Saturday, November 01, 2014

25 years for a dream to come true: First aircraft designed and built in Malta

The first designed and home-built aircraft, RP-Kestrel, is nearing completion. Aircraft enthusiast and hobbyist Reno Psaila has spent nearly 25 years working on this project in his spare time.

Reno Psaila, a 61-year-old graphic designer by profession, has always been fascinated with aircraft and over the past years designed and built a fully-fledged aircraft from scratch.

"The aircraft is a single engine propeller plane with a fixed undercarriage but very well faired to cut drag. It is totally built of composites like carbon fibre, Kevlar, E-glass and epoxy resins," Reno said.

So how did a graphic designer learn to design and build an aircraft? "Research," he said, "lots and lots of research."

He got his private pilot's license in 1984 and came up with the idea for the aircraft in 1986. "When I was 14, I told myself I wanted to build a big aircraft, however I really went for it in 1986."

"My first letter to Transport Malta was in 1986, which at the time went by another name, DCA. They told me these things weren't done in Malta, but I didn't let that stop me. At the time, they mainly dealt with Air Malta and a few private aircraft but things have changed since then. Today there are Microlight aircraft which are assembled here from kits; however they are not designed here."

He emphasized that Transport Malta is being cautious, but acknowledges that they have good reason for this, considering this would be the first craft designed and built here.

His love of flying all began when he was a boy, building model planes.

"When I was young, I used to build model aircraft. I remember building the first two then buying kits and redesigning the models myself. Then I built an aerobatic RC model aircraft from scratch which flew at 135 mph in 1984, quite fast for the time," he said.

"We took the prototype to Sicily and RC pilot Joe Pule placed fifth in the competition. Before building the full-sized RP-Kestrel I first constructed a one-third scale RC model to try out the flight characteristics. Building that took me around a year."

The design of this full-sized aircraft only deviated slightly from that model. "I wanted a fast sports aircraft and looking at it one can see its clean aerodynamic lines. Of course now we need to see how it performs in the air. The calculated speeds are pretty impressive for an engine of that size (118HP). The aircraft is calculated to stall at 48 knots and the design dive speed is close to 200 knots (228 mph). Basically if I dive at that speed the structure should not come apart. Ironically, during the flight test we need to reach that speed," he said. 2mph per horsepower is considered excellent performance in sport aircraft.

It all began in a garage

Construction began in Reno's single-car home garage, where he worked mostly on his own. He then moved to a larger garage, which saw the very first assembly of the plane.

The fuselage mold of the aircraft was completed at the end of 1989, he said. "A major decision surrounded the design of the wing section. I had received a lot of data from the United States on this," he said. "At the time, I was already a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, the biggest one of its kind in the world, and through it I had access to NASA documents regarding wing sections. I don't believe I had email at that time so everything had to be done by post. The section I chose was actually the first ever computer designed light aircraft wing section in aviation history, which was done at Langley. It's still being used today of course."

Finally, at the end of last year he moved his project to the Malta Aviation Museum, where it was assembled and the first engine run was performed.

Structural static load tests of the wing and main components have been carried out successfully up to limit loads multiplied a safety factor of 150 per cent.

With regard to flight range, with just a pilot, the plane can fly for over 1,100 miles non-stop; however, with a passenger that drops down to around 600 miles he said. The plane also has baggage space behind the two seats and an additional compartment just behind the engine bay.

"I'm taking the project step by step and enjoying the whole process," he said. "I basically want to see the interest in such an aircraft once it has flown, although in fact I've already had some offers."

The bulk of construction was handled by Reno himself, with help from Dirk and Kirk, his sons. Ray Polidano, the Director of the Museum, his son David and the team of volunteers were also all very helpful. Of course, quite some interest is generated when visitors to the Museum see this new aircraft surrounded by aviation history and most stop and ask about it.

As regards reactions, people who came to know about this project have all been astonished how someone who is not an aircraft engineer has managed to design and build this aircraft, he said.


"The plane itself is done, however there's a lot of paperwork. This kind of aircraft can only receive a Permit to Fly since it is classified as an ANNEX II category aircraft," he said. "But, it's just as safe as a commercially certified aircraft," he explained.

Reno recently purchased a small T-hangar at Malta International Airport to shelter the plane from the elements where he hopes to move it early next year. Until then, the plane is housed in the main hangar of the Malta Aviation Museum at Ta Qali.

The future

"To buy the hangar, I had to buy the aircraft that came with it," he laughed. "More testing will be required of course, and I will have to prepare a flight-test program. This would require me bringing in a designated engineer from Transport Malta to check all the aircraft systems, and more engine-runs will be done as well. The flight-test program will need the approval of Transport Malta and the test pilot also has to be cleared by them," he added. "Although I do have a private pilot's license, I have put all the funds into building the plane and not flying. Apart from that, I don't think I have the necessary experience to test it myself so I'd rather have a test pilot to fly the initial hours on it."

"The flight-test program will probably take around a year. Once the program is complete, I'll need to present a report and upon approval, TM-CAD will issue the Permit to Fly."

As to when this process will be complete all depends on the speediness of TM-CAD, he explained. "They might need further information on certain parts and so on. You must keep in mind that this is the first time Transport Malta will be asked to certify an aircraft designed and built in Malta".

"Eventually, I may open up a small company to build planes like this in Malta, or just opt to sell the design rights."

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