An American Classic Returns in Style
Report and Photos by Dan Johnson
The CLASSIC Maxair Drifter is back!
This is NOT the Australian version of the Drifter reported in various magazines a few months ago. Indeed, this Drifter is not only built like the classic original (mostly), but it is also built by leaders of the old company.
Famous for his twin-engine "ultralight" Air Cam, Phil Lockwood is the main force behind the new-old Drifter. In the original company, Phil served as the head of marketing. Working with Phil is his former boss, Denny Franklin, the original owner of Maxair and co-designer of the Drifter.
Franklin and his team lost the company to an unsavory man in the late 1980s, who subsequently took the company to closing. Lockwood escaped this period but had to fend for himself. He became a Rotax engine dealer and has methodically built a surprisingly diverse and large organization.
Lockwood's career has climbed steadily higher. Today, his enterprises use multiple company names, and they are housed in several brand-new, custom-designed buildings at the Sebring, Florida airport. Many auto racing fans know this name as Sebring is host to several famous races. The airport is located directly alongside the race track and, in fact, they co-exist quite well.
These days, Lockwood's businesses sell lots of Rotax engines and parts, have an entire machine shop and engineering staff, plus build the Air Cam, all Flightstars - under contract with that company - and now, the Drifter. One simply must admire both the quantity of the work going on at the Lockwood companies AND the quality. Lockwood has a well deserved reputation for quality and refined appearance, and his enterprise reflects this sense of style.
Much of the fast development is owed to Lockwood's relationship with investor Antonio Leza, himself a flying enthusiast. With Leza's help, the Air Cam has come to market and all the airplane-building activities are in superb shape, with top equipment and new facilities.
Thanks to Lockwood's vision and and Leza's money, you'll find one of the very finest operations in light aviation. Nonetheless, neither man claims all the credit as they have many worthy employees that help implement their plans. In fact, perhaps the main strength of Leza-Lockwood is their pool of dedicated and experienced employees.
WELCOME BACK, DRIFTER
For the time being, Leza-Lockwood will stick with manufacturing the two-seat version that has sold around the world in large numbers. A single seater may follow, however... company officials acknowledge the delight of light, single seat aircraft.
UNLIKE the strut-braced Australian version, the Leza-Lockwood Drifter will keep its strong and low-drag wire bracing system. In fact, they've determined that the structure is more than adequate even for the bulky Rotax 912 engine seen in the photos. A more robust engine mount is used, of course.
Other than the big engine (more on that later), the new-old Classic Drifter offers most of the same benefits long associated with the design.
Controls on the Drifter are very light, yet simple. Composed of aircraft quality pulleys and cables and push rods with rod-end bearings, Drifter has virtually no looseness in the controls. Pilots feel the force directly and this yields a high confidence.
Because the Drifter is a long aircraft, it possesses unusual stability in the longitudinal axis. Coupled with a large vertical fin and low center of gravity, the Drifter is a very solid and stable-flying ultralight.
The Drifter has proven itself very well on floats also. It flies in many locations on water, and several design qualities lend themselves to this use. The prop is protected from ground or water strikes. Putting both pilots in tandem keeps roll inertia down. And that large tail with light controls makes it easier to gain full control input as needed.
In fact, the aircraft in these photos was built to be used in the tough job of banner towing in Cancun, Mexico. As proof the machines are the right choice, banner towing businessman, Luis Barocio has one Drifter with a reported 10,000 hours on it. All its flying life, this original-style Drifter has been in salt water and towing banners or giving rides.
Of course, Barocio is quick to give some credit to the maintenance assistance he has received for years from Phil Lockwood. Even while the first Drifter company was in trouble, Lockwood kept support available for the over 1,000 Drifters built by the former Maxair company.
Nonetheless, Barocio once used Cessnas for banner towing duty, and he says, "The Drifter is better at this than the general aviation aircraft."
Indeed, as we watched, the "loiter time" of the Drifter endears it to advertisers who want their message dangled in front of tourists.
However, because the Drifter is long lived and does its job well, Barocio wanted more. When Lockwood brought back active manufacturing of the Classic Drifter, Luis took note. When they offered to build the plane completely and design a mount for the Rotax 912 installation, Barocio signed the contract.
He figures to put the big four-stroke engine to a good test. Will it truly burn only three and a half gallons an hour? Will it run for hundreds of hours between overhauls? Will a quieter operation and less vibration fatigue the pilot less? Can the Classic Drifter 912 keep up with Barocio's busy enterprise?
Only time will tell, but one thing is sure: Barocio or one his pilots will probably wear a broad grin when they fly the new Classic Drifter 912 built by Leza-Lockwood. It's a smile-making machine.
For more information about the Classic Drifter, contact