Aircraft building—a journey

To clip a lyric from the Talking Heads, “…and you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here…” Well, here’s my answer and I’m sticking to it.

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That first flight set the hook.

I went flying for the first time in the early 1970s at an airport (Spring Valley Airport, New York—RIP) that was just a couple of miles from my house. After that I was hooked. I went flying many more times there (sometimes with a CFI who was an F-105 Thunderchief pilot who flew in Vietnam—he let me do most of the flying 😊) before heading off to college.

But, like many pilot stories, life got in the way and I didn’t end up getting my license until 2012 (although I did solo in gliders in the 90s in Salem, New Hampshire).

After achieving that, I knew I wanted to have my own plane, but I wasn’t sure which path to follow to achieve that goal. One option I considered was to buy a mid-70s Cessna 172 and upgrade the heck out of it. But I also considered building a plane because I felt I could do it and would end up with a thoroughly modern airplane for much less money than an equivalent new certified one.

So, it was off to Oshkosh to start drooling over all the options—and there were many!

Without getting into each aircraft I considered (pretty much all the well-known models), I realized I needed to define my mission in order to narrow down the options. I knew that I wanted to travel distances at a reasonable speed, with good economy, in an IFR-capable aircraft. I also decided I wanted a four-seater since I wanted to be able travel with a passenger, luggage (including two folding bikes), and full fuel.

That quickly narrowed down the choices. And it was around that time (2013) that I started reading about the Sling aircraft from The Airplane Factory in South Africa. They had a two-seat model already and the four-seater was just coming out. It was getting very positive reviews and it was gorgeous.

I was on a business trip to San Diego around that time and arranged to go to Torrance, California, after to fly a Sling (that’s where the US rep is located). There were no Sling 4s yet in the US, so I flew a Sling 2 (two-seat version) for an hour with their resident CFI.

Sling
Flying the Sling proved it was the right option.

I loved how it flew. I loved the stick, the view, the handling—other than the rudder, it’s pushrod, so it was a nice and tight control feel. I was sold!

I contemplated it for a few more months—mostly deluding myself about the cost and wondering whether I had the chops to do it—and put in my order around December of 2013. It was the first Sling 4 kit ordered in the US. I know, that’s probably nuts. But, I had found out about two neighboring 747 captains in Australia that were already building a Sling 2 and 4, so I figured if it passed their muster (I contacted them and have been in touch ever since), it was probably good to go.

The first sub-kit (the empennage) arrived in May of 2014 and the adventure began…

When I built that easily, my confidence also started to build that I could do it.

Empennage kit
Building the empennage kit was a major confidence booster.

I was planning to work 10 hours per week, and with that I figured it would take me three and half years. Well, at least that was the plan.

Diligently updating my blog and logging my time, I was making decent progress. As I was finishing up my empennage, the wing and fuselage kits arrived, and I started working on the wings.

The wings seemed to go reasonably quickly (if you consider a year quick…) but doing the fuel tanks was stressful for me because of the critical nature of them and the huge sticky mess they are to construct.

It was about the two year mark when I finished the wings, so I was starting to wonder about the three and a half year goal, though I still thought it was possible. Building an airplane requires constant self-delusion.

Then it was on to the fuselage. I took one look at the huge number of parts in that kit and I knew it wasn’t going to be a three and a half year project. But I soldiered on, prepping, deburring, and priming part after part.

Fuselage kit
The fuselage kit was a much longer job than anticipated.

Time was ticking by, but I kept making steady progress, so I kept the pace up. Except that the pace was somewhat slow. It seemed I was only averaging about five hours per week.

I did find that the manual for the fuselage wasn’t as detailed as the prior manuals, so that also slowed things down because I had to check in with my airline pilot friends (in Australia and the US) to confirm what the right next steps were.

Still, I plowed ahead. 3 years. 4 years. But, still, it was looking more and more like an airplane, so I stayed motivated.

Installing the massive fiberglass landing gear was difficult, but I was able to put it on its wheels, which was a huge milestone.

Soon after that I installed the canopy and that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I should note that at this point my friend Kerry Lynn started helping me as my drive after nearly five years was getting drained and I knew I needed someone to help motivate me. Thanks to Kerry for being the person to offer their valuable time to keep it moving and help me stay focused.

Pulling it out
It’s finally starting to look like an airplane—after five years.

With the canopy on and the dash positioned, it was nearly an airplane. Lots of work on the interior and then the firewall (charging/starting circuits) was done at that point and then it was time to install the engine. I rented a ridiculously oversized engine lift and it went on without much difficulty.

One question you get constantly when building an airplane is “when will it be done?” At five years in I stopped answering that question because I discovered that I constantly thought I was six to nine months away. Then the six months would come and go, and I was still six to nine months from the finish.

I must admit that after five years I was starting to get down that it was never going to be done. My task list seemed to be getting longer, not shorter. The tasks were getting smaller and more numerous—it basically started to feel endless.

Then one day in late August I noticed a large pine tree on my property that seemed to be leaning more than I had ever noticed before. I knew this wasn’t good and called a tree removal company immediately since it was leaning somewhat toward the garage. The very next day, the tree guy came over and we made plans to remove it as soon as possible.

That night I was working in my garage until 9:00 (I was going to work until 9:30 but decided to quit early). At 9:20 I was in my house right next to the garage when I heard (and felt) a loud boom come from the garage. I knew instantly that the tree had fallen, and it hit the garage. Panic. I ran in there with my wife and it looked like a bomb had exploded in there. Debris everywhere. A quick run around the plane and I could see that there wasn’t any damage, though lots of wood pieces had fallen on the engine.

Tree down
A tree falling on the garage is not something you plan for when building an airplane.

Twenty minutes earlier, I was working right under where it fell.

It was incredibly traumatic for me. It took a few weeks for it to sink in how traumatic it was.

After the tree was removed from the garage and the plane was safe, a friendly neighbor offered to keep it in their garage while mine was fixed. It was there for over six weeks.

After the trauma of my plane (and possibly me) nearly meeting its demise, and the layoff from working on it, whatever drive I had remaining was totally drained. After five and half years and 1500 hours of work, I needed help. People said to me that it seemed I was so close to finishing—but it didn’t feel that way and I was very down.

I got in touch with Mike Black, who had recently started a new Sling dealership in Oklahoma (Sling Central). We were “friends” on Facebook, and he was very active in the Sling Builders Facebook group, of which I’m the co-administrator. He seemed super knowledgeable (he’s an aeronautical engineer) and very friendly, so I was hoping he would offer some good, objective advice on how to move forward.

He started by suggesting I find an A&P locally that could help, but I wasn’t keen on that approach for several reasons. Basically, I was hoping he’d suggest that he could finish it and I tried to move the conversation in that direction. By the end of our phone conversation he offered to finish the plane for me, so I asked him to come up with a cost and time estimate and he came back with that a couple of days later. The time estimate was right around what I thought it would take and the cost per week was also very good.

Almost there
Finally, it looks like it might be ready to fly.

It was a go! We arranged for he and a partner of his to fly up commercially in a few weeks and rent a big truck to carefully take it back to Oklahoma. The whole plan went off without a single hitch!

After several weeks of work on the engine, panel wiring, cowling, etc., it was really starting to look ready to fly.

I’m having it painted down there too by Luke Nicholson of Painting Planes. A painted wing looking great!:

The paint scheme was done by Craig Barnett at Scheme Designers:

The plane will be named after my maternal grandmother, Sadie, who I never got to meet because she passed away before I was born. My mother always considered her to be her guardian angel, so it was fitting that the plane be named after her.

The plan is that I’ll go down for the FAA sign-off and first flight, which should be in early to mid-April. They’re doing the first flight and I’ll possibly fly chase in their Sling 2. Once that’s done, I return home while they fly off all 40 hours of the Phase 1 flight testing. Then I’ll return to fly it home! I won’t fly home alone as a friend of mine, Bob Zaleski, who is a retired American Airlines captain in Florida, offered to meet me there and fly back with me. He finished his Sling 2 less than two years ago and already has over 500 hours on it. He’s the perfect person to fly back with me.

I can’t wait!

8 Comments

  • Not sure this is what I would call a success story. Being a 172 driver myself, I have been considering building a Vans RV-9A but have been reluctant on pulling the trigger. I was hoping this story would help with that decision but it did not.

    • Daris,
      It wasn’t meant as a success or failure story, but as my story. Because my plane will be flying within a month or so, I’d definitely call that a success.
      Whether building will work for you is up to you. Building an airplane is a big project. Some kits are bigger projects than others, so I’d choose wisely if you decide to do it.
      Craig

  • I think a better title, like perhaps “The trials of aircraft building” would have been more appropriate. Otherwise, the lead up led to an abrupt let down that leaves a reader (And possible aircraft builder) wanting.

  • Thanks for YOUR story, and your journey. I have looked at the Sling several times while at AirVenture. It is a sweet plane. You should be proud to be near completion.

    • Thanks Eric! I can’t wait to fly it! The current “situation” we’re all dealing with is delaying that a bit, but I’ll get there soon.

  • I think you might have been a bit clearer on the rules. This is an experimental-amateur built (‘EAB’) airplane. Anyone following in your footsteps needs to be aware that only a limited amount of hired help is allowed. Google the FAA’s ‘51%’ rule.

    • Bob,
      You’d be surprised how much help you can get and still qualify for the 51% rule (which I should have mentioned).

      I know several people that are doing a quick build option with build assist that will be flying in 9 months from their start and still meet the EAB 51% rule. Not that that option is cheap – it’s most definitely not… But, you end up with an amazing plane.

      I got far less help than they did, so I’ll qualify no problem.

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