Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings,” wrote Gordon Lightfoot in his wrenching ballad about the sinking of the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, “in the rooms of her ice-water mansions.” And on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, near Georgian Bay and about 150 miles north of Ontario, Canada, Expedition Aircraft quietly goes about the business of making some of the toughest aircraft on earth. Born of the legendary gales and fierce storms that batter this part of Canada, Expedition introduces a new contender in the heavyweight bush arena: Bigfoot.
If Expedition Aircraft doesn’t ring a bell, its parent company might: Found Aircraft. Bud Found started the company in 1946 to design and build ultratough airplanes for the backcountry market. Not just any backcountry, but the rugged northern Canadian wilderness, from the Mackenzie River to the Arctic coast. The first Found aircraft was certified in the U.S. and Canada in 1964 as the FBA-2C, and could operate on floats, skis and tires while delivering impressive payloads to the far-flung bush country. Somewhat odd-looking, the FBA-2C became popular with bush pilots operating out of the remote northern territories, and gained a reputation for being safe, tough and reliable—a reputation that continued for 40 years.
In 1996, Found Aircraft began development on an improvement to the FBA-2C. They brought in de Havilland’s former VP of Engineering and Director of Research, among other consultants. The idea was to improve on an already legendary aircraft, and open the potential market to general aviation pilots. The result was the Bush Hawk-XP, which received FAA certification in 2000. The Expedition line of aircraft was born, and Oshkosh 2007 saw the unveiling of the Expedition E350, with tricycle gear and an interior that was a little more genteel than the Bush Hawk-XP. Certified by the FAA in 2008, the E350 is in service all over the backcountry today, with the same reputation for rugged safety, hauling capacity and reliability.
Rumors and sightings of a tailwheel version of the E350 began circulating around the backcountry last year. Like its namesake, a formidable beast did emerge from the woods, both mysterious and a little frightening, and now promises to open a new chapter in backcountry operations. Sure, Bigfoot lives up to its name, but unlike its hairy cousin, this beast does things a little differently.
I meet Ted Dirstein, Chief Pilot for Expedition Aircraft, and I immediately realize he has the best job in the world. Ted gets to fly Bigfoot and demonstrate its capabilities to pilots everywhere. I’ve gone out to look at Bigfoot at AOPA Summit and have seen other pilots share my inquisitiveness, doing the pose like in the old RCA Victor ads where the dog is tilting its head at “His Master’s Voice.” From every angle, Bigfoot is intriguing. It’s not ugly, but it’s not “pretty.” It’s attractive in the same way that old Land Rovers and Willys Jeeps and International Scouts are attractive—it looks chunky and cool.
Even in November, the California sun is a laser and makes everything sharp and brilliant against the blue of the morning sky. It’s warm and clear and calm; a perfect day to fly. Our mission will take us out to Ocotillo Wells, a dry lakebed in Southern California, where we’ll rendezvous with P&P Editor Jessica Ambats, photo-ship pilot Ron Mohrhoff and formation pilot Seamus McCaughley to conduct a photo flight over the martian landscape that’s the Borrego Desert, near Salton Sea. Joining us is Drew Hamblin, Director of Marketing and Sales for Expedition.
Walking around Bigfoot, I try to anticipate how it will fly. I tell myself it will handle much like the big Cessnas—say, the 206. It will be heavy on the elevator and will feel substantial, not unlike a big rig going down the interstate. I notice the vortex generators and extensions on the wing. In fact, the wing itself is impressive. It’s an ingenious, high-lift, one-piece cantilever design that was carried through from the very first FBA-2C design by Bud Found and his brothers, Dwight, Gray and Mickey. The lack of any struts allows the cabin doors to swing 180 degrees like barn doors—regardless of flap setting—making loading really big stuff a snap. Five full-sized adults load in from four doors.
Bigfoot, the tailwheel version of the Expedition E350, features a high-lift, one-piece cantilever wing design that was carried through from the very first FBA-2C design by Bud Found and his brothers, Dwight, Gray and Mickey.
A welded tubular steel fuselage allows the gaping door openings while maintaining incredible strength. The row of three back seats is a marvel of design, too. Each seat snaps in or out in just a couple of seconds, allowing different cargo/passenger configurations. There’s nothing flimsy about how the 22-G-rated rear seats attach to the floor, which comes in a choice of bare metal, carpet or diamond plate. Four-point crew harnesses and inertia-reel rear harnesses come standard.
Strapping into the left seat, one gets a little bit of a de Havilland Beaver feel, probably owing to the Bigfoot’s pedigree. The cabin is an austere-but-whopping 53 inches wide and—thankfully—the rudder pedals and seat adjust enough to accommodate those of us on the shorter side. If I had any complaint, it would be that the glare shield is a little too high, and the seat could use a smidge more vertical adjustment. The yoke is center mounted, like the Beechcraft of old, and it’s a behemoth configuration that looks like it could hold up a truck. It feels good in the hand.
A Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing
Starting this beast introduces no special witchcraft, other than all the people looking out the FBO windows. Bigfoot draws groupies like a free Justin Bieber concert, and it’s fun to be the guy with the backstage pass. It’s quieter than I thought, with 315 Lycoming IO-580 ponies under the cowling doing their best to shake off the morning. This beefy engine is the same one powering those Extras and Edges at the Red Bull Air Races.
Taxiing is pretty easy with the castering tailwheel and its 25-foot turning radius. Visibility over the nose is surprisingly good, though I make S-turns out of habit. Ted doesn’t seem to mind, as he breaks the tension by telling me not to do the usual taildragger thing and lift the tail. “Keep the tail low,” Dirstein says, “And let it fly off. You’ll be surprised how fast that happens.”
Lining up on runway 25L, I give Bigfoot a handful of that industrial-sized throttle, and watch the Electronics International MVP-50 engine panel come to life. Before I can look back up at my airspeed indicator, we’re flying! The book says Bigfoot will come off in about 1,400 feet at full gross weight, and I believe it. Today, with three adults and about five hours of fuel at sea level, we lift off in about 1,000 feet at 63 KIAS.
Handling is the first of many surprises to come. It feels nothing like a Cessna 206 and nothing like any of the heavier Cessnas. Bigfoot is nimble and light on the controls. Fingertip pressure is all that’s needed to fly this airplane, and the ample trim keeps the control pressures where you want them. The rudder has plenty of authority early on in the takeoff roll, and the controls are harmonious and belie the fact that this is one hefty airplane.
The second surprise is the visibility. Bigfoot is standard-equipped with doors that are almost entirely observation windows. Nearly the entire door frame is clear, allowing unmatched visibility from the cockpit and the rear. The cockpit has the limited up-visibility peculiar to high-winged aircraft, but the strutless wings and placement of the windows allow panoramic views of the landscape below, unequaled in anything else, except maybe a helicopter.
|The lack of any struts on Bigfoot allows its four cabin doors to swing 180 degrees regardless of flap setting, making loading passengers, baggage and cargo simple. The back features a row of three seats that can snap in or out, allowing different configurations. Left: Ted Dirstein, Expedition Air Chief Pilot and Marc Lee,P&P author. Right: Seamus McCaughley, formation pilot and Ron Mohrhoff, photo-ship pilot.|
“Now, can I show you what Bigfoot can do?” asks Dirstein with a wide smile. His gentle manner and lack of pretense had already endeared him to me, and I knew he knew I was enjoying this airplane. With the power off and the yoke in my gut, Bigfoot let out the tiniest whimper and provided the most gentle bow of a stall I had ever experienced. “Go ahead, keep the stick back,” smiled Dirstein. Sure enough, Bigfoot just reared a little and repeated its gentle bow. “You could just keep doing that all day long,” Dirstein smiled.
In most airplanes, power-on stalls hold the spectre of a possible spin if the pilot misuses the rudder or uses the ailerons for bank correction as the stall breaks. Not so in Bigfoot. With the engine screaming and the yoke in my gut again, Dirstein instructed me not to use rudder, and correct only with aileron.
Ignoring my instincts, I slapped in some aileron and then…nothing happened! Bigfoot gracefully lowered its brow, straightened out and kept right on flying. It’s all thanks to a wing design that stalls the root far ahead of the ailerons, allowing full aileron use throughout the stall. Slow flight allows extremely slow speeds with excellent control response and no tendency to fall out.
Climbing away from Long Beach into the postcard blue, I saw a solid 1,100 fpm climb at around 80 KIAS. The beautiful Garmin G500 panel showed us settling into cruise at a little over 150 KIAS. We were running a bit behind schedule, so Ted had me pour on the coals at 2,500 rpm, and 25 inches MP fuel consumption showed 19 gph, but we were hardly in economy mode.
Looking around the cabin, it was clear that this airplane was made for hauling lots of stuff over long distances. The current Bigfoot has an empty weight of 2,300 pounds and a max gross of 3,500 pounds, though Found Aircraft is working toward increasing that to 3,800 pounds. Owners will have some 1,200-1,500 pounds of fuel, people and cargo to play with. This is a true five-place airplane capable of hauling five 200-pound adults, baggage and enough fuel for a few hours’ flight. Endless load combinations provide all kinds of options.
|To increase the certified gross-weight capacity for Bigfoot, Expedition Aircraft is making modifications to the tailwheel.|
As we approached the dry lakebed, Ted began briefing me for the landing. Bigfoot is as docile on landing as it is in the air. There were no surprises in the normal setup for landing: Power back opposite the numbers, add some flaps, a little more on base, adjust on final and flare it smoothly like any other taildragger. With the big tundra tires and the steel-gear configuration, Bigfoot will have a tendency to balloon a bit, so nailing the speeds helps. Ted could tell I wanted to do this again one more time, or 17, so we took it around for more.
Bigfoot makes it evident that Expedition has acknowledged the fun in aviation. This airplane is a blast to fly, and its vast capabilities get it closer to the perfect airplane. Whether you need to haul a bunch of fishing buddies to a backcountry lake or your family for vacation, Bigfoot handles it all in comfort and a little bit of golden-era style. While this is a work airplane, it’s equally at home on an asphalt runway or a shi-shi-la-la FBO anywhere in the world.
Ultimately, Bigfoot’s surprise for me was that it’s an airplane that can be handled by even the most basic general aviation pilots. You don’t have to be a super-human bush master to fly it. Sure, you can slow it down, drenching the tundra tires in the river just before planting it on a sandbar that looks like a vegetable garden, but you don’t have to. With its docile handling, ease of loading, ability to land just about anywhere and wide performance envelope, Bigfoot proves that you can create an airplane that’s simple, useful and great fun to fly.