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Makers of experimental airplanes take their dreams aloft

SHARE Makers of experimental airplanes take their dreams aloft

To the untrained eye, the lime green and sunflower yellow contraption sitting in Gary Stucker's garage looks like something Fisher-Price built. Anybody who expects it to actually fly must be sniffing airplane glue.

But that's exactly what experimental airplanes like Stucker's are designed to do. In fact, it could fly as high as three miles above the ground, once he finishes building it."It's built strong so the wings won't fall off," said Stucker, an Oxnard private pilot. "Your landing speed is about 25 mph. You land at the same speed you pedal a bicycle at."

Stucker's plywood and Dacron creation is on the less complicated end of the Experimental aircraft spectrum.

"Some of the airplanes are as sophisticated as the newest military birds," said John Fitzgerald of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Fitzgerald is a member and Stucker is past president of Chapter 723 of the Experimental Aircraft Association, a chapter of a national association dedicated to people who build their own planes.

"These are hardcore tinkerers, but many of them are competently designed," said Fitzgerald. "The reason they're called `experimental' is because it's an FAA requirement."

Any home-built plane is considered an experimental plane, but they still have to meet certain requirements. No matter how simple or sophisticated, each experimental plane must get a certificate of airworthiness from the Federal Aviation Administration before it can be flown.

Bob Fowler of Simi Valley, an EAA member for 11 years, has two home-built airplanes in his hangar at Camarillo Airport. It took Fowler and his wife, Theresa, 7 1/2 years to build their Swearingen, a single-wing light plane with a propeller.

"You cannot buy an airplane with the performance of this airplane," said Fowler, running his hand over the wing of the glossy brown and tan plane. "Its top speed is 300 mph. The Bonanza (a factory-built plane) sells for over $500,000. It will only cruise about 200 mph."

By the time he finished building his Swearingen, he had invested a fifth of that amount. Still pretty steep, but the lower cost is what attracts many to the home-builti plane - along with a desire for something unique.

Kits for home-built planes can cost anywhere from $4,000 for an ultralight plane to as much as $500,000 for a high-performance plane that can travel at speeds of up to 400 mph. Aside from the extremes, most home-built airplane prices cluster around the $25,000 to $50,000 mark.

"It's an expensive hobby," said Ray Melberg, an 86-year-old EAA member.

Melberg has been a member of the EAA since 1956, two years after the organization was started by a pilot named Paul Poberezney in Oshkosh, Wis. Today there are 937 chapters nationwide.

Both the garage and the hobby shop in Melberg's Thousand Oaks home are mazes of aluminum frames, rolled-up blueprints, disembodied propellers, and books on airplane construction.

There are lots and lots of books. From these books, Melberg taught himself to build planes.

"I just picked it up as I went along," Melberg said.

It started when he was building model planes as a kid growing up in Denver.

"I had my first ride in 1927 in an old biplane," he said. "It was a prize I won in a model airplane contest."

After high school, Melberg started working as an airplane mechanic at Stapleton International Airport in Denver.

"At that time I thought I'd give up model building and started building the real thing," he said.

He became a licensed pilot in 1935. The president of Gates Lear Jet was so impressed with a biplane Melberg and two friends designed and built in 1936 that he hired him. Later, Melberg tested B-17s and then, in 1942, signed on as a pilot with Continental Airlines, where he remained for 30 years.

He flew as a private pilot until 1992 when he had a heart operation, and he had trouble getting his license back. He's not giving up. In the meantime, he's restoring a 1942 biplane and building a 270-pound ultralight plane.

Melberg designs his own planes from scratch, so he uses a lot of geometry and trigonometry. For the less ambitious pilot, there are detailed instructions that come along with planes built from kits, and with computer programs available to assist the builder.

Still, it's a very precise and sometimes tedious endeavor.

"It has to be balanced correctly," said Stucker. "You use formulas, and you weigh the plane."

The rest is elbow grease.

"I did all the sheet metal, wiring, plumbing. My wife was Rosie the Riveter," Fowler said.

Applying the Dacron fabric to the wing frame involves heating it with a regular clothing iron so the material shrinks and cleaves to the frame.

And when it's finished, the moment of truth arrives: testing it.

Stucker admits he still gets performance anxiety as he taxis down the runway in his home-built plane.

"You have a hard time speaking to the tower because your mouth is so dry," said Stucker with a laugh.

Stucker said you'll know within a few seconds of taking off whether most of your equipment is going to get you airborne. After that, you just have one thought running through your mind, he said: "Engine, keep running."

EAA members agree that what you're flying is less likely to kill you than the way you're flying it. They say most airplane accidents can be traced to pilot error, regardless of whether the plane is experimental or not.

"I would agree with that," said FAA public affairs specialist Mitch Barker of Seattle. "It depends on the ability of the pilot, but also how well the aircraft is assembled and maintained."

Barker said anybody who gets into a plane should be qualified to fly it with a pilot's license.

"Airplanes can kill you if you're careless," said Stucker.

Still, he said, "it's more dangerous driving on the freeways."

(Kim Lamb Gregory is a reporter for the Ventura County Star in Ventura, Calif.)