Baby Lakes, Baby Great Lakes, homebuilt biplane, pilot report

Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, June, 1977


It's a bit strange, like you've just taken the acne queen of the wall flowers to a sock hop (do they still have those things?) . . and liked it! I feel like I should be saying something like, ''Yeah, but she's got a great personality!", defending my having been seen cavorting with a toad-like bipe that slinks around on its belly. I mean, even the folks that love the Baby Lakes have to admit that it looks a bit dumpy/homely/squashed/frumpy when parked next to something like a Starduster or a Pltts, or even my one-eyed Volkswagen. (I take that back, nothing looks worse than my VW.) But even though she may not be too great on looks and is a little wobbly around the knees, she's got it where it counts . . . upstairs, and I don't mean her intellectual capacity.

The Baby Lakes is one of those airplanes that seems to have been around for at least a generation of homebuilders but has somehow never caught on. It was supposedly a scaled down Great Lakes, but in reality, there is nothing about it that is even slightly Great Lakes with the possible exception of the swept upper wing panels. I think the only persons who can look at it and see a similarity to the original 2T-1A is the designer, Barney Oldfield (his real name, honest!) and the current plans hustler for the airplane, Harvey Swack). Even so, Swack prefers to ignore the airplane's possible Great Lakes heritage and calls it the Baby Lakes, having dropped the ''Great' somewhere along the line. Quite honestly, until very recently, I always thought it should be called the Not-So-Great Lakes. Its looks have always turned me off, but then I always have gone for racier things . . . like my VW, for instance.

It was, therefore, not an entirely unbiased pilot who strapped his normal sized butt into a less-than-normal-sized airplane to go flying Baby Lake's style. Fudge!! I thought (or words to that effect), I already know how this thing flies—stodgy, just the way it looks. I mean after all, how well can an airplane fly, that, in this particular version at least, looks like a sway-back butterfly with its nose stuck in a thimble. Like I said, I already had my mind made up how this thing was going to fly. Once again, the kid is proven wrong!

The whole concept upon which the Baby Lakes is based can be summed up in one word economy. Oldfield wanted to design an airplane that used a minimum of materials, burned little gas, took no skill to build or fly but still gave good performance. Naturally, when you mix all that stuff together there is one other word that becomes a guiding concept . . . little. And it is. The top wing is barely shoulder high to a slouching writer and a good-sized pooch could back up and do something obscene into the cockpit without even stretching. There have been other biplanes with about the same size sixteen-foot wings, but I don't know of any that scrunch so close to the ground. Swack told me one of the reasons the airplane has such a short gear is that its ground angle is several degrees short of the stall angle, so it's always flown into the ground. That may be so, but it certainly makes for an unusual looking airplane.

Baby Lakes, Baby Great Lakes, Great Lakes, homebuilt biplane

So, as I wiggled down into the cockpit, I reassessed my knowledge and opinions of the airplane and totally unimpressed myself. Dick Blair, who loaned me N91H, leaned over my shoulder to grab his sectionals, while I was strapping in, and muttered something about how comfortable the cockpit was. I looked at Dick, a little incredulous that he should think I could possibly be comfortable. Then I wiggled around a bit and found that I did have a reasonable amount of room. I wasn't exactly rattling around in the cockpit, but I wasn't folded up like a two-dollar wallet either. I'm a very normal sized 5'10" and fit into the Lakes okay, but I'd have to say that a few things would have to be bent to accept anybody much bigger. I remember seeing a past publisher of Air Progress flying a Baby Lakes and at 6'4", he looked like a giraffe on a roller skate. He had to leave his entire left arm outside the cockpit, working the throttle by reaching down inside.

Dick walked around up front and grabbed the prop, as I strapped on a helmet and nervously checked for any tall dogs in the area. A couple of blades lit a fire under the 90-horse Continental and I saw Blair dancing off to the side, waving me out with a smile, as if he knew something I didn't. I smiled back, weakly, and went on my way.

I'm always a little spooked when riding herd on a new mount, so, as I'm rumbling out to the runway, I do a hell of a lot of looking around. I try to memorize the position of the nose on the horizon when I'm sitting on the ground, and in the Baby Lakes, that's just about what I was doing, sitting on the ground-so doping out references to help me find the runway when I came back seemed pretty important. With such a flat ground attitude and my tusche only a foot or so off the pavement, I figured my eyeballs would be doing some rapid calculating when it came time to flair.

I must admit to being a little blase' about the cockpit familiarization and everything prior to the takeoff. Even before I shoved the power forward, I had mentally crossed the little airplane off of the list of birds I'd be willing to own. Then, as the rpms built up, I suddenly found myself sitting up and taking notice of what was going on. For one thing, that little dude was trying to curve off the centerline to the left and I had more right rudder in it than I expected for only 90 hp worth of torque/P-factor.
When picking up the tail, I was super aware of the prop and only, got the tailwheel up a couple inches. In much less time than it takes to read about it, the airplane scooted of the ground and wrapped the airspeed indicator around to 100 mph indicated and settled into a shallow climb. What the heck, I thought, that's no way for an ugly duckling to behave!

While climbing out, I began honking back on the stick, trying to get 75 mph for a climb speed. Higher and higher the nose went until the needle settled on the right number and I started timing the climb. In less than a minute, I was dodging through big holes in the clouds and at the end of the minute, had gained a solid 1,700 feet. Okay, that may not be the 2,000 fpm Swack claimed for the airplane (I may have been climbing a little fast) but, for only 90 hp, 1,700 fpm is nearly incredible performance. No, strike the "nearly," it IS incredible performance.

As I leveled off and the speed built up, I found myself unconsciously leaning forward to avoid the downwash off the top wing. Finally, when it was trueing about 105 knots at 2,300 rpm, the wind past the windshield got so bad I thought it was going to suck my brains out through the helmet. The turbulence around the windshield made me intensely uncomfortable and I'm certain I looked like an E.A.A. version of Quasimoto from having done aerobatics while hunched forward toward the windscreen. It was the most uncomfortable ride I've had since I was forced to ride 300 miles in the back seat of a Nash Metropolitan. If I was going to really badmouth the airplane, the turbulence in the cockpit is where I'd start.

The real surprise of the flight was of the pleasant variety . . . a Baby Lakes does very creditable aerobatics! All of the normal inside stuff, such as rolls and loops, were as easy and smooth, if not as good looking, as (dare I say it?) my Pitts. The controls are fairly well harmonized, with maybe a bit too much rudder, and have exactly the kind of inbetween pressures this kind of airplane should have. If they were too light, the average pilot this design is aimed at would have trouble acclimating. If the controls were too heavy, the airplane would be toad to fly.

Snap rolls were simple yank-and-stomp goodies that took zero technique to master. It didn't seem to matter how you did them, so long as you kept the entry speed down for reasonable g forces. It was especially adept at snaps on the top of loops and could fly away from immelmans in which I used a half snap for recovery.

The spins were very normal, maybe a little fast and nose down, and recovery was immediate. It whips into a spin very crisply from almost any speed because the stall has a sharp enough edge to it and the rudder is so big that it doesn't need to be snapped into the spin. Even though the stall does have an edge to it with very little warning buffet, it recovers the second back pressure is released. I don't have any idea how it flies inverted because every time I touched zero g, such as in point rolls, gas wanted to come streaming out of the Cub-type wire-and-cork fuel gauge in the gas cap. Somehow, I felt that being soaked in 80 octane would take some of the fun out of flying upside down.

I doodled around for about a half hour, spending more time going up and down than back and forth and then pointed the nose back towards the airport and home. I've always noticed something when I come into the pattern in an airplane as unorthodox as the Baby Lakes: If there is anything unusual about the seating or visibility, it always seems most noticeable on downwind. When flying the Baby Lakes, for instance, I never really felt like I was in a tiny airplane until I was on downwind looking at the runway. But, with the runway beside me, I was suddenly conscious of sticking out of the airplane like a tall prairie dog in a short hole. I felt absolutely naked. Maybe it has something to do with being that close to the ground in such a small airplane. However, in any airplane, flying the pattern is the period during which your senses are the sharpest. I tend to fly fairly tight patterns of exactly the same size in almost all airplanes except those in the high-speed category, so the runway is always the same distance away when I'm on downwind. At my normal downwind distance in a Cherokee, for instance, the runway would hit the wing just outboard of the gas cap. In the Baby Lakes, the runway didn't intersect the wing at all!

The open air visibility factor of an airplane is also exaggerated when flying the pattern because there is so much more to see. In making turns onto base and final in the Baby Lakes, I could see everything there was to see over the inboard top wing, which up to that point had sort of bugged me because it was only about six inches above my line of sight when level.

I flew the tight base leg which biplanes seem to like best so I wouldn't have to drag it in on power and bend it around to line up on the centerline. I held a steady 70 mph, with just a little power until I began to flare, then I squeezed the throttle closed as I felt it settling through ground effect. Since it sits so close to the ground, it has more float than you'd expect, which can work for and against you. I was feeling for the ground, trying to get my butt back down to the one-foot altitude I knew it needed, but ground effect was delaying my descent much more than I had anticipated. The net effect was that I burned off speed faster than I should have and unceremoniously plopped on from a foot or so up. The airplane didn't seem to mind, though, and went ahead with its business of making me do a tap dance routine on the rudder bar.

Rollout was not totally straight ahead, possibly because of a slight crosswind working on the Baby's gigantic vertical tail surfaces. Also, it's so short that any panicked rudder motions, of which I had plenty, makes you wiggle down the centerline. It doesn't swerve or careen around in big rubber burning arcs as do bigger airplanes that are making you work, but sort of wiggles and squiggles back and forth a few inches or so either direction.

I must admit that I was completely taken back by the amount of performance the Baby Lakes gets out of 90 hp, most of which comes from keeping the airplane light. The airplane is designed to give similar performance on all of the 65-90 hp engines, which are also the cheapest and most economical around.

However, in terms of pilot comfort, a few control areas and pure aesthetics, I think the airplane has a way to go. For one thing, I think it should be redesigned to incorporate some sort of canopy, but this would have to be done very carefully. It's extremely easy to upset the delicate balance of an airplane this small. Not only would the weight have to be kept to a minimum, but the additional side area would have to be taken into account and the vertical tail surfaces re-sized accordingly. I personally would like to see an exaggerated Formula One canopy and turtle deck on the airplane. Something like a Cassutt's flatwrap windshield or even a blown bubble would work nicely. It would do wonders for both the comfort of the pilot and the looks of the airplane.(Ed note: Looking back at it, I'd say that would be hard to pull off. and have it look right.).

In terms of flight characteristics, I think one of the possible problem areas for new pilots would be the way in which the airplane jumps up on ground effect so quickly on takeoff and will fly when its barely ready to. If it's allowed to get off the ground and then is pulled up out of ground effect too soon, it could easily stall or drop a wing. This is something you would get used to after a coupleof takeoffs, but extending the gear a little bit, just enough to bring the ground angle closer to stall and get the airplane up off the ground as well, would solve most of the ground effect problems. It would also make the airplane look a hell of a lot better.

The airframe itself would make an ideal starting point for somebody who feels like doing some minor modifications. It's well designed and proven and the drawings are easily understood. It uses almost no complicated parts or weldments and basically needs only one size of 4130 tubing and not much of that. The cost and availability of small engines means that you don't have to mortgage your kids for a powerplant and none of the subassemblies are so big that one man can't easily move them around. It's the ideal airplane to build in a bedroom or attic. With just a few nonstructural mods, wheel pants and a spiffy paint job, it would be a great way for the average sized pilot to go aviating.

Yeh, she's not much for looks, but she sure can perform . . . and that's what counts.
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Configuration: Biplane Type of construction:
Tube fuselage Wood wings Fabric covering
Engine(s)-(no., make, model, rating): Continental A-80 50-85 hp recommended 80 hp
Wingspan (ft.-in.): 16 ft. 8 in.
Cord (in.): 36 in.
Length (ft. in.): 13 ft. 9 in.
Height (ft.-in.): 4 ft. 6 in.
Wing area (sq. ft.): 86
Number of seats: 1
Gross weight (Ibs.): 850
Useful load (Ibs.): 375
Empty weight (Ibs.): 475
Fuel capacity (gal.): 12
Max. speed (mph) 135 Cruising speed (mph)
118 Initial climb (S.L.) (fpm) 2000 Stall speed (mph) 50
Take off run (ft.) 300 Landing run (ft.)
(w/out brakes) 400
Service ceiling (ft.) 17000+
Max. range (mi.) 250