From the ground up

Aviation enthusiasts find new
challenges in building their own airplanes

The popularity of ‘homebuilts’ grows
as parts become more widely available

By Don Ward

(June, 2002) MADISON, Ind. – If the fear of flying keeps you grounded when planning your vacation, consider taking off in a homebuilt aircraft designed and constructed by that nutty next-door neighbor who teaches science at the high school. Or how about the one built by crazy Uncle Bob, who got the idea from staying up late watching the Discovery Channel. Or – shudder the thought – grandpa Ed, who says he just likes “tinkering in the garage” when he is feeling up to it.
Talk about trust.

June 2002 Edition Cover

What’s more troubling for friends and relatives of aviation enthusiasts is that once the wings, propeller, tail fin, engine and wheels are in place, they want to take you up in the darned contraption. Now it’s one thing to encourage dad to start a new hobby to keep him busy in his retirement, but when it comes to actually taking a ride in something that arrived at the house one morning in a wooden crate – well, that’s trust.
Or just plain crazy.
Experimental aircraft builders, as they like to be called, not only spend years in their garages building the things, they fully expect to fly them. Of course, they must first obtain their “airworthiness certificate,” which gives them the green light to taxi onto the runway and “throttle up,” as they like to say, hurtling their metal creations skyward.
Many take their maiden flights in the company of only a few close friends – and perhaps a doctor in case something goes wrong.
“I didn’t want a bunch of people around when I took my first flight in a homebuilt, but I did ask (pilot and retired physician) Dr. Shirmer Riley to be there. At least he would know what to do in case of an emergency,” said Jim Shaffstall, a retired Hanover College arts professor, glass blower and aircraft homebuilder from Hanover, Ind.
Shaffstall, 67, is among a small group of men who build and store homebuilt aircraft at the Madison Municipal Airport. While small in number, they provide each other with moral and technical support over the long months and years of constructing their crafts. And each year, they pack up their bags and head for the largest air show in America – “AirVenture,” sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association and held in Oshkosh, Wisc. The event will mark its 50th year on July 23-29 at Wittman Regional Airport and annually attracts more than 800,000 aviation enthusiasts, such as Shaffstall, Madison residents Bud Williams, Ray Boyd and Dick Brown, and Bill Brady of nearby La Grange, Ky.
“It’s quite intimidating the first time you go there because there’s 15,000 airplanes, with 2,500 of them show planes,” said Brady, 45, a Michigan native who has attended the event nine times in the last 10 years and plans to return this year. “I had a broken leg last year and couldn’t go, otherwise I would have been there.”
Shaffstall, a native of Bucyrus, Ohio, caught the aviation bug honestly from his father, Clayton, a pilot who owned half an interest in a Piper P-11 when Jim was a youth.
Brady, meanwhile, stumbled upon it while looking for a hobby after he and his wife, Bonnie, had finished restoring a farm house in Michigan and then tried scuba diving. “We decided that scuba diving lessons weren’t practical in Michigan, but there was a lot of flat ground that was good for flying. So I took flying lessons instead. I feel that anybody can learn to fly if you apply yourself.”
Brady moved to Kentucky five years ago to accept an engineering position at Dow Corning in Carrollton. His plane, a Murphy Rebel which took him six years to build from a kit, is housed in a hangar at the Madison Municipal Airport.
Shaffstall took his first flying lesson at age 14. “That was in 1948,” he says, pointing to a aged black-and-white photo hanging on his shop wall showing a youth sitting in an airplane. “I’ve owned about 25 airplanes since then, seven of them homebuilts.”
Today, Shaffstall owns a Kolb microlight – similar to an ultralight but heavier – at his home and two experimental homebuilts under way at his shop at the airport – a Stolp V-Star biplane and low wing Sonex monoplane. One homebuilt is being built entirely from scratch, while the other came with some fabricated parts that were ready to assemble.
“That’s what this game is about – experimentation, education and recreation. But the recreation part is questionable,” he jokes.
Homebuilts can be constructed from one of three methods – quick-build kits that are ready to assemble; from a basic kit that includes some pre-cut parts and raw materials; or from design plans only, requiring the builder to buy or scrounge together new or used raw materials. At least 52 percent of the aircraft must be built or assembled to qualify as a homebuilt, according to the 170,000-member EAA and the Federal Aviation Administration. Kits start around $15,000 but do not include the engine, which can cost another $15,000 to $20,000.
Before flying these machines, homebuilts must be inspected by FAA officials. Beyond that, taking one up requires only a pilot’s license, fuel and guts.
“It takes a special interest to do something like this,” Shaffstall said. “The interest in homebuilts has exploded in the last five years because parts are becoming more accessible, a lot like those for antique cars.”
Brady wasn’t interested in scrounging for parts. An engineer, his interest was in actual construction. So he bought a kit from Murphy Air in February 1993 and finished the project in December 1998. The bigger parts were pre-cut with the holes punched, but it still required working with raw materials. His airplane is powered by a 118 horsepower, 4-cylinder Lycoming engine.
“I learned that it is easier to build one if you have two people,” he said, summing up his 2,000-hour experience.
Besides Bonnie, he was helped on occasion by his father-in-law, Pat Faith, and college friend, Paul McFeaters. Following the FAA inspection, Ralph Rogers of Madison-based Rogers Aviation conducted the first flight test on Feb. 5, 1999. The half-hour test revealed stable and level control properties and achieved 105 mph at an engine speed of 2,300 rpms, according to a summary of his experience that Brady posted on www.murphyair.com. Engine oil temperatures climbed to an unacceptable range, however, the overheating problem was later corrected.
“It flew really well,” Rogers said. “One problem was that he had his trim backwards, but that was easily fixed. It’s normal to have a few problems the first time out.”
In all, 40 hours of airworthiness testing must be completed before a homebuilt can be FAA-certified. Brady’s airplane was certified on Dec. 1, 1998.
Boyd, an 81-year-old retired engineer from Reading, Mich., spent much of his life designing instrument wiring panels for the automotive industry. Educated at Angola Tri-State College in Angola, Ind., he worked as a non-combat pilot during World War II.
After retiring to Madison in 1981, he began building airplanes as a hobby. He is now finishing his seventh homebuilt, a Titan Tornado two-seater that he purchased as a kit. Together with the 80 horsepower engine, he figures to have about $25,000 tied up in the project. He started working on the plane in mid-March and plans to complete it in June.
For newcomers to this hobby, Boyd advocates two things: have enough space to build and read the manual.
“People think they can build an airplane in their garage, but you need enough space to spread out your parts and tools,” he said. “You also need to read your manual carefully.”
Once the homebuilts are ready for the runway, it is often Rogers who gets the call for the first test flight. Rogers has test flown several homebuilts over the years and never crashed one. He has, however, crashed his own commercially built planes, going down late one night 14 years ago on Hwy. 256 in Madison and hitting a telephone pole with his Cessna 172. “A part failed inside the engine,” he said. “It made the news.”
A retired U.S. Air Force pilot, Rogers, 68, managed the Bedford, Ind., airport for 13 years and the Madison airport for five years until last October, when the city dedicated its new terminal and hired a full-time manager, Paul Glowiak, to staff it.
Rogers says he’s impressed with the craftsmanship of homebuilt aircraft and was once told by FAA inspectors that most are built better than some commercial crafts. “They may not be as good of a design, but people take more time fitting everything together when they build it themselves.”
Rogers said a testament to this craftsmanship is the fact that many airplane manufacturers send representatives to the Oshkosh air show each year to look for new ideas from homebuilders, since many like to modify the original blueprints as part of the challenge.
Shaffstall is among those who like to try different things – bigger engines than what is recommended to make his planes go faster, for instance.
“Some things work and some don’t,” Rogers said, referring to such modifications. “That’s where I come in.”

• To learn more about the Experimental Aviation Association or the AirVenture show, visit: www.eaa.org.

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