I got “the sickness” (as Randi from the Cozy Girrrls calls it) for homebuilt airplanes back in the very early 1980’s after visiting the Rutan Aircraft Factory with my Dad as we were bumming around the Mojave Airport one day. We ran into Dick Rutan who gave us a very quick, cursory tour and overview of the on-goings at RAF. I had just moved down to Lancaster, California from Northern California with my Mom and three brothers as we reunited with my Dad since he had just gotten a new job there in Lancaster. At that time my Dad, who had always been an active pilot since I can remember, was helping some of his buddies on their respective Quickie and KR2 projects, while also making canopies part time at the Mojave airport. Knowing my Dad’s curiosity, I figure his being in close proximity to RAF was probably what led to our impromptu visit. Now, a critical part of my decision of what airplane I would end up building stemmed from that meeting at RAF with Dick Rutan, what I remembered as a 13-year-old kid, and the homebuilt de jour style of experimental aircraft being built at the time.
So, read on dear reader! There was a prototype Vari-Eze (or Long-EZ) sitting just off the side of RAF’s front ramp area that Dick used as an example to point out a few features of the Rutan canards. Being 13, I’m sure I was not listening with full attention to the conversation that my Dad was having with Dick, nor did I have any idea who Dick Rutan was at the time (I don’t think my Dad did either!). Well, that prototype just happened to have a VW-conversion engine installed in the back end of it. Since I had tagged along with my Dad as he helped his buddies with their homebuilts, that coincidentally used VW-conversion engines, it became engrained in my mind from that point on until I was well into my 40s, albeit incorrectly, that the Rutan canards were powered by VW-conversion engines.
After a couple of years we ended up moving back up to our small hometown of Fall River Mills in the far Northeast corner of California. I graduated high school there, married my high school sweetheart and moved back down to Lancaster to work construction with my Dad. I realized quickly that construction is a tough business since you constantly work yourself out of a job and then must find a new one. Wanting to fly in the Air Force, but having no idea how to go about it, I joined the Air Force out of Lancaster and reported to basic training in January 1986. I was fortunate to get into what I feel is one of the most exciting and gratifying jobs in the military: Explosive Ordnance Disposal (bomb squad). The years flew by and job, family, deployments and off-duty college courses consumed my time. I made a deal with myself that once I got commissioned and finished my master’s degree, I was allowed to get my private pilot’s license. I eventually got commissioned, but at an age too old to fly in the Air Force, and also got that master’s degree. After a couple of well-timed conversations with some old Air Force buddies of mine that were private pilots, I was re-energized in my quest to get my pilot’s license. And I did, just a few years ago.
The Fever Starts:
After I got my pilot’s license, that ol’ familiar feeling crept back in. Yep, although “the sickness” had lay dormant for all those years, it was back with a vengeance… probably helped along in large measure by the disgust and frustration I often felt at not being able to schedule a plane at the aero club to fly when the weather turned good (I was in the DC area with its constant Summer thunderstorms). I decided to build an airplane that I would own and could choose to fly whenever I wanted to! I culled the experimental herd, data-mined the Kitplanes Archives and visited the Barnstormers plane porn site regularly. After much contemplation over many beers and a few good cigars in the garage with my buddy Greg, I decided to build a Glastar (much to his chagrin actually, since he thought I was being a wuss for not tackling a Glasair!). With my mind made up, I signed up for an EAA composites workshop. Composites?! Well, yes, I know that the Glastar has a lot of metal work involved, but those darn metal fab classes fill up FAST!! Besides, fate was in the works to serendipitously find me the RIGHT plane to build!
The “Three Wise Men”:
After introducing ourselves in the composites course, the guys in the class would of course shoot the breeze during breaks and lunch. At one point, one of the three guys in the course that were non-builder owners of Long-EZ’s asked what I was then currently flying. I responded with the ubiquitous reply that Cessna 172s were my current aircraft of choice. With the coordination of a German Blitzkrieg they all began to pepper me with information about how awesome-flying, ergonomic-comfort and fuel-efficient fun was to be had in a Long-EZ. Now, as a believer in using actual aircraft engines in experimental airplanes, I offered the most haughty and snarky reply I could muster to their question, “Have you ever thought about building a Long-EZ?” with (now, recall the story above): “I wouldn’t care to build an airplane that uses a VW-conversion engine as its powerplant!” . . . (crickets chirping) (silence) . . . Looks of disbelief as if I a) was mutating into an alien life form, b) had grown a third eye and become a Cyclops over lunch, or c) had a fantastic booger hanging out of my nose! Finally, one of the three asked incredulously, after a quick nod to the other two, “What the hell are you talking about? Long-EZs use Lycomings! <you dumbass!>” That last part being thought I’m sure although not spoken due apparently to an amazing amount of self-discipline on their part. To which I deftly responded, “Oh, I did not know that.” Thus, the Long-EZ seed was planted, and the sickness had grown to that incurable stage.
Enter “CAPT MEATBALLS”:
At the EAA Composites course was also lurking another Canardian-in-waiting. As the discussion transpired with the “Three Wise Men,” a soon-to-be Long-EZ builder joined into the conversation. Capt Meatballs introduced himself with his oft-used alias of Marco, who many people know now as the renowned composer of the Long-EZ site, “What have I Gotten Myself Into?” He and I had lunch together and discussed the Long-EZ at length. I was intrigued by the Long-EZ as a plans built experimental project versus plunking down a small fortune for a kit of some kind. The pay-as-you-build concept appealed to the cheap miser in me! I picked Marco’s brain on all aspects of the Long-EZ. We stayed in contact after the course, and we continued to both dig into the massive amount of information required to assess whether a project on what is essentially a “dead” experimental airplane was viable.
With Marco’s help, I was able to conclude after about a month of hard investigation that the main components that were beyond my capacity to build, make or manufacture would indeed be available if I decided to build a Long-EZ. Once I knew I COULD build the plane, I then had to be certain that I WANTED to build the Long-EZ. I took a long (yes, pun) hard look at the Long-EZ’s mission. It fit mine well enough. But, having never been in a Long-EZ, would I fit? Would I be cramped in the seemingly tight cockpit? Being a builder of many things, and a lot of those things being wood, I decided to build a mock-up using OSB flooring material. I decided the cockpit was a little tight, but once I played around with the figures a bit, I decided I could widen it 1.4″ without any apparent issues. Once I worked through the cockpit sizing issue, and reconfirmed the required Bill of Materials (BOM) was available, I pulled the trigger and decided to build a Long-EZ. I did a quick recap and Chapter 3 training overview and actually started the Long-EZ project on April 24, 2011.
I feel very fortunate—in these days of comparitively few Long-EZ projects in the works—to have a “Building Buddy” as I do with my good friend Marco. We are able to share discoveries made, learn from each other’s mistakes, and challenge each other when our respective building efforts lean out more than they should. In addition, the Canard community has been very welcoming, encouraging and helpful.
God speed and hope to see you out there on the lines of Rough River, Sun-N-Fun and Oshkosh!