Born To Fly

While other children roamed playgrounds with their arms extended to mimic airplanes, Larry Lam was building them. At the tender age of five with no one to follow or guide, Larry transformed a pile of bamboo cuttings to produce his first aerodynamic endeavor…a toy airplane. This was the beginning of a passion for aviation that spanned the next eighty years. Worldwide, aviation was “the next big thing,” but aviation knowledge and formal education were difficult to come by in the China of the 1920’s and 30’s; so another five years passed before he produced his first flying airplane at the still remarkable age of 10.

Larry Lam Model AirplanesWWII forced Larry to take a break. He witnessed the Japanese air attack on Hong Kong the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. As a teenage refugee avoiding Japanese occupational forces, he watched Flying Tiger P-40’s turn with Japanese Zero’s dog-fighting in the skies over southern China. Following WWII Larry became the national modeling champion twice with aircraft of his own design and construction. Like many immigrants, he arrived in the United States in 1949 with all of his belongings in a few suitcases hoping to continue his education and someday earn a share of the American dream.

With Masters Degrees in Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas, Austin, Larry spent more than 35 years as an aerospace engineer, working for the industry’s most prestigious aviation companies in Southern California, including Lockheed, North American, McDonnell-Douglas, Hughes and Rockwell. Larry played key roles in many notable projects including re-entry physics for the first generation ICBMs, the XB-70 and B-1 bombers, the lifting bodies-aerodynamic precursors to the Space Shuttle, the Space Shuttle itself, and AMRAAM missile design. He also supervised hypersonic (greater than Mach 5) studies at Lockheed’s Rye Canyon shock tunnel facilities.

The Lam Aileron grew directly from his solution to the perennial problem of adverse yaw. In the early 1970’s, with his three children out of the house, his wife, Shiran, allowed him to begin his own private pilot training where he had his first personal experience with adverse yaw. With his extensive aeronautical background, he immediately recognized during the first few turns of his initial flight the problems and nature of adverse yaw that he knew so well academically. He realized he could significantly improve management of adverse yaw and its consequences simply by deflecting the aileron of one wing upward for roll control. This realization was the genesis of the Lam Aileron.

Since building that first toy airplane, Larry had dreamed of designing, building and flying his own personal aircraft; and now it would include his improved aileron design. Larry designed, engineered, and constructed the Wanderer in his two-car garage entirely by himself. He equipped it with a simplified version of his aileron. He logged more than 500 hours of flight in the Wanderer without any flight control problems.

To fund this project, Larry’s wife gave him $25 per week, forcing him to make most everything himself, something he enjoyed anyways. With the exception of engines and radios, he made nearly every component of all of his airplanes from scratch with hand tools. The Wanderer was a two-place single engine airplane with retractable landing gear, a bubble canopy and a wingspan of twenty feet. The airframe was wood and fiberglass, built around a chrome/moly steel sub-frame. In addition to the unique aileron/flap system, it was the first airplane outside of the ultra-light community equipped with a BRS parachute. The parachute was installed between the cockpit and firewall and attached to the main spar with Kevlar straps.

Larry made his first flight in 1986 from Chino airport in California with a converted Volkswagen engine that he soon replaced with a Lycoming O-200. This version of the Wanderer visited Oshkosh three times. On the return flight home to California from the third trip, he decided to make a small change in the turtle deck. He was the quintessential designer and builder. Three weeks later the airplane was completely disassembled.

A couple years later the renovated Wanderer flew again from Chino, completely rebuilt with a Lycoming O-360 and a 24-foot wingspan. The canopy, control stick, and fuel tank caps were all that remained from the original Wanderer. The stall speed was approximately 40 knots and the high speed cruise was 210 knots though he usually throttled back to 180 knots for fuel economy. Higher speeds were likely possible as the airplane was somewhat dirty; for example, gear doors were only partial and canopy fitting could have easily been improved.

The Wanderer over Lake Winnebago Oshkosh AirVenture 1990.

Not being a formally trained aerobatic or test pilot, Larry never put the Wanderer into a spin or turned it upside down; but before building and flying the Wanderer, he employed his modeling skills and experience constructing a quarter-scale, radio-controlled model that demonstrated good behavior during aerobatic maneuvers and spins with easy spin recovery.

Larry’s craftsmanship and production quality were remarkable. He later demonstrated the Lam Aileron on separate occasions to Boeing and NASA engineers with an articulating engineering model. They were just as interested in discovering the contractor for the model as they were in the Lam Aileron itself, stating that a similar model at their institutions would have required a team of several modelers six months and several hundred thousand dollars to produce in a fully-equipped machine shop. They were shocked to find that he had fabricated it himself in his garage in several days with hand tools.

Larry and his wife Shiran brought the Wanderer to the Oshkosh air show in Wisconsin three times, visited Arizona, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia, and flew up and down the California coast many times. Shiran fondly recalls, “We found America to be beautiful when seen from the air. We could see things clearly on the ground and decide for ourselves when and where we were going.”

Though the Wanderer and the Lam Aileron began as purely personal endeavors, Larry decided to offer the potential benefits to all of aviation. He patented the aileron and presented it to NASA and several aviation companies and their engineers consistently receiving validation for the idea. As a follow-on demonstrator to the Wanderer, he chose to retrofit a certified production airplane.

After nearly 80 years of complete self reliance and independence as a builder and designer, he sought assistance for the more ambitious project. He had the supremely good fortune to find Greg Cole and his group at Windward Performance agreeable and available to teaming with him. They implemented resources – for example, computerized mills and carbon fiber composite construction — a generation beyond what Larry had available working by himself in his home garage and intellectual talent to match.

Those familiar with the Lancair Legacy and Evolution, the certified Lancair Columbia series now Cessna Corvalis, and the Sparrowhawk sailplane know some of Greg’s work. The new demonstrator, a Lancair Columbia 300 airframe, equivalent to the current Cessna Corvalis 350, has been retrofitted with a wing equipped with the Lam Aileron. Noted pilot Len Fox is conducting flight test and evaluation.

Larry passed away in March of 2010. His son, Michael, will continue his work and plans to showcase the Lam Aileron at the 2010 Oshkosh air show this summer.

Here’s to you, Larry. Your legacy continues and will fly.

Renovated Wanderer 1996