By Dave O'Malley, Photos by J.P. Bonin
Sometime before 1909, a small group of engineers and inventors, without the benefit of much known aeronautical science, set out to do something no one had ever done before in Canada—build a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft and take to the skies over Canada. The Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) succeeded with the Silver Dart in 1909, not only in their initial quest, but also in setting in motion a hundred years of Canadian aviation heritage and inspiring generations to come.
Almost a century later, in 2006, 12 engineering students from the Université de Sherbrooke, decided to design, build and ultimately fly an aircraft of their own creation as their submission for their bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. And while it can take even the most experienced aircraft companies years to go from conception to first flight, the students set February 23, 2009, the 100th anniversary of the Silver Dart’s first Canadian flight, as their deadline, even though they had little experience in aircraft construction, design or the use of composite materials. Only two students had pilot’s licenses, there was no funding available for such an ambitious project, and designing and building an airplane is not a feat easily accomplished on a student’s budget. They also had to keep up their studies in other subjects needed to graduate.
Computers played a huge part in the completion of this project on time. Drawings, tests, simulations and calculations via the computer enabled cost effective and rapid proofing of concept. Here, a gorgeous computer-modelled image of Épervier shows her beautiful lines. Image via Team Épervier
The team initially considered building an aircraft based on the tiny CriCri, a French homebuilt dubbed the smallest twin-engine aircraft in the world. However, after canvassing pilots and others in aviation, they settled on a much more ambitious undertaking.
But of course, any major aeronautical undertaking requires an evocative name. The group chose Projet Épervier, French for Project Sparrowhawk after the fast and nimble bird of prey. It was a good idea with a good name and it was time to get to work.
The goals of Projet Épervier were lofty and the time was short. The objective was an all-composite single-seat fully aerobatic aircraft for homebuilders. A Rotax engine was chosen and the group was determined to pack that performance in the smallest airframe and wingspan possible.
But while technology and hard work could build the aircraft, the students knew that money is what would make the project fly, and the first order of business was to line up sponsorships. In May 2007, Bell Helicopter of Montreal came on board as a platinum sponsor as a way to help foster aeronautical engineers of the future. Within days Rotax Aircraft Engines signed on and by the end of the summer, a new Rotax 582 power plant arrived along with the promise of technical help. Soon dozens of other companies and individuals were involved.
Before the team could confidently build an aircraft that wouldn’t break up in flight, they had to break and destroy a lot of stuff. They learned to use composite materials with the technical and materiel support of Polymere Technologies and then tested to destruction the airframe components, increasing complexity until wings and spars were stressed to their limits. They were pleased to learn that everything they had designed through computing and simulation withstood the real-world tests better than had been predicted.
By summer of 2008, construction of the final prototype had begun, and by September the assembled fuselage was ready for the engine and controls. While many amateur homebuilders take years and sometimes decades to complete an airplane from a kit with pre-manufactured, sized and drilled components, the 12 students designed, tested and built a clean-sheet aircraft in less than two years.
Members of the Team Épervier discuss construction at l'Université de Sherbrooke last summer. Photo: J. P. Bonin
Last summer, the main fuselage and wing components were carried outdoors so that students could get a good look at the entire aircraft as it neared completion. Like every home-builder before them, getting the aircraft out of the workshop was a problem in itself. Photo: J. P. Bonin
The fuselage and empennage are wheeled to the assembly area. Photo: J. P. Bonin
The aircraft takes shape. Putting it together in the sunlight provided not only proof of fit, but renewed energy at a time when school work was heavy. Photo: J. P. Bonin
Equipe Épervier. The team pose with Épervier at a student engineering awards event. Front Left to right : Gabriel Arsenault (Engine), David Rancourt (Aerodynamics/test pilot), Nicolas Vincent (Fabrication and empennage), David Barabé (Fabrication and Purchasing), Maya Caron (Fuselage and finance).
Back row: Francis Beaucaire (Instrumentation), Miguel Costa (Landing gear), Guy Bilodeau (Controls), Mathieu Lavoie (Coordinator), Jasmin McFadden (Wings), François Bérubé (Structure and finishing), Mathieu Lessard (Canopy). Photo: J. P. Bonin
The aircraft is prepared for its maiden flight with some members of the media in attendance. Photo: J. P. Bonin
The test pilot for both the ground run-ups and the first full flights was David Rancourt, the pilot with the most experience among the team. Throughout November and December the aircraft’s systems were tested, engine run-ups were executed successfully and taxi tests were run. The first deadline they were working toward was to have the Épervier fully assembled, tested and ready to fly for an annual exposition of student engineering projects at Sherbrooke. Here the beautiful airplane was unveiled in its new livery festooned with sponsor decals and looking the part of a high performance experimental aircraft. It was the beginning of much media attention and plenty of kudos and awards to come.
The official inaugural flight and full media exposure was scheduled for February 24, 2009, the day after the centenary of the Silver Dart’s first Canadian flight. Like the Silver Dart, which flew numerous times in New York before the Baddeck flight, Epervier first stretched its wings in private. On December 16 the weather was cold but clear at Sherbrooke Airport, when pilot David Rancourt advanced the throttle and raced down the runway into history.
In late 2008, David Rancourt starts Épervier's Rotax engine for a test in the cold weather. Photo: J. P. Bonin
Épervier taxies out to the runway for its first test flight on December 16th, 2008 at the Sherbrooke Airport. Photo: J. P. Bonin
On the first test flight, pilot Rancourt kept the flying to some basic manoeuvring over the Eastern townships landscape. Photo: J. P. Bonin
Rancourt slows the slippery speedster down so that photographer Bonin can snag some air-to-air shots on her maiden flight. Photo: J. P. Bonin
The team celebrates after Épervier's first flight. All that was left was some fine tuning and an inaugural flight for the media - timed for the 100th anniversary of flight in Canada. Photo: J. P. Bonin
Lifting off the runway, the aircraft carried with it the hard work and dreams of 12 young students and countless advisors. Glistening in the immaculate light of a Quebec winter day, the Epervier took well to her new environment. With team members watching from below, Rancourt put the tiny airplane through some basic manoeuvres to test its controls and performance at the bottom of its intended envelope, leaving aerobatic testing for later in the test program. He then formed up with a chase plane that would look over the aircraft to make sure there were no problems Rancourt could not see, and to photograph and film the first flight for a french language science program. It was hard to catch the nimble bird as it could outclimb the Cessna chase plane by a factor of 2-1.
The first test flight was a complete success just as every stage had been throughout its development. The flight test program continued until the official first flight was held for the cameras on February 24. On March 5, the team placed first in the Canadian Engine Competition in Fredericton. The students are now weighing the options of marketing the kit as they continue to test it.
On the 24th of February, 100 years and a day after Canada's first successful powered heavier than air flight, Rancourt taxies Épervier out to the runway for her media debut. Photo: J. P. Bonin
With members of the team and media in attendance, Rancourt lifts Épervier off carrying the dreams of 12 young students. Photo: J. P. Bonin
The beautiful lines of Épervier are evident in this head on shot during her inaugural flight. Photo: J. P. Bonin
Members of the Épervier team face the media during a post-inaugural flight press conference. Photo: J. P. Bonin
Épervier at rest. Now thoughts are to take the design to market and see how it flies there. Of course there are many important business, legal and organizational issues to learn about with that. Judging by the accomplishments of these 12 young designers, they will conquer that too. Photo: J. P. Bonin
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