Lancair Turbine IV Test Flight
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Lancair Unstoppable at Reno '00
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Dave Morss and Lancair #99 Win Gold Again at Reno '99
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Dave Morss - Sport Aviation’s Go Anywhere, Fly Anything Test Pilot

(Reprinted from EAA’s Sport Aviation April, 1998) By Jack Cox

TV once had its Paladin whose calling card read, "Have gun, will travel".

Today, the sport aviation world has Dave Morss, a kinder and gentler champion who will travel, but his gun is a remarkably high level of piloting skill, good judgment and a range of experience that is unusually wide in scope. Dave is a free lance professional test pilot who had made the first flight of 18 new aircraft (as of March 1, 1998). The list is particularly impressive for the variety of aircraft types:

  • Mystery Racer
  • Hollmann Condor (powered sailplane)
  • Hollmann Nova (three surface pusher)
  • Discovery (three surface pusher)
  • Free Spirit I
  • Free Spirit II
  • Fast Lane Exit (F-1 racer)
  • Turboprop Cirrus
  • V-8 Cirrus
  • Lancair IV
  • Skyblazer
  • KIS TD
  • Lancair ES
  • Starcraft (push/pull twin)
  • Legend
  • Hollamann Stallion
  • Thunder Mustang
  • 55% P38
Dave is already scheduled to make the first flights of Wayne Handley’s new turbo-prop powered airshow airplane and the full scale reproduction of Roscoe Turner’s Pesco Special being built by Bill Turner’s Repeat Aviation, so the list will be even more impressive by Oshkosh time this summer.

First flights are certainly dramatic and newsworthy, but Dave’s work does not end there. He continues with many of the test flight programs to a level as comprehensive as the factories must undergo when certifying a new design . . . and in the case of aircraft like the Thunder Mustang, has also served as a demonstration pilot at major fly-ins and even as a competition pilot in events such as the AeroShell 3D Speed Dash. He has set a number of speed records in the Lancair IV prototype and won the Aircraft Spruce Great Cross Country Flying Race and the Sun 100 in the airplane.

Obviously, test flying is a very serious business. It is certainly serious to the pilot who puts his soft, pink bod on the line every time he pushes a throttle forward to determine if someone’s new aircraft is capable of controlled flight, but it is also serious to a company that has its future and all it present resources in the hands of a test pilot. How does one attain the skill, knowledge, experience and trustworthiness to have such responsibility thrust upon him? To fathom Dave Morss’ long and rather convoluted trail to that enviable status, we must start at the beginning.

Dave finished high school at 16 and spent the next year working at the San Carlos Airport. His parents finally convinced him he should go to college so he initially signed up for an aviation program at nearby College of San Mateo. The course started at a very basic level, however, and with a Commercial license just around the corner, Dave was far in advance of the course material. Frustrated with the courses, he eventually decided to transfer to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah to do some skiing and go to college. His college career was short lived, however. As soon as he reached 18 and obtained his Commercial license, he dropped out of school and pursued what he considered at the time to be an ideal lifestyle.

"I was a kind of a ski bum for a time. I was working at Thompson Aviation at the Salt Lake Airport, pumping gas from midnight ‘til six in the morning, then towing gliders three days a week. I skied the other four. For me it was, ‘Wow! Someone’s paying me to fly!’

During the same period, Dave also got a two-day a week job flying a cable inspection route east of Salt Lake City in a Cessna 172. Though sleep was not high on his priority list at the time, he somehow managed for a time to juggle his ‘round the clock schedule of work and fun on the ski slopes without seriously damaging his health. Finally, however, in August of 1976 he left the Salt Lake City area and took his first full time job with Vacaville Soaring, Inc. at Vacaville, CA. He began as a glider tow plane pilot, but in short order began to revert to his by-now well established modus operandi of taking on every flying job he could manage to cram into a 24 hour day. Over the next few years he would find himself towing gliders, heading the tow plane pilot department, instructing in gliders, teaching aerobatics in a Great Lakes, giving rides in a Wright-powered Travel Air Speed Wing, sky diving, flying jumpers in a Twin Beech, serving as a jump master and flying night mail four times a week in a Twin Comanche! In the late 1970s, he was averaging some 1,500 hours per year at the stick or wheel of one kind of flying machine or another.

Somehow during his four years at Vacaville, Dave also found time to purchase his first airplane, a totally clapped-out, abandoned Stits Playboy, with the fabric literally hanging off of it He had not yet obtained an A&P rating, so Dave was thrilled to learn that since it was a homebuilt, he could restore it himself - which he proceeded to do in his spare time. This was his introduction to EAA (he is EAA 133735) and has been an active member ever since.

One day in early 1980 the four or five jobs at one time routine finally caught up with him. A pilot showed up at Vacaville with a Bucker Jungmann and asked Dave if he would like to fly it

I remember thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, I really should, but I am just tired of flying today.’ That really scared me. I realized that something was wrong here. Flying was the most important thing in my life, and here I was too tired to fly. It was really a wake-up call. I started looking at my logbook and said I’m flying ‘way too much. I quit my job at the glider port, quit the night freight job, quit flying jumpers, went back to San Carlos and got a job instructing just five or six days a week in a single airplane.

It didn’t last, however. In April of 1980 Dave had the opportunity to sign on with TBM, Inc. of Fresno, CA serving as a co-pilot and flight engineer on DC-7 fire bombers. That contract lasted about nine months and was the start of a gypsy life that included a February to June 1981 stint with Air Crane West of Santa Cruz, CA flying a Huntington Pembroke and an AT-11l a July 1981 to January 1982 adventure with Pacific Star Seafood flying a Lockheed 10 out of Anchorage, Alaska and serving as a co-pilot on a C-46 and an R4D; a January 1982 to March 1983 job with Donahue & Associates of San Jose, CA delivering everything from J-3 Cubs to Hansa Jets; and finally settling down a bit by signing on with Air Ambulance International, which was based at the San Carlos Airport.

The job required you be on a pager 21 days a month, with a 15 minute response during the day and 30 minutes at night. That was time to take-off, so you couldn’t drink. I don’t drink so it seemed like a perfect job for me. After a year I ended up being their chief pilot and we had about 20 airplanes and pilots in three or four different domiciles I supervised. In San Carlos we had four MU-2s, two King Airs and two Lears. I got to be a check airman on all those airplanes, doing 135 check rides and stuff. The FAA liked my work and that ultimately led to my becoming a designated pilot examiner. It was a good job, but after two or three years, being constantly on pager began to get old. Every time you went to a movie with your wife, you had to take two cars just in case a call came in. It always seemed that the chance of getting a call was directly proportional to the importance of the event you were attending - like right in the middle of a wedding or something like that.

I finally left Air Ambulance in January of 1986 and took a job flying freight with D.H.L. Airways out of San Francisco. That was the best job in the world. I was flying a Twin Cessna from San Francisco to Reno, laying over for nine hours, then flying back. You did this five days a week. You flew 10 days a month because you were on one week and off the next. I kept a car at Reno and during my layover, I would drive down to Minden and teach soaring at the glider operation there. Then I would drive back to Reno and fly home. It was great; I was home every night.

Unfortunately, however, the company lost its run to Reno to a competitor flying Cessna Caravans and I was suddenly faced with moving to Florida to fly Lears or becoming a flight engineer on 727s flying out of San Francisco. Not wanting to leave California, I got my flight engineers ratings and flew on the 727s for about six months. Then the company wanted to relocate all its flight crewmembers to Cincinnati and that’s when I decided to seek employment elsewhere. I got a corporate job flying a Cessna Conquest, but that ended when I was hired by United. I started out as a flight engineer on the 747, but I quickly found that I really did not like working for an airline. I guess I had been a free spirit for so long that I just hated what for me was too much regimentation. It was during my employment with United that I broke my back while test flying the three-surface Discovery homebuilt...and during my recovery I decided to start my own company, Myriad Research, and try to make a living doing what I really loved: test flight engineering and consulting.

At this point, we have to reverse course, and return to 1980 and pick up a parallel stream of activity Dave embarked upon at that time. It all began with his rescue of another derelict homebuilt, this one a bedraggled racing biplane tied down at San Jose Airport. A little research revealed that it was none other than Dallas Christian’s old highly modified Mong, the Number 99 Mongster, in which he had won the Biplane championships at Reno in 1968 and 1969. Reno had eliminated the Biplane Class after the 1976 races, the racer had been sold and it had ended up wasting away on a tiedown ramp at San Jose.

I bought the airplane and being young and stupid, decided I would ferry it the ten miles or so from San Jose to San Carlos where I had a hangar. I should have taken it apart and trucked it home. I duct-taped the torn fabric, got the engine running and prepared to fly the thing. It had two fuel tanks, one ahead of the cockpit and another behind it. The fuel selector wasn’t marked, so I put in about eight gallons in both, put the selector in one of the on positions, verified that I had a good fuel flow and decided to go. I didn’t know which tank was feeding, but I knew eight gallons was more than enough to fly 10 miles, so I took off and headed home. After I leveled off and the airspeed went through about 160 mph, the airplane started to slowly porpoise. It got progressively worse, so I slowed back down to 150 and it was flyable again. I slowed it all the way to about 90 and felt comfortable there, so I decided I would just fly it on the ground at that speed. Afterwards I got in touch with Dallas Christian and asked him a number of questions about the airplane. When I got to the fuel system, he said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t put any fuel in the rear tank. The Biplane class rules specified a minimum fuel capacity, and the rear tank was put in just to meet that requirement, but it was never used. The airplane is already so tail heavy, that if you put fuel in it, you won’t be able to control the thing.’

Gulp! When I told him I’d flown it with eight gallons in the rear tank, he said, ‘Then you must be pretty good.’ I said, ‘No, I’m pretty lucky.’

One day while he was flying DC-7 fire bombers out of Redmond, OR, Dave got a call from his friend and noted Biplane Class racer, Dave Forbes, who had a deal he couldn’t refuse. Reno was reinstating the Biplane Class in 1980, Dave (Forbes) revealed, and he was trying to help get a field together to race. The Mongster was a historically significant racer, was still potentially fast - and if Dave (Morss) was willing to pay for the parts and materials, he would rebuild the airplane and they could split whatever prize money they would win. Go for it! Dave rejoined, and, indeed, the Mongster was on the line that September at Reno. Dave (Morss) was tied up with his fire bomber job and had to turn the piloting chores over to Paul Grieshaber, but the rebuilt did have a successful debut, finishing in the middle of the pack in its racing heats. Later that fall, Dave flew his first race at Apple Valley, CA and was instantly hooked on the sport. He has not missed Reno or many of the smaller races since. He competed in Reno in the Mong in 1982 and 1983 but later switched to Formula Ones. Over the years he has flown a number of different racers, including his own design, Fast Lane Exit, which was a unique concept with its two required main gear wheels in tandem and outriggers on the high aspect ratio wings. Dave’s current Formula One racer is the Cassutt #99 Cool Runnings. He won Heat 2C in the airplane at Reno ’97 and was second to Ray Cote in the Silver Championship race. In recent years, Dave has served as the check pilot for Formula One race pilots, a process all new pilots must go through before they are allowed to race.

Dave’s test flying career has produced even more perilous moments. It all began rather informally, initially just a matter of the word getting around that he had flown a great variety of aircraft and was eager to fly more. That resulted in local homebuilders asking him to make the first flights of their aircraft, or flying them to determine how to best rig them, etc. His first professional test work was for Martin Hollmann, making the first flights of his condor powered sailplane and Nova three-surface design. Next came the Progress Aero Discovery, a three-surface pusher developed in the Monterey Bay area. The airplane was flown to Oshkosh in 1991 but later, Dave was hired to determine how much to limit elevator authority in order to avoid the possibility of stalling the main wing. The airplane had two booms, a high horizontal tail and a pusher propeller, which made it virtually impossible to safely get out of in case of an emergency. For that reason it had been equipped with a ballistic parachute.

This was another case of learning the hard way. Because of the ballistic chute installation, I did not wear my own parachute for the tests. I came to regret that decision when the airplane went into a non-recoverable flat spin and I had to deploy the ballistic chute. To my horror, I discovered the canopy was no larger than that of my personal parachute. During the flat spin, the airplane had been descending at around 800 to 900 feet per minute, but with the chute, it was descending at 1,800 feet per minute. I had no choice but to ride the thing to the ground, and I got my back broken inn a couple of places. In my attempts to get the airplane out of the flat spin, I got it on its back in an inverted flat spin once. With my own parachute on, I could have made it out of the airplane at that point. Needless to say, I wear one today when I test anything. He was born in San Carlos, California on October 20, 1954 and grew up there . . . which leads to some fanciful speculation about the possible connection between the risky nature of life in the area and Dave’s ultimate choice of an occupation. San Carlos is one of the communities that extend like beads on a string along the west shore of San Francisco Bay, between downtown San Francisco and Sane Jose . . . and is just across a ridge from the infamous San Andreas fault line. Perhaps life on the ragged edge just comes naturally to folks who live there. In any event, Dave has briefly lived in a number of other areas of the country, but has always returned to San Carlos. He and his wife, Karen, live in neighboring Redwood City, today.

Aviation first came to Dave’s attention when his older (by 12 years) brother learned to fly.

Seeing how focused he was when he was plotting the course for his first solo cross-country flight, I thought flying must be something really cool. From that time on, it was just a foregone conclusion that someday I would fly.

When he was about 14, Dave began riding his bike to the nearby San Carlos Airport and quickly became the quintessential airport kid . . . ready to do any menial task to get an airplane ride. Early on he was befriended by the owner of the sole remaining Luscombe 90 (or Model 4) and began getting informal flight instruction for keeping it spotlessly clean. He was given a key to the airplane and, according to Dave, Every weekend it got detailed to the max. Dave quickly mastered basic aircraft handling and was soon flying the Luscombe down to short final, but the owner, who was not an instructor, could never bring himself to allowing his under-16 protégé to attempt a landing.

Dave’s wife Karen, is also in the aviation business. A native of Philadelphia, she spent 23 years in the computer arena, including a decade operating her own very successful software business. In the process of realizing a long-held desire to learn to fly, she noted that general aviation and flight instruction in particular was stuck in the 1970s and decided to do something about it. Her first move was to find a modern, more economical to operate trainer, which in her mind turned out to be the Diamond Katana. She bought two of them initially, became the Diamond representative for Northern California and has subsequently sold 15 of them. She also bought the flight school where she was learning to fly, married the pilot examiner who administered her Private check ride a fellow named Dave Morss and now operates Diamond Aviation. She currently has six Katanas, which are used for instruction, plus an additional 12 planes used for training and rental. Not to be totally outdone by hubby Dave and his eight world records, she recently set how own city-to-city speed record (San Carlos to Santa Barbara, CA) in one of her Katanas.

Karen can be reached at

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