I've always been interested in aviation. When I was very young my father built several balsa models for my brother and me. Naturally we destroyed them but they also kindled a life-time passion for flying. Once, as a teenager, my buddies and I went to the local airstrip, where there were two or three homebuilt airplanes on the ramp. Those builders became my heroes and I immediately set as one of my life's goals that I would someday build and fly my own airplane. While in high school my friends and I dabbled in hang gliding but we never got serious about it.
After many years of dreaming and other diversions I was finally able to afford flying lessons and got back to my dream of building an airplane.
After drawing up a list of every aircraft that I could consider, and really thinking strongly about my abilities and needs, I made a comparison chart. I rated many kits based on construction techniques, materials, size, performance, factory support, projected building expenses and operating costs. The Zenair floated to the top for me, so I drove to the factory for a test ride. It seemed to handle OK, was decently fast and would be reasonably comfortable for my wife, Katie, to fly with me. It looked like something that I could actually build to completion. It really is an airplane that one person could build solo, and in a small space.
A strong consideration is that I never was able to establish a permanent workshop. I built the airplane in our two-car attached garage. We need to park our cars inside for the winter so I have to close up shop for up to six months at a time. Building from sheet metal, the parts could be uncleco'ed, rolled up and stored in the attic. That's just not possible with wood, tube and fabric, or composite. Also, since the garage is attached to the house, I had to rule out composite or dope-and-fabric as the fumes would permeate the whole house.
I started construction of the 601 HDS by building a rudder kit in January of 1998. Next came the rest of the tail in the summer of 1998 and the wings in the summer of 1999. Originally I planned on building everything from kit as I wasn't too adventurous or confident in my abilities. About a year and a half after starting the project I ran low on money and discovered that I wouldn't be able to afford the rest of the kit for a long time. After spending the next winter studying the plans I realized that the plane was truly designed for first-time scratch builders, and I had a reasonable chance of completing it.
I am glad I chose the Zenair as the design is very tolerant of builder's errors. I have made too many mistakes to count and have backtracked to correct them. Still, many small cosmetic errors remain; I call them "personality."
I've tried to incorporate some low-tech modifications including dual brakes (the kit has pilot's side brakes only) and moving the seat back a bit for more leg room. I didn't like the way the torque tube was installed so I redesigned the rear bearing and fairlead. I made the rear wing fairing from heavier gauge sheet and reinforced it with several ribs so that it is "walkable," at least by children. And to get to the wing walkway I made steps from streamlined tubing.
Additional modifications include extra baggage compartments behind the seats (under the main baggage compartment); tilt-forward canopy with the mechanism of my own design; center console; removeable access panels; wingtip lights and strobes; parking brake; glove box; LED interior lights and a nearly full panel. I have a 100 hp Rotax 912S and have installed vortex generators to lower the stall speed a bit more.
Although I built this airplane solo, I have many people to thank for their countless contributions and advice specific to this project:Roy Dawes, Wayne Deckard, Roger Farris, Gene Hollingsworth, Tim LeBaron, Gordy Lee, Chuck Long, Matt Mossman, John Thompson, plus EAA Chapter 1311 members and the Boone County Airport "regulars;"
My EAA Tech Counselor, Glen David;
I also want to recognize Chris Heintz, for his excellent design and his great staff at Zenair;
Tony Bingelis for his "must read" books for the homebuilder;
and especially my young bride Katie Mossman for her constant encouragement, use of the garage, and patience with the oft-delayed home repairs.
I've thoroughly enjoyed the entire building process and would definitely do it again if I could come up with a better shop. We've all read about builders bragging about their brand's factory support but I haven't needed to contact Zenair very often. I called a few years ago to get a part and they commented that they hadn't heard from me and thought that I quit! The few times that I called or emailed I got a response right away. Requested parts have shipped quickly and technical advice was concise and easily understood. I can strongly recommend doing business with this company. If you like their design you will love working with them.
I met the designer, Chris Heintz, at Oshkosh a few years ago. It was unbelievably hot yet he stood in the blazing sun and patiently answered questions about the design and offered opinions on options and modifications. He was incredibly patient and cordial to all of the passers-by.
Chuck Long commented that the kit manufacturers are not getting rich by selling these kits. After you consider the cost of the materials, throw in labor, tooling, facility overhead, taxes and all else it's not likely that there is anything left for their efforts. What is amazing is that through their simple plans and manuals they not only describe how to build their airplane, they must teach you nearly every technique necessary to build it, and that they are teaching from afar.
Most builders say that building an airplane is one of the most satisfying accomplishments of their life. I would agree. While my project was in the garage I had many family members and friends come by to see it. They were all amazed that this was something a "normal" person can do. Sometimes I would be stumped and sit in the garage disgusted (I still do, although now it's at the airport). Eventually I would stare at the plane and amaze myself that I got this far.
One unusual side benefit from this project is learning how generous people can be with their time and talent. While there are many resources for solving problems such as factory support, there are legions of aircraft builders out there who will fire off emails or call back via long distance to provide inspiration and ideas. Even more amazing are the people who stop in at the hangar to see what's going on, then pick a wrench or screwdriver and pitch in. And I can't count the number of times when I needed a bolt, piece of metal or other part, and someone gave it to me without conditions.
I don't claim to be a master builder, mechanic, designer or anything else. I've made way too many mistakes; most of them would have swamped other projects. Usually, after thinking about them for a while, I swallow my pride, tear into the mess and rebuild the part or assembly until it's corrected. Early on in the project I would fret for hours about silly little problems and wonder how I was going to fix them, or how to work around them. Now I don't care; if it's wrong I fix it. Need a new part? Make another. Kind of expensive? Maybe, but in the scheme of things it's no big deal. The FAA permits amateur-built aircraft for two reasons: recreation and education. If we truly learn by our mistakes then I certainly have fulfilled part two of their requirement.