Korean aircraft lights up the aerospace industryTAEAN, South Chungcheong ― Inside the cockpit, pilot Park Su-bok thrust the throttle forward. With a deafening roar, the propeller-driven passenger plane sped off, tearing down the airfield runway. The aircraft raced 300 or 400 meters before it gave a slight lift and suddenly it was in the air.
Soon the plane was soaring low over the Yellow Sea, flying at an altitude of 300 meters (984 feet).
The ride was surprisingly smooth, although at times the craft gave a sharp turn as it changed direction.
It was a trial flight for the first Korean-made prop-driven plane to be exported to the United States. Dubbed Firefly, the aircraft got its name in the hope it would sparkle like a firefly and lead the Korean aerospace industry to a brighter future. Shinyoung Heavy Industries Co., the local manufacturer of the plane, exported the first model early last month to U.S.-based Proxy Aviation and the companies are discussing orders for 60 of the planes over the next two years.
On Nov. 30, this JoongAng Ilbo reporter had been standing at an airfield at Hanseo University. It was the day of the Firefly’s 16th scheduled trial flight, and I was about to become the first civilian to accompany the pilot. (Although I had some uneasiness about being uninsured, it was still a glorious moment to relish.)
The hangar doors opened, and the 22-foot long four-seater plane with a wingspan of 35 feet made its appearance. It was smaller than I had imagined. Four men pushed the plane forward, out of the hangar.
The pilot on board was Mr. Park, 45, a professor at Hanseo University. I sat to his right in a cockpit full of instrument panels and electronic devices.
“The control units are easy to use because they are not sticks but made like a vehicle’s steering wheel,” Mr. Park said, as he quickly went over each device in the cockpit; checking the brakes, the fuel valves and the throttle.
Before I could utter a word, the Firefly’s engines kicked over with a loud roar and soon, we were up in the air. Rice paddies, crop fields and the ocean rushed past below us. The loud roar we experienced before takeoff soon quietened and became tolerable.
“The 310-horsepower engine is fitted in the back of the plane. That reduces the engine noise and enhances the impellent force,” Mr. Park said.
He then turned the controls, making the Firefly gyrate. The wing pivoted at only about a 30 degree angle, but it was enough for me to feel as if I was turning completely upside down. The plane swerved and was easily back on track again.
“The wind is pretty strong today,” Mr. Park said. “This flight is not easy.”
Despite his concern, however, the flight continued without any problem.
After 20 minutes in the air, Mr. Park was ready to land the Firefly. As he reduced altitude, the aircraft gave a sudden violent shake due to air turbulence. I was feeling uneasy again as the trembling craft neared the runway, but the front wheels touched down gently and the landing was amazingly gentle.
During the trial flight, several Cessnas, U.S. front-runners, flew together with the Firefly, but they were far behind and looked to be moving sluggishly in comparison.
“It seems the Cessna cannot follow our Firefly very well,” said Ahn Seok-min, 49, the principal designer of the Firefly for the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, beaming.
He probably wasn’t exaggerating, considering the results from a flying competition in March near Washington, D.C., where Firefly defeated its competitor, Velocity. The Firefly carried a 1.5 ton load, more than its maximum takeoff weight, and reached an altitude of 6,000 meters. The result inspired Proxy Aviation to sign a purchase contract.
The present glory for the aircraft was bought at great cost, however. In the summer of 2004, two pilots who were professors at Hankuk Aviation University, Hwang Myeong-sin and Eun Hui-bong, died when their test plane, The Bora, crashed.
“We did not want to disgrace the two great pilots’ names, so we worked harder,” Mr. Ahn said.
But it was inevitable their next project, Firefly, would stagger a little as the aerospace institute had difficulty persuading other pilots to participate in trial flights.
Park Su-bok was one of the few pilots to volunteer back then.
“I was more excited to fly a new plane than I was worried,” he said. Mr. Park is a veteran pilot who received his pilot license 20 years ago and has more than 6,000 flying hours.
With him on board, the research team disassembled and reassembled foreign-made propeller planes “hundreds of times” to learn how best to make a canard wing aircraft with a propeller in back and vertical stabilizers. The result was the Firefly, and they then tested the craft repeatedly.
The Korean technicians and engineers also had problems negotiating with foreign buyers and getting the international aircraft market to recognize their brand name: Firefly. The team went to every aircraft show they could find to promote their plane.
American pilot and explorer Gus McLeod saw the Firefly at an American exhibition and volunteered to use the aircraft for his solo pole to pole flight in Jan. 2004.
“The ‘air taxi’ era has already opened in other countries,” said Dr. Ahn, adding that Honda has jumped into the private plane market as well. “If we can get more private companies to join in this research, we can probably grow our aerospace industry further.”
At the moment, about 5,000 propeller planes are sold every year on the global market, of which 70 percent are sold in the United States, where 600,000 people have pilot’s licenses.
by Kim Joon-sool