Tom Jewett wanted to set a world record with his own design, but he was no Burt Rutan...

Quickie's Big Bird with the diminutive Quickie Q200 and Q2.

Status:  experimental prototype (did NOT involve Burt Rutan's work directly)

Type:  distance record aircraft

Powerplant: 1 x Pezetel-Franklin 135 hp PZL-F 4A-235 four-cylinder engine

Significant date: July 2, 1982 (first and only flight)

Around 1980 Burt Rutan was engaged by Tom Jewett, whom he had known at Bede, and Jewett's associate, Gene Sheehan, to help design an airplane that would carry ease of construction and low cost to the extreme, even at the expense of performance. That airplane became the Quickie. Rutan's involvement ended after testing of the prototype; Jewett and Sheehan then marketed the tiny 18­ hp airplane as a kit. The Quickie Aircraft Corp. installed itself in a hangar at the opposite end of the Mojave Airport from Rutan's.

But Jewett was moving on to bigger and better things — a straight-line distance absolute record. Himself an aeronautical engineer, Jewett designed, and the Quickie Aircraft shop staff started building, an airplane called Big Bird in which Jewett intended to break the absolute distance record for unrefueled airplanes, set in 1962 at 12,519 miles by a B-52. Big Bird was an updated version of the concept used by Jim Bede's BD-2 Love One, also designed for a global flight: both aircraft used modified sailplane wings, but Big Bird was rather smaller and less powerful than the BD-2. The planned world flight was slated to both begin & end in Houston, Texas.

The aircraft was based on the bonded-aluminium wings of a Laister Nugget sailplane, modified with tip and integral fuel tanks (it carried 350 gallons of fuel) and mated to a new glassfibre/foam fuselage and T-tail. It featured a unique landing gear dolly, which was to be jettisoned after the airplane took off on its record-attempting flight) and was towith the aid of a ventral skid. lightweight Litton Omega/VLF navigation system and lightweight weather warning equipment were also installed, helping the plane cruise at 24,000 feet at 175 knots.

Big Bird was designed to carry only one person, the pilot; it featured a full autopilot system, a specially developed S-Tec AFCS with a three-axis alarm system to warn of excursions from track, with alarms that enabled the pilot to sleep for short periods, while being supplied oxygen from a cryogenic liquid oxygen, rather than the typical gaseous oxygen.  Jewett planned to carry 10 gallons of drinking water and follow a low-residue diet similar to that used by astronauts.

After Burt Rutan he fell out with Jewett and Sheehan, the principals of Quickie Aircraft and RAF repeatedly sniped at each other in unseemly ways on the ramp at Mojave and in the aviation press. After a hostile encounter on the airport camp with Jewett and Sheehan, Dick Rutan proposed to Burt (who thought ill of the Big Bird design) that they do Jewett one better, and build an airplane that could fly unrefueled all the way around the world. The Rutan brothers soon made a public announcement of their goal, reducing Big Bird to insignificance even before it had flown. Stung, Jewett quickly announced the same goal for Big Bird — which he rechristened Free Enterprise [N82X] — though his airplane was not really equal to the task.

Jewett insisted that it was, but he never got the chance to prove it. On July 2nd, 1982, Tom Jewett took Big Bird on a test flight.  But immediately after takeoff, Jewett radioed the chase plane that he had some minor problem and was going to land. After turning final, about 200 feet above the ground, he reported "Something broke, I'm going in..." and the aircraft crashed at a slight nose down attitude a half mile short of the end of the runway. The NTSB investigation found that the continuity of flight control was established and that no evidence of preimpact flight control was evident. Unfortunately, there were no drawings or design data available for the aircraft, and its fuselage and empennage had not been static tested.

The investigators also concluded that a break at the rear of the cockpit appeared to be in an area of poor design and the composite structure behind the cockpit rails looked questionable in its cross-sectional area to handle the bending loads in this area. The NTSB determined that an in-flight separation of the fuselage at the rear of the cockpit by as much as a single inch could have placed the stabilizer in a three-degree nose up pitch angle rendering the elevator insufficient to hold the nose up.

In the end, Quickie Aircraft Corporation, leaderless and fiscally strapped, went bankrupt. Ironically, the goal initially set by Jewett was finally achieved by Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeager in Burt Rutan's Voyager.

Population: 1 [N82X]

Specifications: not known

Crew/passengers: 1

Main sources:

Tom Jewett posing proudly in front of the Big Bird.

The Big Bird after it became the Free Enterprise.