By Dennis Willows, EAA 1228004
After more than 45 years in the same Cessna 172, it seemed time for a major change. With my teenage daughter, Grace, working on her private certificate and with two grandsons, Ian and Angus, all of whom are good at mechanical things, it crossed my mind to look into something new from the aviation world to share.
I’m glad I did, because then I stumbled onto the Glasair Two Weeks to Taxi program. Harry DeLong at Glasair suggested I build the Sportsman kit at the Arlington, Washington, factory as part of Glasair’s annual Build-a-Plane challenge. The challenge was also sponsored by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), and the Sportsman is just what I needed: a four-place, modern design with advanced avionics suitable for tricycle or taildragger wheels, floats, or amphibs, VFR or IFR avionics, etc.
Glasair had invited students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs from more than 70 U.S. high schools to participate in its challenge to build a better-performing airplane by a specific set of criteria. The winning team in 2016 was four students and their teachers, Michael Hansen and Jerry Graf, EAA 295425, from a high school and STEM program in Weyauwega, Wisconsin. Their entry won them a two-week trip to the Pacific Northwest, and we won their assistance with our project at the Glasair factory. Since the Build-a-Plane challenge fit exactly my goals for my own family members, and the price was still within reach and significantly below that of a comparable certified aircraft, it was definitely a win-win situation. And we all learned a lot and had some fun.
A few minutes after 7 a.m. on a Monday, we assembled in a circle at the factory hangar with six professional techs led by Ryan Flickinger. Each day we started off with a demonstration by Ted Setzer who is a factory expert on topics such as fiberglass molding and repairs, nuts, bolts and fasteners, wiring and connectors, riveting, and the history of experimental aircraft business.
We worked in groups of two to four, each with an experienced tech. Everyone rotated through each group taking part in each step. We assembled the firewall and empennage and installed the engine, landing gear, fuel tanks, wiring, pulleys and cables, plumbing, cockpit panel and rigging, windows, and doors. You can watch a video of the wing folding here.
Everything was documented, and many steps were photographed, on more than 30 multipart checklists seen and initialed by one of the techs and by me. At the end of each day we reassembled our circle, and Ryan summarized our progress. You can see the airplane grow before your eyes in this 90-second time-lapse video.
Initially things went together quickly. Some subassemblies were partially completed before we started, e.g. the inner steel tubular cage surrounding the cabin space; the instrument panel was mostly assembled and ready to install and plug in; and the two halves of the fiberglass fuselage were fused together and anchored to the steel cage.
Another important component of the experience was that several executives from major corporate sponsors were present and shared their perspectives, experience, and flying skills with all of us. How many high school-age pilot wannabes and aviation fans have actually built an airplane and even flown one with a Boeing or Jeppesen vice president or a GAMA CEO?
We worked from early morning until 5:30 p.m. daily, with extravagant lunches hosted by the sponsoring companies. It took me six weeks to work off those lunches after the build was over! On Friday of the second week, the FAA inspector and his efficient partner arrived in the middle of the day and set up at a table nearby. He went through the checklists and performed a careful walk-around looking into open inspection ports, checking for looseness, unnecessary tightness, tools left inside hard-to-reach places, bad rivets, missing witness paint marks, and telltale signs of fuel, oil, or vent leaks. He did find one or two things needing attention, but that’s all! We had built a “tight ship” and now had an FAA airworthiness certificate.
Later that same day we opened the hangar doors, rolled it out, and lit it off. The Lycoming IO-390 fired right up. I taxied the plane out to the runway to prove it could be done.
There were still things to do: a few adjustments, 40 hours of solo flight, then disassembly and off to the paint shop. After reassembly, N653LG was ready for passengers. I now look forward to traveling to Weyauwega to share it with the team members there.
Share your craftsmanship with EAA Sport Aviation readers worldwide! Send us a photo and description of your project and we’ll consider using it in the “What Our Members are Building/Restoring” of the magazine. Please include your name, address, and EAA number.