When Dan Brown of Altamont was a child, he watched with fascination as fighter jets took off from the former Suffolk County Air Force Base near his family home on Long Island.
And later as a youngster after seeing aerobatic feats of the Thunderbirds — the U.S. Air Force’s demonstration squadron — he knew he wanted to learn to fly but never figured he’d be building his own plane.
He got his pilot’s license and, for the last eight years, Brown has been spending some of his weekends doing just that: building an airplane in his barn.
He’s been assembling fiberglass panels and flipping through two nearly four-inch-thick manuals with instructions and diagrams and sifting through sectioned plastic cases with dozens of parts and fabricating others to secure various systems and devices in a Glasair III low-wing, two-seater kit plane. It’s a homebuilt model known as an “experimental amateur-built aircraft,” by the Experimental Aircraft Association, based in Oshkosh, Wis.
According to the EAA, the aircraft is licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as “experimental,” and can be used for “non-commercial, recreational purposes or personal use. Currently, more than 32,000 amateur-built/home aircraft are licensed by FAA.”
The EAA provides resources and help for airplane enthusiasts who seek to build their own planes. Brown is a member of the association and participates in an Internet online forum, which allows members to share ideas and troubleshoot problems assembling their aircraft.
The EAA has a group of technical advisers, people with skills to help with any issue related to fabrication or assembly of amateur-built experimental aircraft. Brown said he has taken advantage of the service after contacting a local member of the group. Moreover, he said, the advisers can sign documents that may be required for filing with the FAA regarding assembly or system installations.
Glasair III kit
The Glasair III kit that Brown ordered included the airframe or mechanical structure — fuselage and wings made of fiberglass — ailerons (hinged wing attachments), landing gear, control-stick linkage, horizontal and vertical stabilizers, and several other parts needed to build the plane.
However, Brown has spent many weekend hours fabricating parts not included, by cutting, grinding, shaping and drilling holes in metal and trying to figure out what the manual doesn’t explain. He’s also been cutting and adhering fiberglass fabric with resins to panel seams.
“When you start out in the beginning of the manual, you do the step-by-step stuff,” he said. “As you get toward the back of the manual they say, ‘install the fuel filter.’ So you’ve got to kind of wing it because they don’t tell you how to install it. They do give you some hints. So some parts you have to figure out yourself.”
Before he began building his plane, however, Brown had to renovate an old barn next to his home: reinforce support structures and pour a cement floor to accommodate the space for his workshop and his aircraft.
That also included adding extra support for attaching an engine hoist, which he had to purchase. The airplane engine doesn’t come with the kit either. He bought a used 270-horsepower engine that once powered a Piper Malibu airplane.
“The manual says to now ‘install the engine’ but doesn’t tell you how to install it. That was a challenge figuring out how to attach it since it’s secured with dynafocul bushings (large rubber isolators), designed to have a focal point to the engines center of gravity, which allows the engine to move around somewhat to minimize vibrations in the cockpit. It took a lot of fiddling around to align it.”
His next project is constructing the instrument panel. Instead of buying a pre-molded panel, he’s cutting out full-scale images of the instruments he wants to purchase, gluing them to cardboard and mounting them on the panel to determine if they would fit and how they would look and operate.
“This is one of the things you can do for having the plane certified under the experimental category,” he said. “Nowadays planes don’t have round dials. They all are computerized, which makes it very efficient for flying. You have a lot more information in front of you in a small package. It used to be unaffordable and only airlines had this kind of stuff.”
The instruments will have to be certified by the FAA. According to the FAA, Brown said, amateur aircraft builders must complete at least 51 percent of the total fabrication and assembly of the airplane.
“The premise behind that is for the [amateur] builder of the plane to gain knowledge and advance the technology of building an aircraft and flying it experimentally. These planes are unique. They fill a niche that’s not out there with regular certified planes.”
Once flight-ready, the 21-foot-long Glasair III, with its 23-foot wingspan and fuel tanks that hold up to a total of 85 gallons, should be able to fly about 2,000 miles or for about five or six hours, cruising at about 55 percent power, Brown said. The plane could reach speeds of about 250 mph with the engine he’s installed.
He said he hopes to finish the plane next year and take it on its first flight. Perhaps he may eventually participate in the Experimental Aircraft Association-sponsored AirVenture, a weeklong annual summer gathering of aviation enthusiasts in Oshkosh, Wis. More than 10,000 of the EAA membership fly their homebuilt airplanes to the event, which features air shows, aerobatics, hands-on workshops, forums, exhibits and demonstrations.
“I would like to get it to the airport next year, depending on budget and time,” said Brown. “You do one little project at a time and all those little achievements push you along. I wouldn’t be too sad if isn’t finished until 2014. Lots of people take 10 years to build their planes.”