframe that has done heavy duty for years; several Drifters have thousands of hours and at least one more than 10,000. Highly recognized design; helps resale values.
Cons – The Drifter 912 is much more expensive than a 2-stroke-powered model (though those are still available). If you sell your Drifter it may take somewhat longer than a more conventional, enclosed aircraft (though a good following will help sell any well-maintained examples).