Passion for flight leads to increase in do-it-yourself plane builders

LAKEWOOD – With a basic understanding of aerodynamics and $9,000, Brad Delisle is building an airplane in his basement.

The 21-year-old Lakewood resident is part of a growing number of pilots who make their own planes.

Delisle got hooked on Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator” before his sixth birthday. He started flying planes at 13 and got a pilot’s license at 18. Building his own was a natural progression, he said.

“I didn’t have the means or money to buy a plane, so I decided to build one,” Delisle said.

A dispatcher at O’Hare International Airport, he is constructing a wooden Pietenpol Aircamper with his father, Mike.

The Federal Aviation Administration has licensed more than 32,000 amateur-built aircraft, a number that has doubled since 1994. They account for about 15 percent of the country’s total fleet of single-engined, piston-powered planes, Experimental Aviation Association spokesman Dick Knapinski said.

Homebuilding tends to appeal to those who can’t afford commercially produced planes, which cost upward of $250,000. It also attracts project enthusiasts and those who can’t find what they want in factory-built models, Knapinski said.

Dale Medendorp, a 65-year-old retired electrical engineer from Crystal Lake, is building a Zenith Zodiac CH 650B from a kit. He started the project in 2007 and probably will spend about $40,000 on materials before the all-aluminum plane is completed.

Medendorp has a Cessna, but the Zenith will be cheaper to fly. Even so, his main motivation was to build a plane, something he attempted 30 years ago, but didn’t have time to finish.

“It’s a learning process,” Medendorp said. “Every day I work on an airplane, I’m learning something new. That’s what homebuilding is about.”

Kits for about 150 different planes are available, and it takes, on average, between 1,000 and 3,000 hours to build one, Knapinski said. That often translates into two to five years, he added.

Mike Perkins, of Havana, Ill., has logged more than 370 hours flying a Kitfox I he built in 1994. A member of EAA Chapter 790 in Barrington, he also has helped several McHenry County pilots with their homebuilding projects.

Perkins is starting on another plane, an all fiberglass Tango 2 that will cruise at 200 mph and cost about $80,000 to build. He first was inspired to build his own plane after attending EAA’s signature annual event in Oshkosh, Wis.

“I saw what could be done with a few thousand dollars, a good pair of hands, and a sharp mind,” Perkins said.

Safety is a key concern for homebuilders.

Amateur-built, fixed-wing aircraft were involved in 248 accidents in 2009, according to the 2010 Joseph T. Nall Report by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Those accidents resulted in 98 deaths, 12 more than the year before.

Amateur-built planes have higher accident rates than other aircraft. In 2009, the rate was nearly four times higher than for type-certified aircraft, according to the Nall Report.

Elevated accident rates likely result from the combination of several factors, including how the planes are built and used, according to the report.

Nonetheless, amateur-built planes are relatively safe, Knapinski said.

“First flights have the highest risk,” he said. “After that, the risks are very similar to factory-built planes.”

Homebuilders take those risks seriously, Perkins said.

“A lot of responsibility comes with building an airplane,” he said. “A responsible builder goes to great measures to ensure their aircraft is safe.”

Before they can carry passengers, amateur-built planes must have logged more than 25 hours flying over open, uninhabited areas, Knapinski said. EAA encourages safety by offering flight adviser and technical counselor programs, he added.

Ultimately, Delisle hopes to teach his father how to fly and then give him the plane they built together.

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