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Aeroplane home-building: background

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This site describes how I came to be building an aeroplane, and how the process is progressing. You might wish to compare this with other Europa builders websites.

When people hear I'm building an aeroplane, the most popular question is usually "When will it be finished?" I can't answer that exactly, but I can tell you how long it's taken so far - see the building hours graph. Anyone thinking of embarking on a similar project should look at that picture before starting.

I have always been interested in making things; this is illustrated in a photo of me taken by my mum when I was about 2 years old.

I have been flying aeroplanes ever since I can remember. I built and flew model aeroplanes. I flew inside my head as I read Biggles books and the biography of my boyhood hero Douglas Bader. Even at primary school, when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I'd say I would be a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force. That was because I thought the RAF was the best (free!) flying club in the world. It never occurred to me that I might be asked to kill anyone. Now, as a Quaker, I find war and violence unacceptable as means of solving problems. Anyway, my fitness for military service was compromised by a childhood illness which damaged my lungs, and as I grew up I found out that the RAF had stopped using single-seaters with propellers. To me, jets just didn't have the same appeal.

My career turned out to be in communications electronics instead of aviation, starting at the historic Dollis Hill GPO Research Station in north-west London, which still had its landmark twin eiffel-style masts when I joined. In the 1970s the research centre moved out to Suffolk and its new premises occupied part of the former RAF Martlesham Heath airfield, which was gradually converted into housing and industrial use. I eventually got around to paying for my own flying lessons in 1979, at the fine grass airfield of Ipswich (now sadly lost forever to aviation thanks to underhand collaboration between the local council and a property developer). I gained my Private Pilot's Licence (PPL) in 1980 and hired club aircraft for various trips but the hourly cost tended to limit my activities.

Quite soon I became aware of the homebuilt aircraft movement and discovered the Quickie - a design that looked very strange (tandem-wing, wheels on the ends of the anhedral front wing) but could be built in a single-car garage just like mine. I had always enjoyed working with tools and making things, and was captivated by the idea of building my own aeroplane. I found the CAA had made the commmonsense decision that if one built an aeroplane one was thereby qualified to do much of the subsequent maintenance on it. Thus the high cost of a licenced aircraft engineer's time every 50 hours of operation, as required on factory-built aeroplanes, could be avoided.

Of course I quickly realised that the single-seat Quickie was not the aeroplane for me - one of my great joys is sharing aviation with others, and so I needed at least 2 seats. The Quickie's big brother was the 2-seat Q2, and my affection transferred to that design. It was too big to be built entirely in the single-car garage, but by then I was seized by the principle of home-building and present physical constraints seemed a minor obstacle.

During a visit to my cousins in Seattle during 1981, I got as far as buying a set of plans for the Q2 from Quickie Northwest. However, I began to discover from press reports that it might not be the ideal aeroplane for me. It was not at home on grass strips or short runways, and could be a real handful for a low-time pilot such as myself.

On my flights around East Anglia, I was always impressed by how much water there seemed to be visible in the landscape. I viewed it with new interest after spending some time in a Cessna 172 on floats around Seattle's lakes. When a new amphibious aircraft design, the Sea Hawk (which for trademark reasons was later called the Sea Hawker and eventually the Glass Goose) appeared, I took notice. I subscribed to the builders newsletter for some time, but eventually lost interest in it as I explored the practicalities. In USA, where the Sea Hawk originated, pretty much any stretch of open water can be used by an aircraft to alight upon, unless the owner of the water has explicitly forbidden such activities. In UK, however, almost the reverse applies - you cannot put down your seaplane, flying boat, or amphibian on any water except that specifically designated as permitted for such activities.

I also did some research on the cost of parking or hangaring aeroplanes and was disappointed with how big a factor that could be in aircraft ownership. Then, I discovered a breed of aeroplane which could not only be built at home, but also kept at home once finished. The "mission profile" for my ideal aeroplane was starting to emerge. The Avid and Kitfox both had folding wings and could be towed at moderate speeds behind a car on their own main gear. There was even an amphibian version of the Avid! Looking over part-built examples of each at the PFA* Rally led me to think that perhaps I preferred the way the Kitfox was engineered. It was covered in fabric, but the structure was mostly metal, which I felt comfortable working with. The composite construction of the Quickie & Glass Goose was said to be easy even for first-timers, but it was unfamiliar territory for me and I was unsure about learning the new skills.
[* The Popular Flying Association (PFA) became the Light Aircraft Association (LAA) on 2008-01-01.]

Although our garage wouldn't take any two-seat aircraft, I thought I could do plenty of work on smaller assemblies there, and perhaps rent space elsewhere for the larger pieces and the assembled aeroplane. Of course, in addition to the financial penalties of this idea, working away from home would mean travelling time would have to be subtracted from building time, and there would be the likelihood that tools would be in the wrong place when needed. My work was demanding, and many other interests already more than filled my spare time - how would I find the time to complete a whole aeroplane?

My wife Wilma had been observing this passion from the sidelines. Initally her reaction had been along the lines of "You're going to build a WHAT????", but by this time (it was now 1993) she had grown more accustomed to the concept, as the following shows. Around then we were thinking of moving house and I hoped to find one with a garage that would make a suitable home for a Kitfox. We looked at several nearby properties and some vendors wondered why I was running the tape measure so carefully around the garage. One asked Wilma "Have you got a caravan?" - to which she casually replied "A caravan? No, no, he's going to build an aeroplane".

One property seemed to have everything we liked including a nice big garage. Before we made a firm offer on it, Wilma had a bright idea. "Don't you think you'd better have a flight in one of these Kitfox things to make sure you really like them, before we buy a Kitfox hangar with house attached?" This very sensible thought had not occurred to me, but without delay I negotiated with the UK Kitfox importer to have a flight in the demonstrator.

Alas! This was not the unmitigated joy I had hoped! It was slow, noisy (2-stroke engine), and suffered from heavy adverse yaw. Neither was I positively impressed by the demo pilot needing about 4 tries before he got it back on the ground - I didn't dare try to land it myself! Kitfoxes were starting to appear with alarming frequency in the accident reports, and I decided that it was not the aircraft for me. In retrospect, I think it was the very over-blown advertising in the US magazines that raised my expectations much too high. If I'd previously had some Piper Cub time I might well have found the Kitfox quite acceptable, particularly with a quieter 4-stroke engine.

tick We didn't proceed with the purchase of that house, and I was somewhat unhappy for a while, wondering how my enthusiasm for aeroplane building could be channelled. That October, we took a trip by train to London for Wilma's birthday, and I bought a copy of the November 1993 issue of Pilot magazine at the station. The cover splash read "Two high-performing kitplanes you can keep in the garage: the sleek, efficient Pulsar: and the magical new Europa." On the train journey I devoured the articles and was amazed at how close Ivan Shaw's wish list was to my own: park it at home, fly out of farm strips, good handling, high cruise speed, long range, quiet and efficient. The Pulsar, while fast and sleek, seemed to suffer from the usual aversion of American designs to grass airfields. Once we returned from the London trip, I wasted no time in phoning the Europa factory for an information pack.

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