I wrote this in April to meet a May deadline for this September issue of KITPLANES®, which came out before AirVenture in July. I did so with a degree of faith that my plan for mid-July came to fruition. I wouldn’t be writing this at all if it weren’t for a little homebuilt that came on the scene in the 1990s. That airplane, you may have guessed, is the Sonex. My plan, you may have heard, was to retire from Sonex in July and enjoy my first AirVenture in more than 20 years free to move about the convention.
Retirement not only gives me the occasion to again enjoy AirVenture as an enthusiast, it allows me to look back on my personal and professional Sonex experience with 20/20 hindsight, and to look forward with the wisdom that I can’t fully imagine what may come next. I have plans, of course, much like I had a plan to build an airplane. That plan rippled through my life and changed its course. Forgive me a degree of self-indulgence while I reflect on the ripples that carried me here.
Building a Career
I stumbled onto the Sonex in 1997 (or was it 1996?) through my acquaintance with John Monnett. If the company, Sonex Ltd., existed at that time it was only on paper. Even the airplane existed mostly on paper. The design captured my heart, imagination and a portion of my income. While my Sonex was taking shape in my garage, and to help it take shape in my garage, I bartered technical writing skills for, among other things, boxes of rivets and titanium gear legs. I lent a hand at Sonex weekend workshops and in Sonex’s AirVenture booth, for which I was issued a denim shirt embroidered with the Sonex logo and my name. I had become part of something.
A few years into my project I began pestering the Monnetts—John, Betty and Jeremy—for a job. They brought me on board in January 2003 as the first full-time non-Monnett employee. My decision to build an airplane freed me from a stifling career in the machine tool industry. Now I worked in aviation. Better, I worked in the tiny niche that catered to the hobby of aviation. Twice I flew an airplane I built to Florida for work. For work! How can that even be called work?
As Sonex grew, my role evolved. While I still hung off the back of a forklift on occasion as ballast to facilitate loading a heavy kit into a truck, I packed the kits and drove the forklift less while absorbing the primary role of providing builder support. (Or did it absorb me?) I was tagged to give presentations at builder workshops and forums at AirVenture and I “volunteered” to participate in EAA’s Hints For Homebuilders video series. (It’s odd to bump into myself on the cover of a DVD in EAA’s gift shop. My crew cut is memorialized in those videos, as is my Wis-CON-sin accent.) I didn’t know public speaking and how-to videos were in my future while I was riveting wing spars in my garage. It’s best I didn’t. To poorly paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, I’d rather be the person in the casket than the person giving the eulogy. I found ways to survive my public speaking anxiety (some of you should never be seen naked) and grew from those uncomfortable experiences.
I’m far from the first to build an airplane and change the course of my life. John Monnett did it when his Sonerai became popular and he chose to sell airplane plans and parts over his career as an art teacher. Dan Weseman, another Sonex builder, didn’t set out to have a homebuilt aircraft business of his own but, like Monnett, one snuck up on him when he designed the single-place Panther. There came a day when he had to decide if he was staying in industrial manufacturing or going into the kit-aircraft business. He chose the latter and founded Sport Performance Aviation. It’s a tale as old as aviation, beginning with two brothers who manufactured bicycles before they built a homebuilt and created not ripples but a tsunami.
I don’t call them “Sonex” friends; Sonex was the vehicle (pardon the pun) that brought us together, but it’s not what keeps us together. There are two people, in particular, whose friendships transcend our individual decisions to build a Sonex. Neither of them live closer than 800 miles to my home but I’ve done as much with each of them as I have with my local friends. We’ve flown together, experienced a hot lap of the Virginia International Raceway together, celebrated a birthday in Nashville together and suffered life’s shortcomings together. Those friendships—and there are many—arrived on ripples set in motion by my decision to build an airplane. They will continue beyond my career at Sonex.
For two decades I’ve had the satisfaction (and, yes, aggravation) of helping others pursue their goal of building an airplane. I was the voice that told them, “yes, you can,” and “no, you shouldn’t.” I once commented to a newly minted nurse who boasted of greater earning power that, unlike her, I wasn’t saving lives. I was wrong. One builder far outlived his Stage 4 cancer diagnosis, crediting his airplane project for that. (Blue skies, Eldridge.) Some builders have told me I couldn’t retire until they finished their airplane. (I’m sorry, I grew tired of waiting.) Some said they chose the Sonex because of my reputation for service. (Just doin’ my job, ma’am, though some of you tried my patience.) Some were inspired to build, or keep building, by my airplane or my writing. (Aw, shucks.)
A few, like Jim and Monica Reichard, liked the clean look of Metal Illness and were inspired to duplicate it. One builder asked if he could duplicate my nose art. (No, though it was stolen by an Asian decal manufacturer.) What’s that phrase? Something about the highest form of flattery? I never dreamed my decision to build an airplane could create such ripples. Have you given thought to the ripples that brought your project to be or the ripples you are creating?
The experiences homebuilding has brought me can’t be counted or categorized. I never envisioned standing on stages at AirVenture giving forums or accepting a Lindy for my airplane. In 2006, I erased 22 years in five hours by flying Metal Illness to Minot Air Force Base, where it shared the ramp with a B-52 I may have loaded in 1983. You’ll have to believe me when I say I wasn’t planning that while whacking aluminum into the shape of wing ribs. I taught my daughter, Alex, to roll an airplane before she could drive. Don’t all dads get to do that? The innumerable experiences—both personal and professional—form the basis of this column. Speaking of which….
This column is another of the many things I didn’t know I was building while I built an airplane. I plan (there’s that word again) to continue to meet you here for as long as I and KITPLANES® feel I have something worthwhile to impart. My goals are to inspire you regardless of the aircraft you are building, to fuel your daydreams and to toss pebbles in the pond to keep the ripples going. Here’s to the past what got me here, to a future that’s beyond predicting and to homebuilding—a portal to opportunity, community, knowledge and the unknown. See ya on the flight line.