THE AR-5 TAPES
"FINALLY, SOMETHING WORTHWHILE FOR US COUCH POTATOES..."
Peter Lert, Air Progress Magazine, July 1995
The AR-5 is such an impressive project that it's very easy to forget that Mike Arnold isn't an aeronautical engineer (although by now, of course, he is one, even if he doesn't have some fancily engraved sheepskin on his wall). In fact, he started his career (and has a degree) in an entirely different direction -- as a filmmaker. I never asked him if his initial exposure to composite construction techniques (at Fred Jiran's Glider Repair in Mojave) came from interest or a budding filmmaker's typical lack of gainful employment in his own field...but he's released a set of videotapes, commonly called the "The AR-5 Tapes". These tapes show that he certainly hasn't lost his touch behind (or in front of) the camera.
At the time of this writing (1995), there are two tapes in the series (but a third is in production that may even show a few moments of your. obedient. servant. flying the airplane [ note: we haven't finished that one yet. M.A., July, 1996] ). One, at something over an hour, is called "Why It Goes So Fast." The other, at just under two hours is called "How It's Made."
Each tape appeals to a somewhat different interest among homebuilders. "Why It Goes So Fast" begins with a description of the actual world-record flights, which is fascinating and exciting in its own right. From there, Mike goes on (aided by noted aerodynamicist Bruce Carmichael) to explain the various design features that contributed to the airplane's stunning performance, as well as the reasons behind them. While he sometimes uses very clear blackboard illustrations to explain some of the points, most of them are shown on the airplane itself, which really makes them real for would-be aircraft designers.
In "How It's Made", Mike turns adversity into advantage. The tape was filmed in Mike's tiny shop in Crockett, and at the time it was produced, the airplane was laid up (pun intended, for you composite fans) for repairs after a power failure and off-field landing. Once again, the film begins with some real-world action -- in this case, the disassembly and recovery of the airplane from the field next to Lake Berryessa, where it ended up. From there, however, it goes back to basics, as Mike explains every stage of moldless composite construction, beginning with the hot-wiring of foam cores and continuing through all the stages of composite layup.
He doesn't just cover primary structure, either; he also describes the construction of complex subassemblies like fuel tanks and nifty little features like access doors. There's a good discussion throughout of the various materials and processes that are used.
What I particularly like about both tapes is that they combine a complete lack of pretension and overly slick production techniques with solid, professional filmmaking. There's none of the camera shake or jumpy editing common in amateur videos (assuming those are edited at all!), and while this is clearly not a studio production, the shots are carefully set up and properly lighted. At the same time, while Mike and his helpers are clearly not working from a word-for-word script, it's equally clear that they didn't just jump into the process cold. In fact, there's a very logical and obvious progression through the shots and sequences, and the occasional minor blunder -- say, spilling a bit of resin -- only adds to the cinema verite effect.
Overall, the effect is exactly what I imagine Mike was trying to achieve: The feeling of being in the shop of a very experienced and competent composite homebuilder, and looking over his shoulder as he goes about his business and explains informally what he's doing. I recommend both films very highly to anyone who's either building a composite homebuilt (whether from scratch or from a kit), or even just contemplating building one. The second film, in particular, is a great way to see what composite construction techniques are like and to decide if they appeal to you -- before you start messing up your garage. In fact, you don't even have to move out your Weber grill!
Peter Lert, July 1995