Sequoia 300 First Flight:
They were a bunch. Some of them are still at it and some have long faded from sight. There were also a lot of others -- in all we accepted about 40 builders -- who didn't stand out. I remember going to a California fly-in back then and meeting some of them. One who struck me at the time as the least likely to finish an airplane was a large, slow-talking, unbelieveably longwinded bulldog of a man. There's no way this guy is going to go the distance, I thought. Yet this was the very man who outlasted them all and became the first to fly.
A retired survival instructor from the Air Force, who as a kid had hung out at the airport and would work three days for a fifteen minute ride, Jim Baugh has the tenacity of a snapping turtle, a creature who will bite down and not let go even after you've cut the head clean off. Building the Sequoia became a single-minded pursuit for Jim. He had no illusions about the unproven nature of the plane, and maybe that just made the mountain all the more inviting to climb.
What happened at this end was that we cranked out kits for about ten airplanes. I made the tooling for the tail group ribs, and we had a fellow by the name of Andy Brennan in California make up complete kits of ribs and spars for the tail. We sold these at our out-of-pocket cost.
We did the same with the wing. I made the tooling for the wing, flap and aileron ribs, and then former race car builder, Mike Underwood, made the wing spars, wing ribs and many other parts. We had a series of engine mounts and control system kits made as well.
The landing gear became quite a job. Because of the crazy way the main gear swings in the wing and the way the retraction arm follows it, there was no way to design such a thing entirely on paper. Dave Thurston did the initial design, and then I made a wooden mockup of the thing. It turned out to be difficult but in the end we came up with a design that works. It's something to see work and when it starts to retract, you could win bar bets that the retraction arm wasn't going to fit into the cavity in the wing, but it slides up into place just as nice as you please.
By the time the landing gear was being built, a worrisome pattern had emerged. We would produce the kits and then sell them at our out-of-pocket cost-a fair way to handle such a cooperative multiple prototype thing. But I would find that builders would speak up and say that they wanted us to produce a kit, but once the kit was on the shelf they would say, "that's great, just hold on to it, and I'll send you a check when I need it."
Before we started the landing gear, I took a head count. How many of you want landing gears? I got a count of ten, so without the slightest idea of what they would cost, we got a shop to make a set of ten. When they were finished the bill came to a staggering $70,000.00. Oh dear, I thought, how am I going to handle this? The problem of the 'just hold on to it till I'm ready' syndrome had already reared its ugly head.
So what I did was price the gear at $10,000.00 and told everyone if they wanted them and would order and pay for them in the next 30 days, they could have them for $7,500.00. We sold all but one, and as luck would have it the one we have left was for a guy who had previously said he wanted one. And last year at the West Coast Falco Fly-In, I had to sit and listen politely as a Falco builder told me that he and my former Sequoia builder had spent "many hours talking about you", and how the guy thought I was trying to "make money" on the gear and "didn't think that was right." Sometimes aviation is tough on your gizzard.
Dave left Schweizer and moved to St. Augustine, Florida, to be near the Seafire project, the production version of the Trojan that a bunch of jackasses in Sanford, Florida, were working on. It was largely financed by a collection of crazy government assistance grants. They finished and flew the prototype and a homebuilder in South Carolina finished and flew a Trojan. Both flew well.
Dave hated Florida. It was a community of retirees, with everyone just "waiting around to die" and he left as soon as the Seafire project stalled. He moved to Connecticut and later to Maine, where he lives now.
The project stretched on for a number of years, with Dave cranking out drawings and me getting the kits organized, made and shipped. I spent nine months making the tooling for the canopy bubble. It was to be made by a new process that Walter Hoy of Airplane Plastics was working on. The idea was to form the bubble to a precise shape with a combination of air vacuum and hot oil. First, you would pull the hot plexiglass down into the hot oil by pulling the air out, then shut off the air valves and pump out the oil. The hot oil would cushion the bubble from any markoff from the mold and also would keep the plastic hot.
He spent an enormous amount of time, money and effort on the project and could never get it to work. I also spent three months making a mold for the Falco bubble, intended for the same process. In the end, it was a complete disaster as he was plagued with markoff of tiny dirt particles. It was an expensive lesson for both of us, and eventually we went to a different way of making the bubbles.
I had originally conceived the non-structural fiberglass shell as a VariEze-like construction. We would glue blocks of foam in place, then sand them to shape, glass it and finish it out like a normal Tupperware airplane. I tend to be a snob about these things, and finally decided that we should really do it the right way. Make a plug, pull a mold off it and make nice, lightweight parts that were the right shape from the beginning. It would be much lighter, and you could get perfectly smooth shape. No question that it was the way to go.
It would also be a simple thing. After all, I had been reading all those articles in magazines about how you could just whip out VariEze's in nothing flat. I figured I'd just knock out the fuselage shell plug in a couple of weeks and then pull molds off it. In the end, it took years.
It's very difficult to explain to someone who hasn't done it, how much time you can spend on making a plug. Like framing a house, the basic shape comes together very quickly and then you begin the long, slow process of smoothing everything out. The last fifty-thousandths will drive you nuts.
Somewhere along in this process, I decided this half-hobby, half-business Sequoia was not the way to go. It should either be a hobby or a full business. I couldn't see making a business of anything but a proven airplane. I pursued the idea of resurrecting the Bücker Jungmann and Jungmeister airplanes as kits, and finally wrote Frati about the Falco... but that is another story.
Dave Thurston with the Sequoia 300 at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
And it was also during this time that the famous dispute with Piper occurred. I was flipping through the latest copy of the Flying Buyers Guide and was surprised to see a full page advertisement announcing the "new Piper Sequoyah," a re-engined version of the Aerostar, now known simply as the 602P. So I wrote Piper a letter and told them it was our name and wanted them to drop the name, and that I was interested in a quick, amicable settlement of this situation.
We quickly heard from the patent and trademark attorney for Bangor Punta, then the parent of Piper Aircraft. We agreed to meet in Washington at the offices of our trademark attorneys, a very prestigeous firm that specialized in that field. It was the most wonderful dispute I've ever been involved in, and I'd love to find another just like it for the simple enjoyment of it all. Although Piper and Bangor Punta were huge firms, both of my attorneys said they had never been in a stronger position. The attorney from Bangor Punta didn't even try to make an argument, and you almost felt sorry for the guy. "They didn't check with me" he said, and talked about "having egg on our face".
Indeed they did. One of the senior engineers at Piper is a friend of mine and knew all about the Sequoia. He later told me that when he heard they were going to use the name, he told his boss who passed it on to the Piper director of marketing. Bangor Punta had an in-house trademark attorney already on the payroll. All they had to do was call him up and ask, "Do we have a problem?" but they didn't. The stupidity is astonishing, and I've come to the conclusion that most disputes are like playing tennis with old ladies-it isn't necessary to slam the ball, you just keep it in play till someone screws up.
The poor Bangor Punta attorney was completely unprepared for our demands. They thought we were out to hold them up for a bunch of money and asked if they could rent or buy the name. I said we weren't interested in that. "What do you want?", he asked. I told him there were four demands: (1) we wanted them off the name in a reasonable length of time, (2) we would like this to be an amicable settlement and wanted a joint press release on the settlement, (3) this wasn't our fault so we wanted them to pick up our legal costs, and (4) we wanted all this in writing.
The Bangor Punta attorney, Pat Walsh, listened politely and then said quietly, "I think I'd like to make a telephone call" and left the room to call Piper. My two attorneys nearly fell out of their chairs laughing. He returned to say that he was unable to reach the executives who were at that moment flying between Vero and Lock Haven. We'd have to conclude it by telephone.
What he didn't know, and what my attorneys wouldn't let me tell him, was that we had almost no legal time involved. There was one short phone call as we drafted the letter to Piper, then a trip to Washington, lunch and a fifteen-minute chat before the Bangor Punta attorney came in the door. Piper could have settled the whole thing on the spot for a couple hundred dollars.
It didn't work that way, however. Instead, the lawyers haggled for a month. Piper refused to pay our legal costs-that was our problem, not theirs. Okay, we countered, then we want money for corrective advertising (a well-established legal remedy in situations like this). They thought about it for a while and then called to say that they wouldn't pay us any money for corrective advertising, but they were going to run corrective advertisements and Piper was sending two executives to explain these ads to me.
So the two guys flew to Richmond, and I met them at the airport and drove them to the dingy little office that I used to have. Both were quite nice people. John Mariner was head of advertising, and Tom Gillespie was director of marketing and on the board of Piper. Gillespie was a former Marine Corps aviator and didn't impress me as particularly smart. He's one of those guys who's always charging full speed ahead-but who never stops to wonder if this is the direction we really should be charging.
After the usual cordialities we got down to business. Gillespie said they understood they had to get off the name, and they were going to do that. And they had prepared this full page ad that they were going to run in Flying, AOPA Pilot and other magazines. Then Mariner read me the ad, something about "This is the new Piper [insert new name here, they were still working on it]. This is not the Sequoyah as we had previously called it, and not to be confused with the Sequoia 300 produced by Sequoia Aircraft of Richmond, Virginia." The ad went on some more, and when they finished, they both sat there with the silliest expressions on their faces and asked me what I thought about it.
"Well", I told them, "I am not at all happy about how this is working out, and so that you can understand why, let me take you back through this whole thing." I told them about our four original demands, how the negotiations had evolved and why we were sitting here today talking about this advertisement. I told them I thought the ad was stupid and that they should spend their time trying to sell airplanes. I didn't understand why they didn't want to go along with our original demands, and then I dropped the bombshell on them. I quietly explained that "as of today, our legal bills are about $2,500 and if we could settle this thing quickly, they would not run more than $3,000."
What happened next was beautiful. John Mariner started to sputter all over himself, "S--t! That's less that it will cost to set the type on this ad" and while he was a-sputtering, Gillespie bolted out of his chair and lunged at me. "Can we put this in writing?" he asked, all excited. I explained calmly that it really wasn't a problem at all, that this was what I had been asking for from the beginning. It's all I wanted.
Then Gillespie got on the phone and called the trademark attorney. "Pat", he barked in a loud voice, "We've got a deal with Scott." And then he read him the same four conditions that I had given the attorney one month earlier.
It was simply wonderful. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed a dispute as much as that one, and a couple of weeks later, Gillespie called to thank me for how I treated them. Apparently they were so shell-shocked from greedy people grabbing for them, that they didn't recognize an amicable offer when they got one.
In North Carolina, Butch Harbold's airplane was coming together quickly. When he first found him, Gene Livingston's wife had just died, and Gene had completely given up on life. He was just sitting around the house doing nothing. The Sequoia project got him fired up again, and Butch, a cardiologist, said Gene was "the only person I ever cured". Butch essentially adopted Gene, and put him to work on his 260 hp Chipmunk after he crunched a wing after the engine quit during a low-level tail slide. In addition to competing in unlimited aerobatic competition, Butch also does the airshow circuit with his Chipmunk.
As he was building the wing, unbenownst to Butch, Gene Livingston was slowly losing his eyesight and eventually he became legally blind. Gene's workmanship was always on the rough side, and like so many old-time builders he was interested in getting things flying and not in polishing parts. Eventually, as I was working on the fuselage and cowling mold, it became obvious that Gene couldn't do it anymore and Butch needed a new builder. Butch finally set Gene up in a mobile home out at the airport, takes him groceries and books on tape, and no doubt will sit and read most, but not all, of this account to Gene.
Butch looked around for a new builder, and finally I suggested that he talk to Gar Williams. Gar had a shop in Naperville, Illinois, and he had about five employees working on a number of restoration projects. He had restored many antiques and classics, and also would maintain airplanes for various people.
When Gar got into the project, he found an unbelievable can of worms. The fuselage was bowed by an inch and a half and the number of squawks was too numerous to mention. One wing had one-and-a-half degrees more twist than the other. They decided they would have to take the wing apart and reskin it. Good thing they did because when they got inside, they found horrible workmanship. There was nearly a quarter of an inch of Bondo on parts of the wing, many rivets were missing and even a few six penny nails substituted for aluminum rivets.
It was so bad that Gar eventually recommended reskinning the other wing just because of the workmanship problems, and in that wing they found the same sort of thing. The wings, says Gar, would have failed on the first takeoff.