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Thursday, 05 June 2014 09:34

Leo Loudenslager and the Laser 200 Featured

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Leo LoudenslagerJust like we can't talk about the Pitts Special without talking about Curtis Pitts, we can't talk about the Laser 200 without mentioning Leo Loudenslager. These planes signify a turning point in the history of aerobatics; they are the fruit of work, a shared passion, and a philosophy demonstrated by the sacrifice of these people's lives.

Leo Loudenslager is considered responsible for ending the reign that the biplane created by Curtis Pitts, the Pitts Special, had established in aerobatic competition circuits throughout the world. Although the Pitts continued to defeat the Czech Zlins at the beginning of the 1970s in Europe, in the U.S. the domination of Leo's advanced single-seater over the biplanes had already been predicted.

Leo went down in U.S. history as winning 7 national aerobatic titles and being the second American pilot to win the title of World Aerobatic Champion during the World Championship held in Salón de Provence in 1980. (The first was Charlie Hillard in 1972.)

Leo flying inverted with his Bud-Laser
Leo flying inverted with his Bud-Laser

In his beginnings, he served in the Air Force as a B-52 mechanic. While he was stationed at Travis Air Force Base, he attended the first air race of the Reno Air Races. According to him, seeing the air exhibitions of Bob Hoover and Duane Cole sparked his interest in becoming an aerobatic pilot.   From then on, they became his heroes. He desired to reach their level and to compete to be the best of the best. His first classes were at the military base's aero club. By 1966, at the age of 22, he had acquired the necessary knowledge to begin working as a copilot for American Airlines, where he would work for the rest of his life. Working for an airline gave him the opportunity to accumulate hours and have steady income, making it the perfect platform for achieving his aerobatic goal of being the best in the world.

Like many things in life, Leo's beginnings in aerobatic flight were very unusual. He first appeared on the aerobatic circuit virtually unknown. No one in the industry had heard talk of him or his modified Stephens Akro plane. The plane was a single-seater initially designed by Clayton Stephens to compete against the Pitts and had been petitioned by the aerobatic pilot Margaret Ritchie, who wanted to defeat her rival Mary Gaffaney.

Leo was the World Champion in 1980.
Leo was the World Champion in 1980.

In 1971, he entered the Unlimited category to compete for the nationals in Oak Grove, Texas. This was a feat no one had previously attempted: a new pilot with a recently released plane competing to make the world team. Although he didn't make the team that year, his good manners and determination were an inspiration for the pilots that did make the team.

The Akro had certain structural and control problems, which Leo worked on for its continued improvement. According to Budd Davisson, Leo's friend and sponsor, "It was incredible to see his plane disassembled into a million pieces a week before the national championships, and then have it be ready the day of the championship." This was because he was always changing, redesigning, and rebuilding his plane. In the end, his plane had only 10% of its original design intact, specifically the pipes that went from the wing to the tail. In all of his modifications, he was obsessed with eliminating every unnecessary gram of weight possible. This led to the external shape of the plane we know as the Láser 200. On the inside, there were a million tiny secrets that only Leo knew.

After 4 years of alterations to the plane and many hours of practice, Leo won his first U.S. national championship and became part of the team. This victory allowed him to lead the U.S. team to the World Championships held in Kiev, Russia in 1976. Although Leo and his team did not do well at the Championship, this did not affect him returning to win. He earned the title in the National Championships six more times: in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1982. In 1980 Leo achieved what he had been pursuing for so long: the world aerobatics title. He became one of only two Americans to earn this place in history, and the only one to win 7 national titles.

Laser 200 in the Smithsonian museum
Laser 200 in the Smithsonian museum

His achievements in the airshow industry also made him a reference for all those pilots he beat in competitions. He was the first winner of the prestigious Víctor Award for having achieved such extraordinary outcomes in the sport. He also received the ICAS Sword of Excellence, the Bill Barber Award, the Art Scholl Showmanship Award, and was inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame, besides winning 8 gold medals, 5 silver medals, and 3 bronze medals at world championships.

The Bud-Light Laser 200, as they called it, was a fairly traditional one-seater, but Leo wanted to build an extremely light aerobatic plane that would put him ahead of his competitors. With his obsession with having an extreme power-to-weight ratio, Leo spoke to the heads of Zivko Aeronautics, Inc. (ZAI), since they were the only ones with the necessary experience to make his dream a reality.

In 1991 ZAI, jointly with Leo, began to develop the "Shark." The Shark would be completely different than any other aerobatic plane. It was made from cutting-edge materials, with a tail designed for extreme maneuverability, and some control surface deflection of more than 60 degrees. According to calculations, the plane had a power-to-weight ratio that could reach 1.2:1.

Unfortunately, the plane never took flight. On July 28, 1997, Leo was in a motorcycle accident near his home in Tennessee. He died a month later at Vanderbilt University Medical Center from injuries related to the accident.  It was approximately 30 days before the first flight of a project that had been conceived for 7 years.

Leo taught aerobatics to students
Leo taught aerobatics to students

 

The Shark. Very similar to the actual Zivko Edge 540

The Shark. Very similar to the actual

Zivko Edge 540

The Láser 200 plane, with which he reaped his major successes, was donated to the Smithsonian in 1999.  It was on exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum from October 2001 to April 2003. Currently, it can be seen hanging in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.

 

Leo Loudenslager was a pilot that was fully dedicated to his passion, infecting the people around him with the enthusiasm he constantly embodied.  Meticulous by nature, he always worked to fly safely at all his shows, and he loved to help new aerobatic pilots and students improve their skills. For this reason, the International Council of Air Shows Foundation maintains a scholarship in his name that rotates among chosen members of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds to defray the costs of flight training.  He is considered the father of the Láser 200, and to some extent, of the current Zivko Edge 540. 

 

References:

  1. The Monoplane Legacy of Leo Loudenslager
  2. Leo Loudenslager Memorial
  3. Advanced Aerobatics – Geza Szurovy Mike Goulian Edit. Mac Graw Hill
  4. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
  5. Airventure museum
  6. Wikipedia – Leo Loudenslager
  7. Hooked on rc planes
  8. Multilingual archive

 

Read 58643 times Last modified on Thursday, 05 June 2014 10:22
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