Visit to Dick Butler’s toy shop

I’m down here at the U.S. Sports Class Nationals at Chilhowee Gliderport, Tenn.  Sunday was a no-fly day, so I took the opportunity to visit Dick and Sarah Butler at their home near Manchester, Tenn – about 2 hours by car from Chilhowee.  As everyone in the soaring world knows, Dick Butler is building the one-of-a-kind Concordia open class sailplane, and I wanted to see the creation-in-progress with my own eyes while I had the chance.  Dick and Sarah allowed me to interrupt their weekend at their spectacularly beautiful home and even more spectacularly beautiful hangar and workshop.

Turning into the Butler’s private drive, the first thing I noticed was how long the driveway is – at least 1/2 mile (about 1km). The second thing I noticed was the reason for the long driveway – I was driving alongside an immaculately maintained grass runway!  Eventually I arrived at the house complex, consisting of (at least) the main house, a 3 or 4-stall horse barn, a huge hangar and the attached work area containing the Concordia project.

Dick Butler greeted me at the door of the workshop and toured me through all the pieces (literally) of the project.  The first impression one gets is that the entire huge shop area is completely filled by wing halves on very rugged roll-around mold supports.  The wings of the Concordia go on forever – every time I thought I had gotten to the end of one wing, I saw that the one I was looking at connected to yet another wing panel beyond it.  The second impression one gets is that the wings don’t look right – they are so thin and narrow and LOOOONNNNNNGGGGG that it is almost impossible to believe that the thing will actually fly when it is all put together.  They are so long that if you were standing on one wingtip and someone else was standing on the other, you’d have to use a cellphone to talk to each other, and you’d each be in separate zipcodes! (apologies for the American humor).

Although the inner panels were already closed, the second outboard panels were still open, so I got to see the swiss-watch like beauty of the internal mechanisms, all crammed into an absurdly thin wing.  I’m an engineer by trade and avocation, so this was a spectacular treat – to be able to see and touch what clearly was the product of untold hours of computer work, ‘tinker-toy’ mockup experimentation, and outstanding craftsmanship.  At the point where one of the control pushrods passes behind a actuator mixer, the pushrod has to make a 2-3cm (1 – 1.5″) detour aft to clear a mixer arm travel arc, and so some custom metal connectors were fabricated to the precise bend angle required to accomplish the goal.  In another area farther out on the wing section, the pushrod transitions from a cylindrical rod down to a very thin flat plate maybe 12-14cm (5-6″) long.  this little plate looks very fragile, but Dick assured me that it had been stress loaded to ensure it would handle normal operating loads – wow!

After showing me the wing panels, and the almost completely finished fuselage, vertical tail and horizontal stabilizer, Dick went through some of the engineering data with me.  I have heard a saying in the military world that “amateur warriors talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics”, and I think that saying applies equally well to the daunting project of building an open-class state-of-the-art sailplane.  For instance, it took Dick years to accumulate sufficient high-modulus carbon fiber material for his basic building materials; for a while he was convinced it was the AirBus and Boeing projects that were sucking up all the supplies, but it turned out that the real culprits were the communications satellite guys.  Then there was the ongoing headache of trying to make sure that parts and design efforts were flowing along in the right order and at the right pace to not slow other critical paths inordinately.  I have done some large-project management in  an earlier career, and so had some appreciation of the magnitude of what Dick is accomplishing in this project.

At some point Sarah joined us, and I got to hear some of her side of the project.  As the project progressed, Sarah was called upon to host a continuing stream of international visitors who were responsible for much of the actual fabrication efforts.  Sarah said that they were invariably polite, and seemed to do OK on Tennessee  cooking ;-).

As I drove back to Chilhowee after the visit, I could not help but reflect on what a magnificent and scary project this is.  I cannot fathom the courage and vision required to pursue such a dream for so long, and to bring it from a drawing board into reality (quite apart from the similarly magnificent costs!).  Whether or not the Concordia ever actually flies (and I am certain it will), and whether or not it lives up to its performance projections, the act of aspiring to such lofty goals is itself in the finest traditions of Lindbergh and Fulton and others who boldly strode into the unknown, doing the very best engineering job possible, but unsure until the last whether the efforts would, in the end, be worth the candle.

The next day we got to fly here at Chilhowee.  As I was assembling my Ventus 2bx, I started wondering how outmoded my beautiful sailplane would look next to the Concordia.  Just as in auto and aircraft racing, many techniques and concepts pioneered in the crucible of open-class racing eventually find their way into production models, so maybe when I buy my Ventus 15 or ASG-53, the wings will be half the thickness, twice the aspect ratio, and one tenth the weight of my current ones – neat!!

One last thing.  Sarah and Dick Butler were gracious enough to let me peek into their home and project spaces, and for that I am extremely grateful.  I have tried in this post to give my impressions of what I saw, and have probably made any number of factual and/or conceptual mistakes in my reporting.  I apologize in advance for such inaccuracies and/or falsehoods and  stand ready to be corrected – but wow – what a project!!!


1 thought on “Visit to Dick Butler’s toy shop”

  1. What, no pictures????

    Lucky guy to have such a visit. I'm sure many more than just me are envious, Frank.

Comments are closed.