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Wichita-area enthusiasts like challenge of building replica airplanes

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, May 12, 2013, at 7:46 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, May 13, 2013, at 10:25 a.m.

Standing by a long workbench in his Derby basement, Paul Fiebich shows visitors the wooden fuselage of the replica 1930s biplane he’s building.

Four fabric-covered wings are stored overhead in the neatly organized room.

Fiebich figures the biplane, a replica of the Tiger Moth, will be ready to fly within two years.

A pilot since 1991 and a former teacher, Fiebich spends 10 to 20 hours a week constructing the two-seat airplane from drawings.

“One of the neat things about building a project like this, you get to use the skills you already have and you get to learn some new things,” Fiebich said. “And while you’re making it, you’re imagining yourself flying it, too.”

It’s Fiebich’s second project.

He flies a single-seat Airbike ultralight that he constructed.

Jim Smith, a retired engineer and self-proclaimed “airplane nut,” took a different route in building his two-seat airplane, a Vans RV-6.

He constructed the RV in his garage from a kit of parts shipped from the factory.

It took him three years, eight months – or roughly 3,200 hours.

“As far as building an airplane, there’s nothing hard,” Smith said. “There’s just a whole lot of work to it.”

So far, he’s flown the single-engine plane about 760 hours. He’s flown it to Florida, Texas, Georgia, New Mexico, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

From the first flight, it was a joy to fly, he said.

“It just charged off that first trip and flew like an airplane” without a problem, Smith said. “It flew right out of the box.”

The number of people who are building airplanes is difficult to track.

Every year, between 800 and 1,200 home-built airplanes are registered with the FAA, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association.

It’s a $75 million to $100 million a year industry, the EAA estimates.

In the U.S., 31,263 amateur-built planes are listed on the FAA’s registry.

That includes 554 in Kansas.

There’s likely another 30,000 currently under construction, according to the Aircraft Kit Industry Association.

Others say for every one completed, two more are under way.

Some are finished in six to eight months. Others take years to complete. Some are never finished.

Help for builders

Fiebich bought his project from an Alabama pilot who had a job change. The man had worked 400 to 500 hours on it before Fiebich bought it.

There are plenty of designs and kits from which to choose – from ultralights and helicopters to jets.

One of the more popular kit-built aircraft is the RV family of planes offered by Van’s Aircraft.

By the end of 2012, about 8,000 RVs have been completed and flown, according to the company. Thousands more are under construction.

In Wichita, a large group of RV aviators meet regularly.

Helping home-builders is a major mission of the EAA, which has about 80 members locally and 180,000 members in all.

The EAA was founded in the 1950s by Paul Poberezny, an accomplished military pilot and grassroots designer and builder of aircraft.

The EAA has a formal structure to give builders technical and other support.

The organization holds seminars and webinars on safety and building techniques nearly every week, said Jack Pelton, former CEO of Cessna Aircraft now the acting EAA president and chairman of the board.

“Certain people have been identified to have the proper credentials to help a builder get through the process,” Pelton said.

Home-built aircraft must pass FAA inspection to obtain an airworthiness certificate, much like a plane on Cessna’s assembly line, he said.

Plans and kits have had expensive engineering behind their designs, Pelton said.

“The designs are well understood,” he said. “It’s not like your neighbor woke up one day, who was not an aerospace engineer, and decided to cobble up a design and hope nothing happens,” he said.

Pride and money

Some people who can’t afford to buy a plane can afford to build one,

Costs range widely depending on capability, range, speed, size, engines and avionics.

Builders can spend from several thousand dollars to more than $250,000, according to the Aircraft Kit Industry Association.

It’s possible to buy a complete kit for a two-seat aircraft, including an engine, for under $28,000, the AKIA said.

The kit to build a Sonex, a light sport aircraft costs about $25,000, Pelton said. The plane burns about four gallons of fuel an hour and cruises at about 120 mph, Pelton said.

“That’s about as economical and efficient as you could imagine,” Pelton said. It’s about the same money one would spend on a motorcycle.

But saving money is far from the only reason builders take on their projects.

“A lot of it’s around the pride of building it,” Pelton said. “You could buy an old, used airplane, like an old Cessna 150, for similar kinds of low costs. But then you’ve got a conventional, old, doesn’t perform that great, nothing -special airplane.”

Before starting any project, the first decision is deciding how much to spend, said Doug Range, president of the local EAA Chapter 88, who is rebuilding an Avid Flyer.

“Do I want to spend a lot of time and save money (by building from plans), or do I want to go with a kit and get in the air quicker,” Range said.

The hours it takes to build an aircraft also depends on its complexity.

Builders must also decide how many passengers they want to carry and what they want the plane to do.

“Do you want to go out and cruise around, or do you want to go fast from Point A to Point B?” Range said. “You make that decision, and then you get into your airplane.”

Smith’s plane cruises at 175 to 185 mph. He uses it mostly for cross-country flying.

Fiebich will fly his Tiger Moth for fun. He expects it to cruise at 75 to 80 mph.

Lots of little jobs

Building an airplane isn’t one big job, it’s a whole bunch of little ones, builders say.

“Study the plans and make sure you know what you’re doing before you do something, and it will all work,” said Smith.

Robert Ramey, who lives on a grass strip near Rose Hill, is building a four-seat RV-10 in the hangar next to his house.

It’s his first airplane project.

He is currently working on the plane’s empennage, or tail section.

Sometime this summer, he plans to order the kit to build the wings.

After that, he will order the kit for the fuselage.

“I’m cash-flowing it as I go,” said Ramey, who works at Beechcraft Corp. “I’ve got a financial plan laid out.”

The RV-10 will be a good cross-country airplane, he said.

“I can load it up with four adults and full fuel and still have room for 100 pounds of baggage,” Ramey said.

It’s relaxing to go out to the hangar to work, he said.

Ramey works on the project around his job and family commitments. He and his wife have two boys.

“I was all for it,” said Alicia Ramey, his wife.

Range, the local EAA chapter president who is rebuilding the Avid Flyer, has a choice to make when the weather is good.

He can work on the plane or fly his vintage Stinson airplane.

What does he do?

“I go flying,” Range said.

Contact Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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