They Help The Sick Of Flying

February 15, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

For the last four years, Hugh Schmittle and Odile Legeay have had one burning desire -- making a commercially viable airplane that would not make people airsick.

The two entrepreneurs are the principals of Freewing Aircraft Corp., a fledgling College Park company that has developed an airplane that uses the "freewing" -- a wing that is hinged to a top of a plane and provides a less turbulent ride.

A fixed-wing airplane, particularly with smaller craft, is at the mercy of thermal currents and other disturbances. If a gust of wind hits a fixed wing, the whole plane moves -- someone might lose their lunch.

But the freewing, originally known as the "rocking" wing, can pivot on its hinges, absorbing wind turbulence rather than jarring the fuselage.

Besides providing a smoother ride, the freewing eliminates midair stalls -- where a plane's wing moves through the air at the wrong angle and the craft starts to fall.

The idea of a freewing is as old as heavier-than-air flight, first promoted by French aviation pioneer Octave Chanute at the turn of the century. But the people who actually got off the ground first -- the Wright brothers -- used fix wings, and that became the industry standard. Rocking wings became a historical footnote.

That is, until Mr. Schmittle and Ms. Legeay latched on to the idea.

The quest to make the concept a commercial reality took a giantleap last week at the College Park Airport when the company rolled out its production model -- a small two-seat enclosed airplane.

To the casual observer, the plane looks like any other small plane. But up close, you can see that the top-mounted wing is on hinges and can be moved up and down. There is also a control inside the cockpit that locks the wing into place to give the plane extra lift on takeoffs.

Even though it is ready to fly, the first trip the plane will take will be by truck to Lakeland, Fla., where it will appear in the Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In in April. It will also receive its Federal Aviation Administration certification there. Then, in June, it will go to the Paris Air Show.

Mr. Schmittle, president of the company, got the idea for a freewing aircraft 15 years ago when he and a fellow worker at the U.S. Labor Department decided to try their hand at building an ultralight aircraft using the freewing.

"It was a hobby that got out of control," said Ms. Legeay.

The project didn't work, but Mr. Schmittle continued to tinker with the idea as he took jobs at the Navy Department and Aerospatiale, a French-owned company. Holder of an undergraduate degree in ancient philosophy, he taught himself aerodynamic engineering to pursue his interest.

Then he met Ms. Legeay in 1985 at a meeting of French companies at the French Embassy in Washington.

"I found it fascinating," said Ms. Legeay, who was working for a French sailboat manufacturer at the time and had an extensive financial background.

Ms. Legeay, the company's executive vice president, also provided the business know-how to set up the business.

"I wouldn't know a cash flow statement from a water flow statement," Mr. Schmittle said.

Together they incorporated the business in 1987 and set off looking for help. They found at it the University of Maryland's Technology Advancement Program (TAP) -- a state-supported effort to nurture struggling young companies on the cutting edge of technology.

In 1989, they entered the program and set up its eight-member research and development team on the College Park campus. The company also got financial support from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships, a state agency that supports new technology.

They both quit their regular jobs in 1989 to work full time on their company, which stretched their financial resources to the limit. Besides charging up their credit cards, the pair took on extra jobs -- Ms. Legeay translated French, and Mr. Schmittle typed and played the piano at clubs.

While they were struggling to keep their company afloat, they found they worked so well together that they got married two years ago.

Now with their first production model completed, they are attracting a great deal of attention, and about 1,000 people have already expressed interest in buying the small plane once it is available to the public. The cost of the planes would range from $15,000 to $20,000 if they are sold as kits or $35,000 to $40,000 fully assembled.

Meanwhile, the company is trying to raise $3 million to $5 million ++ in a private stock offering to start production of the airplane at a proposed site at the Hagerstown Airport.

About a year ago the company also adapted the freewing technology to unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, that can be used for military applications.

They are talking to major aerospace companies about various joint efforts that could see the airplane or the unmanned aerial vehicle produced under license from Freewing.

But the pair will not be content to just to see the planes and the drones produced; they want to build bigger planes and hope to make a commuter airplane in the next 10 years.

"We want to advance this very rapidly," Mr. Schmittle said.

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