I’m not really sure what caused this but; I have that itch again. It’s that feeling that if I don’t do something about what’s bugging me now I will never be able to in the future. Must have something to do with having another birthday.
I have not been quite right since seven or eight years ago when I placed an ad in the “Yellow Bible” offering my pristine, 250 hour RV-8 for sale. I placed the ad on a Thursday and the online version brought me a caller on Friday who showed up on Saturday, looked at the airplane for about 15 minutes and asked, “Where do you want the money sent?” Must have priced it way too cheap! Three hours later I watched my favorite toy along with my blood, sweat, and tears, taxi out to runway 12 and poke a perfect hole in the yawning blue sky over West Michigan. The ramp was suddenly very empty and quiet and I felt like I had let the gypsies take my first born child. The hangar echoed.
Married life (again, after years of “alternative living”) dictated that I have a bit larger airplane to get around in. Before this life altering event it had been me and Hoover, the dog. Now it would need to be me and Hoover and Elizabeth and Hess, the dog . . . plus some bags. The RV was flush with baggage space when it was just me and “Hoovie”; he was a master at packing light. But, this new lifestyle dictated more space and so after a month or so of searching, the Mooney was located on the eastern sea board and me and the Mrs. were off to New Jersey on an adventure to retrieve a new (to us) 1979 Mooney 201 J. As we rotated for the first leg of the trip home the wife asked casually, “How much time to you have in these Mooneys?” “Counting now?” I asked. “Yeah.” She said. “About 10 minutes.” I answered. She said “Oh.” Then and it was quiet for a while as we skirted DC airspace. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn about Mooneys.
I had never wanted to rebuild a Mooney. Building the RV had been an adventure but the thought of working on a flying project, even though most of the old heads where I am based seemed to think it was a “damn fine airplane,” had never been a priority on my to-do list. Still, I bit my lip and persevered. One piece at a time I updated the old girl to get her into the shape that I am comfortable flying around in. There was that first year’s annual where the price tag came in just north of $9000, but once that was over at least I had increased confidence in the aircraft. Well, then there was that trip to MN to get the weepy tanks sealed. That was $7500, but at least the tanks were dry and Paul had been a great guy to work with. Of course, I did spend most of one winter getting the headliner and side panels all repaired. Did it all myself with some guidance from the friendly folks at Yeager Aviation. It was a learning curve that paid off despite spending a bunch on small stuff and most of my free time all one winter. Once that was done I had an airplane I could be comfortable with; Well, I did have to install ADS-B but so did everyone else.
It was that itch that made me decide to build an airplane in the first place. As I look back on the evolution of the Mooney into a comfortable and decent looking airplane the motivation becomes clearer to me. I wanted a brand new airplane. Sure, the Mooney is a great airplane for getting around. Since I began doing assisted annuals I know the airplane inside and out and it is a sound, reliable aircraft. Probably the most bang for the buck when compared to a lot of certified airplanes out there. But, it is nearly 40 years old. Things are worn. Things that I won’t replace just so it looks better; it flies just fine. But those things bother me. The only way to have a shiny new airplane without the warts is to build one myself, designed just the way I want it, painted the colors I like, with all the little personal touches I can build into it. Not only can’t I get those things in a certified airplane; I’m not sure I know anyone who can afford to get that in a new certified airplane. And that, is where the itch comes from.
I had a fleeting daydream about buying another Pacer. I have owned two in the past and found them to be wonderful and sporty little airplanes. But that dream morphed itself too. Bigger tires would be good, and maybe a few more horses under the cowl. I hear there is a dandy STC for an IO-360. Of course then there is fabric to think about and, the hurdle that always hangs me up; avionics. It simply amazes me how many really fine airplanes you can locate out there that just come up short when it comes to radios. In the end I could see me pouring tons more work and bags full of money into getting a Pacer where I wanted it to be; and it would still be as old as I am! In the end, nice, but not a shiny new airplane built just the way I want it. It would be a compromise.
I don’t know if it was my recent visit to the Two Hearted River airstrip or my meeting some of the members of the RAF who flew in there that really got me thinking about how much I miss tail wheels and grass strips. Those things are not available to me in my Mooney. Inner gear doors and a prop swinging way too tight to the ground make most sod or rumpled strips something I just don’t want to think about. Jarring a seal loose on a fuel tank would be another of those things I wouldn’t really enjoy much. So, I have started having dreams about wheels brushing sod and early morning dew on the grass, or fog hanging low over the river. The itch is getting worse.
Then there was a bit of surfing I did on my smart TV that found me watching episode after episode about a young guy from the South West named Trent Palmer. He and an entire gaggle of pilot friends are banging around mountain tops and dry lake beds and gravel bars in Highlanders, Kit Foxes, Maules, 180’s, and Cubs; all low and slow with great huge tires and mini cameras hanging off from everything. They fly because it is FUN! The need for speed is really not part of their equation. I’m sure that speed thing in my head is in direct response to my recent birthday too; time gets precious. But, I have been slow before and it can be great fun. In days gone by we would fly the river east of our little town and look at the countryside and the deer and trees and chase the geese. (My brother and I referred to ourselves as the “Slow Brothers”) We would land in the hay field behind my brother’s house in the country; wheels brushing the sod, dew on our shoes. That little 1946 Champ was some of the greatest flying I have ever enjoyed. Just plain fun flying.
As if Trent Palmer wasn’t “out there” quite far enough, I discovered another aviator, two actually, who are possessed with that same “that’s nuts, let’s do it!” mentality. Twins Mike and Mark, the brothers Patey, have turned home-building on its head with monster designs like a completely rebuilt Wilga powered with a PT-6! The Patey boys are just a little outside the norm and have been for decades. They have a fascinating life story and both have managed to capture some degree of aviation notoriety with their revolutionary homebuilt modifications.
These people out in my sky, doing what I love to do, have had a renewed impact on me. So the itch remains unscratched. There is a glimmer, a flicker really, that is growing steadily. I know what I need is out there and I have been spending more and more time on the net lately, looking for the perfect thing to scratch my itch with. Having built an RV, I am prone to comparing everything to them. Van’s really does have a niche carved out for themselves and they deserve it. I personally believe that Van’s has set the standard for the cost vs. performance computations. Their construction techniques are very sound and the result is a good looking, tough, fun to fly airplane that seemingly anyone with basic knowledge can tackle, and at a price that any motivated airplane driver can find a way to afford.
I gave a passing glance at the Sonex line of aircraft but I am an old guy and the design just sorta turns me off. Yeah, I know they fly well and they are without a doubt economical but, well, they just don’t look like an airplane is supposed to look to me. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t build one, just means I doubt that I would keep one. Zenair gives me the same feeling. They just don’t look like real airplanes to me. I have watched the videos and while I do want to have some short field capabilities to help scratch that itch, every time I see the top wing skin or the side of the fuselage oil can as those Zenair airplanes rotate, I cringe. They gotta be light but geez Louise, can’t we put a stiffener in there or something?
I thought I had at last found what filled the bill on a recent visit to my brother’s hangar on the old home town strip north of me. Murphy Aircraft makes a model called the Rebel. Sitting next to my brother’s gnarly old Tri-Pacer was that exact airplane. I gotta tell you that even though this was an older one and the cowing had been shall we say “altered” (“bastardized” seems too harsh) I was impressed enough to call the company to try to find out more. The airplane has some impressive performance when fitted with a 160 HP Lycoming. The cabin is 44.5” wide; roomy enough for even a moose like me! Flaperons and large flaps add to the slow flight envelope. (Slow is in its pedigree, 75% cruise is called out as 120 MPH) It offers a copious baggage allowance. Indeed baggage options include a third seat. Old FE’s will love it, it’s mounted “side saddle.” I had an absolutely lovely chat with a fellow from Murphy’s and he allowed that he would be happy to send me more performance and general aircraft info. I haven’t heard a word from him since. Of course they are based in Canada so maybe it takes longer to email things from up there. That “Canada” thing raised another concern for me; import taxes. While the Feds will let me bring a kit in duty free, my home State is gonna whack me 6% for the privilege of bringing one to the roost. Murphy has lost a bit of its luster for me of late.
Kit Fox appears to be a going concern and if you watch Trent Palmer and his pals the Flying Cowboys, you will no doubt feel some excitement over these little airplanes. The problem for me comes with what is basic and what is an add-on that only drives the price higher. The basic series 7 kit prices out real close to $26,000. The STi version starts at nearly $33,000 but offers up a better STOL wing. I guess it is all in what you want. It doesn’t turn my prop however, to pay the same amount for a Kit Fox kit as a fast build RV-7 Kit. These Kit Fox models are typically equipped with a Rotax or Jibaru engine and cruise at about 90 kts. (How do you like your bush tires now?) Even if the finished airplane nearly matches the cost of the RV-7 (which seems ridiculous to me) you still don’t come close to matching the performance. Stock RV’s take off and land in incredibly short spaces and still cover the planet at 200 MPH! Granted the low wing design and small wheels and tires of the RV are a drawback to landing on mountain tops and bushy strips, but what is being able to do ONLY that worth to anyone?
I skipped Oshkosh this year. Haven’t attended since 2010. That was the year that I took my shiny new RV-8 over so everyone could “ooooo” and “ahhhh” over it. They did, I was pleased. (I envy that guy in Nebraska who bought it, hope he still loves it) Mostly, I didn’t want to spend my time wandering aimlessly from kit plane booth to kit plane booth looking for “Mr. Wright” and turning my brain to mush with performance figures and option pricing charts. The weight of the brochures alone might have been too much for the old Mooney on the way home. There is, however, one aircraft that I haven’t spent much time on and haven’t really seen somewhere or another in my travels. I might actually like to have seen one in OSH. This kit aircraft was born in the hot bed of aviation that Kansas is, or was. If it is anywhere near Wichita I figure some of that aviation magic may have rubbed off. The Rans aircraft company has been around for years and originally began with plans built, economical aircraft. Their line has expanded over the years and they offer no less than 10 different aircraft at this time. Four of the aircraft from their line are offered as a “ready to fly” version. Most recently they have spawned a thing called an “S-21 Outbound” which would appear to be a mix of things that I have been searching for. While the airplane (in some form) is an SLAS, high wing, tail-wheel design, it is an all metal covering. And while it can be built with a Rotax 912 under the cowling, it can also be built with a New Titan 340-180 HP engine. It’s the 180 HP that scratches my itch. Coupled with an 80” fixed pitch composite prop the cruise figures show 155 MPH (135 kts), and a takeoff roll of less than 400 feet! Couple that with an estimated build time of half that required for an RV “quick build” kit and my itch may be subsiding. Dollar-wise, the Outbound would also appear to cost substantially less than an RV to complete. Yes, I know it’s not apples and apples but I have to have some kind of yardstick to measure with and right now the RV is the only experience I have to work from.
I guess I am longing for a simpler time. I have been gone too long from stick and rudder. I really never wanted one or those airplanes with the tail-wheel on the front in the first place. I have a buddy at the airport who just sold a really sharp Navion in great condition and picked up a Cherokee 180 to scoot around in. He just wanted something simple to fly. I can identify with him. I am searching for simplicity again too. I have come full circle. I started out with tail wheels, fixed props, and grass strips; and in my heart I know I was pretty damned happy flying that way. For now, the Mooney has a place in the hangar. But, even more than another airplane to fly, I need to be building. I need the dream. I need to see something come together from my hands. It won’t replace a four place cross country machine, but then again, flying the river and looking at the countryside and the deer and trees and chasing the geese just ain’t the same in the Mooney. The itch continues.
Author: Tom Speerstra
Tom Speerstra has had an enduring love affair with aviation for over 40 years. Countless adventures have been enjoyed flying students, people, paper, and parcels in everything from Champs to Citations. He has held positions as both Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Part 135 carriers and holds an ATP, MEII, SES ratings and a Citation type rating. Tom makes his home in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and the two dogs Hess and Pappy.