A group of Payson pilots are following in the footsteps of Orville and Wilbur Wright and building their own planes. The homebuilt flying machines are hard to tell from their manufactured counterparts when all is said and done. The difference is in how the builders reach the sum of all the parts -- so to speak.
Tom Butler is building a Zenair CH801 with Paul Johnson. They work in a breezy hangar off Red Baron Road with a couple of dogs and an occasional neighboring pilot keeping them company. It's no pristine assembly line, the back wall has high shelves filled with cardboard boxes and there is even a rack of clothes under a window. Log stumps are near the wheels of the plane.
The casual atmosphere does not mean Butler and Johnson aren't engaged in serious work. They will be flying the plane they are building and they will have their wives with them. Before more than one person can be in it, the plane must be certified as safe by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"It has to be flown for 40 hours by a single pilot to get an air-worthy certificate from the FAA," Butler said. "We'll get limited authorization to be sure it's safe and then we'll get authorized to carry passengers."
Butler will be doing the certification flying once the plane is complete, something the pair anticipate happening in July. He and Johnson started building the plane in June 2003. The goal is to fly into backcountry airstrips for fishing and camping trips, he said.
"It has high lift wings so it can take off in short distances," Butler said. Another reason they chose this kind of plane is the visibility it affords passengers.
"My wife did not like the conventional tail wheels' poor visibility."
The plane is the first Butler has built, it is the second one Johnson has constructed, but both have owned manufactured planes.
"They were fabric covered, this one is metal," Butler said. "We chose it because of its performance. It's slower, but it can carry a load into unimproved airstrips."
The plane will be equipped with radios and almost enough instruments for instrument flying. They are including a single axis auto pilot that can fly a Global Positioning System heading, Butler said. "Not many planes like this have that."
When Butler and Johnson first started constructing the plane, they were spending 40 hours a week on it. That lasted about six months, now they work on it five or six days a week, four to six hours a day.
"There were more challenges than we expected," Butler said. "It has been a little tougher and taken more hours. We'd do it again, but we'd do it more informed."
While there are a few months of construction remaining, Butler is already planning where he'd like to take the plane. One of the first places is the Red Creek camping area off the Verde River. He said it is one of the few backcountry type airstrips in Arizona. Another goal is to travel up to Idaho.
The plane can carry four people and some camping gear, or two people and all the gear they would need for an outdoor adventure.
It will be a few years before Butler is ready to tackle another plane building project, but it is something he would recommend every pilot do at some point.
Byron McKean, another pilot and homebuilder of airplanes, would probably agree. He has built four planes since 1979.
The first plane he built took him 23 months to complete.
"It was part-time work, but very concentrated," McKean said.
It doesn't take quite so long to build a plane now, the one he is working on, an RV 7A, should be finished in about seven months. The difference is a combination of the experience he has gained over the years and the fact that many of the pieces for the project come pre-molded.
"I've been flying all my life," McKean said. In fact it is almost second nature to him as his father was a World War I pilot and McKean grew up reading aviation magazines and took flying lessons when he was only 11.
McKean earned his flying license his first year of college and then flew for the Navy for four years.
In addition to the plane he is currently constructing, McKean has another plane he built, a Velocity, a composite (fiberglass) that will seat four passengers and reach a top speed of 200 mph. It took him eight months to build.
The planes being built by Butler and Johnson, McKean and fellow homebuilder, Mike Clearman, will be on display Tuesday, April 27 in the Airplane Homebuilders Tour, starting at 6 p.m. at the Crosswinds Restaurant.
The tour will introduce participants to some of the experimental airplane builders in Payson. It will include visits to the workshops and information about the materials and skills to "build a dream". Clearman, Johnson and McKean are all members of the Civil Air Patrol, which is coordinating the tour.
For more information, call (928) 474-7097 after April 21.