© 2010, Paul Berge

Much of my time with Buck Leopold’s Warner Sportster is spent explaining to admirers what it is not. "It’s not a Spacewalker—a Flybaby—a Spezio—or a Ryan PT22." The last was a stretch, but it’s come up. The engine is a 7-cylinder, 110-hp Australian Rotec and not a Rotax. And me? I’m not a real test pilot. I just happened to be standing around Leopold’s shop at the back of his son’s Iowa barn a few years back, when Buck asked, "Wanna test-fly it when it’s done?" Since it didn’t have any wings, engine or anything resembling an airplane attached, I replied, "Sure." I had little to risk considering that many barn projects rarely see the sunshine.

Six years later: "Clear prop!"

Before a crowd of camera-waving well-wishers I proceeded to run the battery down trying to start the engine. After hooking up jumper cables and getting a quick review on how to prime the engine using the electric fuel pump while actually turning the two ignition switches (one mag, one electronic) ON, it started. And that’s when I notice another "not." The Rotec does not sound like your grandfather’s Warner, Kinner or anything else with an odd number of jugs. When it lights off you’d swear you were in the county fair stockcar pits. The diminutive looking Rotec snorts and howls with a guttural snarl that lets you know it wants to pull something through the air. Buck’s son, Gary, an A&P mechanic who assisted on the project, leaned into the cockpit to let me know I shouldn’t idle the engine at redline.

I’ve never flown a Warner Sportster or a Spacewalker, Flybaby or Spezio. But I have ridden in a Ryan, and I own and fly a Marquart Charger biplane, so I figured the Sportster would fly like it.

It doesn’t.

The Sportster is a two-seat, open-cockpit taildragger, which is where the comparison to the Marquart ends. Without that upper wing the visibility is great. Although after liftoff when the airplane began to bank uncomfortably left and right in light turbulence I wished it had another, perhaps longer, wing. The 26-footer running beneath my puckered butt didn’t seem to have the lateral stability I’d hoped for. Still, I was airborne.

The ailerons were adjusted after the first flight in hopes it would stabilize the airplane. It didn’t. Frankly, I wasn’t at all comfortable flying this machine until we removed the front windshield and covered the front cockpit. The next flight was much better. Perhaps—and I’m just guessing since I’m a not an aeronautical engineer—the turbulence caused by the rather larger front windscreen interfered with the rudder causing a yawing motion, which I mistook for unwelcome roll. I don’t know, but I do know the airplane flies much better with the front hole capped.

To date we have about 17 hours on the airplane. Buck has since decreased the rear windshield angle, which improved wind buffeting in the cockpit. The Rotec has been cranky to start and lost 500 RPMs on one flight just as I was banking to the crosswind after takeoff. Got my attention, so I leveled the wings, and the RPMs resumed. Turning downwind—and still climbing because I wanted as much altitude as possible should all the RPMs go down under—the engine, again, lost 500 RPMs. Leveling the wings, RPMs returned. I landed, handed the airplane to Gary who spent two days inspecting the fuel system and Bing carburetor until he noted that with a full tank the fuel gauge float could possibly seal against the float’s wire guide and cut off outside air. The gauge is similar to a Cub fuel gauge, essentially a wire poking through the fuel cap. Gary drilled two air vents in the tube, and the problem was solved.

Overall, the Warner Sportster is fun to fly, at least with the front cockpit covered. It’s slow; cruising at about 85-90 MPH, burning 6 GPH of avgas while leaking lost of oil like a good radial should. Landings are easy. Approach at 70 MPH with partial power, and it rolls on. Power-off approaches are about what you’d expect from a short-winged draggy airplane. It sinks.

We have a few minor brake issues to resolve, and the joystick is too short to get full travel in a crosswind, particularly when dressed in bulky winter gear. And that phrase "bulky winter gear" tells you one more "not": This is not an airplane for winter wimps, so I won’t be flying it until as Brent Taylor advises, "The OAT exceeds my age." Think late spring—.