It’s a bird.
It’s a plane.
It is a plane – the world’s smallest jet – the BD-5J FLS Microjet was on static display at Frontiers of Flight Museum May 10-11.
The precursor of this tiny jet became famous in the 1983 James Bond film, “Octopussy,” when 007 flew the world’s smallest jet through a hangar during the opening scene. Jim Bede originally designed the jet in the 1970’s as a low cost, home built, jet aircraft. It was difficult to build and Bede Aircraft soon closed its doors with only a few examples to show for their efforts.
The BD-5J FLS Microjet is an upgraded version of the original design with modern navigational equipment and control surfaces, as well as, a new engine for extended range. It can reach speeds in excess of 300 miles per hour and weighs 416 pounds without fuel. Highly maneuverable, the aircraft is only 13 feet long with a wingspan of 17 feet. The original airplane was propeller driven.
Its pilot, Justin Lewis, was born in Texas, raised in Virginia, and now lives in Oklahoma City. Lewis started flying at age 14 and received his pilot’s license at 17. A graduate of the University of North Dakota with a BS in Aeronautical Studies, Lewis joined the Navy where he completed Navy flight school in 2001, graduating at the top of his class. He was assigned to fly the F-14D “Tomcat”, and in 2007, began training carrier pilots in the T-45 “Goshawk”.
Lewis joined the Arkansas Air National Guard in 2011 and flies the A-10C “Warthog.” Last year, he served in Afghanistan.
He flies the FLS Microjet at air shows around the country.
“The designers thought they would be able to put a jet engine in it without changing the shape, and it would be even more high-performance,” Lewis said. “(About) 1971, they started talking about doing that, and they came up with the BD-5J with a jet engine inside of it. They marketed and sold a bunch of those, but they never delivered any of the kits.
“They had too many problems with the business at the time, so the only BD-5J’s ever built were the ones built in the factory,” Lewis said. “There’s a few exceptions out there where people rebuilt them on their own after one crashed. Today, there are only two BD-5Js that still exist. After the company went out of business, the ones that did exist were very popular on the air show circuit.”
Those were the Coors Lite Silver Bullet jet team also known as the Bud Light Air Force.
“By the mid-1990’s, you didn’t see them anymore,” Lewis said. “The technology was getting old; the parts to replace them were getting old; the people flying them were getting old. Their safety record had been bad, and only a few still remained.
“Today, two of the original Coors Lite Silver Bullets are the only ones remaining and they currently do Department of Defense (DOD) contracts with the government,” Lewis said. “They act as cruise missiles. They’re so small that they look like radar targets that are the same shape and size as cruise missiles. The DOD rents them out and they fly around and get tracked by radar to train people how to intercept cruise missiles. They no longer do air shows.”
Lewis is one of the pilots that fly the old Silver Bullet for the DOD.
“About eight or nine years ago, I started this project right here,” Lewis said gesturing toward the ‘world’s smallest jet.’“This is a BD-5, but we started it from scratch. This is the very first successfully built BD-5 microjet outside of the factory from scratch. We essentially took the BD-5 and went head-to-toe through the whole aircraft and we said, ‘How can we improve the safety record of this aircraft and bring it up date and more in line with today’s technology?’
“This is the very first one of the new microjets out there,” Lewis said. “We call it the FLS Microjet. We want to recognize that we upgraded the old BD-5J design, but we also want to stand off a little bit from (it) to show that this is born out of the BD-5J design, but it’s a very different aircraft because of the redundancy in the safety record of this.
“There is a plan for me to build a second one, and you can actually have people build these up in Oregon at BD Micro-technologies, the company I work with to re-engineer this kit aircraft,” Lewis said. “They sell it now as a builder assistance program. You go to Oregon, and you build it with them over the course of a year. Very few will ever be built.
“It’s a pretty exclusive type of customer that has the kind of high performance experience to build something like this. You’re looking at close to $200,000 to put this together,” he said.
The company predicts they will sell about 10.
“That’s just with the stockpile of parts they have,” Lewis said. “That should be enough to get them out there and reinvigorate the microjet community and get them flying.”
“I was the person that test flew this airplane and I hadn’t flown a BD-5 in the past,” Lewis said. “There was a little bit of knowledge out there from people like Bob Bishop, who is a very famous airshow pilot who flew the old Coors Light Silver Bullet. The other piece of the puzzle is that I have a lot of other experience in high performance jet aircraft, general aviation aircraft and experimental aircraft where I built another airplane.
“So, you take all the pieces of experience that may not be with the microjet, but when you sum them all up together, your experience leads you to make a really good decision on how the microjet is going to fly before you ever step into it.”
In the future, people who build the aircraft will have to work with Lewis and get flight instruction from him.
“The FAA will make those people go through me to get checked out on this aircraft.”
He said there will be no trainer airplane built.
“A trainer isn’t necessary, but the right kind of experience to be able to come to me is,” Lewis said. “If someone has about 1,000 hours, and most of that is in high performance type aircraft – it doesn’t even have to be jet aircraft – but high performance type aircraft, then I think (they’re) a good candidate for being able to fly this airplane.”
It took Lewis five years to build the aircraft.
“We did all the research and development together,” Lewis said. “I pretended to be their first customer and we went through that process. I built it; I test flew it; I created the test program, the flight training program and now I bring this to airshows all over the country.
“The wings come off with a single bolt,” he said. “(It) is about as big as a human being, so we put them in sleeping bags. We can put it in the trailer in about 20 minutes after a flight. It will still be warm from the flight it did.
“That makes it very neat for bringing it to venues where we can inspire kids to get into aviation,” Lewis said.“I like using this for getting kids into science, technology, engineering and math. It’s not just aviation; it’s all those things that are important for getting kids involved with something extraordinary in the future.”
He said he did think of what educators now call STEM skills when he was in middle school and high school. He and his brother Braxton Lewis, who is an engineer today, would both skip study hall and lunch to go to extra physics and math classes.
“We wouldn’t necessarily do that well, but it wasn’t because we weren’t paying attention, it was because we were out exploring so much stuff, that it was hard to do all we were being told to do,” Lewis said. “It’s neat when you look back when you get a little older and you put the logical conclusion on how you arrived at being the BD-5 guy. I know I’m lucky to be here, but you also have to look at how the stars aligned.
“I loved aviation,” Lewis said. “That was the root of that. Part of my love of aviation was doing anything I could before I was old enough to fly. Around the time I was 14 … Experimental Aircraft Association was an organization I got involved in. They were very encouraging. I flew through them. People let me help them build their airplanes. I probably wasn’t helping, but they were teaching me. That was a big influence, and that carried on with my parent’s encouraging me to fly.
“Going into the military was a big deal and provided that high performance jet background,” Lewis said. “So when you look back at all of this – me being a flight instructor, having general aviation, civilian experience, military, building the airplanes – you put it all together, and then I can see how I arrived at this spot. I could probably take any one of those things out and I don’t think I would be in this position today.”
Lewis said when he talks to children at airshows he tells them to go out and create their own opportunity.
“Don’t be at home when you’re interested in aviation,” he said. “Go to the airport, and don’t even have a plan. If you don’t know what you’re doing there, just stand there, you’ll figure it out. There are people you can talk to. Get more and more information. Get involved in your community, with what you want to do, and if you have a passion for it, it should be pretty easy to do that.
“I think the most important thing to tell kids is … the biggest thing you need to do is try,” Lewis said. “When you see somebody that’s elevated to a high position, and it looks like it’s a long way from where you are, and it’s an extraordinary step to make, what you don’t realize is: it’s a series of small steps to get there and all you really need to do is try. So many people see that as such a drastic step that they won’t even try.
“I think when people give something a shot, even when they’re not going to do well at it, if they just try, they are already 90 percent of the way there,” he said. “When you look back on it, you realize this was not as hard as I thought it was going to be.
“Have the confidence to just go out there and risk failing,” Lewis said. “It’s okay.”
Lewis has not flown his microjet in the Dallas area, but he said he is hoping to be invited to an airshow in the Metroplex.