A creative design and engineering genius like Jim Bede comes along but once in a generation. It is general aviation’s good fortune that the Cleveland, Ohio-born aircraft giant chose to focus his attention on making flying affordable for almost anyone. And he has done it with style. Learjet’s Bill Lear called Jim “The best damned airplane designer in the world.”
James R. Bede has designed and built more planes, received more awards, holds more patents and has garnered more attention than nearly anyone else in the aviation industry. Bede’s list of aviation design achievements is staggering: 18 innovative aircrafts that include standouts such as the exciting piston-engined BD-5 pusher and BD-5J mini-jet, which have both thrilled a generation of air-show crowds; the twin-finned fighter-like BD10, designed to hustle a flying executive across the country at supersonic speeds; and the extreme long range BD-2 ( in which Jim broke three distance records and took a shot at a solo globe-circling record in 1969) is strikingly similar to the later Kelly Johnson-designed U-2 spy plane. A classically trained aviation engineer, he graduated at the top of his class from Wichita State University, with a degree in aeronautical engineering, and joined North American Aviation as a performance engineer. He left there in 1961 to fulfill his announced dream of building a plane for everyone, founding Bede Aircraft Corporation.
A year later, he unveiled the BD-1, which evolved to become the successful Grumman Yankee, a single-engine, two-place low-wing design beloved as a trainer and sports plane. Intended as a kit plane, it was the first homebuilt aircraft to reach the public consciousness, as articles in Popular Science and other general circulation magazines kicked off a deluge of inquiries. Snatched up by Grumman, the BD-1 never made it into production as a homebuilt, but the plane itself is truly ageless.
Today, in a plant in Medina, OH, the first model of its lighter, faster, easier-to-build descendent, the BD-18 is nearing rollout, using construction and fabrication techniques undreamed of in 1962. “I didn’t see why anyone with a few good tools, a dry place to work, and the ability to use his hands couldn’t build an airplane that would take him anywhere that a Cessna or Piper would fly him” he says.
Perhaps his most beloved homebuilt design is the BD-4, a high-wing two or four-place homebuilt aircraft that literally jump-started the homebuilt airplane industry. Beginning in 1969, and continuing today, as many as 3,000 sets of plans have gone out the door as men and women discovered they could bolt together their own airplane in the garage with no previous construction experience, and go flying. As other kit plane manufacturers copied his techniques and customer service innovations, flying has become affordable for thousands. Today, hundreds are still in the air, and Bede has produced a new all-metal wing for the model that offers improved performance and lighter weight. Over the years, a stream of innovative aircraft have emerged from his fertile mind, including a shrouded fan four-place pusher, the XBD-2, in which he successfully tested his boundary-layer wing theories.
When he didn’t have airplanes on his mind, his fascination with finding new ways of moving people led him into surface vehicle design. One result was the 120 MPG ducted-fan propelled Bede Car, a 1979 design that used aircraft design and construction techniques. In 1982, he developed an enclosed motorcycle design, the Litestar, and produced upwards of 350 of them.
Today, BedeCorp is operated by son Jim Jr., who also runs a successful environmental restoration company. Jeff, an aircraft fabrication expert, also assists in many of the prototype design work for the planes. They form a professional business team that allows Jim Bede Sr. to devote time to his passion, the innovation and design of airplanes. He operates from Medina, Ohio, where he works on the new single-place BD-17, a low-wing sports plane kit with exceptional range and a choice of engines. There are further surprises in store, as he puts the finishing touches on its big brother, the two-place BD-18, son of BD-1 and Yankee. In a sense, the BD-18 brings Jim full-circle, refining the design techniques he pioneered that propelled the homebuilt aircraft industry into the 21st century. Numerous times in a career spanning nearly a half a century, aviation writers have begun their stories with the same line: “Jim Bede is back.” As the BD-17 and BD-18 attest, the aviation press is going to have to use those words again. He contemplates further design on the BD-5, consults for aircraft builders and designers, and stays in the loop with a wide circle of civil and military aviation friends. And when he strolls down the flight line at Oshkosh each year, he is followed by a friendly chorus of “Hi Jim” from the crowd. That is as it should be.
Most know that the bearded man with the trademark suspenders, a twinkle in his eye and a big grin on his face, made it possible for them to get there.
The Jim Bede Story