Jim Bede

Jim Bede

James R. "Jim" Bede is an aircraft designer, who is often credited with the creation of the modern kitplane market. He has designed well over a dozen aircraft since the 1960s, but a string of business failures have kept most of these designs out of widespread use.

Bede Aviation

Bede was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from West Technical School in Cleveland in 1952 and attended Fenn College and the University of Wichita receiving his Aeronautical Engineer Bachelor of Science Degree in 1957. [ [http://bd-4.org/newsletter26.html James R. Bede] ] He started work as a performance engineer with North American Aviation that year, where he worked on the FJ-4 and A3J projects for the US Navy.

He stayed at North American only briefly, returning home to Cleveland in 1961 to form Bede Aviation with his father James, in order to produce a kitbuilt aircraft of his design, the Bede BD-1. At the time, as it is today, the general aviation market was priced beyond the means of the average consumer. Bede felt the way to solve this problem was to have the prospective pilot build their own aircraft, as labor costs were a major part of the overall price of a delivered aircraft.

The BD-1 was a simple and fairly conventional low-wing two-seat design that used some of the latest techniques in aircraft construction that larger companies such as Cessna generally ignored. The fuselage was built primarily of aluminum honeycomb adhesively bonded together instead of riveted. This not only made the plane light, but also very strong; it was to be fully aerobatic and stressed to 9"g". Performance would likewise be excellent, estimated at 135 knots (250 km/h) with a 108 hp Lycoming O-235 engine, compared to a Cessna 152 which reached about 110 knots (165 km/h) with a similar engine.

In order to make the plane more practical for the average owner, the wings could be folded and the aircraft towed behind a car, allowing it to be stored at home in a garage and towed to the airport. The kit, including a rebuilt 65 hp engine, would list for US$ 2,500. Versions with the more powerful O-235 were also offered, listed at $4,200.

Development dragged on and a lot of money was expended without delivering a final design. They re-formed in 1968 as American Aviation in order to produce the design in complete form as the AA-1 "Yankee". A number of changes were later introduced into the design to make it more stable, notably a larger horizontal tail, and then a more forgiving airfoil on the main wing. The AA-1 and follow-on designs became fairly popular, notably the four-seat AA-5 "Traveller". The company was later purchased by Grumman, becoming Grumman American.

Record flights and experiments

During the BD-1 design Bede also worked on a number of other designs. One of these was the XBD-2, an experimental boundary layer control design based on a system designed by the Aerophysics Department of Mississippi State University. The system used 164,000 holes drilled into the surface of the wing to suck air from the boundary layer into the interior of the wing, thereby reducing skin friction for better performance, as well as keeping the boundary layer "attached" over a wider variety of angle of attacks and thereby increasing lift during high-angle flight and doubling maximum lift as a result. Other interesting design features were the use of two engines driving a common pusher propeller, aluminum honeycomb panels, and fiberglass landing gear struts. After 50 hours of testing the aircraft was donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association. [http://1000aircraftphotos.com/HistoryBriefs/BedeXBD2.htm Bede XBD-2] ]

The basic layout of the XBD-2 was also used in the BD-3 pusher design, but this did not progress beyond paper studies. An "executive version" was also designed as the BD-7, again without progressing past the early design stage.

After being forced from what became American Aviation, Bede tried his hand at a record breaking around-the-world flight in a specially modified Schweizer 2-32 powered glider he called the BD-2. He nicknamed the airplane "LOVE", a contraction of "Low Orbit, Very Efficient". The aircraft was modified to dramatically increase fuel tankage to 565 gallons (2,140 l), which included the addition of two large tanks in the fuselage, sealing the wings to turn them into tanks, and adding tankage on the wing-tips as well. It was completed in April 1966 (although other sources say 1968), and while he did not attempt its two-hop-around-the-world trip, Bede set several distance and endurance records, including a 70-hour endurance record in October 1969. This flight only ended after an electrical failure, just under 9,000 miles (14,500 km) being covered by that point. [http://avia.russian.ee/air/usa/bede_bd-2.php Bede BD-2 "Love One"] ]

Bede Aircraft

Bede remained convinced of the validity of the kit built market, and re-formed his company as Bede Aircraft. Here he started the design of an even simpler-to-build aircraft, the Bede BD-4.

The BD-4 used more conventional construction techniques, based on a simple high-wing design, and had few curved surfaces. Most of the fuselage was flat aluminum sheeting, the only major components with compound curves being the engine cowling and landing gear spats which were made of fiberglass. One real innovation was the "panel-rib" construction which reduced building time of the wing. Basically the wing was constructed in sections consisting of a rib whose upper edge was "extended" horizontally to become one section of the wing surface as well. The wing was built up by sliding these sections together over the circular spar and fastening them together where they met.

Like the BD-1, the BD-4 offered excellent performance; using the same 108 hp Lycoming O-235 as the AA-1 it could reach 130 knots. It could also be equipped with engines up to 220 hp, which was to top out at 190 knots (350 km/h) with a 170 kt (315 km/h) low-power cruise. The aircraft could be completed with either tricycle or tail-dragger configurations.

The BD-4 first appeared in 1968 and became a "hit". Thousands of plans were sold, hundreds were built, and many are still flying today. Early performance estimates were overstated; even with the large engines speeds were more typically 130-150 kt (240-280 km/h). The aircraft has proven to be very strong, and has an excellent safety record. [ [http://www.tvap.com/bede_bd4.html The TEAM Aviation BD-4] ]

The BD-5

Even while the BD-4 was maturing, Bede turned to a more ambitious design, the BD-5 "Micro".

The Micro was an extremely small one-seat design that looked more like the jet fighter than prop plane, with the pilot sitting in a semi-reclined position under a large fighter-like plexiglas canopy. The fuselage was originally meant to be constructed primarily from fiberglass panels over an aluminum frame, housing a two-cylinder air-cooled 40 hp engine driving a pusher propeller. The aircraft featured retractable gear, split flaps, spoilers to slow down for landing, and a V-tail for decreased drag in cruise. Two versions were planned, the BD-5A with "short" wings tuned for high speeds, and the BD-5B with 4 ft (1.2 m) longer wings for longer range and powered glider use. Performance of the BD-5A was predicted to be 210 mph (340 km/h) in cruise.

Although Bede had apparently first looked at the design as early as 1967, work on the BD-4 meant he was not able put any serious effort into it until about 1970. Work on a prototype started in earnest late that year, and they published an information booklet about it in early 1971. Magazine articles appeared even at this early point, most notably a very well-known article in Popular Science. On 24 February 1971 the first $200 deposit to reserve a "place in line" to receive a kit was accepted, with the target shipping date being 24 May 1972. By the end of the year, they had over 4,000 such orders, making it one of the most popular aircraft in modern history. The economics of mass production convinced the designer to switch to hydroformed all-metal aluminum components in place of the earlier fiberglass.

The prototype flew briefly on 12 September 1971, powered by a 36 hp Polaris Industries snowmobile engine. The stability of the aircraft with the original V-tail was marginal at best, and clearly needed a redesign. In early 1972 Bede hired Burt Rutan to head the flight test department, and he quickly introduced a number of improvements. Most notable was a new "conventional" tail design of somewhat larger size, and a slightly lengthened and "pointier" fuselage. Spoilers and split flaps also disappeared during this period.

A most serious problem was the continued failure of the engines. In order to meet weight limitations the design required an engine weighing in at under 100 lb (45 kg). This wouldn't have been too much of a problem given the original goal of using a 40 hp engine, but as the design matured it was realized that much more power would be needed, around 65 to 70 hp. This made the use of any "off-the-shelf" aircraft engine basically impossible. Instead Bede selected a two-stroke engine which offered much better power-to-weight ratios. The plane entered testing with the 440 cc Polaris design, but this was replaced with a similar one from Keikhaefer Aeromarine. This engine proved to be extremely unreliable, and was itself replaced by an engine from Hirth Motoren available in 40, 65 and 70 hp versions.

By this point the basic aircraft design was already long considered complete, and Bede offered the kit with the engine to follow. Many took the company up on the offer, allowing them, hopefully, to simply put the engine into a completed airframe. At that point, Hirth unexpectedly went bankrupt. Once again the design lacked a suitable engine, but this time the search for a replacement ended with a Xenoah design from Japan. Kits continued to ship, but the engine ran into lengthy delays and by the time 5,100 kits had been shipped the company was insolvent.

During this time Bede was also involved in a project to build an inexpensive BD-4-based aircraft for use in Africa, but this project petered out. He also worked on new aircraft designs, including the Bede BD-8, a single-place acrobatic aircraft. One example was being built when the company went bankrupt, and was purchased and completed by Mike Huffman who showed it during Oshkosh exhibit of 1980. [http://www.sportaviationspecialties.com/BD8.htm Bede BD-8 Amateur-Built] ] Bede also worked on an ultralight aircraft design, the Bede BD-9 "Super Demoiselle", as well as an inflatable hang glider, the Bede Wing. [ [http://www.probertencyclopaedia.com/cgi-bin/res.pl?keyword=Bede+Super+Demoiselle&offset=0 Bede Super Demoiselle] ] [ [http://www.google.com/patents?id=t6E9AAAAEBAJ&dq=bede Patent number 3,944,169, the Bede Wing] ] [ [http://www.bd5.com/bedewing_color.jpgThe Bede Wing in flight] ]

Although the company was effectively bankrupt at this point, work on the BD-5D continued for some time. The bankruptcy became official in 1979, by which point the BD-5 project was long dead. During the bankruptcy proceedings it was learned that the money ostensibly being used to build kits was instead being spent on a variety of projects, $9 million having disappeared in the process. As a result, Bede entered a consent decree with the FTC to no longer accept deposits on aircraft for a period of ten years. [ [http://www.ftc.gov/os/annualreports/ar1979.pdf Annual Report of the Federal Trade Commission, 1979, referencing BEDE AIRCRAFT, INC., ET AL, 92 F.T.C. 449] ]


While the new Xenoah engine was being tested, Bede decided to create an unconventional variant of the BD-5 with a small jet engine. The result was the BD-5J, a 300 mph (480 km/h) aircraft that looked fast while sitting on the ramp. The design used the Sermel TRS-18-046 turbojet (now Microturbo, a division of Turbomeca, in itself a division of Groupe Safran), which produced 225 lbf thrust. The original engines were produced under license by Ames Industrial in the US.

Bob Bishop had purchased 20 BD-5J kits as soon as they had appeared, and many of the flying examples started life in this batch of twenty. Many of these were completed over the years, and a number have been involved in crashes, usually due to lack of proper maintenance, insufficient training and knowledge of the systems and their operation, and in one case an incapacitating medical condition which led to a crash where investigators concluded the pilot must have died before the crash.

Versions from the original batch became a popular airshow fixture, and Bishop has gone on to log more than 1,500 hours in his jets, which he now operates for military customers as a cruise missile surrogate. Throughout the 1980s until 1991, Coors flew two of them as the "Silver Bullets." Budweiser also had a BD-5J called the Bud Light Jet, but that contract has long expired, the aircraft was lost after an incorrectly specified fuel flow sensor burst in mid-flight, causing a fire in the engine compartment (the pilot traded speed for altitude, bailed out and was unharmed; the aircraft was lost). The aircraft also appeared in the opening sequence of the James Bond film, "Octopussy".

The last BD-5J that remained on the airshow circuit, Scott Manning's Stinger Jet, crashed on June 16, 2006 at Ottawa/Carp Airport, Canada, while practicing for an air show, killing pilot Manning. The month of June 2006 was very bad for BD-5J's -- an Acrojet Special BD-5J property of Aerial Productions, Inc. impacted trees the morning June 27 on final approach to the Ocean City Municipal Airport in Ocean City, Maryland, killing pilot Chuck Lischer, a highly experienced professional airshow pilot. The airplane was involved in radar testing as part of its services to the military as a certified cruise missile surrogate.

The BD-5J has also held the Guinness record for the World's Smallest Jet for more than 25 years. Bob Bishop originally garnered the record with one of his jets, and in November 2004 the record changed hands to Juan Jiménez of San Juan, Puerto Rico, whose BD-5J weighed in at 358.8 lbs (162.8 kg) empty weight, 80 lbs (36 kg) lighter than Bishop's jet. The primary difference that led to the decrease in weight is the use of an earlier Microturbo turbojet, the 022 Couguar, which weighs 68 lbs (31 kg), is simpler than the TRS-18 and does not require a high pressure fuel system with all of its associated hardware.

Bede Design

After Bede Aviation collapsed, Bede took on a number of engineering projects under Bede Design.

One of the first was a project with his cousin to produce a car. Simply called the Bede Car, the design used an 80 hp motorcycle engine driving a ducted fan for propulsion. Built primarily from fiberglass on aluminum, the car was to have weighed just under 1,000 lb (500 kg), less than half that of a normal four seater built of steel. The advantage to the design was a claimed 120 miles/gallon (2.0 L/100 km) fuel economy. [ [http://www.adspast.com/store/customer/product.php?productid=25900 120 mpg is closer than you think!] , Bede Car ad from 1980]

Bede Industries, his cousin's company, intended to introduce the car starting in 1982, but the prototype unit proved the concept infeasible. The engine had very low power at low speeds, so low that it could not even roll up an inclined driveway for parking without "gunning" it. There was some talk of adding electric motors for low speed operation and reversing, but it is not clear if these were fitted. The economy ratings also seemed hopelessly optimistic, based on fuel flow rates of the engine without the actual car. The fate of the prototype is unknown. [ [http://www.autocycles.org/walsh1.html Autocycle Development] ]

Another automobile project followed, this time a smaller motorcycle-like vehicle. The prototype was based on a production motorcycle, but "stretched" and surrounded with a fiberglass shell that looked somewhat like the BD-5. During its long gestation period it was known as the Autocycle or BD-200, and later as the LiteStar and Pulse. About 360 of these were produced and sold. [http://www.autocycles.org/ Litestar & Pulse Registry] ]

Bede Jet

Within weeks of the FTC Consent Decree expiring in 1989, Bede announced the design of a new two-seat high-speed jet, the Bede BD-10. The original idea appears to have come from a friend, Mike Van Wagenen. He formed a company specially for this project, Bede Jet at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, MO (just outside St. Louis).

Having learned from the BD-5 that using an untested engine was a bad idea, he selected the smallest "production" engine he could find in quantity, the General Electric J85, and wrapped an airframe around it. The resulting design bore some resemblance to the T-38 Talon/F-5 Freedom Fighter, which were powered by two examples of the same engine. Performance estimates were fantastic: after brake release on the runway the 1,580 lb (715 kg) aircraft could climb to 10,000 feet (3050 m) in under 60 seconds, would cruise for 2,000 miles (3,200 km) at up to 45,000 ft (13,700 m) altitude in a 9 psi (465 mm Hg) pressurized cabin, and could reach supersonic speeds of up to Mach 1.4.

Bede's prototype was completed in 1992 and started testing, although it suffered from a number of minor teething problems. Over the design period the weight had ballooned from 1,600 lb (725 kg) to 2,800 lb (1,270 kg) and fuel tankage had to be cut, which dramatically reduced range from the original 2,000 miles (3,200 km) to a mere 400 to 500 (650 to 800 km). Speed was equally poor; even at full thrust the plane was barely able to reach the transonic, at Mach 0.83. It was sent to the Reno Air Races in 1994 to drum up sales, where it suffered from some wrinkling around the vertical stabilizers, indicated too much flex. A fix was designed, but by late in the year the project seems to have ground to a halt.

Van Wagenen had already planned to help kit buyers build the plane, and in December 1993 took over the civilian rights to the program, intending to sell completed versions (as opposed to kits) as the Fox 10. During testing of the first aircraft the vertical stabilizers broke off, killing Van Wagenen. Another example followed with a new owner at the controls, which suffered from a flap failure causing another deadly crash. All work at Fox, now known as Peregrine Flight International, ended. Meanwhile Bede had sold the military rights to Monitor Jet of Canada, but nothing ever came of this. Bede Jet declared bankruptcy in 1997. The only other completed aircraft disintegrated in flight in 2003.

Bede Aircraft, again

During the BD-10 project, Bede also started the design of updated BD-5's with two and four seats as the Bede BD-12 and Bede BD-14 respectively. They were designed under the reformed Bede Aircraft, also in Chesterfield.

Once again deposits were accepted and held in escrow in order to hold a "place in line" for kit delivery. The introductory price for orders placed before January 1995 was $18,900 with the smallest engine. Additionally Bede signed up dealers (reportedly at $250,000) who would help customers build their planes. A considerable amount of work was put into using the latest construction techniques in order to reduce construction time; the BD-12 consisted of only a few hundred parts in total. When built at one of the sites, it was claimed the plane could be completed and flown away in two weeks. Eventually something on the order of 250 small deposits were received.KitPlanes Magazine, August 1996, pp 104]

By early 1995 the BD-12 prototype had still not flown, and work on the BD-14 had not even started. That summer the almost-complete BD-12 was shipped to Oshkosh, where it generated some buzz. By this time the prototype ended up being seriously tail heavy, and in order to move the center of gravity back to a reasonable position for a test flight, 170 lb (77 kg) of lead was added in the nose. The prototype finally flew in the fall of 1995, but was almost completely destroyed on its first flight due to marginal stability. [http://www.ntsb.gov/NTSB/brief2.asp?ev_id=20001207X04463&ntsbno=CHI95LA325&akey=1 NTSB Identification: CHI95LA325, Bede Aircraft BD12, registration: N112BD] ] The plane did not appear at the 1996 Oshkosh show, although it is still claimed the program is continuing. [ [http://www.bedeaerosport.com/pages/more.html BD-12 & BD-14] ]

Months later it became clear that Bede's company was once again in financial trouble. They were evicted from their hangar in Chesterfield, and moved to a new space in Alton, IL.


Bede has once again re-formed a new design shop as BedeAmerica Aerosport. In 1998 he appeared at Oshkosh promoting a BD-16, a six-place version of the BD-4. However these plans apparently did not generate a lot of interest, and he has since moved on to the single-seat BD-17 "Nugget" and two-seat BD-18, both based on a layout similar to the original BD-1 but dramatically updated.

The BD-17 was first announced in 2000 and was even simpler than the BD-12, consisting of only 110 parts. It entered flight testing in 2003 and proved to have excellent flight qualities.Fact|date=August 2008


Bede re-used naming on several occasions which makes things somewhat confusing. The BD-2 name was used twice, on both the experimental boundary layer control design (XBD-2) as well as the later powered glider. BD-7 was also used twice, once for the earlier aircraft based on the XBD-2, and later for the two-seat BD-5.


* [http://www.bedecorp.com/history.htm The Jim Bede Story] – "Official" bio
* [http://www.autocycles.org/walsh1.html Autocycle Development] – a history of the Autocycle project from one of the primary builders (broken link)
* [http://www.autocycles.org/feasibility.html Litestar Feasibility Study] – contains some story about the BD-5 failure (broken link)

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