• Silver Argosy Part 1

    John Thorp may not be as well known today as Burt Rutan, but in the sixties he occupied a similar pedestal in the world of homebuilt aviation. His Thorp T-18 was a pioneering all-metal single engine design that achieved cult status by the seventies and is still occasionally built today. He and another aeronautical engineer named Fred Weik went to Piper in the early sixties and developed the Cherokee line. They took, as their starting point, one of Thorp's earlier designs, one that had its origins immediately after the end of WWII, the SkySkooter.

    Thorp's original design, the Lockheed "Little Dipper", in front of a more familiar Lockheed product. The Dipper was intended to be every soldier's airplane, a craft that could be flown by an infantryman with virtually no training. It never served in that role, of course, but it would become the inspiration and basis for the first Sky Skooter in 1946. Wikipedia Photo

    By the end of the Second World War, it seemed that the entire world would be flying airplanes back and forth to the grocery store every day. Tens of thousands of men (and a fair number of women as well) had become qualified as pilots, and it was assumed that many if not most of these would be clamoring to buy and fly an airplane of their own just as soon as they mustered out of the service. A number of outfits began planning to provide these pilots with the airplanes they were thought to want, one of which was the Thorp Aircraft Company. Thorp's entry in the airplane lottery was a very small single engine low wing design that had its origins in an effort during the war to produce an airplane that an infantryman could fly almost without any training. This design was fitted with an 85hp engine and dubbed the T-11 SkySkooter. Three pre-production prototypes were built in 1946, and the design was certificated by the old CAA in that year.

    This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that pundits overestimated the interest of the American public in private aviation. It turned out that most of the war-trained pilots had had air experiences that were not at all conducive to either pursuing a career as a pilot or buying and flying a personal plane. Many of them left their wings in the top drawer of the dresser and pursued careers with both feet firmly on the ground. And even for those who actually remained eager to slip the surly bonds, there were surplus airplanes by the thousands available for pennies on the dollar all over the country. A new design from a little known company was doomed from the start. The SkySkooter, although an excellent airplane, never made it off the ground commercially - only those three were built. And so things seemed to stay, for awhile at least.

    A drawing of the T-211 showing the simplicity of construction. Photo from Pinterest

    Fast forward to the mid sixties. By then the T-11 derived Cherokee was well on its way to becoming one of the world's most popular light airplanes, to say nothing of being the scion of an entire family of planes from the Cherokee 140 all the way eventually to the Seneca twin. And in those long gone days of 29.9 cent per gallon car gas there really were thousands of brand new light airplanes being sold every year. After setting up the Cherokee line for Piper, Thorp returned to California and set his sights once again on the little SkySkooter. Beefing it up with a 100hp engine, he re-certificated it in 1966 as the T-211 SkySkooter. And lo and behold, who worked with him on this project and did some of the test flying but Dave Gengenbach.

    Again, three production prototypes were built; but alas, just those three. By now Cessna and Piper had pretty much divided and conquered the light airplane market, and the Skooter could get no more traction in 1966 than it had gotten in 1946. A total of six airplanes had been built, and Thorp himself owned and flew at least two of them, albeit not at the same time. A few more were built in the seventies with the intent of trying to sell them in Europe, but with no greater success. By the mid nineties a fellow out in California had bought the rights, parts and tooling (100 complete ship sets of parts had been produced in 1966 and stored ever since) and began selling the airplane as a kit for the home built market. Somewhere around a score of kits were sold and several were completed by their builders. These were essentially identical to the prototypes. But this venture also failed to really get off the ground.

    The closest the little SkySkooter came to full scale production was in the mid 2000's, when a physician from Texas bought what was left of the 1966 parts and rights and set out to certify the airplane in the new light sport category. This resulted in the Indus T-211 Thorpedo, which was a modified version of the SkySkooter with a 125hp Jabiru engine and some plastic parts in place of the original formed metal nose cowl and wingtips. The Thorpedo also dispensed with perhaps the signature feature of the entire design. The original Skooters all had externally ribbed wings; that is, external corrugations in the wing and stabilizer skins replaced most of the internal wing ribs. There are only three internal ribs in each Skooter wing- one inboard where the landing gear strut is located, one about midway out the wing, and one at the end, where the wingtip piece is attached. This made for an exceptionally light and simple to build design (the empty weight of a T-211 is around 750 pounds). Some of the Thorpedos had smooth wings and internal ribs.

    Two early Indus Thorpedo's at Oshkosh, at the Light Sport airplane pavilion. The first Thorpedo's were just straight T-211's either refurbished or built new from the stock of parts fabricated in 1966. A bit later on, Indus modified the airplane with a Jabiru engine and some plastic parts, and several had smooth wings Indus website today, after production ceased in this country. It looks like efforts are being made to build the airplane in China, although it is not clear if such airplanes will be available in the American market. The Thorpedo did not sell well against the sleeker and sexier looking composite designs from Europe, not that any of those sold all that well either!

    Unfortunately, the airplane was still star-crossed. The light sport world turned out to feature mostly slick composite designs that, although still slow (as the regulations required), looked like they were going Mach one standing still! The Thorpedo, even with its plastic wingtips and cowl, still looked like a 1946 design. To make matters worse, some fight schools that had acquired a few for rental and instruction began complaining that the airplane could not hold up under the abuse of renter pilots and students, which created a largely undeserved reputation as a less than robust design. As of today, Indus is no longer producing airplanes, at least in this country, although the original corporate concept had involved simultaneous production and sales in India. A web site now indicates that production may begin in China, so we shall see what we shall see.


    4 Comments
    1. Howellerman's Avatar
      Howellerman -
      Heya Tony. Glad to see you back behind the keyboard - you have a nice, easy writing style that makes it easy to envision what you saw/heard/felt. "Throw it" made me laugh out loud! Thank you!
    1. ldk2002's Avatar
      ldk2002 -
      Great Tony !
      Write a book on your adventures
      Fred LAX59
    1. gasman222's Avatar
      gasman222 -
      Tony, you are the scribe of the sky! I have read all of your articles and all have been excellent filled with your knowledge, insight, history and wit. Truly a joy to read. I remember you mentioning the Skyskooter in one of your earlier stories. As usual, you have made this story as interesting as a trans-atlantic flight to Paris! Needless to say, I am anxiously awaiting part 2 of this saga; can't wait to hear of your adventures. Loved the picture of you under the wing, looked like you were practicing your tango moves which we saw in another great story!! Thanks and hoping for many more!
    1. graaant's Avatar
      graaant -
      Wonderful stuff, Tony, thanks much. Feel I was there ...
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