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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

A record-setting flight in a Shelbyville-made plane

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Earl Ferguson is pictured flying over Shelbyville in the Arion Lightning in which Ferguson set a cross country speed record last year. The plane was built at Jabiru USA in Shelbyville.
(Submitted photo)
An aircraft constructed at Shelbyville's Jabiru USA facility has set a coast-to-coast speed record for a piston engine landplane that weights a ton or less.

Retired Navy pilot Earl Ferguson of Atlanta claimed the record, which was approved by the National Aeronautic Association this month. The flight was made from Savannah, Ga., to San Diego, Calif., in an Arion Lightning in 31 hours, 14 minutes. That would average 66 miles per hour, which is misleading because it includes time taken for sleeping as well. Ferguson was not allowed to fly at night due to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules. It was an open record that had not yet been established, Ferguson said.

Ferguson is a double cancer survivor and was in the hospital when the FAA enacted the new Light Sport aircraft rules, which enable pilots to fly small aircraft with a driver's license instead of a FAA medical certificate.

At age 70 and with his health history, Ferguson knew the medical certificate could not be renewed, so he sold his plane and started looking for something to fly that would qualify under the Light Sport rules.

He found just what he needed in Shelbyville, in the form of Arion Aircraft, which is the other company run by Pete Krotji of Jabiru USA Sport Aircraft. The company offers a new low wing plane called the Lightning, and after Ferguson took a test flight, he signed up to be its first customer.

Ferguson, then 69 and with medical problems, would not be able to spend a long time building the plane, but with the company's Factory Assist Build program solved that issue. The kit for the aircraft arrived in March 2006 and the work began.

The plane was one of the first Lightnings built and was redesigned at one point during the process, which was done at no cost. The plane passed its FAA airworthiness inspection in August 2006 and, after flying the required 50 hours around Shelbyville, Ferguson took the plane home to Atlanta.

Ferguson then got interested in setting a record for a coast-to-coast flight and joined the National Aeronautic Association and got his Sporting License, which is required for any record attempt.

Light sport rules do not allow night or instrument flights and weather is a critical factor, so the original plan was to fly on June 21, 2007, the longest day of the year. If all went well, there would be just enough light to do it in one day.

But weather delayed the flight with the first attempts made on July 4 and 5 aborted due to bad weather. Another two tries were also scuttled due to weather, with one attempt getting as far as Guadalupe Pass in western Texas before being aborted.

With the days getting shorter, it was decided that a two-day trip would be in order, so with a break in the weather on Aug. 6, another attempt was made.

The take off from Savannah was uneventful, taking place with five minutes of the beginning of daylight. The first planned refueling stop was in Quitman, Miss., and on schedule; however, a minor control problem developed on the way to the second stop in Athens, Texas, which took an extra half hour over the planned 5 minutes set aside for filling up.

Then, a line of thunderstorms were reported developing in west Texas and the FAA suggested a northern approach to Guadalupe Pass. Visibility was good below the cloud bases, but there were major electrical storms visible.

Guadalupe Pass is wide, so Ferguson turned south until he could find a gap in the storms. However, flying close to the lightning in the Lightning caused some static electricity to build up inside the aircraft and a static discharge caused his electronic instruments to go blank, leading to an unplanned stop in El Paso.

After restarting the plane, the instruments came back online and Ferguson made it to Tempe, Ariz., before sunset.

The morning of August 7 had good weather to Arizona, New Mexico and California, with the exception of the Los Angeles basin. Poor viability and low clouds greeted Earl as he passed over the plateau. As he got within 30 miles of his final stop, the weather became an issue.

But five miles later, Ferguson had improved visibility and could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The only thing that remained was for the FAA controller at San Diego approach control to record his passage over a navigation radio.

However, air traffic in the region is obviously busy, and the ground controllers did not have the time or patience for such a small craft. While the attempt for the speed record had been cleared with San Diego approach, the initial controller wasn't informed.

Earl was eventually assigned his own controller after a few conversations, and the required information was recorded. After the paperwork was completed, Earl was awarded the World Record by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) for speed over a recognized course, 107.27 kilometers per hour in an aircraft weighing less than 1,000 kilograms.

Ferguson said he'll enjoy the bragging rights to the new world record until someone beats it.

"It really was a neat experience," he said. "Being back in the air again was wonderful, but claiming a world record is a unique experience."

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