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Lockwood Air Cam - N5084T

The versatile Air Cam is the brainchild of Phil Lockwood. Lockwood worked for Maxair, designer of the Drifter ultralight, during the 1980s. Because of the Drifter’s open air structure, wildlife photographers Des and Jen Bartlett contacted Maxair in 1985 looking for an aircraft to use as a camera ship for photo missions over Africa. A Drifter was outfitted and sent to Africa along with Phil Lockwood, who assisted in assembly of the aircraft and also piloted it for the aerial photo missions. That job led to several more photo missions in the following years.

Lockwood left Maxair in the late 1980s and established his own aviation consulting business. He became interested in Rotax engines and was soon a distributor and Rotax service center. Along with that, Lockwood was also running a parts and service center for the Drifter ultralight, first working out of his garage before eventually building a facility at his local airport. During this time, Lockwood began thinking about designing a better airplane for his aerial photography missions. In 1993, he was contacted by National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols about doing a photo mission over Ndoki National Park in the Congo, which Lockwood at first turned down due to his concerns about safety with the single engine Drifter. Lockwood then began discussing his idea for a twin-engine machine to serve as an aerial platform. Thus the Air Cam was born. By the fall of that year the first Air Cam had been built and test flown. The first model featured a boom tail and was powered by two 65-hp Rotax 582 engines. The aircraft displayed impressive performance, including being able to take off on only one engine. In late 1993, the Air Cam was shipped to the Congo for its first photo mission.

After a 1994 appearance at EAA’s Sun ‘n Fun, the Air Cam became one of the most talked about aircraft around. Demands were made for a production version. Lockwood was assisted by investor Antonio Leza to get the new Air Cam up and running, and in early 1996, the first new Leza-Lockwood Air Cam was rolled out. This new version featured a monocoque aluminum stress skin design with a steel tube gear in place of the pod and boom construction of the first two aircraft, giving the production Air Cam more stability and strength. The tail was enlarged to assure stable flying and good control at very low speeds when cameramen may wish to linger over a certain area. The new Air Cam also had its BRS parachute tucked into a specially designed box in the center section rather than mounted on top of the wing, which cleaned up the airfoil. Engines for the Air Cam include the original Rotax 582, as well as the Rotax 912, 912S, and 914. John Hunter flew a 914-powered Air Cam from Florida to Arizona for the 1996 EAA Copperstate Fly-In, a distance of over 2000 miles! The Air Cam has proven itself to be a very capable photo platform and an impressive performer overall.

This Air Cam (N5084T) is model #1, used for the National Geographic photo missions in the Republic of the Congo. Lockwood and the rest of the team flew from New York to Paris and from there to the African Continent. After several stops, they arrived in Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo. If their timing was good, they could catch the weekly flight from Brazzaville to Ouesso in the northern Congo. From there, it was an eight hour boat ride up the Sangha River to get to the base camp. While staying in Brazzaville, Lockwood experienced the country’s civil war firsthand. A military officer lived next door to the house the team was staying in, and one night his house was raided by opposition forces.

The first time they took the Air Cam over to Africa, they shipped it in a crate with Air France. Unfortunately, that airline went on a worldwide strike at the last minute, forcing the team to switch the Air Cam to DHL. It then had to go through Johannesburg, South Africa first. From there, the crate was supposed to go to Brazzaville on Air Afrique, but all their cargo space was filled with fruit. After two weeks of delays, it took a call from the U.S. embassy in Brazzaville to get the crate up to the Congo. The embassy in Johannesburg actually went to the airport and made the airline offload fruit in order to get the Air Cam crate aboard. Once the Air Cam arrived in Brazzaville, Lockwood put it together in two days and left with Michael Fay, the expedition’s chief researcher, for the 500-mile journey to the base camp. At the two stops along the way, Lockwood had some tense encounters with the local military police. They finally arrived at the village base camp and landed on the 600 foot strip that the villagers had constructed just for them.

The Air Cam proved to be a great photo platform for photographer Michael Nichols. The plane provided incredible forward visibility, and they could cover far more ground than they could on foot. The crew got up early each day and flew missions from dawn until about 8:00 a.m., when the good light was gone. The rest of the day was spent checking and maintaining the aircraft. Around four o’clock in the afternoon they would head out again until sunset. Due to the ongoing civil war and all the delays the team had encountered, they elected to store the Air Cam and return to the site in the spring of 1994 to complete the photo shoot. The results of this expedition can be seen in the July 1995 issue of National Geographic.

After the second mission to the Congo in 1994, the Air Cam was purchased by the National Geographic Society, who then donated it to Ndoki National Park for use in research. During its service with Ndoki, the aircraft was damaged in a landing accident.

It went unrepaired because of the remote location and the expense involved. Russ Solsvig, an airline pilot, found out about the damaged Air Cam and arranged to purchase it and ship it back to the United States where he completely restored the aircraft. Solsvig later traded Air Cam #1 to Phil Lockwood for a new Air Cam. Lockwood then donated Air Cam #1 to EAA in 2008.

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