Rachelle Haughn interviews Dan Kreigh

The Other Side of the Tree Line
Article by Rachelle Haughn.
Featured in the Spring 2019 issue of
Park Pilot

If you’ve ever been to an indoor model aircraft flying event, perhaps you’ve seen an IFO (Indoor Flying Object), a lightweight airplane capable of performing aerobatics. If not, maybe you’ve visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C. (airandspace.si.edu), and seen SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded, manned spacecraft designed by Burt Rutan. Behind every great aerospace idea or invention is a team of designers. In this case, that person is Dan Kreigh, who at the time of this writing worked as a structural analyst/design consultant for Scaled Composites (scaled.com).

Rachelle Haughn: How did you learn to fly model airplanes? How old were you?

Dan Kreigh: Airplanes were my life. As a result, I had no idea how to talk to girls. My mom, Mary Kreigh, was an artist who taught me to be obsessed with detail. Building model airplanes was a natural extension of that.

I was extremely lucky to have two of the old “ma and pa” hobby shops within bicycle-riding distance and I had parents who fully supported my love of the hobby. My progression through models was methodical, starting with paper airplanes and then more sophisticated “White Wings” paper gliders. I noticed that my passion became contagious. An army of little kids started flying paper airplanes with me, which caused paper airplanes to be banned for two of my school years.

In my fifth-grade class, they finally gave us a paper-airplane-only-flying-area … because of me. Then I went on to balsa gliders, Cox U-control [Control Line], balsa U-control, RC glow-powered aircraft, and slope RC gliders. My first RC plane was probably when I was about 11 or 12 years old. Back then, one had to build models from balsa kits, which included the whole silkspan and dope process, which is relatively a lost art today. This really honed my model construction skills.

Dan Kreigh built his first RC model airplane when he was roughly 11 years old. His love of aviation led him to earn a degree in mechanical and aeronautical engineering. He has worked in the aerospace industry for 34 years

RH: What inspired you to build the first IFO?

DK: When I moved to Mojave, California, to work at Scaled Composites, I needed to keep flying RC. But Mojave is windy … which may be an understatement. So, I was motivated to build a lightweight electric model that could fly in Scaled Composites’ large hangar. It was for my own entertainment.

In roughly 1999, Hobby Lobby International was one of the only model airplane distributors selling electric RC models. I bought one. The models used short-duration NiCd batteries and brushed electric motors that wore out quickly.

The model flew poorly, so I cannibalized it and started evolving my own airframes with the aim of an indoor aerobatic model. The first IFO variations flew horribly with divergent structural twist or unrecoverable dives, so I would put them away and think about what went wrong. In a few weeks, I would go at it again.

I finally had a model that could fly like no other for its time. It was still for my own entertainment, but a number of people approached me about buying kits.

I demonstrated the IFO at a well-known monthly indoor Free Flight venue in Burbank, California, run by Tony Naccarato. Tony is an amazing individual who has dedicated his whole life to models. To me, Tony is the Burt Rutan of model aviation.

When I was ready to demo at the indoor venue in Burbank, everyone landed their planes to watch. As I flew, I did an outside loop. People laughed. I did several rolls and landed. People applauded. Our breakthrough was when Jim Martin, of Hobby Lobby International, graciously agreed to carry the IFO in his catalog.

Jim is a great guy and wonderful friend. He gave us immediate, worldwide recognition. The IFO became a sensation. Today, there is a further evolution of the IFO design that is very popular in Singapore.

As the IFO gained notoriety, I was invited for two years to demonstrate the IFO at the prestigious TOC (Tournament of Champions) halftime show in Las Vegas.

One year, the SETP (Society of Experimental Test Pilots; setp.org), which is an elite group of pilots, was looking for some kind of entertainment. Brian Binnie asked if I could help him put together something. Brian flew SpaceShipOne.

He and I ended up with a routine that involved flying IFO models and a blimp in a banquet room. The pilots were Tony Naccarato, his son Ryan Naccarato, John Piri, and I.

Briefly, the routine was to have a bad-guy black IFO fly menacingly. The good-guy IFO had an American flag. The gag was that Brian would call up various test pilots, hand them an RC transmitter, and ask them to fly the good-guy IFO and chase the bad IFO out of the room … but the test pilots were handed a dummy transmitter.

Meanwhile, I was hiding in the back secretly flying the good-guy IFO. The good-guy IFO eventually prevailed—chasing the bad IFO (flown by Ryan) out of the room through open doors. [It was] completely crazy, but what an honor!

RH: Do you still see people flying your IFOs?

DK: After selling more than 8,000 IFO kits, my supportive wife, Rojana, and I became burned out, so we took the website down. I left a note in one of the RC Groups (rcgroups.com) threads that [read] if you can find me, I’ll sell you a kit. So, a few [people] find me every year and I make and send them a kit.

RH: Do you think your design might have inspired others to create indoor aerobatic aircraft?

DK: The IFO construction is similar to a kite. It is extremely simple and robust. The construction technique is unique enough that I got used to seeing lots of copycat IFOs or mutations of the original design. I was pleased that others were inspired by the unique, simple construction approach of lashing together carbon-fiber rods.

The design, however, is deceptively simple. It took a lot of iterations to get a design that really works. The current indoor aerobatic models were really made possible by the new lithium batteries and brushless motors. Although nice, the IFO can still fly with the original hardware because of its light wing loading.

Dan with his collection of IFOs.
The evolution of this aircraft is visible.

RH: Why did you decide to apply for a job at Scaled Composites?

DK: There are a lot of reasons. Scaled was, luckily, an excellent fit for me. I am:

  • In love with model airplanes.
  • Obsessed with aircraft.
  • Inspired by Burt Rutan since I was 12. (I first saw Burt’s designs flying at the Mojave Air Race air show back in about 1975.)
  • Interested in the extreme unusual.
  • An artist.
  • Interested in designing and building my own airplane, rather … flying car. For that, there is no better place than Scaled Composites.

RH: What was working there like for you?

DK: Amazing. Stressful. I found a home.

I desperately wanted to work at Scaled Composites, but I needed courage to apply since I assumed everyone working at Scaled were geniuses. In reality, all one needed was passion, the ability to get along with others, and a willingness to learn and work hard. That is true even today.

I stopped by one day and asked if Scaled Composites was hiring. Corporate secretary Kaye LeFebvre was at the front desk. She said that Scaled was looking for someone who knew how to do Finite Element Analysis (FEA) structural analysis. I said thank you and left.

I obtained a bootleg copy of an FEA program and taught myself FEA over the next few weekends. I did a simple structural computer model of one of Scaled’s airplanes and I included it in my résumé. I applied to Scaled, noting in my résumé that I had FEA structural experience.

Scaled called me in for an interview. I loaded up my Dodge van full of model airplanes (I knew Burt was also a model airplane guy) and showed up for the interview … wearing a suit and tie. I was quickly told to ditch the tie.

Burt and engineering manager, Chuck Richey, quickly recognized that I really had no experience. Burt said he would rather hire someone with passion than experience. I got the offer. That was July of 1988.

RH: What was it like working alongside Burt Rutan until he retired in 2010?

DK: A person like Burt will never stop thinking about aircraft design. He’s finishing up a personal amphibious design called SkiGull. And, of course, it is not a “normal” amphibian.

There is a certain romance about flight. It doesn’t matter if it is a model airplane, watching a bird’s mastery of the air, or a full-size aircraft. That appreciation is either part of your soul or it is not. Burt understands that magic and his passion is extremely contagious to those in tune around him. Many times, I, and others, found ourselves swept up into Burt’s passion for whatever the current aircraft project was. We all felt special. We were part of Burt’s team to pursue whatever impossible task was at hand.

Burt often gave us autonomy with little micromanaging. This autonomy gave us ownership—which could be terrifying. I was the structural lead on SpaceShipOne, which was the first privately funded, manned spaceship to fly to suborbital space and now hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. My work for SpaceShipOne didn’t get a lot of oversight, but I did my best knowing that my friends were going to be risking their lives going to space in this thing. And I clearly did not want to face their families if I had made a mistake causing the death of their husbands.

Burt had to trust our work since he couldn’t do everything. Burt was an amazing leader which is nearly impossible to find these days.

RH: Have you ever built a model for a movie?

DK: I was contracted to build a large “engineering model” for the most recent remake of The Flight of the Phoenix movie starring Dennis Quaid. The purpose of the model was to mirror modifications to the full-scale aircraft being built for the movie. They never finished the full-scale aircraft, but I finished my model and got to fly it.

The Flight of the Phoenix model airplane that Dan built for a movie features a unique asymmetric shape.

RH: How did your flying car project come about and how long have you been working on it?

DK: Well, you know, “flying cars” symbolize one of those broken promises of what was supposed to be part of an exciting future. Saying that it is an extremely allusive dream is almost an understatement!

First, let’s define flying car. To me, a flying car is a vehicle that can operate like a car. It can drive to the store and park in your standard single-car garage. And it can also fly … thus the name flying car. What people are calling flying cars today are electric helicopters with wings, for the most part. They are not flying cars.

The flying car that I am talking about can be a design that is biased toward a car with wings or biased the other way as an airplane that is made [roadworthy]. So technically, I’ve made my design biased toward an airplane that is made “roadable.” So, my design is more accurately a “roadable airplane” … but flying car is more fun to say.

Dan has been working on his flying car in his garage at home for more than 20 years. He took this photo at night so “the families around me won’t know how wacky their neighbor is.”

I’ve been working on it for a ridiculous 20-plus years. I like to believe that I can have it driving on the road this summer and then flying a couple of years after that. It is only for my own adventure. I do not plan to produce it. This is something that I really want to use a lot. Briefly, the requirements are:

  • Carry two people.
  • Driving comfort similar to an old ’61 Volkswagen Bug (not comfortable).
  • Fit in a single-car garage (huge challenge).
  • Airspeed greater than 180 mph … faster than my Long-EZ that I fly.

RH: What one experience have you had professionally that you think no one would believe?

DK: In the early 1990s, Scaled Composites had a contract to build a high-altitude autonomous aircraft called Raptor for LLNL (stargazer2006.online.fr/unmanned/pages/raptor.htm). As the program proceeded, it became apparent that the autopilot needed further development and was probably not going to be reliable, so it was decided to add an onboard pilot.

Nearly every week at Scaled Composites, Dan and his coworkers liked to race and fly combat with model airplanes. The company has/had many RC pilots working at Scaled Composites. This photo was taken roughly 8 years ago.

Doug Shane and Mike Melvill alternated being the onboard pilots flying this large, 66-foot wingspan UAV. But there was a big problem. The original fuselage was too narrow, so the pilot had to ride on top straddling the fuselage like a horse.

Dave Ganzer and I were the two RC model pilots who flew the Raptor from the ground like a huge model airplane. We held a normal-looking RC transmitter for control. We did all of the landings and takeoffs flying from the RC transmitter, with either Mike or Doug along for the ride and taking over control as required. Besides a radio, they communicated with various hand gestures … some not so friendly. As the autopilot matured, we ditched the pilots and Raptor became a true UAV.

RH: What other projects do you have cooking in your workshop at home?

DK: I am really trying to focus on finishing my flying car. I am trying to avoid any large projects. But I’ll occasionally get sucked into a short-term project like the SpaceShipOne blimp I designed, built, and flew at the QCon San Francisco (qconsf.com) event last year.

The amazing author, Julian Guthrie, invited me to present a keynote speech with her on “How to Make a SpaceShip.” At the end of our presentation, I flew the RC SpaceShipOne blimp over the audience (infoq.com/presentations/spaceshipone). It was an amazing experience!

In this photo, taken in Dan’s shop, he is holding an SS1 ducted-fan RC model that he designed, built, and flew.



Dan has been a wonderful friend to me for more than 30 years. He is interesting, brilliant, kind, considerate and charming. I am so glad that this article was written about him so that others can know him as well. I have been retired for 14 years, but he still keeps in touch and often visits me no matter where I am living!

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