The First Year of Merl

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by Stu Simpson

I’ve been ‘Merling” for a full year now, and I’m having the time of my life.

For those who might not know, early last year another airplane crashed into and destroyed my beloved Green Giant at Linden. It was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. Three months later, I took to the air in “Merl” as I named my new 1991 Macair Merlin. I’ve been happily flying Merl ever since.

It’s been very interesting comparing Merl to the Giant. They both fit into the same class of airplane, but each plane’s designer achieved their goals in different ways.

For instance, the Giant’s fuse’ was made of aluminum tubes riveted together and bonded to a fiberglass and foam ‘bathtub’ north of the cockpit. The wing had foam ribs, wooden spar caps and a composite shear web.

Merl, on the other hand, is made with an entirely welded steel tube fuselage. The wings have all aluminum spars and foam ribs. The ailerons are Junkers style and hang right out in the breeze. The design was originally equipped with a centre Y stick. Both designs are fabric covered.

Let’s do some straight comparisons. Both airplanes have nice large cockpits. The visibility forward and up was better in the Giant, due to a taller cabin. But Merl allows me to see much better what’s behind and to the sides of me.

Merl’s bench seats are more comfortable than the Giant’s buckets were, especially over a long flight. In Merl, I’m actually able to stretch my feet across the cockpit to the opposite pedals if need be on a long flight. No way I could’ve done that in the Giant.

The Giant had the edge in control feel. The controls there were really smooth with just the right amount of feedback. It’s one of those details that you’d expect from a designer like Dave Marsden, who holds a Ph.D. in Aeronautical Engineering. Merl’s controls and control feel are much more pedestrian; not at all unpleasant, just not as nice as the Giant’s.

Merl’s controls are blessedly simple, though. I adore simplicity in airplanes, especially ones I have to maintain. I switched from the Macair centre Y stick to a fiendishly light, simple, effective and cheap dual stick arrangement. The Giant’s controls were a complex series of tubes, rod ends and welded plates that wound their way through the cockpit area.

The Giant’s trim system was better with a simple over-head lever as opposed to Merl’s tractor PTO control beneath the left seat. I do like the fact that Merl has its 19 gallons of fuel in wing tanks. The Giant only had about 16 gallons, kept in two different fuselage tanks, one of them right behind the cockpit.

Getting in and out of the Giant was a bit easier than getting into Merl, but Merl’s doors can open in flight since they hinge upward. This certainly makes starting the plane a lot simpler and safer when compared to the Giant. Merl has much easier access to the cockpit controls when I’m throwing the prop around.

One area where Merl shines over the Giant is in cargo space. With a large cargo deck behind the seats, which could be made even larger, I have no problems packing for a week of Air Adventuring. Packing extra gear was a lot more difficult in the Giant.

Something my wingmen really like is Merl’s colour. I continually hear from them how much easier it is to spot Merl in our formations. You’ll get that reaction when you switch from camo green to cherry red.

How do they compare in performance? Merl uses the engine that I salvaged from the Giant, a Continental A-75-8. I’m lucky enough to get to hand-prop it each time I want to commit flight.

Merl’s climb rate isn’t quite as good as the Giant’s was. It may be because Merl has a smaller wing than the Giant did, by about ten square feet. But I’m also taking off, on average, more heavily loaded with fuel than I did with the Giant. I often wonder if the Sensenich prop on Merl is as efficient as the Giant’s McCauley. However, when Merl’s light it jumps into the air.

It’s really enjoyable to go exploring short strips with the confidence that I can get Merl in and out of them. I didn’t have many worries with the Giant, either, except when it came to rougher surfaces. The Giant had smaller tubing on the gear and smaller tires. Its gear wasn’t quite as rugged. These days I happily land in summer-fallowed fields with Merl, but I’d have been reluctant to try it with the Giant.

The Giant’s ground handling was quite a bit better than Merl’s, but that’s largely due to some incorrect geometry in Merl’s tail wheel assembly. That’s on the fix-it list for this spring.

In the air, Merl and the Giant differ measurably. Merl has a faster roll rate, but is less stable in roll. It’s also more difficult to keep coordinated in a turn because of the Junkers ailerons. Merl’s a bit more sensitive in pitch, and is tougher to land well, compared to the Giant. Merl’s more sensitive than the Giant was. I don’t mind that one bit. I got into this game to fly, not to just sit and watch the airplane have all the fun.

Merl flies faster than the Giant did. I cruise quite easily around 80 mph, but that’s only a 5 mph edge over the Giant. I don’t need to go any faster. Merl’s a good cross country airplane. It fits right in with Champs, Chiefs, Cubs and T-Crafts. I’d happily take it just about anywhere.

By way of overall comparison to the Giant, Merl is a harder airplane to fly well. But it’s also that much more rewarding when I get it right. It’s more capable than the Giant was, and safer, due to its all steel construction and wing-mounted fuel tanks. With the tundra tires, it also provides more landing options.

The last year with Merl has really given me a strong sense of history, too, because it’s such a throwback to a simpler era. The Continental, designed in the 1930’s and built in the 40’s, is right at home dragging Merl around the sky. And it reinforces that connection to the past.

I was surprised to look at my log book and realize I’ve clocked about 115 hours in the last twelve months, more than I’ve ever flown in a year. With Merl, I’ve been all over Alberta and deep into the mountains of B.C. Hopefully, this year I’ll make it to northern Saskatchewan. Lucky me, eh?

I’m ever so pleased knowing that there’s still a place in the sky, and on grass strips everywhere, for airplanes like mine. If Merl and I have anything to say about it, there always will be.


And Merl Makes Five

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by Stu Simpson

I remember a June evening in 1992 when I set my Beaver down on a strip, a beat-up pasture really, near Langdon. It was where Ron and Bernie Then kept their new red & blue Macair Merlin, labeled C-IDDN. I recall admiring the Merlin but being skeptical of the centre “Y” stick. I saw the Merlin a few times after that flying around the area. Each time I wished I could own a fully enclosed airplane like that someday, and I envied those guys flying it.

Naturally, I had no idea that I would actually own that very airplane fourteen years later. But I do own it now, and I call it Merl.

Endings and Beginnings

On January 14th, someone landed a Cessna 172 hot, long and downwind at Linden and crashed into my beloved Green Giant, almost totally destroying it. The enormity of that day hit me when I got back to Kirkby Field and opened up my hangar to see nothing there. I was later able to salvage the Continental A-75 engine, the instrument panel and the seats.

I couldn’t sit idle for long. There was flying to be done and I was missing out. I eventually received a reasonable insurance settlement and bought C-IDDN.

I soon found out that the Thens sold it to Dr. Jack Barlass, who subsequently sold it to Gary Fox, of Nanton. Several of us flew to Fox’s strip in the Porcupine Hills one winter day in 2002. Again I admired the Merlin, and again I recall not preferring the centre stick. Richard Schmidt had purchased the Merlin from Fox just a few days prior. I looked forward then to him joining the Dragonflies soon.

Well, Schmidt did make some trips with the Dragonflies over the next few years. He also made some improvements to the Merlin and put some hours on it, both of which are healthy things for an airplane. But I still never thought for a second that I’d ever own it.

Exactly five weeks after losing the Giant, though, I handed over a cheque to buy C-IDDN from Schmidt. It had been sitting at Indus for a few months where it acquired a layer of dust accented by bird turd and kitty prints. Wayne Winters generously flew it to Kirkby’s for me. I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to see a pair of solid wings in my hangar once more.

The Real Work Begins

Now the real work started. I had numerous changes in mind for Merl, as I’d named it. Primary among them was an engine change. Equally important was having a place where I could do the job. Bob Kirkby has my unending gratitude for making his heated hangar available for the job. I look forward to when I can return the favour.

My Continental checked out ok with Ken Vike, engine re-builder par excellence’ in Kamloops. It was on its way back to Calgary and would soon adorn Merl’s new nose. Naturally, the Rotax had to be removed and sold, which happened in less than a week. Gary Abel bought it with plans to stuff it into the front of his Cubby II. That airplane will really perform with a 582 in it.

Since the Continental relies on gravity for its fuel flow, I’d also need wing tanks. With a total capacity of nearly 20 gallons, these were naturally supplied by Wayne Winters. Interestingly, the old Macair wing is tapered both in chord and depth, unlike Winters’ current constant chord wing. This meant the wing tanks were just a bit big and had to be cut down by half a gallon or less. Along with the fuel tanks, Wayne’s also supplied a great deal of knowledge and insight into the Merlin design and structure. What a treat it is to have the Merlin factory so close to home.

The wing tank installation was quite a chore, but I managed to get them in safely and securely. They’ll give me nearly 5 hours of range.

I also had to make some minor changes to the cabin structure and the landing gear, the welding for which was done by Garrett Komm. Mike Sweere and Ted Beck welded up the new engine mount for me.

Remember how I’ve mentioned that I didn’t like the centre “Y” stick? Well, I decided to do something about it. I designed a simple dual stick arrangement and Winters welded it up. It’s basically “U”-shaped and attaches to the same collar the centre stick did. It pivots on that centre torque tube and essentially functions as a large yoke. When I move the stick right or left, it doesn’t pivot on the floor, it rotates on the centre torque tube. It feels very natural and is really easy to adapt to. Glen Bishell’s been successfully flying a very similar arrangement for a few years in his Bush Caddy. Winters is toying with the idea of offering it as an option on the Merlins.

Next came the design and fabrication of the rest of the panel forward structure. This was relatively easy after what Gerry Theroux taught me last year when we did the same conversion on the Giant. In fact, I’m very proud of the fact I only had to call him twice for advice on this project. And when he looked at the finished project, nearly everything met “Gerry Spec”.

Weight and balance was a pleasant surprise. Merl weighed out to 700 pounds empty and well within the published C.G. range. In fact, it gave me quite a bit of room to play with as far as adding cargo capacity aft of the cockpit.

Three months to the day of the Giant’s demise, I tied Merl down and ran it up. The Continental fired on the second blade and oil pressure was instant and good. The wind was pretty gusty that morning so I planned only on some taxi tests to start. The taxiing went well so I decided to graduate to some runway runs and maybe crow hops. Those also went well, so I decided to fly it.

I sat at the end of the runway and pushed the throttle all the way in. Merl was airborne in about 200 feet, maybe less, and climbing about 600 fpm. That high-lift wing was definitely doing its thing.

I flew around northeast of the field for about 20 minutes and got a proper feel for the controls. The ailerons were a bit sloppy, but I knew I could adjust that. I brought it back into the circuit and set down nicely on Kirkby’s runway 16. I noted the oil pressure was quite a bit lower than I’d like, and I wondered why.

I made a few more flights in the following week and a few things became apparent. Despite having adjusted the ailerons’ play and position, the system was still binding a bit somewhere. Also, the oil pressure was too low when the oil temperature was high. And finally, I was having a lot of trouble keeping Merl coordinated in turns.

I talked to Winters and Andy Gustafson about the yaw problem. Both told me Merlins have a lot of adverse yaw due to the Junkers style ailerons. That made sense, so at Winters’ urging, I use aileron to enter a turn and lots of rudder to maintain the coordination. I also added a small trim tab to the rudder. The ailerons stiffness was solved with some lubricant in the right places. Now the system is nearly frictionless.

As for the oil pressure, I tried everything I could thing of, and that Vike could think of. Finally, I sent it back for him to examine. His shop ran it on a test stand and got excellent pressure at temperature, then determined that there was something wrong with the hose linking the engine to the gauge. It’s likely a small bit of rubber that’s flapping and acting as a valve. Pretty easy to fix. At this writing I hope to have the engine back and installed within days. Then I can really get back to getting to know my new airplane.

Merl’s the fifth airplane that I’ve owned and I think I’m going to love it. It’s got all the features important to me in an airplane; good STOL performance, good speed, long legs, roomy cockpit, sturdy construction and fun to fly. With any luck, it’ll be the last plane I own for a great many years to come.

My many thanks go to the various members of the CUFC, only some of whom are mentioned here, for all their help, knowledge and skill on this project. Their generosity and willingness to give are precisely why our club is the high-quality, professional organization that it is. I’m very proud to be associated with you all.