By Mike Dann, EAA 868420
This piece originally ran in the April 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Buying this kit was a dumb idea. No skills, no tools, no available hangars within 400 miles, no tailwheel time to speak of and only a tiny Florida Keys man cave with a 36-inch door.
After reading more than 22,000 builder’s forum posts and determining that a 3/4-scale Airdrome Aeroplanes World War I E-III Eindecker fuselage would not only fit in my build space but also could squeeze in and out the door, I decided to forget the whole thing. That’s after building the rudder.
I moped around for three days and finally realized I had to build this airplane. But I would only buy the kit if I made the decision right then to do everything necessary to build and fly this thing. No quitting.
Once the decision to build was made, it was easy. I knew I would overcome all obstacles, with or without help. The first bit of help came in the form of Al, fellow fisherman, pilot, and A&P mechanic certificate holder. I never asked him to sign off on any kind of inspection, but his words “I’d fly it” were good enough. Early on he moved away to fly and work on the CAF’s B-29 FIFI, among other things.
And so every morning off from work I would take my coffee downstairs and decide on the day’s build plan. Sometimes I’d just clean the shop, sometimes I’d work 10 hours. As I worked, I couldn’t help but think of two words: precious metal. Not because of it being high-quality 6061-T6 aluminum tube, but because of its higher purpose, the intent behind its presence: my lifelong dream to fly by my own hand.
I talked to designer Robert Baslee a lot, and he didn’t seem to mind having to explain some things two different ways. Not that he didn’t leave a large degree of latitude up to the builder in the areas of engine choice, instruments, fuel plumbing, electrical system, and windscreen, to name a few. As a first-time builder I knew nothing of these things; however, it turns out that the amount of research and thought that was required to get a specific detail right was directly proportional to the satisfaction gained when it worked as imagined. Sometimes analysis paralysis took hold, and I just had to start cutting metal. Most of the time it was right, but sometimes I had to tap the old Spruce account for replacement parts. You know, “I filed and filed and filed and it’s still too small.” It happens.
The engine choice was a two-year process. The prototype aircraft ran a Rotax 503, which was out of production at the time. I wanted a brand new engine in my brand new airplane so I settled on the German-made Hirth F-23 50-hp two-stroke, two-cylinder, air-cooled, dual-ignition, state-of-the-art, uncertified airplane engine. The time between overhauls on the Hirth is 1,000 hours. All told, my custom engine mount, exhaust, and F-23 supplied by Matt at Recreational Power Engineering tipped the scales at 92 pounds.
I didn’t like the pre-made throttle quadrants available so I designed and built one roughly modeled after one you might find in a P-47 or Mustang. That was fun. I decided to add mountain bike run-up/hold-short brakes after the gear was built. Designing and fabricating caliper brackets, disc adapters, and cables that lead to a single-lever on the stick were high on my list of design satisfactions, along with the Lexan windscreen and tail-mounted battery rack. All modifications and additions were run past Robert beforehand.
And finally the day came when I was ready for first complete assembly. No crew and nowhere to do it except maybe at the storage facility where the fuselage lived while I covered the wings. Enter Ed Waldorf, EAA 489664, chairman of the EAA Chapter 1241 museum at the Florida Keys Marathon International Airport (KMTH), who invited me to store the airplane in the museum hangar.
And so Ed, Fred, another Ed, and Shirley became my assembly and testing team. For insurance purposes, Sol, the owner of the flight school next door, would be my flight advisor. He had built and flown a Kitfox and had plenty of tailwheel time. I can’t thank them enough for the time and effort they put into making someone else’s dream a reality. Nor can I thank my wife enough for exhibiting more understanding than actually existed and for letting me store my engine and landing gear in the living room as Hurricane Irma bore down; thanks also to my son for shooting longeron rivets and helping to move the engine when required.
The first flight was both anticlimactic and surreal, and the amazement of it all didn’t hit me till later. Building an airplane isn’t just a hobby; it’s a way of life! The first flight was six years after kit delivery, and I loved every minute of it. Well, except for the time I smashed my little finger against the sharp edge of a 1-inch drill bit … with a hammer.
My build time has evolved into good old-fashioned airport bumming, complete with a plastic chair just outside the open hangar door facing the runway. And I can’t think of a better place to bum than the EAA Chapter 1241 museum. Stop by if you’re passing through; there are plenty of chairs, and the coffee’s always on.