This builder quite literally elevated whimsy to an art.

The fun of building and flying can go missing in the doing. Building becomes a series of tasks that mask the end game: an airplane crafted and flown by your own hands, for fun. Flying is reduced to checklists, ATC directives, numbers (and more numbers) and staring at gauges, monitoring numbers. That’s what I want the pilot doing when I’m parked in the cheap seats of a commercial flight, but it’s not why I pursue recreational aviation. Permit me shenanigans. Allow me some whimsy.

Shenanigans, as I wrote in the March 2021 issue of KITPLANES, lend themselves to flying. Whimsy, the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary tells me, is in part “a way of thinking or behaving or a style of doing something that is unusual and not serious.” Whimsy plays well on the ground and can flavor flight.

Fly Fishing

I was writing at a bookstore when I noticed a woman, who had been tapping away on a keyboard, stand and walk around a rack of mugs. When she returned I asked if she found the word she was looking for. She smiled and said she had. (I know how writers write.) Moments later a friend called and encouraged me to do some flybys for a taped-for-TV fishing show he was participating in on Wisconsin’s frozen water.

While I packed my computer I asked the woman, “When was the last time a complete stranger asked you if you’d like to ride along on a flyby for a fishing show?” She responded as if the conversation had been scripted. After a perfect pause, she said, “It’s been a while.” She passed on the opportunity. I did not. Ninety minutes later I learned how invisible a group of people, vehicles and ice fishing shelters can be on bare ice when the sun is shining. (Pack flares and blaze orange, people.) After numerous high-level passes to locate them I made low passes for the cameras and disinterested, flannel-clad fishermen. Somewhere, together with Yamaha ATVs and Johnsonville brats, Metal Illness appears uncredited in a fishing show.

A smiling DC-3 was its own bit of whimsy and drew kids to aviation.

Two Sierra X-ray Times Three

When I chose an N-number for Metal Illness I had some thinkin’ to do. The popular formula for Sonex builders was to combine their serial number with “SX” or their initials. Both N9SX and N9KF were taken by other aircraft so I fished for something else. The Sonex factory aircraft had N-numbers ending “2SX” and “12SX.” I struck on N912SX for mine; the “9” denoting my serial number, the “2SX” mimicking the factory aircraft. (Some thought my number indicated a Rotax 912 hid under the cowl, but no.) Well, on the mornings of Sonex builder workshops we’d do flybys for the customers, often putting three “Two Sierra X-Rays” in the pattern of a controlled airport at the same time. The ATC transmissions sounded something like this:

Sonex 1: Oshkosh Tower, Two Sierra X-Ray is on midfield downwind, low approach Runway One Eight.

Tower: Sonex Two Sierra X-Ray, cleared low approach Runway One Eight.

Sonex 1: Two Sierra X-Ray, cleared low approach One Eight.

Zonnie Fritsche engaged me in whimsy and included my kids (L-R) Nathaniel, Jenn and Alex.

Tower: Two Sierra X-Ray, you are following a Sonex turning left base for low approach Runway One Eight. Report traffic in sight.

Sonex 2: Two Sierra X-Ray has company traffic in sight.

Tower: Two Sierra X-Ray, you are number two, cleared low approach Runway One Eight.

Sonex 2: Two Sierra X-Ray, ahh, number two for low approach One Eight.

Sonex 3: Tower, Sonex Two Sierra X-Ray is midfield, downwind for landing One Eight.

Tower: Two Sierra X-Ray, you are number three, no, now number two for One Eight behind a Sonex on left base for a low approach. Advise traffic in sight.

Sonex 3: Tower, Sonex Two Sierra X-Ray has traffic in sight.

Tower: Sonex Two Sierra X-Ray, cleared to land Runway One Eight behind Sonex traffic now on short final.

Sonex 3: Two Sierra X-Ray cleared to land behind company traffic on short final.

Metal Illness (pre-nose art) toured AeroShell Square (now Boeing Plaza) during AirVenture 2005. My daughter Alex and son Nathaniel enjoyed the moment while Zonnie Fritsche, head West Ramp Rat (in orange vest), eased the concerns of SpaceShipOne’s security team.

And so it went. Occasionally I’d be “the silver Sonex” as the factory birds were yellow, or a factory airplane would be “trigear Sonex.” The controllers were always accommodating and enjoyed the early morning activity as much as the builders and we pilots. While Oshkosh may be the world’s busiest airport for a week in July, the rest of the year it can be quite sedate. Our flybys broke the controller’s weekend-morning tedium and added to the airport’s operational statistics.

My son worked with me at Sonex and one day we flew home simply because we could, even though our house was less than a mile from the Sonex hangar.

AirVenture as an Oshkoshian

For recreational pilots, many aviation experiences are welded to the ground. Building time always exceeds flying time. Maintenance, poor weather and overdue flight reviews get in the way of flying. Thank goodness for hangar flying. Though hangar flying hours aren’t log-able, they can sometimes be more fun than an average flight and accumulate across many categories regardless of pilot rating or medical currency. Pilots who attend AirVenture have as many stories from the show as they do from flying to and from the show. I never got to fly to Oshkosh. I was hangared on the east side of the ’port. My arrival was a grueling 10-minute taxi. After shutdown I’d be welcomed to my hometown by a flag person from Des Moines or Dubuque or Da Nang.

But there were home field advantages beyond sleeping in my own bed. One evening Zonnie Fritsche, a good friend and Sonex builder who was in charge of Boeing Plaza’s (then AeroShell Square’s) operations, invited Metal Illness down to “his” ramp to pose with some aircraft dignitaries. Invitation accepted. The guards at SpaceShipOne gave us looks. Duggy gave us a smile. It was a bit of whimsy that would have been easy to say no to in favor of retreating to my quiet, air-conditioned home, but the experience and the memories were worth the effort. What’s the saying? When someone asks, deny, deny, deny. No, that’s not it. When someone asks, say yes.

Shark’s teeth and an alternate take on a familiar caution always bring smiles. I remember an Evan’s VP-1 that used to display at AirVenture with a rubber chicken over the pitot tube and a massive propeller temporarily mounted on its VW engine.

Rolls for My Birthday

A bit of whimsy on my panel. This placard confused some.

A friend celebrated his birthdays doing consecutive touch and goes equal to his age. He was in his 70s. I adapted his idea to a less time-consuming and more tire-friendly activity: rolls. For lunch on my 41st birthday I launched into a crisp January sky and began stirring the stick. Aft, neutral, hard over left, hold, center, aft, neutral. I never strung more than two rolls together, but I entered them between 50 and 160 mph IAS to speed recovery time. The slow-entry-speed rolls were the most fun. I was done in an hour, happy to not have turned 42. That brings me to a placard on my panel that read “Extended Periods of Straight And Level Flight PROHIBITED.” It caught people off guard. While scrutinizing my panel people would point to the placard and ask in all seriousness, “Is that because you have the Jabiru engine?” I’d reply, just as seriously, “No, it’s because I have a sense of humor.” Few people noticed the panel light labeled “Missle Lock.” (I didn’t notice I misspelled missile until my daughter Alex pointed it out after the airplane had already flown 450 hours.) The light, slaved to a Grand Rapids EIS, warned if an engine parameter was exceeded. It added whimsy to the task of monitoring numbers.

“Siri, remind me to have fun.” Homebuilding should be fun. There’s no reason to participate in the hobby—for that matter, any hobby—unless it’s underpinned by fun. This is your reminder to welcome fun into your project and your piloting. Unless you’re flying me to Florida—then you best be flying like it’s your ATP check flight.

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Kerry Fores
Kerry Fores was born and raised in Oshkosh, WI and was interested in homebuilding by age 12. Between 1998 and 2003 he scratchbuilt and polished a Sonex, which he named Metal Illness. Kerry logged nearly 500 hours in Metal Illness and was awarded Plans Built Champion at AirVenture 2006. Kerry is retired from a 21-year career at Sonex Aircraft, most of it dedicated to supporting builders. Kerry is on the web at thelifeofdanger.com.



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