When flying isn't enough

Some aviation lovers are building their own airplanes

Posted: Monday, April 17, 2000

Don Howell loves to fly. He takes off almost every afternoon in the only plane he knows how to operate - an aircraft he built himself.

``Within 15 or 20 minutes, you can be at a lake where nobody ever goes. I try to fly every day that the weather permits,'' said Howell, as he wiped down his home-built plane in front of its winter storage container.

Within the next few weeks, Howell will attach floats to his two-seater and move the plane to its summer home on Auke Lake.

He's one of Juneau's aviation enthusiasts, many of whom are building their own experimental airplanes.

``An experimental aircraft is an aircraft that is at least 51 percent built by an individual. It can not be used for compensation or hire, it's exclusively used for educational and recreational purposes,'' said Mac Childers, the local maintenance inspector for the Federal Aviation Association.

Childers is also president of the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Although the Juneau unit is barely two years old, the international organization will turn 50 in 2003. Currently, the aviators' association hosts more than 1,000 local chapters and 170,000 members who range from neophytes who have never flown a plane to professional pilots.

``Anybody who is interested in aviation in any way, shape or form, is welcome to join us,'' said Childers, who hopes to incorporate educational programs for children into the local group's agenda in the near future.

Several years ago, Childers built an experimental aircraft - a full-scale replica of the Red Baron Tri-plane. That home-built aircraft is now prominently displayed in the Plane of Fame hall in California.

But building an experimental aircraft doesn't need to be that complex. Don Howell built his two-seater Avid airplane from a kit.

``It took me a little over a year but I worked on it full-time for seven months,'' said the self-employed Howell, who owns several commercial buildings and the Auke Bay Inn.

``I like to do my own mechanical work. If I can build it, I can repair it,'' he added.

Avoiding the high cost of hiring a certified FAA approved mechanic is one of the motivating factors for many aviators to build their own aircraft. Since builders of experimental aircraft are considered manufacturers, they can become certified repairmen for that particular aircraft, said Joe Junker, who built a Murphy Rebel airplane.

Junker, a mechanic employed at the Secon construction company, has flown planes for more than 26 years. After owning a plane, he built his first aircraft three years ago.

``It's nice to know every piece and part of your airplane,'' said Junker, who flew his home-built to North Carolina last winter.

Although builders may know every nook and cranny of their experimental aircraft, they're not permitted to fly their plane for the first 25 hours of flight time.

``The FAA wants an unbiased eye (to test the aircraft),'' Junker said.

In Juneau, that job typically falls to Dennis Nelson, a certified inspector and flight instructor in Juneau. For test flights, Nelson suits up in a fireproof flight suit and a parachute. To date, Nelson has yet to encounter a serious problem while testing an experimental aircraft.

``You look them (the aircraft) over real good and figure they're going to hold together. You do what you can do, fortify yourself and off you go,'' said Nelson, as if testing a home-built plane was similar to going to work at a local tourist shop.

Although he may be calm about the initial flight, some builders have been known to have the first-time jitters.

``Even though you've gone over the plane a hundred times, watching it take off for the first time you're thinking, `did I forget anything?' Is it really going to fly?'' said Howell, who learned how to fly in the plane he built.

But for most aviators, the thrill of building a plane from scratch still takes a back seat to the time spent in the air.

``I've seen a lot of this country by boat, or so I thought, until I started flying,'' said Junker after returning from a late afternoon flight with his dog. ``It's just amazing.''

For information about the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, contact Mac Childers at 780-4661.

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