Homebuilding is About Dreams

The building of Waiex #0044 is the cumulation of a longtime dream. I don't remember when I first became interested in airplanes: my first airplane ride was in my Uncle Milt's Tri-Pacer when I was about six or seven, about 1950 or 1951. By the next year, I was attempting to build a balsa-and-paper model of a Douglas Dauntless. I bought the kit at the Ben Franklin with what must have been my first allowance. My mother did not approve, as I'm sure the kit would have been marked "ages 10 and up" in the modern age of consumer protection. I don't think I finished it, but I did get the airframe built, and just admired the structural view of the formers, longerons, spars, and ribs. Later, I turned to plastic models, alternating between World War One aircraft and futuristic spacecraft--this was, after all, before Sputnik.

My school buddy, Ray, flew control-line model planes, and I was content to simply watch, since they were a bit beyond my meager budget. In our teens, we tinkered with cars: Ray had a serious preoccupation with cars, and we rebuilt a steady succession of aging machines teetering on the brink of or rescued from the junk yard. When I got my first serious car--a TR3--after college, I was in the Army, and mainly used it to motor out to the on-base airfield, Condon Army Airfield, at White Sands Missile Range, where the post flying club kept a small stable of surplus trainers, including a pair each of prototype PA-19 90-HP Piper primary trainers, with no flaps or electical systems, and PA-18 125-HP Super Cubs that had contended unsuccessfully for an Army spotter plane contract, won ultimately by Cessna.

Student pilot, 1967
So, in the summer of 1967, I took flying lessons, soloed, and did all of the required training and experience except night flying before my tour with the Army was up. With only a couple hours to go before getting signed off for the all-important private pilot check ride, I confronted the reality of civilian life, with a new family, car payments, work-related travel, and high cost of living in the big city, and, before I realized it, my student pilot certificate expired without again setting foot in a plane.

In the early 1970s, I did go up from a small airfield in New Jersey for a quick spin in a Cherokee 140 with a co-worker who was a CFI, but raising five children didn't leave time or money for flying. I decided I would probably have to build a plane to afford to fly, and became interested in the homebuilt movement, joining the EAA and the local chapter, the now-defunct Chapter 61 in Rhode Island, in 1975. After moving to the Seattle area in 1980, I got interested in a new, all-metal design from Zenith, but still couldn't justify the time or expense. Although I kept up my national EAA membership, flying was pretty much far in the background through the 1980s, though I did take a ground school course and the Private Pilot written exam in 1985. However, there were still a lot of mouths to feed, and college tuition looming, so yet another prerequisite expired with no flying.

Builder, 2005
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, resettled, once again, in western Montana, finally with no children at home, but a fresh mortgage, and a definite middle-aged spread. In the Fall of 2002, we decided to do something about the extra weight, for health reasons if nothing else. By late summer 2003, we had lost a total of 190 pounds and were each well within the 170-pound "crew and passenger" value to which aircraft are designed. Suddenly, it occurred to us that we no longer needed to look forlornly at plans and prices for 4-place planes that would still be within CG limits with the equivalent of three "standard" passengers in the front seats.

Armed with a new set of criteria, we quickly zeroed in on the Sonex family of planes as the most practical solution to eventual aircraft ownership: something affordable, fun for short weekend excursions and the occasional cross-country to visit grandchildren, now scattered in several directions, several days away by car and neither us nor them close enough to major airline hubs to afford accumulating frequent flyer miles in the back of the plane. The newly announced Waiex, with its sleek lines and distinctive Y-tail design, became the primary target. We started an airplane budget category at last, attended a builder's workshop at the Sonex factory in the spring of 2005, and ordered our kit in August. Part of the attraction of the design was the excellent Aerovee engine conversion at reasonable cost, but when the decision came, we opted for the Jabiru 3300 configuration, since most of our flying will be in, over, and along the Rocky Mountains, where our local airport, at 3700 feet, is in a sectional block marked 95, almost identical in topology to the area where I received my flight training. I remember several times when having enough power to climb to 10,000 feet for a direct ridge crossing to avoid racing scud to the lower pass was very important.

The next step was sorting through a lifetime accumulation of "things" acquired for former homes and former pursuits, that had banished the cars to the driveway for the past several years, in order to have a workshop space large enough for the project. That remains a partially-complete goal, but there is at least room to store the materials and, hopefully, convert them into a finished aircraft. The space availability somewhat constrains the construction order, since the workbench will need to be dismantled during the fuselage construction, so all other parts need to be done first.

Now, one year into construction, some of the materials have been whittled into airplane parts and some look more like Gary Larson's Cow Tools but are useful as bench stops and construction practice. The wing spars are mostly done, and the control surfaces are coming along, as a skill-building exercise before tackling skinning the wings. The skills are building slowly, and there are always reminders to go slow and pay attention to every detail.

Work on the plane also takes back seat to the normal activities of life: trips to visit grandchildren, vacations, and other hobbies we just happened to develop while waiting to build a plane. Both Judy and I are involved in the quilting community, as she has a longarm quilting machine business in the other 2/3 of the garage. We also have taken advantage of our new lightness of being to get back into recreational bicycling, averaging about 1000 miles a year on our tandem, which we bought new in 1986 and have put enough hours on to be nearly to our second major drive train overhaul. And, of course, there's still the day job, for which I am thankful, as it keeps the packages coming from Wicks and feeds the Jabiru penny jar, and adds another 1000 miles or so of bicycle commuting. Fortunately, I didn't wait until retirement to start this project, because retirement is beginning to look like a relic of the 20th century. For now, work is fun, but maybe, when the plane gets done and it just gets too hard to resist fair skies, we'll think about reorienting.

Meanwhile, there is still the question of getting back into active flying before the project is completed. With building time at a premium and the bottom still visible in the Jabiru penny jar, the continuation of flight training has been put off yet again. But, with the 40th anniversary of my first solo flight coming up in a few months, there is no better time to take a break in building and finally finish what I started long ago.

Update, 2019. Many more years have passed: it has now been more than 50 years since my first solo, and I have essentially abandoned my dream. Medical issues have effectively closed the door on dreams of flight, at least without a lot of expense and paperwork: I'm reasonably healthy and physically active, and continue to enjoy bicycling, but the initial process of regaining a long-expired medical certificate is just too daunting to think of. The consolation is that bicycling long distances in beautiful settings is as close to flying as I've ever experienced, and will have to suffice for now. Retirement did come late: Working another five years past the legal full retirement date did put a crimp in plans to complete the building project. And, as noted on the builders log, moving a project to a new home is sometimes more disruptive than planned. The workspace is simply not conducive to aircraft construction, and family and health considerations delayed restarting the project until it is simply too late for this lifetime.