On March 16, 1966, millions watched as success turned to tragedy on national television. Here is a partial transcript of that moment:
Skipper: “Gilligan! You can’t fly. It’s impossible!”
Gilligan: “I can’t?”
With that, Gilligan stopped hovering above a hut and crashed to the ground, his homebuilt wings and dreams broken around him.
Skipper: “Gilligan little buddy, are you all right?”
Gilligan: “Why’d you have to say that? Impossible? Why’d you have to say that?”
Like Gilligan, I built an airplane that couldn’t be flown—or shouldn’t be flown, I’m not sure which. Not everyone is clear on their stance. Like Gilligan, I built my airplane in blissful confidence. Like Gilligan, I flew my airplane successfully before being told I couldn’t. Unlike Gilligan, I continued to fly my airplane.
For 500 hours.
I was lucky in that both the design I chose and the internet were fledglings when I began building. There was a type-specific Yahoo group, but few yahoos. Everyone was supportive. Everyone was excited. Everyone was an early adopter. I was the 32nd-or-so customer to fly a Sonex. The first to fly was finished before the plans were done. The builder used
literal napkin sketches provided by Sonex. Both that Sonex and mine were faithful to the earliest version of the plans. Most of the early completions were. That builder’s advice was (and is) “build it per the plans and then change the things you think need changing.” I concur. Tellingly, most of the early completions remained unchanged as flight hours accumulated—evidence the design delivered on its defined mission and advertised performance. When asked what I’d change if I did it again—which I was, many times—I’d confidently say, “Nothing.” Ironically, the more the fleet size and fleet hours grew the more people hollered it couldn’t be done. Today, the hue and cry would indicate everything needs to be modified or analyzed to build the airplane, let alone fly it.
Design Maturity, Mission Creep and Opinions
As a design matures, more and more “upgrades” and “improvements” are thrust upon successive builders by those who have gone before. What they are thrusting, really, are opinions. In time, a design’s original mission can get lost in the din of people crying, “You can’t!” and “You must!” Here is a review of some of the issues brought up over the years about the legacy Sonex, which, in 1998, had the stated mission of being a “modern-day Piper Cub.”
To begin, it doesn’t have real airplane brakes, whatever those are. Further, the brakes aren’t differential so they don’t aid steering (steering is linked directly to the rudder pedals). They only serve to slow, stop and stay put. Some claim that makes the tailwheel configuration poor or impossible in crosswinds. That doesn’t matter, however, because others say the tilt-over canopy inhibits cockpit entry if there is any wind at all. I have 500 tailwheel hours that say they’re wrong.
Speaking of the canopy, some builders think the Plexiglas canopy cracks too easily during construction while some pilots worry about how they’ll break it and escape if they flip over. The tinted canopy is too dark for some, yet the cockpit is too hot when the sun shines for others. To combat heat on the ground, pilots have taxied with the canopy open slightly and taken off without locking it closed—a potentially fatal error. That caused others to suggest a Canopy Open warning light system to stand in for a checklist item included in the Sonex POH. The warning light, with all its potential failure modes, would presumably be in the panel—a slanted panel that some say reflects sunlight, making illuminated warning lights and instruments hard to see.
The Sonex was said to be poor for cross-countries. Something about the panel being too small for proper instrumentation, the fuel capacity too small for decent range and too little room behind the seat for a checked bag. Cockpit ventilation is poor by some people’s standards, but not by those who think it’s too drafty. Some think the mechanical flap handle requires too much effort to deploy. They added complexity and weight of electric flaps to a design others think doesn’t have enough useful load. The electric flaps allow those who deploy flaps at too high of an airspeed to continue to do so while remaining blissfully unaware of the loads they are placing on the linkage. I found deploying flaps was a tactile feedback of my airspeed. If the pressure felt high, I wasn’t controlling my airspeed properly.
My Jabiru 3300 engine shouldn’t have cooled properly because “all Jabiru engines run hot.” My slide-style throttle body was declared untunable, prone to sticking and in need of carb heat. But I know better because I installed it per the instructions, tuned it once and flew it 500 hours. The cowl was split vertically; very un-aircraft-like. The fuel shutoff valve is under the fuel tank and lacks a panel-mounted lever, a real problem for some. Oh, and the fuel tank! “There’s no way I’d fly an airplane with a fuel tank in the cockpit.” (That rules out a lot of airplanes, my friends.) Meanwhile, others are adding more fuel capacity by mounting auxiliary tanks in the luggage area, on the passenger seat or on the floor.
I and many others did the things the airplane was designed to do even though some continue to say it can’t do them: aerobatics, crosswind landings and toting two people. Maybe the ones that are heavy or have been crippled by “upgrades” and “modifications” can’t do those things. Those built like a modern-day Piper Cub (albeit an all-metal, aerobatic one) can. When I sold mine in 2011, its new owner, a sportsman-class aerobatic national champion, campaigned it on the national circuit. Yet I read a comment as late as August 2023 that it can’t do sportsman-class aerobatics. Go figure. I’m left wondering how many potential builders (of all designs, not just the Sonex) our hobby has lost to golf and pickleball because the hollering was too much, the weight of opinions too heavy and sifting through the fiction to unearth facts too burdensome.
I’m Not Sure I Could Build One
I accept that building an airplane is a very individual pursuit. The phrase I often heard from builders I was trying to guide away from a bad idea was “That’s why it’s called Experimental.” True enough, but some experiments don’t need to be executed to forecast the results. Some experiments are simply solving issues caused by deviating from the plans, or they spring from choosing the wrong design for the desired mission. Recommended changes compound with every builder who shares a modification and with every builder who fixes a problem of their own making or imagination. Potential builders are left wondering if they can build one, as driven home in this comment by a non-builder in response to a design modification a builder shared on social media: “I don’t understand why you had to do that. Did the kit come with it? Is this something everyone has to do or did you have to come up with this on your own? Great engineering job you did if you had to. I just don’t think I would have been able to figure that out. Makes me wonder if I would want to build one.” (The words are theirs; the emphasis is mine.)
Words have the power to clip wings. We need as many people building and flying airplanes as want to build and fly airplanes. What we don’t need are boat captains telling us we can’t. Gilligan, little buddy, you can.