an Air Cam Story

Gus's picture

So its Saturday and I am up uncharacteristically early heading off on a grand tour of Johannesburg. As I am dodging potholes down the N14 I am wondering to myself if it is cheaper and safer to fly around Joburg rather than to drive, etolls and all. Maybe an experiment for another time. For now, first stop is Krugersdorp airfield. Today is one of those days you wish you could have more of, not only was I offered a flip in Ricardo’s Air Cam, but I also get to meet one of the aircraft’s co-developers and, as I later learned, builder of not only Ricardo’s Air Cam but as many as 20 others for customers around the world. This is none other than Bill Leftwich, who is in the country as a guest of Ricardo’s - his sixth visit to SA!

Bill started his career as an aircraft mechanic for Eastern Airlines and worked there for 12 years until the company was shut down. During that time he had made contact with Phil Lockwood and so he took his aviation experience and joined him to develop their Air Cam into a marketable product.

Ricardo’s Air Cam is the only one of its kind registered in South Africa. It was designed to safely fly low and slow over inhospitable terrain, has twin 100hp Rotax 912 engines positioned close to the centreline so that there is little chance of crashing while operating on one engine. The big wing and ample power means it can take off on one engine and climb out at a respectable rate. With two engines the take-off run and climb rate, even at this altitude, is more than adequate.

The only thing better than having two engines, and the ability to safely fly on one, would be to have two pilots.

I logged the flight on my GPS and was able to get some performance measurements. Hey, I am an engineer, so get over it...
I once went flying with test pilot Gen. Des Barker and tracked his approach at a perfect 6° angle and he was kind enough to declare my tracker as being ‘calibrated’.
Take-off was accomplished within 200m and we were 400ft above the ground by the time we had covered ¾ of the runway. That’s 1000fpm climb rate two-up at 5,500ft altitude. The stick force was a bit higher that expected, but the aircraft was well behaved even in the stall. Turns were tight and executed in less than 500m. The cruise speed of 85mph means that you will be one of the first to leave and last to arrive, but that just means that you will have more fun flying time.

The measured performance was a little less than the published figures, but we are at 5,500 ft elevation and Ricardo was not trying to show off.

The flight was amazing, imagine the visibility of a trike combined with the handling of a three axis aircraft and safety and excess power of two Rotax engines and you have a winning combination. I must have felt safe too, since I can’t remember once looking for an emergency landing site. The Air Cam cruised comfortably at a surprising low power setting and judging by the lack of, or delayed reaction of the people and animals below us the noise levels were low. Pilots these days are really spoilt with noise reduction headsets.

The fuselage and vertical stabilizer are a traditional rib and skin construction of riveted aluminium sheets, the flying surfaces are tube and fabric. The engines are exposed and mounted in a pusher configuration. When I asked Bill why they don’t have engine fairings, he explained that they did originally have, but engine overheating problems and disrupted turbulent flow over the control surfaces caused them to abandon the idea. Anyway the naked look suits the open cockpit and nothing beats a 360° view.

Bill says that there should be a warning displayed on the aircraft,

'Warning: can be Addictive

I will have to agree, but unfortunately at $100K for the kit including engines but without paint and instruments it’s a habit that I can’t support. Then to complete my tour of Joburg I was off the EAA Auditorium to listen to Bill’s presentation on the flying career of his dad and the history of the Air Cam.

No Air Cam story is complete without a brief history of the development.

The story starts with Phil Lockwood buying the tooling and rights to the Drifter at the Maxair bankruptcy sale, a company that he had previously worked for after graduating. Phil managed to establish a good reputation supporting the Drifter. Then Des and Jen Bartlett, a famous Australian wildlife filming team now living in Namibia, called to ask Phil if he would join them in Nambia and teach them to fly the Drifters that they had bought as wildlife filming platforms. Flying over the wild southern African landsacpe apparently left a big impression on Phil since that was when he started to consider a twin engine version of the Drifter. It wasn't too long after that when National Geographic requested a new aircraft to flim over the Ndoki rain forest in the Congo Basin, Phil's answer was a twin engine aircraft with removable wings and tailboom for easy transport and a fuselage that resembled a dugout canoe. Short take-off capability from a rough airstrip and the ability to fly low and slow over the treetops while not using too much of the scarce fuel. It was rather aptly christened the Air Cam.

With no real roads to the base of operations, a little village on the banks of the Sangha river, transporting the aircraft there was a mission in itself. Likewise fuel was floated in to the village on dugout canoes.

Apparently there is not much wind in the rain forest and so the locals enjoyed the prop wash from the twin engine flying canoe as quite the novelty. The design attracted a lot of attention from the sport aviation community and so the Leza-Lockwood company started producing kits for the aircraft. This was when our guest Bill Leftwich was asked to join the team to add his hard earned experience, from working at Eastern Airlines, to help develop the production version.

The machine designed for National Geographic was powered by twin 64hp Rotax 582s. Later 80hp 912s and 115hp 914s were offered, with the 912 becoming the standard.

The first Air Cam Bill worked on was the no. 2 airframe, a copy of the one produced for National Geographic. He was eventually able to purchase that airframe and now flies it around Savannah, Georgia USA.

I can't find an up-to-date number but in 2010 there were more than 160 Air Cams flying.

Air Cam

  • Capacity: two
  • Length: 8.23 m
  • Wingspan: 10.97 m
  • Height: 2.54 m
  • Empty weight: 472 kg
  • Gross weight: 762 kg
  • Fuel capacity: 106 litres
  • Cruise speed: 100 mph
  • Stall speed: 39 mph
  • Never exceed speed: 110 mph
  • Range: 340 mi at 70 mph
  • Endurance: 6 hours
  • Rate of climb:
    • 1,500 ft/min (2 engines)
    • 300 fpm (1 engine)