Recently I spent 10 days trapped in the lair of the evil genius Ron Smith at Smith Aerospace Corp in Sahuarita, Arizona. In last week’s article, we did not really get into all the horrors that were inflicted on my person during those 10 days, but today we reveal all, so buckle up, hang on, and here we go.
As promised, we finally get to see Ron’s latest masterpiece, the Pilot. It has the simplest and most elegant design imaginable. It takes advantage of “some new construction techniques to form an exo-skeletal frame that is a strong lightweight metal hybrid sandwich structure,” with the new suspension system (first developed for the ORCA 2) an integral part of the structure. I swam the prototype many hours in various configurations. It is a very relaxing swim – effortless, the perfect everyday fin. It is very strong, so it will be almost impossible to bend or break this frame in normal use or transport. By the way, when I say “almost,” I am really saying I think it will be impossible, but I am sure that someday someone will run a truck over one and prove me wrong.
The picture above does not include two parts that will be added to help protect the foil by holding it off the bottom of the pool when standing, or the side when pushing off. This part is made of plastic to also protect the pool.
With all the advances in Ron’s equipment and designs, much more of the work involved in making parts for Ron’s fins is now done in-house, bringing the prices down from the fins they will replace. The X-20 may have a slight edge in coolness, but the Pilot beats it in almost every other category. It is easier to pack in your dive bag or suitcase while being lighter and smaller than even your bifins, or at least lighter and smaller than my bifins. I brought a prototype of this fin back to Asia with me. The foil I have is 25 inches (about 63.5 cm) long. The shoes and frame are less than that. Find me some freediving bifins that easy to stow, and I will eat them for lunch (long as you supply the ketchup).
A word on the robust nature of Ron’s fins – I am told that normal monofins tend to wear out. People seem to get a few years of use out of them until they have to be replaced. I have been using the ORCA for about 3 years and the X-20 for about 2 years and not seen any indication of deterioration at all other than a few inconsequential scratches here and there. On the subject of corrosion, all of Ron’s fins are made of corrosion resistant materials, and he has also added zinc anodes to his latest fins to further protect them from galvanic corrosion. After that, a normal fresh water rinse after use will aid in guaranteeing a long service life. The fin suspension system will last about forever, I think, and there is nothing in the fins, and in particular the foil suspension systems, to get buggered up by corrosion, sand, or mud. Straps might eventually wear out on the ORCAs, or shoes on the X-20 and Pilot, but those are easily replaced.
Another thing about Ron’s fins in general – I have a condition not unique to me, I think, that will cause issues if you do not know about it. My feet are different sizes and my legs are different lengths. Unless I account for this in some way, the fin will never be straight. In the water, the fin tends to dive to one side and not stay level in the water relative to my body. It took me a long time to figure this out on my own. I kept thinking I was doing something wrong (for sure not an uncommon thought when learning monofin). All that has to be done is to offset one of the shoes longitudinally in the fin. For me the move is about 1 cm. Once I did that with the X-20, it was a night-and-day kind of difference. These fins all have a good range of adjustability in that way. If you have this same problem, you can play with shoe placement to fix it. The good news is that once you fix the problem, it is fixed until you have to replace the shoes, and that should be a long time for most of us.
With the ORCA 2, this fix is done by adjusting foot placement in the binding straps to achieve the same effect as from moving the shoes in the X-20. The new strap design of the ORCA 2 facilitates this, as the main and heel straps can be adjusted independently, so the setting of the main strap can be left essentially permanent if desired. Personally, once satisfied with the main strap setting, I would sew it in place and leave it that way forever. In that way I would always have the same confidence of a good fit that I have when putting on my shoes in the morning. Also, requests to borrow the fin would be more easily answered.
The following is a running account of what we did while I was in Sahuarita, including my impressions of the various fins:
We started out evaluating the prototypes of his latest fin designs. The Pilot is designed to be an everyday kind of fin like the X-20. While you could use it for dynamics, it does not have quite the legs and streamlining of the ORCA 2. The ORCA 2 is more a hyperfin type of fin in terms of performance. If you only swam a Pilot, you would probably never notice it, but soon as you fly an ORCA or ORCA 2, you feel the difference right away.
To me the feel of the Pilot in the water is much more like a regular monofin than the other fins in Ron’s arsenal. I have little experience in normal monofins, but that is my impression. It is a shorter fin than the X-20 and ORCAs, so has a much softer feel. We also tried a longer version, and it was good also, but more strain on the lower leg muscles. I am thinking the shorter version will be less exhausting on longer swims in the ocean.
One thing we reinforced today was that the Pilot, as with any other fin that uses shoes, is sensitive to shoe alignment. That is not a problem as long as you are paying attention when you install your shoes. If the shoes are crooked in the fin, the fin will tend to stall to one side when you make a power stroke. That happened to me in the morning. Once we straightened the shoes out, the fin was great, and that fix is permanent – not something you have to do every swim.
After spending a couple of hours in the Pilot today, there was absolutely no foot discomfort at all. Not many of my monofin buddies can say that, I think, and the ORCA 2 shares that same pain-free nature. The ORCA 2 and Pilot allow me to wear them as long as I want for fun or training without mangling my feet.
We spent a good part of the afternoon starting the process of making some of these fins. Ron ran the CNC plasma machine cutting frame components while I started the long process of drilling all the holes and cleaning up the parts in preparation for bending in the metal brake. I am seeing all the work that goes into these fins, from the design process all the way through the manufacturing. By the time we are done, I will probably have done every part of the process, except maybe using the plasma cutter. I think we will all sleep better at night if I leave that job to the experts.
Today we continued working on fins. After that, we got in the water again. I spent an hour or two in the Pilot prototype. I am liking it more and more. It gets plenty of thrust, is very relaxing to use, and my feet are still intact.
The one disadvantage to the Pilot’s design is that the wing now contacts the bottom of the pool when standing and the wall when doing a normal push-off start. This increases the risk of scratching the foil. In the ocean that would not matter at all, but in the pool, you’ve got to consider it. Today, we worked on a way to fix this problem. Our solution seems to be simple and robust, with the only question being whether it is practical to implement. We spent a couple of hours testing this new fin configuration. Our fix did the job well I think.
Yesterday and today Ron also gave me some coaching on my monofin stroke. This is the first time I have received any coaching on this. Most times people say, “You need to work on your stroke!” and then proceed to not tell me how to improve it. Until now, my stroke has worked to give me propulsion, and I have been steadily improving the distance in my dynamics, but no one would accuse me of having a pretty stroke. It will be interesting to see how these new techniques work out. We also spent a couple of hours in the water comparing fins.
The better part of this morning was spent finishing the metal frame parts for 17 Pilot monofins. After that we took all the parts to be anodized.
This fin should look great.
On the way, we almost blew a front tire off of Ron’s truck. After feeling a vibration, we stopped, got out, checked, and the right front tire was coming apart. I figure we stopped just seconds before a total blowout would have occurred. Fortunately, the spare tire got us to the anodizing shop before it closed – just one more adventure in 10 days filled with them.
Today we made a bunch of ORCA 2 floats. It is a time consuming job, but has to be done. After we finished work, I got in the water with the Pilot again. My stroke is getting better with Ron’s coaching, and the fin is feeling better too. This fin would be great for long swims in the ocean. It is effortless to swim in it.
This afternoon, we got in the pool and did some more comparison swimming with the Pilot, my ORCA, and the ORCA 2. I cannot begin to express how great it feels to get in the water with these fins. The ORCAs are in a class by themselves, and the Pilot is effortless and smooth.
Today, we got all the new Pilot parts back from the anodizing shop. Everything looked great after Ron put one together.
As you can see below, it is the essence of simplicity. The frame’s construction is strong and inherently resistant to bending in any axis, and the foil suspension is basically indestructible.
The foil on the fin shown, with wingtips stowed, is 30 inches (76.2 cm) long. That along with the frame and shoes would easily fit into a suitcase. When I left Sahuarita to fly to Kuala Lumpur, I had a Pilot prototype and my ORCA along with all of my dive gear and most of my clothes in one suitcase. Try getting any other monofin in your suitcase. Normally when I travel I carry an X-20 and ORCA in the same suitcase and don’t even think twice about it.
We fired up a bunch of dynamics with all of the fins this afternoon. I swam the ORCA 2. I also did some dynamics with my ORCA. I am starting to feel like a freediver again after three months away from training.
Here Ron demonstrates the new Pilot.
We spent a good bit of time working out some of the foot strap issues with the ORCA 2. Then I took the Pilot out for some baseline speed testing. My normal 50 meter lap times with the ORCA in a 50 meter pool are in the 45-47 second range. I was getting about 41 seconds on 40 meters worth of Ron’s 20 meter pool, about a meter per second. I would estimate in a 50 meter pool about a 48-50 second lap time – nothing wrong with that at all. Of course, this is not a particularly scientific test, but it was the best I could do given the time and pool we had.
Ron seems happy with the progress on the foot strap design. It is a huge improvement over the ORCA 1 straps, for sure. I am sure no one would believe how much thought and design goes into something as seemingly easy as straps. They have to be easy to use, comfortable, economical to make, and secure (125 meters down) – no simple task.
This is my final day here. It has been great participating in the effort, and I learned a lot. I am leaving with all of my fingers and toes intact, so none of Ron’s evil machines got me.
I have to say that what really impressed me was the amount of time and effort that goes into designing, building, and testing these fins. It is a very evolutionary kind of process – design, build, test, redesign, build, test, think a bit (or a lot), redesign again, build, test. Quality is no accident, but rather thorough, planned, and intentional – it permeates the entire enterprise at Smith Aerospace. Thankfully, we all get to participate via the enjoyment, comfort, and performance that Ron’s fins provide.
What You Need To Know
- Pain-free hyperfin level performance
- ORCA longevity and durability
- Positively buoyant for you CWT folks out there
- All the other benefits of the original ORCA at less expense
- Easily packed in a suitcase
- Huge improvement in the straps – the main and heel straps are adjusted independently.
- Smooth and reliable power
- Pain-free flyer monofin level performance
- Durable and strong in all axes
- Lightweight and easy to pack in your suitcase
- Very relaxing and effortless swim
- Easy to stand at the start of a dynamic
- Great price
- Great range of foot sizes available
This is Ron’s bag, with the Pilot fully assembled and the fin tips folded in easily by hand in just a few seconds. It is a nice benefit of the Pilot to not have to bother with assembly or dis-assembly when traveling. For even more compact storage, you can easily detach the fin blade by removing 4 small screws. This is a necessity when traveling with longer fins like the ORCA, and also facilitates traveling with multiple fins.
I typically pack the ORCA and X-20 in the bag above with no problem, and I know that Ron often travels with more than that. In my bag, the fin blades are securely stored in a white plastic fence-post. I usually travel with clothes and gear in one bag, and with careful planning, I can stay under the airlines’ weight restrictions (50 lb/23 kg). Travel becomes a non-event with the DOL-Fin series of fins.