Pilot constructs own plane from scratch
NEW HAVEN — Tyler McGuire set about an adventure to build his own airplane in exactly the manner one might expect a 20-year-old college student to do: He jumped in headfirst.
The New Haven resident was holed up at college in Florida with his friend Abe Nehemias when the two aerospace engineering students considered the notion to build a functional airplane from a partially manufactured kit.
“One night it was like, ‘Hey, you want to build a plane?’” McGuire said. “We were sort of waiting for somebody to say, ‘No, this is crazy.’ Neither of us said anything, so we just went off.”
McGuire, now 23, is three years into an ambitious project to build his own two-seater aircraft, a project that began while he was studying engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and now continues in a makeshift hanger in New Haven.
At Embry-Riddle, the Mount Abraham Union High School alum threw himself into the study of aerospace engineering. But as much as the longtime flight enthusiast enjoyed learning the finer points of engineering, he worried that his pen-and-paper studies wouldn’t translate into a real world understanding of just what makes flight possible.
That planted the seed for the do-it-yourself approach to airplane building.
“You’re solving theoretical problems that have been simplified from the real world,” McGuire said. “What ends up happening sometimes is that you’ll have engineers that step out into the real world but they don’t really understand how the nuts and bolts go together.”
That can be particularly frustrating for mechanics who sometimes struggle to fix designs that may be elegant on paper but impractical in real life, McGuire said.
Most hobby airplane-builders tap into rich online and off-line communities of enthusiasts before taking on their own projects. But McGuire and Nehemias didn’t know much about these resources. Instead, they retreated to the library at their university and began pouring over kit catalogues.
They settled on an airplane kit manufacturer in Idaho, and set their hearts on the Kitfox S7 Super Sport, a two-seater plane that can carry up to 800 pounds. It fit a few major criteria: First, the plane’s wings fold back, meaning the plane can be stored in a very small space. The super sport also has a short take off “roll,” which means the plane can take off on short runways. Its proven track record, as well as strong customer support, were also important.
And of course, cost was a factor. McGuire crunched the numbers, and realized the model he wanted to build would cost $23,000. He was lucky, though. A combination of scholarships and family support meant that he wasn’t burdened with student loans for college.
The plane-building experiment, he decided, was an educational experience if ever there were one, so McGuire took out the loans he needed and bought the plane.
“Even if it blows up in my face and everything goes wrong, I’ll write it off as a learning experience,” McGuire said.
In the fall of 2007, McGuire and Nehemias boarded a one-way flight to Idaho. Though neither was 21 years old yet, they managed to rent the “most gigantic budget rental truck” they could find. Then they loaded up the truck with the kit and made the 51-hour drive back to Florida.
They were nearly airborne ahead of schedule: At one point they were stopped in traffic on a highway running over the Continental Divide when high winds ripping over the pass pushed the stopped truck sideways across the road.
At their final destination, the two novice airplane engineers turned a tiny storage space into a makeshift hanger. The storage locker was just 10 feet wide by 25 feet long, and the entry way left just about a half inch of wiggle room when McGuire and Nehemias moved the plane in and out of the space.
But they made do. When they were building the plane’s fuselage, they hung the wings from the ceiling of the room. In the summer between their junior and senior years of college, they’d drag the plane out of the hanger to work outside during good weather, all the while keeping an eye out for the swift thunderstorms that sweep through Florida on sultry summer afternoons.
It was hard going at first. McGuire and his friend had hoped that some of their professors at Embry-Riddle would step in to advise the project, but found most far from eager to take on such an admittedly risky venture. Instead, they stuck with the enormous guide that accompanied the kit, reading through the extensive directions for building the plane.
The kit included an airplane frame made of steel tubes, and fabric that needed to be stretched over the frame and sealed. The kit is partly prefabricated, and part do-it-yourself mechanics. According to McGuire, kits typically come about “49 percent” done, because Federal Aviation Administration rules say that so long as a person builds 51 percent of the aircraft, the plane doesn’t have to be certified.
The kit comes with a huge book filled with details that, according to McGuire, “really anybody could follow.” As far as actually putting the parts together, he went on, it boils down to nuts and bolts and high-tech glue.
It’s far from simple work, though, and McGuire and Nehemias made mistakes along the way. Then, they stumbled upon a lucky coincidence: Located five miles down the road from their storage shed was a Mecca for hand-built aviation enthusiasts. Quickly they made inroads with the community, home to more than 50 hand-built planes and countless pilots.
Though their professors may have balked at the project, they found other mentors. New Haven resident and fellow hand-built airplane hobbyist John Pratt stepped forward with an engine for the plane — an engine pulled from one of Pratt’s planes that had crashed, though McGuire said the engine had been rebuilt, inspected and repaired after the crash.
Because the engine wasn’t the typical model used for the kit, McGuire struggled at first to install it. Then, he and his friend met another providential helper: Bob Bean. Bean is a master welder who has welded for NASA, and professionally makes engine mounts for all sorts of different airplanes.
With the engine in place, and a year and a half of work on the plane under their belts, Nehemias and McGuire graduated from Embry-Riddle last May. McGuire worked on the plane through much of the summer, then loaded it into another large truck and made the drive to New Haven, where the plane is now stored in a much roomier hanger on the McGuires’ property.
So far, the two builders have tossed around a few possible names for the aircraft: “Kermit” is one idea, because of the plane’s bright green and white coloring, and the “Mary Abigail” is another, named after McGuire’s mother and sister.
But naming is far down on the “to do” list. There’s a saying in the experimental aviation community that a project is “80 percent done, with 40 percent left to go.” That’s roughly where McGuire thinks he and Nehemias are these days. Even if they could put life on hold, it would probably take three or four months to finish the plane — and putting life on hold just isn’t an option.
It’s hard to find time to work on the plane these days; Nehemias is a graduate student, and McGuire is pursuing a career in the U.S. Marine Corps. He spent two summers in officer candidate school, and earned a commission as a second lieutenant. Last week he headed off to “basic school,” the first training program for new Marine Corps officers, and then will head on to flight school.
But they reached a milestone earlier last month when they pulled the plane out of its hanger and, for the first time, tried firing up the engine. They’d spent a few days fussing with the lights and the electrical system, and then gave the engine a go.
“It took two tries, and it fired right up. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it,” McGuire said.
In the video his family took for the occasion, McGuire said he was so thrilled that he began dancing around the driveway. It’s almost impossible, he said, to imagine what it might someday be like to actually fly the airplane, but if the engine success is any hint, he thinks he’ll be over the moon.
“There’s some bad dance moves there,” he laughed. “I was celebrating. We were all celebrating, and that was just the engine.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].
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