Homebuilt Airplanes

 Bede BD-4 at Oshkosh
This Bede BD-4 at the 1991 EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh joined the hundreds built from an $1,800 kit introduced by Jim Bede in 1970.

Homebuilt aircraft have been called symbols of two intrinsically American values—self-reliance and freedom. All homebuilders—there are thousands in the United States—have a touch of both.

A Little Too Determined To Fly

After two years of building every night, following my day job as the senior Marine and T-28 flight instructor in a Navy squadron, my homebuilt Bede BD-4 was almost ready to fly. I still needed to do ground runs and ensure that all the building debris was removed from the tanks and fuel system.

On May 30, 1976, after attending church, I was driving back home with my wife and two small children when we passed the airport. It was a calm, sunny day so I decided I would stop for a few minutes and conduct a high-speed taxi test on the plane. I had no intent to fly, but as I taxied to the end of the strip, added power, accelerated rapidly, and raised the tail, I was immediately airborne. There was insufficient runway remaining to land so I climbed out over the power lines and highway. Passing through about 500 feet of altitude, the engine hesitated (probably from trash in the fuel line) so I continued my climb to 1,000 feet, turning downwind for a landing. The airspeed indicator was showing 140 mph when I turned base and final before reducing power, all the time hoping the engine would not die. Now I was on final approach, indicating 160 mph with a short field to land on. The aircraft slowed to about 90 mph as I touched down, only to bounce back into the sky. I pushed it back down onto the runway and bounced even higher. I then turned off the magnetos and held full aft stick for my final few bounces onto the runway.

For the next several years, I flew my Bede regularly but sold it after receiving an overseas assignment. I had intended to build another, but my wife, who had witnessed my initial flight while holding my baby daughter and my young son’s hand, said the lawyer’s fee would be costly for me if I did so. —Jerald Gartman, Morehead City, NC

A Flight Made Possible by the Pandemic

Flying in Chicagoland, private pilots see O’Hare International Airport as the ultimate destination. Typically, this involves a flight late at night and some luck. On Monday May 11, 2020, I took advantage of the COVID crisis and reduced traffic to fly my homebuilt Sonex into O’Hare.

I admit to having been given some inside information that made the flight a success. Friends at air traffic control helped me pick a time that promised the most likely opportunity: 10 a.m. on a Monday morning would typically be far too busy to accommodate me. But not in 2020.

I left Clow International Airport in Bollingbrook, Illinois and contacted Chicago approach with my request, and was cleared into the Class Bravo airspace almost immediately.

Flying low over the Chicago suburbs with downtown straight ahead of me was amazing. Following the sole 737 inbound to O’Hare was simply unreal. I was asked for my intentions, and chose to perform a low approach to runway 26C to avoid tying up the airspace or paying any landing fees.

As I approached the runway, I powered up for a low approach at fast cruise. I heard an airline pilot quip, “Thanks for the show!” I replied, “Thanks for the opportunity!” Robbie Culver, Naperville, IL

I Remember Soaring in West Virginia

I sit at 21,750 feet in a homemade wooden box under a flat-wrap lexan canopy, still and silent in mountain-wave soaring conditions. I have just earned myself the FAI Altitude Diamond award in a homebuilt sailplane that I purchased about 80 percent completed, then finished with a partner.

Range after range of mountains recede into the West Virginia distance. The climb, like all wave climbs, has been eerily quiet. I move neither forward nor backward since the airspeed of the ship matches that of the northwest wind. I am still climbing slowly but the wave window authorized by air traffic control has a ceiling at 23,000 feet, so I am ready to go down.

To borrow from the song, “When the angels ask me to recall that thrill of it all,” I will tell them of my mountain climb in a homebuilt sailplane. William R. McElwee, Cherry Hill, NJ

Not Quite Seamlessly Floating in a Homemade Balloon

As I watched the billowing fabric ripple above my head, a colorful canopy against the expanse of expectant sky, my nervousness swelled. My ascent aloft into this otherwise innocuous sunrise symbolized more than a mere morning’s flying fun: It was not only my first flight in the first aerostat I had assembled, but also my own first experience of being airborne in one.

The increasing altitude surrounding our creaking wicker basket brought no imminent unease; neither was the intermittently roaring flame so close by a cause for concern. Second-guessing my stitching, however, played prominently in my mind. Lives literally hang on the absolute accuracy of this 90,000-cubic-foot “envelope” that I’d wrestled through my machine with both precision and purpose. But amazement surpassed any lingering anxiety.

Then, all too soon, we sank from the sky and touched down upright in a nearby field, leaving a personal passion soaring.

Years later, I’m still proudly building balloons for the world’s largest manufacturer. —Charlotte Bailey, Bristol, England

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This story is a selection from the August/September issue of Air & Space magazine

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