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Aircraft Aims to Stretch the Limits of Aviation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You could say they got a little bit too wound up in their work.

It was only the second taxiing test of the Rubber Bandit, the world’s biggest airplane powered by rubber bands. The Bandit’s crew meticulously prepared the craft--still without wings--for the test at Van Nuys Airport last weekend.

The ground test was part of the ongoing preparations for the maiden flight of the Rubber Bandit, a labor of love by a volunteer crew that hopes to reach an eccentric aviation milestone: building the first plane powered by rubber bands to carry a human aloft.

The ultimate question facing the group is whether 90 pounds of coiled rubber can spin a two-story-tall propeller fast enough to lift the plane and pilot.

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Aeronautical engineer George Heaven, who designed the craft, estimates liftoff speed at 19 mph, which was the target speed for the test.

The first taxi test in March was purposely conservative, using only 80 pounds of coiled rubber. Carrying two pilots, the plane reached only 13 mph and traveled 800 feet before crew members brought it to a halt.

Heaven used the test to recalculate his estimates. He shortened the rubber band and increased the number of strands so they would unwind more smoothly inside the plane’s 33-foot-long fuselage. With a wound-up engine and new tires, the builders prepared for the first real test May 3.

Heaven buckled test pilot Jennifer LaFayette--along with Lucky, her stuffed cocker spaniel mascot--onto a bicycle seat suspended below the fuselage.

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Crew members positioned themselves at the end of a half-mile-long ramp to catch the plane, which, to save weight, has no brakes.

Rubber bands uncoiling as planned, the prop spun and the plane shot forward. Faster and faster it went. Heaven, riding in a convertible pace car, clocked it at 27 mph, half again faster than the expected speed.

LaFayette swerved to avoid hitting a parked helicopter, then veered again in a giant U-turn around parked trailers. The stress of the turns disintegrated a wheel, causing the axle to drop and the tips of the propeller to be nicked.

“It was Mr. Toad’s wild ride for sure,” said LaFayette, 26.

The eventual maiden flight is expected to draw thousands of spectators from around the world. But first, the builders need to find a site.

The Federal Aviation Administration has ruled that they cannot test an experimental aircraft at Van Nuys Airport, the busiest general aviation field in the world.

The ruling disappointed the Bandit crew, which expects to complete the plane this month by installing its wings, with a 71-foot span.

Heaven said they are now seeking another airport at which to stage the flight.

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