September 2013 Issue
Building an airplane from an orphaned kit.
In 2002, Jon Swenson happened upon a Tri-Q project on eBay that had suffered severe nosegear damage on its maiden landing. It was only after he had won the auction and brought the project home that he discovered his dream machine had been orphaned by the manufacturer.
Pilot Nathan Peck flies his single seat Quickie—the tiny airplane that started it all. (Photo: Steve Schulte)
For Jon Swenson, the Quickie adventure began with an eBay ad for a damaged airframe. Picking up someone else's kit is one way to adopt an orphan.
Often when a kit manufacturer goes out of business and can no longer support its builders, many projects go abandoned in a hangar or garage. Eventually, they get sold on a secondary market. If you have some restoration skills, and an active builder community still exists, you might actually be able to find and transform a diamond in the rough.
When you fall in love with one of these orphaned beauties, it is always wise to do a little research before you lay out your hard-earned cash. However, many would-be builders, like Jon, simply can't resist, and bring that dream project home with little or no knowledge about the particular design prior to having it in their lives. This can mean that their dream soon becomes a nightmare that sits in their hangar or garage. But Jon was lucky; he discovered with a quick Internet search that the composite Quickie, and its subsequent incarnations, are still actively supported by a tight-knit group of builders.
By doing additional research on the community's website, he was pleased to see that the two-place Quickie also met his desired mission in several key areas. Namely, the Tri-Q200 had good range, was reasonably fast, and inexpensive to both build and operate. He also liked the design's trailerable concept that would keep him from having to rent a hangar, further reducing the cost of ownership.
After inspecting the airframe more closely, Jon made a quick list of the items that needed to be sourced or repaired. The list included a firewall-forward package, engine cowling, front nosegear, and new paint. Jon wasn't intimidated by the list since he already had a long history of working on cars and trucks. When he was 14, his grandfather gave him a box of tools and an old Model T engine to take apart, just to see how it worked. From that point on, he performed all of the maintenance and upkeep on the family cars; therefore he felt at home not only rebuilding an engine, but also performing all of the little tasks required to make his latest project airworthy again.
Jon's initial need for economy prompted a decision to utilize a Corvair auto engine conversion as the powerplant. At the time, he couldn't have envisioned $10,000 in one lump sum to spend on an engine. The Corvair conversion allowed him to build an airworthy engine and pay for the parts over time.
The Corvair engine itself has a long history of conversion for aircraft use. Bernie Pietenpol is credited with installing a Corvair engine in one of his ubiquitous wood and fabric homebuilts the same year the car was introduced to the public, 40 years ago. However, for Bernie, the engine wasn't so much of a conversion, as it was simply strapping a car engine on the front end of an airplane.
Contemporary Corvair conversions have come a long way, and again have an active support community. William Wynne, the self-proclaimed Corvair authority, has nurtured that community and helped builders take much of the guesswork out of their own conversions, with time-tested components. Jon elected to use several of Wynne's parts on his own engine, including the prop hub, hybrid studs and dual-point distributor.
A custom engine requires a custom mount —and on an orphaned kit, this requires design and fabrication skills.
But even with support, changing the engine from a Continental O-200, as called for in plans, to the Corvair was a bigger challenge than Jon could have imagined at the outset. The Corvair engine hadn't yet been successfully flown in a Quickie, so the decision meant that he was blazing a new trail and would need to design several custom parts to successfully get the engine installed. However, that decision lead to what Jon says were the most interesting and rewarding parts of the project.
In turn, it also gave him an opportunity to not only receive help from the community, but also become a contributing member and share what he's learned. The Corvair and Quickie groups both have an active online presence, and anyone can communicate with other builders and share answers quickly using their e-mail lists. This helped Jon avoid common pitfalls, and also helped him overcome challenges specific to his airframe.
The first challenge was designing and fabricating an engine mount. Wynne provides the dimensions for the engine tray in his conversion manual, but the attach points had to be fabricated from scratch for the unique dimensions of the Quickie's firewall.
Adapting an orphaned kit for a new engine means custom fiberglass work for a cowl that will fit. Here, Swenson used wood and expanding foam to make a plug.
Using Wynne's tray dimensions as a starting point, Jon did some preliminary calculations to rough out an initial design. The first prototype was built from PVC pipe and tested for fit and strength. Modifications were made in three subsequent steel designs, and the final mount was welded from lightweight 4130 tubing. Then, not simply trusting his own eyeball engineering, Jon fabricated a test beam, per Wynne's construction manual, to put the equivalent of 10 Gs of load on his final design. He continuously measured the run-out and noted that it returned to its original shape after un-loading.
When Jon removed the damaged nosegear, he noted that the bolt holes in the gear-mount plate that held the nosegear to the firewall had become elongated. This suggested that the mount plate was twisting back and forth and needed to be strengthened. To facilitate this, he connected the main horizontal cross member of his motor mount to the nosegear plate via two steel support tabs. This simple modification significantly strengthened the nosegear, without adding significant weight. With another quick query to the group, Jon was able to locate a new nosegear for his project.
Once the final engine mount and nosegear were installed, Jon began work on the conversion of his engine core. For the most part, he stuck with Wynne's construction manual, but made a few modifications to ensure some components would fit under a cowl without any major bumps or warts. One departure from the manual that Jon developed was a rear-mounted starter, rather than using Wynne's front-mounted design.
He also custom fabricated several other parts for his engine. These include the pressure plenum that helps direct cooler air over the cylinder barrels, the filtration system for the oil cooler, and an aluminum bracket that serves the dual purpose of retaining the distributor and holding the tach sensor in position. Once all that was finished, he created custom intake and exhaust manifolds.
By the time he started the engine for the first time in 2010, Wynne had generated two significant ADs for the Corvair conversion. The first was to have the crankshaft ion-nitride hardened, and the second was the installation of a front fifth bearing kit to help distribute the propeller loads on the crank. Undaunted, Jon disassembled the engine, and sent his crankshaft out to the vendor, then waited nearly nine months to get it back. When the crankshaft eventually returned, Jon was able to reassemble the engine and install the fifth bearing. He found that the fifth bearing installation was not difficult, but the precision required was a little nerve racking.
The first start of a new engine is always special—in this case, even more so because the installation was the builder's own design.
The next major task was to fit all of those custom engine components under a custom-made cowl. The original cowl had been badly damaged in the hard landing incident, but Jon was able to use pieces of it to fashion a new one that fit the longer six-cylinder engine block. With the engine bolted temporarily in its mount, he attached a plywood mockup of the nose bowl to the front of the engine and ran stringers back to the firewall.
Next he protected the engine with sheets of plastic and began filling large voids with hard insulating foam and smaller gaps with expanding foam. From there he could rough out a more pleasing shape, then finalize and smooth the finished design with a mixture of hard-setting spackling compound (Sheetrock mud) and latex paint. From that plug, he created a female mold, and finally a finished cowl. To create the front air inlets, he turned a couple of pieces of large aluminum tubing on his grandfather's 1941 Atlas lathe. The cowling fabrication alone required several months.
Early in the project, Jon was determined not to change anything that he felt was already airworthy, but in reality, he confessed to making a few unnecessary upgrades. As any long-term builder will discover, new information, techniques and products become available and there is a very strong desire to incorporate as many of them as possible.
For example, Jon finished one entire instrument panel installation on his Q before taking a job building wiring harnesses and panels for other homebuilders at SteinAir. No sooner had he gotten his own panel wired, when his boss made him a deal on a Dynon D10A and EMS that he simply couldn't refuse. So he had to completely redesign the panel around the new digital instruments.
The engine, nosegear, and cowl took several years of part-time work to complete, but for Jon the most tedious part of the project so far has been prepping the composite structure for paint. At first glance, the majority of the airframe seemed to have only minor cosmetic damage. However, as many adoptive builders will discover, what lies beneath that pristine looking exterior could actually be problematic. When it came time for Jon to remove the flying surfaces and prepare them for paint, it was apparent that the pivot points had become so rusted they would need to be cut off. However, because of the builder community, Jon was able to purchase updated drawings for the missing steel parts on the Quickie Builders Association web site, and make new ones as needed.
Jon spent the last two years filling, sanding, and priming the composite structure in preparation for paint. He was a little disappointed when the initial paint color didn't meet his high standards, but he decided to bring it out to the airport for final assembly anyway. There will be plenty of time next winter to repaint if necessary. He is expected to receive the final inspection and begin Phase I flight testing by early summer.
What Jon's example proves is that you can sometimes find an incredible deal on an orphaned kit. Ideally you would perform research prior to buying any kit, but with support from the builder community, a touch of ingenuity, and a whole lot of elbow grease, it is possible to make your dream of plane ownership a reality.
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