Whether our airplane-building budget supports a Pietenpol or an RV-8, most folks who have the gumption and the skill to build and fly their own airplanes were not born sucking on a silver spoon. Most of us in the homebuilt world grew up reading about BD-5s or Teenie Twos in Popular Science and Mechanics Illustrated. And most of us have reached beyond our grasp to build and/or fly airplanes far more sophisticated than we ever dreamed possible when we were parsing the words in those Readers Digest-sized science magazines so many years ago. Its the nature of progress and aspiration.
Without that ability to imagine, we would never build or buy an airplane we assembled or put together by others in a garage, much less fly it. So lets relax our cynical side that says, I could never afford to build nor have the skills to fly a ViperJet and do some of that youthful dreaming that served us so well and has brought us so far. What could it hurt? Believe me, its fun!
I first saw the ViperJet at the Reno Air Races in 2006. I walked by and marveled at the little airplane with a General Electric J85 engine. The J85 is the military version of the CJ-610, the engine that powered the -20 series Learjets and the Jet Commander as well as some other 1960s vintage business jets. In the great tradition of the Pontiac GTO or Mustang Cobra, the J85 is powerful, loud and sucks down Jet A like theres no tomorrow.
I flew the Jet Commander years ago, and while I fell in love with its instant power response and bulletproof dependability, I learned early that flying pure jet engines was an exercise in preflight planning and judicious fuel management. I flew with a pilot named Keith, who grew up flying pure jet engines, and he taught me the rules. Rule No. 1 was you are out of gas and on fire at brake release, and the situation deteriorates from there. Rule No. 2 was never, ever let ATC fly your airplane. Unnecessary vectoring or an early descent meant landing with the low-fuel lights flashing, or worse.
When I saw the compact ViperJet at Reno, I knew it was an animal. I knew, too, that it was not for the faint of heart, and I wanted desperately to fly that little rocket ship. But as far as building or buying one, that was a dream that involved lottery tickets, and I dont buy lottery tickets. That didnt stop me from dreaming about flying the ViperJet.
When the call came, Would you be willing to go to Pasco, Washington, and fly the ViperJet? it was a short conversation. I packed my hard hat and a Nomex flight suit. I planned to fly a prototype with parachutes and utilitarian cockpitmuch like the airplane KITPLANES® reported on in March 2006. Arriving there I found an air-conditioned airplane with glove leather interior and rosewood inlaid circuit-breaker panels. When demo-pilot Greg Bennett appeared in Levis and a ball cap to fly with me, I realized the airplane was farther down the development path than I expected.
The ViperJet project has been in the making for a while. Brothers Scott and Dan Hanchette started the company in 1995 with the plan to build an airplane called the ViperFan, which was to be a piston-powered, propeller-driven pusher. Early in the program the brothers saw the difficulty of producing the drive train for a pusher prop. If we had a problem with the drive system, we fail, Scott said.
The brothers were involved in buying and selling French Fouga Magisters. They called an associate, and two weeks later a Turbo Mecca jet, the same engine that powers the French jet trainer, arrived. Thirty days later they were taxiing.