It is a ritual that plays out in hangars across the country each weekend. Today, on the eve of Father’s Day, at the Long Beach Airport in California, Mike and Megan Maxwell busy themselves with chores while their 14-year-old daughter, Gabby, earphones on, polishes the family’s airplane, studiously ignoring her parents. This idyllic scene wasn’t always so. For years the couple was planeless, content to work, raise children, and borrow or rent an airplane occasionally for an afternoon flight. Owning a plane again just didn’t seem in the cards. Then one day, 15 years or so into their now 18-year marriage, Megan popped the question: “Why don’t you buy another airplane?” That simple query set in motion the next chapter in a tale of loss, gain, and what would ultimately be a kind of sweet redemption.
In the Beginning…
Mike Maxwell built his Lancair 235, the first production kit offered by Lancair (then Neico Aviation), nearly 21 years ago in Petaluma, California. It wasn’t so much that Mike craved a Lancair above all others. Indeed, he had considered a Glasair and a VariEze before settling on the 235, but reason prevailed. As the owner of a composites shop, his rationale was that if he could build a Lancair, he could win CAFE races with it, show it off, and “people would beat a path to his door” for builder assistance with their own projects. As the popularity of the design grew, the influx of business would level out the workflow at his shop and subsidize a serious sailplane habit.
Building the Plane
When Mike got the fuselage and kit back to his shop, he realized there were areas that could be improved. One example was the sliding canopy, which Mike redesigned to tilt up. This allowed for easier entry and egress, and it was a direct borrow from his glider experience. He applied other sailplane/race technology to the airplane as well. All of the joints are smoothed, and there are fillets at the wingroot. The wing now actually is a natural laminar flow airfoil, whereas the original was significantly out of contour, Mike says. He reshaped and blended it, with most of the focus on the spar-forward portion of the wing. Mike also reflexed the trailing edge 12° negative, and all of the mating surfaces are reflexed as well so that the airplane has optimum cruise drag, another modification inspired by his knowledge of racing sailplanes.
The wings were made as thin as possible, which made fitting the wheels of the retractable landing gear more difficult, but doable. “Everything is tighter, smaller,” Mike said. All of the controls were made to match the flight surfaces, like a sailplane. The outside surfaces are slightly larger than the mating surfaces so that the air stays attached and drag is reduced. Megan interjected that Mike used to work in construction, and once upon a time she wanted him to build a Victorian house for them, to which Mike responded, “No you don’t.” He said nothing would fit because that style of home is not standardized. “This plane is like that,” she said. It was becoming clear why Mike held the plane so dear.
He invested heavily in building the project, and borrowed heavily to do it, but it ended up costing Mike his business and his first marriage. “I couldn’t get the money out of the plane, because there were newer models coming out,” he said. He didn’t get the money out of it when he had to sell the plane either. He figures he probably had $100,000 in the project, and he sold it for about the price of the kit. The accumulated debt forced him to sell all of his airplanes and start over.
Back to the Future
Fast forward to that simple question Megan asked Mike about buying a plane. “No sooner had I said it than I could see the writing on the wall,” Megan said. “He immediately got up from the table.” Mike decided he would go in partners with a friend, and one evening the friend came to the house and dealt out a stack of photos of prospective aircraft. There, among the pile, was the Lancair 235 Mike had sold 15 years earlier. The friend didn’t let on even though he knew it was Mike’s old plane from the N number. The Lancair was in Texas, and it was for sale. Once he noticed it, Mike apologized to his friend. “Sorry, buddy,” he said. “This one’s mine.” And so, without hesitation, began a year-long negotiation to get it back.
The Texas owner was Bobby Keith. “He wanted a lot of money for it, but he didn’t get it,” Mike said, laughing. Having lost his shirt on the plane once, Mike wasn’t about to do so again. “Which made it really exciting when we bought it back,” Megan said. “It was like buying a house twice.”
From then on, “All I heard about was the Lancair,” Megan said. “It was like the dead coming to life. But I’m not sorry about it. Everybody loves the airplane.” From the initial contact, Mike started researching and found more than 60 Lancair service bulletins, some of which applied to the 235. He used each item as a negotiation point in the price. Take the nosegear, for instance. Bobby Keith hadn’t replaced the oleo strut because it worked satisfactorily for him. “That was a $3000 item,” Mike said. The plane didn’t have Grove wheels and brakes, so they would have to be upgraded. Each item was deducted from the price because of what Mike would have to do to bring the plane up to snuff.
Mike wanted to take the airplane apart, too, to see what kind of shape it was in. At first, Bobby
balked, but then he asked whether Mike could put it back together after he’d disassembled it. When Mike assured him he could, Bobby agreed, but warned, “If you cut the wing, it’s your airplane.” That didn’t actually take place prior to the sale in part because Mike’s work schedule kept getting in the way. (After the sale was consummated, however, Mike did take the plane apart, wings and all.)
In many ways, Mike was very lucky. The plane had just two owners in all those ensuing years, and had accumulated only 600 hours. It still had the original paint—cream, brown and burnt orange—and because it had been hangared, the finish was still good. The Lycoming O-235 had come out of a “runout C152,” Mike said. Thousands were built, so it was available and reliable. “You could afford to do machine tasks for less than $1000,” he said. (You couldn’t touch that price today.) As it turns out, though, when he got the airplane back, the previous owner had overhauled the top end, and Mike had already overhauled the bottom. “I was good to go,” he said. He was hoping never to have to overhaul the engine [see Epilogue].
In the original brochure from Lancair, the panel photo shows the full complement of instrumentation required for IFR flight. In the interest of CAFE racing, though, Mike had originally installed just three instruments and no radios. The subsequent owners expanded that to the standard six-pack plus nav/com equipment. Recently, in a change of heart, Mike installed a Stratomaster Enigma EFIS, and he hopes to eventually use the plane to do instrument training. “That EFIS is Michael’s Christmas, Father’s Day, anniversary and birthday present for the rest of our natural lives!” Megan added.
One previous owner’s mod sorely tested Mike’s CAFE sensibilities. Mike’s original fuel system installation was an Ellison throttle body, fuel injected. “It was a very difficult installation,” Mike said. “It didn’t bolt on. A machinist friend made a different manifold to make it work.” The first buyer didn’t like the Ellison, and opted instead for a regular updraft carb, which necessitated adding a 6-inch cowling extension to the underside of the fuselage to accommodate it. To say that it was less than optimum aerodynamically would be putting it mildly, but Mike said it was too much trouble to change. “But I got new cylinders!” he said. If that’s all the more serious the problems there were with the airplane after two owners, it was a relative pittance. “The good news is they didn’t break anything,” Mike added. “They took good care of it.
Reunited, and It Feels So Good…
After being down for some upgrades and repairs, the plane has been flying for a few months, though Mike says it’s still not easy to pilot. “You fly it with your baby fingernail,” Megan confirmed. Lancair changed the original design to include larger flaps, rudder and elevator, and the control geometry changed, Mike says. “But I just learned to fly it as it was. I was so in love with the airplane, I was proud to learn how to fly it.”
There’s that word again: Love. Megan at one point recalled her second date with Mike. “We were sitting on the couch, and I was waiting for him to kiss me,” she said. “And he’s showing me pictures of the airplane he built.” When asked why she would suggest that Mike buy another airplane after all of the previous hardship, she momentarily turns serious. “When he would say, ‘I have to get off the ground for an afternoon,’ it was not frivolous. And I thought it was…for years. Flying is in his blood.” Mike’s drive was evident when it took him more than a year to replace the landing gear once he got the Lancair back (remember it took six months to complete the original build from the kit). “It was so great during that time, real up with life,” Megan quipped.
As we’re sitting in the hangar, winding up our conversation, a driver in an SUV pulls up and spies Gabby, still waxing. He rolls down the window and asks: “What’s she doing later?” to which Mike replies, “She’s too expensive.” But the driver is undaunted. “That’s OK,” he says, and he drives off. A few minutes later another SUV pulls up, and the tinted passenger window slowly eases down. “Hey, you’re supposed to fly that thing once in a while not just look at it,” the driver says. Mike and Megan laugh and wave, professing later that they find it pretty difficult not to fly. On a sunny, ribbons-in-the-sky Southern California morning like this one, it is hard to resist. And when your plane is a companion that you know inside and out, having lost and then found it again, the flying holds a delight and sense of satisfaction that’s comparable to few other pleasures.
There’s a superstition that recommends not boasting about something good—perfect health, a pristine sports car—lest it vanish. Recall Mike’s engine, the one he was hoping not to ever have to rebuild? Not long after our visit, Mike made a gear-up landing—the result of an attempt to execute an expedited landing with a foreshortened pre-landing checklist—damaging the engine, prop and underside of the airplane. Long story short, nobody was hurt, and as is typical of Mike, he turned the incident into an opportunity. The insurer required him to tear down the engine, so instead he traded the 118-hp 235 for a 160-hp Lycoming O-320 (a 30% increase) and, mimicking his original installation, installed an Ellison throttle body with fuel injection—gone the 6-inch cowling extension! Space in the engine compartment is tight, but the 320 uses the same engine mount, gear and the same baffles. The 320 has been completely overhauled, the cases serviced, cranks, cams valves and pistons new. “It’s running nicely,” Mike said. A bonus is that he’s gained 400 to 500 fpm in climb, and 25 mph in cruise, while using the same amount of fuel.
What’s next? He’s learning more every day about that Enigma EFIS, and he and Megan have been to Catalina Island several times since the plane was repaired. All in all, life is great.