How we decided to build an airplane

This entire ordeal started years ago, in 2014 as I recall. At the time I was in the process of selling my company and was under quite a bit of stress. As in life shortening levels of stress. I’d mentioned to my wife, as a ray of sunshine should we ever get through this alive, that I was going to buy an airplane once the dust settled. I’d said these sorts of things before. “Honey, I think I’m going to buy an airplane. Honey, I heard about a guy who needs a partner, I may buy into his airplane.” But I never actually did anything about it. I was too busy and things were too up in the air.

You see, I’d stopped flying in 2003 when I took over our family business. I knew I could be the boss, or I could be the pilot. There was no way I could safely do both. At that time, I was flying a very nice King Air 200 and I was very blessed to be able to do so since I only had just under 1000 hours total time. I’d only recently been upgraded and allowed to fly the King Air and only had a few hundred hours in it. Then from 2003 to 2014, I’d barely seen an airplane (except airliners, I’d seen way to many of those) much less spent any time in the left seat. However I’d never let my medical lapse, my AOPA membership expire nor cancelled my Flying magazine subscription. Maybe I didn’t read all those magazines, but I at least kept a threadbare connection to aviation, telling myself that somehow, someday, I’d go flying again.

So after a particularly hard day, I’m in the kitchen telling the Mrs, again, that I may just go out and buy an airplane. Normally the Mrs doesn’t care what I do with aviation and frankly she doesn’t want to hear about it. But this day, she had an opinion.

“I don’t know why you’d go out and buy an airplane. That doesn’t make any sense.”

I bristled immediately. My last blood pressure reading had looked like this.

I’m trying to give myself something positive to look towards and she’s gonna balk, now?! Now!!?

She continued, unaware and unperturbed by my face turning red.

“You should build an airplane instead. Isn’t this why you are selling the company, so you have time to do stuff with your kids. Do something with your kids then. Build one, don’t buy.”

I sputtered something unintelligible and was frankly dazed on my feet. Build an airplane? Like those crazy old retired people who have nothing better to do? And a home built airplane? What, and go get killed in some stupid contraption designed by a guy in his kitchen on a cocktail napkin while drinking cheap bourbon? I mean, it’s possible to build your own airplane, sure, but that’s for whackos and tinkerers. I want a real airplane. Something I could enjoy, and something the kids could learn to fly in.

She continued, unfazed by my disturbed countenance.

“How long does it take to build an airplane? Years you say? Well your son is 11 1/2. If you spend a year getting this company sold, then a year figuring out what to build, then two years building it, he’ll be 15 1/2. How old does he need to be to get his pilot’s license?”

“Um, 16 to solo.”

“Sounds like you better get cracking then. You don’t have much time.”

“But, but….”

I ran out of buts.

So in January of 2015, at the age of 43, I sold my company. Once the dust had settled from that, and the farm was on a reasonable footing, I began looking into this homebuilt thing.

Step one. Join EAA. Check! September of 2016.
Step two. Start pouring through back issues of EAAs magazine and start learning!

To say I discovered a whole new world would be an understatement. From my years in aviation, I knew all the airplane manufacturers that existed. Cessna, Piper, Mooney, Beech, heck even Boeing and Airbus. Being a helicopter pilot I also knew Bell, Sikorsky, and of course Robinson. I knew everybody there was to know. So who the heck is Van’s? Zenith? Belite? Sonex? Velocity? I’d never heard of any of these people and I was frankly overwhelmed. I tried to begin collecting data to make a decision, spending some hours converting individual manufacturers specs into a standard format that I could compare. This was the way we’d done it in the past. Define your critical mission, then compare airframes that could complete the mission. Easy.

Except I didn’t have a critical mission anymore. No more need to make it to Moline, IL with a 35 knot headwind and NBAA reserve fuel. I wanted this airplane for fun, probably for VFR buy maybe for IFR. Maybe two seats, Maybe four? We have a five person family so I even looked at five seaters but they all seemed to be made for three little people across the back seat. Since I am 6’5″ and my wife is 5’9″, we fully expect our kids to be monsters. By the time I finished building a five seater, nobody would fit any longer. Nope, it was four seats or less.

I wasn’t able to make any progress comparing different airplanes and I was thoroughly frustrated. Unlike certified airplanes, nobody measured anything the same. Some cruise in MPH, some in knots. And even the cruise, which seems simple enough to measure, might vary by 20 knots on one airframe! Are you putting in the Corvair engine? Or the Rotax? Or the Lycoming? The HP could double depending on your choice! In frustration, I saw an ad in EAA’s magazine for a class on learning to build home builts. It was a buffet type class, with some metal work, some fabric work, some wood work, all built into one class.

I pitched this class to the Mrs. This was a good way to narrow down the choices. If my son liked metal work, we’d know to get a metal airplane. If he liked wood, then we’d go that way. The downside was the only class being taught was in Oshkosh, WI in January! I hate being cold, and I hate the airlines. This trip would involve both. But, I’ve heard about the Oshkosh airshow all my life and this was a chance to see the airport and EAA in person for the first time. With a permission slip in hand from the wife we headed off to Oshkosh.

By the time we made it to Oshkosh, I’d learned one thing in all my research. I couldn’t go wrong ordering and building a Van’s RV. Everyone I knew had one or was building one. They were the market leader, by far. Resale issues would be improved with a known product, as would the build process since RVs are so well documented and supported. So by the time we made it to Oshkosh, I’d pretty much already made up my mind. However this was a trip for a father and son together, and we’d already paid and bought tickets, so we may as well go through the process.

Spork building a wooden rib at the EAA class
Spork building a wooden rib at the EAA class

We started off day one as you see above, building ribs out of wood. The instructors were awesome and the rest of the students ranged from fantastic to somebody I’d love to fly with. That’s one of the great things about aviation, the people. We were definitely the least experienced people in the group so I took good notes and tried to keep my head down.

We finished our wing ribs and moved onto putting on fabric, onto a simple box. The fabric was kinda neat, sticky with the glue, and more like arts and crafts than actual building.

For day two we moved onto composites. This was something I was keen to learn about because I knew very little. Spork and I made a small wing section and managed not to epoxy ourselves to the work bench too often. Finally it was time for riveting. This was what I was anxious to learn about because all I knew about building an RV was I’d be bucking thousands and thousands of rivets.

Spork and I were able to crawl all over and in the Berlin Express undergoing restoration in the Weeks hanger
Spork and I were able to crawl all over and in the Berlin Express undergoing restoration in the Weeks hanger

At the end of our classes, Spork and I went out to lunch. I knew we were building an RV so this was pretty much a formality at this point. I said, “So Spork, now that you’ve done each kind of construction method, which do you prefer? Whatever you pick will determine what airplane we buy.”

His answer? “I like wood the best. And I liked the fabric covering. Then I guess next would be composite. I don’t really like composite but it’s ok. I HATE metal.”

Um, uh. Ok. I’m racking my head, is there a model of RV that isn’t metal? Um, no.

What the heck else is there? A wooden airplane? I can’t think of a single one. Oh no!

We came home, with my countenance falsely chipper. Once sequestered away with my Mrs. I tried to explain to her my quandary. No luck. By February I was thoroughly flummoxed and didn’t know which way to turn. In desperation, I mentioned to her that maybe we should go to Sun N Fun in Florida and actually look at airplanes. Maybe if Spork saw an RV he’d change his mind.

Once again, with a permission slip in hand, we took off. This time to Florida. I didn’t have an airplane so we ended up driving down. I do hate the airlines so. We stayed in our first AirBnB (which was awesome!) and visited the airshow daily.

This was my first time to an airshow in probably 15 years. It was my first time to Sun N Fun ever! It certainly was my first time bringing the boy to a show like this. I tried to balance learning, shopping, geeking out, and keeping things fun. I probably geeked out too much and had too much fun. We had a week of stunningly gorgeous weather and time with nothing but the boys and toys.

P-51s in a row at Sun N Fun.
P-51s in a row at Sun N Fun. These were the fighter escorts of my father in WWII.
Spork watching the Blue Angels airshow
Spork watching the Blue Angels airshow

Up to this point, I think Spork was somewhat humoring me. He wanted to be a pilot, sure, but dad must be crazy with all of this. Then he watched the Blue Angels and asked, “Is that a job? Can I be one of those guys for a career when I grow up?” I knew right then, the boy was hooked.

Spork with a CAP aircraft
We are also members of the Civil Air Patrol, so we had to stop in and check on them.
Spork in the Carbon Cub
Spork in the Carbon Cub

We did of course do some shopping. I’d determined that I had one overriding criteria when it came to picking our project aircraft. It needed to fit my moose size comfortably in the cockpit. I’m 6’5″ but most of my height is in my torso so sitting I’m roughly the equivalent of a 6’8″ person. This was actually a blessing as the choices were simply overwhelming otherwise. We spent a lot of time walking up to booths and saying, “Hi, I’m Dan. This is my son Spork. I’d like to sit in your aircraft to see if I fit.” The answer was usually incredulous because I’m obviously a tire kicker and not a real buyer. Once I explained they would assure me I would fit so hop on in. The result usually looked like this. 

Again, this was a blessing because it eliminated 90% of the aircraft choices. So after a week of this in most of the airplanes.

And test rides in aircraft.

And classes both instructional and historical.

Spork on his first (and probably last) visit to Hooters
Spork on his first (and probably last) visit to Hooters

And no momma’s cooking, we had the list of airplanes narrowed down to a few contenders.

The Van’s RV-10 was my clear winner. It was super roomy, great support, easy to build (though very long) and it had four seats. That meant that once Spork went to college, I’d have a go places airplane for the family, or a very capable plane for solo trips. I went back to Van’s booth multiple times just to sit in the airplane on display. Plus my salesman was none other that Mitch Lock, the recently named President of Van’s. I figured that I could take whatever promises he made to me to the bank since he’d be in charge in less than a week.

We came home to meet with the wife and make our final decision. It took some time to get all of us at the same table at the same time but after presenting what I knew was our choice, the RV-10, she balked. HARD.

You see, the RV-10 looked like it would take years to build based on my available time. That’s years with a big S. It’s quite an endeavor, even with the quick build options. The entire project fizzled out right there at our kitchen table. The whole thing was off…..

Except now I was hooked. I was convinced that home built airplanes were the future and I didn’t want a certified aircraft anymore. Plus Spork and I were really looking forward to working together on this thing. We got away from everyone else and talked about it a bit. We decided that we needed to reset our goals and find something that would work for what we needed.

I scheduled a tail wheel endorsement weekend to get that part out of the way. I also added another aircraft to the list that wasn’t on there before. An autogyro Cavalon.

I went out to Manteo to take my tail wheel training with Jenny Hawk, someone a friend of mine had recommended. I found the Citabria a delight to fly except I couldn’t land it for crap. Well, I could land it well enough for an endorsement but I was beyond frustrated at my inability to grease a wheel landing. I felt like I was a brand new primary student and I wondered if I would ever get the hang of landing. While in the pattern, I found out that Jenny’s husband, Robbie Pedersen, was a big Just Aircraft flier. In fact, when I finally met him he asked, in conversation, if I’d seen his video? Video? What video?!

My jaw dropped when I saw his performance. Although it kind of confirmed my thought that the Just was a one trick pony. However Robbie was a delight to talk to and I really enjoyed getting to know him. He invited me back out to fly in his SuperSTOL but I really didn’t need an airplane that landed like it was on an aircraft carrier and got passed by bugs in the air. I was thinking this Autogyro thing was going to be a great option. And it turned out there was a club for them right here in NC.

I called and made friends and found out that the club was having a fly in. I was invited down to meet and greet and the guys absolutely couldn’t have been nicer. They really rolled out the red carpet. They fed us, flew us, and answered all our dumb questions. 

Some aspects of the gyrocopter were awesome. Remember that I’m a helicopter pilot too. This was like flying a helicopter, but at WAY less cost. But the downside was that the takeoff distance was pretty long on these things. And the ground stability was questionable. One of my goals was to be able to operate from our pasture, not our manicured runway. But I was intrigued enough to check further into things and scheduled a demo ride in a Cavalon.

I took my first flight in a Cavalon and really enjoyed the flight. Like, a LOT. Darling Mrs. was telling me to order one on the spot, that the search was over. They had a two week factory assist build that Spork and I could do together. But I was still worried about ground stability and what it would take to get from zero to hero with this thing. I went ahead and scheduled my checkout training so I could get my rating. Once that was done, I should have enough information to make a final decision.

Several months later when I arrived at Autogyro in Maryland, I was met with my instructor. The weather was pretty lousy that day, misty, low overcast, windy, etc. But it was scheduled to improve to a decent day that afternoon. However his greeting to me wasn’t hi, how are you, glad you are here. It was, “We’re not flying today!” Pretty gruff and uninterested in flying or the fact that I’d travelled quite a ways to be there.

I said the weather looked to get better by the afternoon to which he hurumpfed. Since I was already there and scheduled to be there for the next several days, I said I’d just sit inside and maybe we could talk about what the process was like, do some ground school, etc. You know, make use of the time since we both were sitting idle. I spent the next several hours asking questions, to which the answer was generally, “That can’t be explained, you’ll see when you get into the aircraft.” Over a couple of hours, I don’t believe I received one clear answer to anything and most questions were flatly refused.

Finally the super nice (everyone there was super nice, except my CFI) gave me a book about learning to fly gyrocopters which I read cover to cover while waiting for the weather to improve. It did improve and we did our first flight which was a repeat of what we did on my initial flight with another instructor. Of course I told him I’d already done an intro flight but he had a routine and we were going to do the routine regardless. So we did level flight, turns, climbs, descents. In his defense, it was blowing about 35 knots, so there is only so much we could do. With our one flight over, and no real progress on learning to fly I was told to be back in the morning for another flight.

However I am not the 19 year old scared private pilot student I once was. These are my nickels, and my time we are spending. I reached out to Robbie Pederson to find out if he was available to do a demo flight in the SuperSTOL. “Absolutely! Come on down!” With that answer, I politely informed the very nice lady manning the office that I was cutting this trip short and heading home at lunch the next day. I flew twice more with my gyro CFI and honestly by the end was making real progress. Landings, takeoffs, aborts, the whole gamut. But I don’t have the time nor patience to pay good money for bad attitude. Again, EVERYONE else there was SUPER nice. Like best in class super nice. But my main point of contact was going to be a bear and I wasn’t putting up with it. Maybe I’d fly out to Utah and build with the dealer out there. That guy was really well informed and had a can do attitude….

I headed South to Manteo, NC to meet Robbie and try out the SuperSTOL. We’d probably just build a Highlander (faster, longer takeoff) so there was some decent cruise speed but this would at least give me an idea of what was possible. But that flight, and how we ended up selecting the SuperSTOL, is another whole story.