The Life of a Kit Airplane Factory Pilot

Roger Dubbert has worked for Zenith Aircraft Company since 1993 and has flown over 10,000 demo flights.

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After almost 25 years of representing Zenith Aircraft Company, Roger Dubbert is one of the most recognized customer service individuals in the kit aircraft business. Like most of the people working for these relatively small producers of homebuilt aircraft designs, Dubbert wears many hats, shifting roles as needed among the flight line, front office, and shop. We recently visited with him at the Mexico, Missouri, plant, where the company has been producing Chris Heintz’s designs since 1992.

“I never know exactly what I’ll be doing when I come to work each day,” said Dubbert. “Last week we hosted a delegation of builders from Japan, who were looking at the STOL CH 701 kit as a way to fly in the highly restricted Japanese airspace.” While we were talking, he took time to field questions from a builder, a kit buyer, and various Zenith employees.

Zenith president Sebastien Heintz (left) shares the cockpit with Roger Dubbert on a typical day of flying in the CH 650 demonstrator.

“I joined Zenith in 1993, right after I had graduated from Central Missouri State University [now the University of Central Missouri] with my degree in aviation technology,” Dubbert related, “working in the small shop we occupied at the time.” Back then, he said, there was one drill press, one band saw and one bending brake, and the Zenith kits were largely unfinished metal sheets and parts. “Now we use CNC manufacturing extensively to make the kits, and they are much easier and quicker to build.”

A native of the local area and possessed of an aviation interest, Dubbert was a perfect fit for Zenith. Like most kit aircraft company employees, he filled in at various jobs, as needed. He built his own STOL CH 701 airplane in 1998, which has served as a venerable demonstrator as the company’s offerings have grown. At this point, it has 2000 hours of demonstration time on its airframe, and it continues to be used as a factory demo plane, in part to showcase the durability of the “Sky Jeep,” as it is often called.

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It’s never too early to start: Roger Dubbert introduces Cub Scouts to homebuilding.

Dubbert’s flying is largely oriented toward familiarization flights with prospective builders and providing some transition training. Although not a CFI, he is intimately acquainted with the right-hand seat, having given an estimated 10,000 demo flights over the years. Dubbert still enjoys taking enthusiasts up on demo flights and showing them the capabilities of the various Zenith designs. He has performed first flights of newly completed planes as well. Dubbert was officially recognized last year at the company’s 25th annual Open Hangar Days celebration for his 10,000th demo flight.

Some of his more interesting flights involved checking out EAA employees at Oshkosh so they could fly the CH 750 Cruzer, including famed copilot Jeff Skiles, who did the first flight of the One Week Wonder airplane that was built during AirVenture 2014. He also flew with Kazakhstan cosmonaut Toktar Aubakirov, who was hired to evaluate using a Zenith STOL CH 801 for agricultural applications (crop spraying) in his home country.

These factory demo planes are just a few of the many Zenith aircraft Dubbert has flown since joining the company in 1993.

Asked about the changes he had seen during a quarter century in the kit aircraft industry, Dubbert said the level of completion and maturity of today’s kits is a giant leap ahead of where he began. Today’s kits are much more advanced, requiring fewer tools, skills, and time to successfully put together. This has made aircraft homebuilding accessible and feasible to a wider audience. Today’s builders often have no prior aviation or mechanical experience.

In the early times of ferrying planes to airshows, it wasn’t unusual for a minor malfunction forward of the firewall, involving something like an exhaust or a bracket, to require an unplanned stop for repairs. Reliability has increased to the point that today’s trips are routine, making them a lot less “experimental,” thanks to product development and better quality components, especially modern engines and accessories.

While Zenith still sells plans and parts to support scratch building, the great majority of its business is made up of supplying kits (prebuilt parts and components), allowing builders to get into the air quickly. Matched-hole assembly and CNC-produced parts make the job of putting an airplane together much easier than in the old days, and available quickbuild kits jump-start the building process.

To celebrate having flown over 10,000 demo flights, William Wynne of FlyCorvair (right) presented a flight jacket to Roger.

While the number of customers served by Zenith continues to increase, the volume of technical support questions doesn’t seem to have increased, mainly because of more detailed assembly instructions and drawings (blueprints), and a higher quality kit, despite the fact that kit manufacturers now reach a broader spectrum of the population (also known as inexperienced first-time builders). “We invite and encourage all our customers, especially first-time builders, to call if and when they have questions,” explains Dubbert. These inquiries help the company develop more detailed assembly manuals, in turn leading to fewer repeat questions.

As part of Zenith Open Hangar Days, Roger Dubbert leads a seminar on maintenance.

Zenith ships an average of one kit per workday, so the phone calls and factory visits keep coming. With Zenith president Sebastien Heintz, Dubbert also co-leads the monthly workshops at the Zenith factory, guiding first-time kit builders in the assembly of their own rudder tail kit, helping them understand the blueprints and instructions, the tools and materials, and showing them how to assemble their very first airplane component. While at the factory for the workshop, every willing participant is taken up for a demo flight by Dubbert. “My relationship with our customers really only starts with the demo flight and the kit sale,” explains Dubbert. “I look forward to continuing to work with customers as they complete their Zeniths and start flying their new creations.”

Zenith office manager Joyce Fort and Roger Dubbert enjoy a flight in the CH 650.

Dubbert also maintains the fleet of Zenith demonstrator aircraft, currently made up of a Zenith CH 650, a STOL CH 750 and CH 750 Cruzer and his STOL CH 701 (as well as the new SAM-EX aircraft). Not only building but also maintaining the aircraft gives Dubbert the knowledge and experience to professionally support the growing number of Zenith builders and owners.

Dubbert flies his personal Luscombe 8A in his spare time, as a change of pace, and recently transitioned into the SAM-EX retro kit design Zenith has added to its line. His varied duties will continue, as he enjoys working in a constantly changing industry.

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