Airventure is the ultimate aviation experience. If you find aviation interesting, one of your life’s goals should be to make the annual pilgrimage to the EAA’s Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin before you die. Once you do it, you’ll want to visit every year. This year marks my 16th attendance of Airventure, most of which I’ve flown to in the LongEZ.
I attended Oshkosh for the first time in 1990 shortly after I got my private pilot certificate. I didn’t have an airplane and was too inexperienced to consider renting an airplane and flying into the event, so our visit was a part of a 2500-mile Harley motorcycle adventure that took us from Pennsylvania westward to Illinois, Wisconsin, and eventually through Ontario, Canada and back through Niagra Falls on the return trip.
My wife had purchased an introductory flight as a 30th birthday gift for me in 1989 and I took to flying like a bird to the air. Learning to fly was a wonderful experience which still brings back a lot of fond memories. I was working at HP’s Avondale, Pennsylvania division after having moved back to Pennsylvania from Colorado. We moved to Pennsylvania primarily because Terri was feeling homesick. Both of us had grown up in northeastern Pennsylvania around Wilkes-Barre and had met in high school. I moved to Colorado in 1983 after finishing grad school at Penn State and Terri moved out when we were married in 1985. After a few years in Colorado, she began missing her family. After moving back to Pennsylvania, I was a little out of sorts, probably because I missed Colorado, where I had started my career as an engineer with HP. So the introductory flight was a way for Terri to express her thanks for my willingness to move back across the country and to restart my career. She knew it was one of my life goals to learn to fly.
My very first experience with real airplanes occurred in 1967 when I was 7 years old and my father got us a ‘scenic flight’ around Wyoming Valley, PA in an effort to alleviate my mother’s fears about an upcoming commercial flight we were planning to take to Ireland. It didn’t help my mom at all, and she never flew in a small aircraft again because all the bouncing around had terrified her. However, the effect on me was quite the opposite. I was completely hooked.
After that flight, whenever I met a pilot, I made sure to let him know that I was interested in aviation and that if he ever needed a passenger, I was up for it. My high school classmate and future college roommate, Dave Serhan, got his pilot’s license in high school and gave me a ride when we were students at Penn State’s Wilkes-Barre campus. We rented a small Cessna 150 at the Forty Fort airport. Shortly after gaining some altitude and while flying over the Huntsville Reservoir he pulled out his camera to take some photos, and said to me, “Here, fly the plane.” I couldn’t believe it! Here I was, flying an airplane for the first time in my life! After taking a few pictures, he took control of the plane and demonstrated some stalls and wing-overs. Since I had managed not to crash the plane while controlling it, I felt I must have been a ‘natural’. I looked forward to learning to fly.
When I went to work for HP, one of my recruiters found me leaving the office the first day and asked if I’d like to go flying. He had remembered my excitement when he told me that he was a pilot. I could hardly believe my good fortune. We flew over the front range of Colorado in his Cessna 182 and I got to spend a little time manipulating the controls. It further reinforced my desire to become a pilot.
As mentioned earlier, after we moved from Colorado back to Pennsylvania, Terri was looking for something for my 30th birthday. Buying me an introductory flight lesson seemed to fit the bill. There are not many things you can do in life more expensive than learning to fly. It’s not a rational decision. So having not just the support, but also the complicity of one’s spouse in such a venture cannot be underestimated. From that point on, it was out of her hands and she has never complained about the expense. I went on to get my private pilot and instrument certificates and have been flying airplanes ever since.
About a year after getting the certificate, we bought our first airplane, a 1961 Piper Colt for $7500. That seems pretty cheap now, 16 year later, but it was an expensive toy at the time. I’m sure it’s worth 2 or 3 times that now since, unlike cars, planes have appreciated over time somewhat like a house appreciates. Compared with its sticker price of around $2500 in 1961, it’s doubled in price 3 times in 46 years which gives it an annual average appreciation of around 5%. That may sound like a good investment, but I can assure you that a lot more than its total value has gone into maintaining it over the years. Owning an aircraft is not the road to riches, not unless you can hermetically store them away for little or no cost.
We flew that Colt to a lot of places around the east coast, including New York City, Martha’s Vineyard, Hyannis, Nantucket, Ocean City, (NJ and MD) as well as Bar Harbor, Maine and lots of little grass strips and airports up and down the east coast. We also flew it to Colorado and took some trips to New Mexico and Idaho. It was like a little magic carpet, capable of landing on big airports as well as secluded grass airstrips. After about 2 years of flying the Colt in Colorado, I began looking for something a little faster to better deal with the west’s high altitudes and vast distances.
I’ve always had a fascination with canard airplanes. Back in 1983 I saw one fly overhead during a company celebration and my heart skipped a beat. It was like seeing a vehicle from another planet. It was just so beautiful and futuristic. I knew that day, somehow, I would pilot such an aircraft. Years later, after joining the EAA, I learned that the airplane I saw was probably a Varieze or a LongEZ designed by the legendary aircraft designer, Burt Rutan.
At the New Garden Airport where I was learning to fly, I noticed a local pilot had purchased a LongEZ and I worked up the courage to tell him how much of a fan I was of the design. He told me that next time I saw him there to ask for a ride. I was thrilled at the prospect.
Sure enough, a few weeks later, I saw the owner fueling his LongEZ and asked if he’d take me up for a ride. He told me he would. My expectations of it were exceeded not just by its performance and handling, but also by its outstanding visibility and comfort. It’s compact, but in the reclined seating position, you can be comfortable in it for hours. The owner, a trained military pilot, asked if I’d like to do a positive-G roll. I said I would. With his expert flying skills, he accelerated the plane to 160 mph indicated speed, set it up for a 20 degree climb, and gave it full left stick. Over we went, turning the horizon from blue to green and back to blue. I will never forget that experience and how it made me feel. I was hooked on the LongEZ.
By early 1995 we had moved back to Colorado and I had embarked on the building process for a Cozy, the follow-on 4 place derivative of the LongEZ. The LongEZ plans had since been withdrawn from the market due to liability issues. After spending a few years and about 300 hours building to the point where my Cozy looked like a boat, I realized that at the best case, it would take at least another 8 years to finish the Cozy and I wanted to have a canard aircraft as soon as possible. I figured I already owned an airplane (the Piper Colt) and thought that selling it and buying a LongEZ wouldn’t seriously hamper the progress on the Cozy. I had many words of discourageme
nt from pilots/aircraft builders who knew that once I got a flying canard airplane, the progress on the new one would grind to a halt. I realized they were probably correct, but I didn’t care. I wanted to experience the flying characteristics of this futuristic airplane without having to wait for another 8 years.
Throughout the first part of 1996, I began to learn all I could about buying a used homebuilt airplane, an exercise I found could be fraught with peril. Indeed, I had talked with some homebuilt aircraft owners who had grossly misrepresented the aircraft they were selling. But I likened it to bragging about one’s own child. A parent can be excused for a slip-up like that. Lesson learned: always inspect the aircraft yourself before taking the builder’s word for it.
Finally, in July of 1996, I found something that looked like it was at the right price and met my needs. We attempted to ride the Harley from Colorado up to Sun Valley, Idaho, but turned back when weather intervened in Wyoming. We got in the Colt the next day and flew to Hailey, Idaho and parked it amongst the jets owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger and other famous people. The next day we went to a restaurant in Hailey owned by Bruce Willis and we were sitting there having our breakfast. I couldn’t help but hear that the seller was in the booth behind me, because I could tell by the gist of the conversation that he was talking about the plane and about me. I decided that rather than continue to eavesdrop on the conversation, I’d stand up and introduce myself. From that point, everything went well and we eventually decided to do the deal.
The LongEZ I bought was by no means a show plane. However, it was well tested with about 800 hours on the airframe and the engine had a recently-replaced crankshaft along with 3 of the 4 cylinders, making it into an ‘almost rebuilt’ engine. The finish on the plane had a number of cosmetic problems including bumps on the strakes and a history of paint blisters on the surface which stemmed from the original finish process of incorporating a polyester material called ‘Featherfill’. This polyester material was originally recommended as a filler material but was later found to be incompatible with epoxy. It takes a few years, but polyester and epoxy begin to separate and as a result, the wings and canard have continued to have blisters that I’ve had to sand and fill with epoxy-based filler. But so far, other than not winning any show plane awards, it’s been quite reliable and I’ve been enjoyed more than 450 hours of flying with it. It’s taken me to Oshkosh and back 11 times as well as a few trips to the West coast.
On the way back from Oshkosh this year, I crossed the 1000 hour mark in total flying time. I know that is not impressive for those who fly for a living, but for those of us who do it as a hobby, it feels like quite an accomplishment.
I periodically get requests to update the progress on the Cozy. Thanks in large part to the efforts and prodding by my friend Don, the project continues to move forward. Last week we set the main spar in the fuselage which is a big milestone. I’ll need to get some pictures of it when we hang the wings which we hope to do soon just to see how everything is fitting together. Part of the time I spent at Oskhosh this year was to finalize the components to go into instrument panel, and I’ve narrowed down the options, which is never and easy task in light of all the new glass panel choices that are available now, but I’m a lot closer to finalizing it than I had been for a while. In another posting, I’ll put together a list of companies that make ‘glass panel’ cockpit displays which is now all the rage in homebuilding.
As for posting pictures of Oshkosh, I really didn’t take that many this year but I got a great link to a few European RV-7 builders who put together an extensive collection this year, including photos of vendor displays that will give you somewhat of a virtual tour of Oshkosh if you go through all the slideshows.