Getting Around in the 'Super' Drifter

Last edited: 2 May 2023, 4:09pm

Words & Images Mark Smith

How do you make an iconic aircraft better? Add more power! Mark Smith got to fly a Drifter with grunt.

Fifteen horsepower doesn’t sound much in aviation terms, so you’d think the jump from a 65hp Rotax 582 to an 80hp 912 wouldn’t make a huge difference to the performance of an aircraft.

But, if you believe that I can tell you after flying the 912 powered Drifter at Gympie how wrong such thinking is.

I’ve only recently been back flying a Drifter after a break of 23 years and I always found the acceleration with the 582 quite
brisk, even two up. But applying power on the 912-powered beast, owned by Robert Fraser, Rob Golden and Allan Griffith was a whole new experience.

Robert Fraser (left) and Rob Golden

Drifters are aeroplanes you experience as much as you fly. From the front seat the world stretches out in a wide panorama,
with your legs and lower body protected from the airflow by a fibreglass pod and your upper body by a low windscreen. Goggles with your helmet are highly recommended, as much as a safety concern as to keep the wind out of your eyes. A fly
hitting your Mk1 eyeball at 65kts could do a lot of damage.

With Rob in the back, the acceleration pushed me back into my seat a touch and the whole take off roll was about 100 metres. It could have been shorter but the initial acceleration left my brain at the threshold while the aeroplane zoomed away!

Climb speed was about the same as normal at around 50kts but the VSI showed a healthy 1100fpm with the outside air temp sitting around 34, way better than the 500fpm I used to see two up in a 582 powered Drifter. I noticed the noise level
was lower with the big four stroke as well.

Levelling at 2500 and with the throttle back to 5000rpm she settled at 65kts. With the power back the noise level was even
lower than the high pitched ‘hive of bees’ sound of the 582. At that power setting fuel burn is about the same as the 582. 4800rpm produced 60kts, which Rob told me is their normal power setting for any trips they make.

Once set up in straight and level it became pretty much like any other Drifter I’ve flown. No matter how much power you’d put in one, the drag is always going to defeat any attempt to improve the speed, so even pushing the 912 up to full power
and trimming it level only saw the speed increase to 70kts. But that’s not the point of Drifter flying – it’s in the senses, as it is in any open cockpit aeroplane, just more so.

Look straight down and there’s the ground way below. Rotate your head and the vista runs beyond 180 degrees with almost nothing in the way.

What makes the Drifter such a great trainer is the need to fly it properly. Turns require accurate rudder input and you soon learn if you are skidding or slipping by the feel of the wind on your face. With the engine at the back you have fewer visual cues to set attitude with. But get that right and it’ll reward a pilot with the best view in the world.

Power back to idle, keep the speed trimmed for 60kts and like all Drifters it comes down, fast. Again drag wins. I find 4800 on down wind and base, then slowly reduce on final to allow for 50kts over the fence which produces an acceptable  touchdown. Again, this is an aeroplane that needs to be flown.

A 912 on a drifter. Such a good combination.

How the 912 Drifter came into being in Australia is a story worth telling. Along with Rob Golden, co-owner Robert Fraser, president of Gympie Aero Club, explains what led to the conversion.

“We bought the Drifter 11 years ago in a fairly rundown condition. It had a Rotax 582 grey top in it. We took it to Wayne Fischer to have the grey top changed to a blue top and then flew it for six years. Then I had an engine failure with the 582 and we thought four strokes were a much safer option. It would also give a bit more power. We didn’t want extra speed but a better climb,” says Robert. Rob chimes in.

“I got out over the back here in a valley on a really hot day. I slid into the valley quite nicely but do you think I could climb out? It took me 15 minutes to get out of there. It was a hot day and with the 582 it just would not climb. I thought this is ridiculous. People can get in trouble doing that. That was one of the reasons that when Robert suggested the 912 I went yep, no worries.”

The owners contacted then-RAAus technical manager Darren Barnfield for guidance in how to go about converting the aircraft. Robert takes up the story again.

“We had a chat to Darren and he said it hadn’t been done before and it would be very difficult, but there was a new  certification process coming along and he might be able to put it through that process and that’s what we did. Part of that was we had to employ an aeronautical engineer. Darren and I were corresponding on an almost weekly basis. The paperwork file is an inch thick.

“It cost us about $7000 for the aeronautical report and the last fee from RAAus was about $3000 so all told we spent around
$12,000 on the engineering and regulatory paperwork side of things, plus the cost of the engine plus the huge number of man hours. Rob and I built it ourselves. It was nearly a three year operation if you include the flight testing. While the engine was off we took the aeroplane back to bare metal and replaced every screw, nut and bolt in it. Anything we could make better while putting it back together we did.”

Both are true Drifter enthusiasts, whose passion for the open cockpit experience is what led them to invest so much time and money in the upgrade. Robert actually learned to fly specifically so he could fly Drifters, after a long career as an endurance dirt bike rider.

“As I got older I realised I was going to have to give motorbike racing away because it’s not a sport you can do when you are a bit older.

“I always thought I’d like to get involved with ultralight flying when I finished riding which is what I did. The last race I did was the Finke desert race about 12 years ago and after that race I decided to give it away and wanted to something as exciting and I found that with flying a Drifter. I learned on a SportStar here at Gympie and then did some time on a Drifter at Boonah and also with Kevin Walters after that. Then I bought into this aircraft,” he says.

Rob learned on GA before giving up flying for a number of years. A chance encounter with a Drifter brought him back into the fold.

“I had moved to Darwin and as I was driving home from work one day a Drifter flew over me and I thought it looked interesting so I followed it all the way into the bush and there is an airfield called ‘MKT’.

It’s quite a thriving little aerodrome and they had a flying school with two Drifters, so I did a conversion. I actually bought that Drifter up there. It’s fair to say RAAus got me back into aviation.”

The group have created a unique aircraft that enhances the safety of a great design. While some people would question
why they put so much time, effort and money into an aeroplane like a Drifter, a flight at sunset in the front seat would
answer all those questions and then some. The Drifter is all about the journey, never the destination.

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