Feature Learning to fly 

Experimental planes leave contrails in the Texas sky

Icarus soared too close to the sun and plunged to his death in the sea, but his fatal flight overshadowed his father’s legendary accomplishment. Daedalus continued his aerial escape from Crete to Sicily, where he built a temple to Apollo and retired his wings.

Since the youthful Greek’s mythological brush with the sun which melted the wax that bound his wings together, humankind has been fascinated with flying, but no attempts were successful until Orville and Wilbur Wright piloted their prototype through four flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903.

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The Wright Brothers achieved fame as homebuilt-aircraft inventors, and their famous feat on Kill Devil Hill launched decades of experiments from hang-gliding to rocketing a space shuttle into the solar system.

Today, experimental aircraft encompass numerous categories, including vintage airplanes, ultralight aircraft, gyrocopters, and homebuilt planes from kits that pass muster with many store-bought aircraft available on the aviation maket. In the San Antonio area, numerous local aviators indulge in various aspects of experimental aircraft, ranging from replication of vintage war birds to ultralight aircraft that run on a mixture of oil and gas, to accomplished pilots who dare to dream that they can build their own, first-class flying machines, at home in their garages.

Initially, airplanes were the realm of military combat as the early bi- and triplanes filled the skies over Europe during World War I, rat-a-tatting their way into the history books. Fighter planes have evolved into the modern jet-engine driven machines that can precisely hit a bombing target from miles away. And commercial applications proved useful as airline companies delivered thousands of passengers to destinations all over the world.

By the 1950s, there were plenty of ways to fly an airplane, and pilots in Wisconsin wanted to build their own machines and fly them. But there was no unified voice to lobby the Federal Aviation Administration to allow the licensing of many airplanes that were being built in garages and privately owned hangars.

The flyers who founded the Experimental Aircraft Association were prompted by the FAA’s refusal to license most experimental aircraft. EAA’s organized voice helped to change FAA rules to allow experimental flying, but not for commercial purposes.

San Antonio is home to a longtime member of EAA, and a verified guru of homebuilt airplanes: Paul McReynolds, whose home-built RV-4 won the Grand Champion honors at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual fly-in at an airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

McReynolds first flew in 1957, and joined EAA in 1960. The former president of an EAA chapter in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, McReynolds not only is an expert and a stickler for intricate detail when it comes to building an airplane, but also is well-versed in the history of experimentals and the founding of EAA.

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Retired Air Force pilot Les Bourne of Universal City built his own tandem two-seater experimental airplane in his garage. Bourne is a United Airlines pilot who likes to fly on his days off. The RV-8 that he built in three years and one day won a reserve champion award at a fly-in in Florida during this past summer, and Bourne is building yet another RV-8 experimental airplane in his garage, this time for a friend. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

“In the 1950s, there were no kits, but you could buy plans, and you had to buy the materials from various sources,” explains McReynolds. “The EAA was a movement of experimental aircraft enthusiasts who in 1953 founded EAA in Wisconsin. These guys got together and built different kinds of airplanes from existing and manufactured parts.”

Today’s EAA covers many categories, including the modern kits that produce awesome, easy-flying airplanes, but its influence has also helped pave the way for Roger Freeman, who builds vintage World War I airplanes such as a SPAD XIII, made famous by pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, who logged a record 26 victories in the skies over France; and the infamous Fokker triplanes flown by German flying aces.

Freeman bought a 75-acre farm several years ago and turned a relatively flat cow pasture into an airfield. He named his WWI-style airfield the Old Kingsbury Aerodrome, as it lies a stone’s throw from the town of Kingsbury, midway along Highway 90 between Seguin and Luling.

“Our whole interest is just the historical aspect of it,” says Freeman. “We’re very time specific.

We have a heavy interest in World War I.”

Freeman is building a French-made SPAD XIII warplane which is destined for a wealthy client who collects and flies his own squadron of vintage fighter planes.

“It was one of the most intricate aircraft, with its exotic woodworking,” says Freeman, who has acquired original guns, instruments, and engines for the historical airplane. “Everything else we make or have made.”

Freeman says the majority of the planes he builds are either headed for museums, to private collections of customers, or slated to entertain crowds during events at the Kingsbury Aerodrome.

Sometimes a lucky visitor gets a chance to take a flight in Freeman’s 1941 Meyers OTW biplane, with its singing wing wires and open cockpit. Freeman is an expert with the control stick, as he takes the vintage aircraft into a 360-degree roll, or a hammerhead maneuver in which the plane flies straight up until it stalls and falls backward for what seems an eternity; Freeman rolls backward through a loop after which the sky is up and the earth is down. Even a figure-eight maneuver can be exciting with Freeman controlling the stick that flies the airplane.

“Our responsibility is to take care of the history we have. These 80- and 90-year-old airplanes are not the most dependable, and we’re very protective of them. These aircraft are operated in a controlled environment,” says Freeman.

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Vintage propellers hang among frames and other parts of vintage flying machines in a hangar at the Old Kingsbury Aerodrome that lies off F.M. 1104 midway between Luling and Seguin.

But not every pilot has the time or inclination to buy a farm and convert it into a replica WWI-airfield and stock it with vintage aircraft. That’s why homebuilt aircraft kits have become so popular.

By the 1960s-70s, the FAA said “fly at your own risk,” and allowed builders to certify the air worthiness of a homemade plane. Companies in the 1970s sold basic kits with raw materials, and the builder had to cut and drill the material and perform more difficult tasks of fashioning a cowling, a canopy, and other essential parts of a well-built airplane.

One could assume that United Airlines pilot Les Bourne would be finished with airplanes for awhile after flying a Boeing jumbo jet from coast to coast, over to Hawaii, and maybe down to Brazil or another South American country. He commutes from San Antonio to Chicago to work his hectic schedule.

Bourne’s love of flying goes back to when he was a kid, assembling balsa wood and other model airplane kits. Flying for pleasure is a “sickness, either you’re ill or you aren’t,” says Bourne. “I love flying.”

He joined the Air Force for a career as a flying ace. By the time he had moved to Universal City, preparing to retire as a Lieutenant Colonel, Les Bourne had served as a flight instructor to fighter pilots who came to Randolph Air Force Base to learn how to teach student pilots to fly the base’s T-38 jet trainers.

Bourne has flown 55 different airplanes, but his pride and joy is the tandem two-seater RV-8 experimental airplane that he assembled in his garage in three years and one day, and took on a test flight at New Braunfels Municipal Airport in 2003.

It’s a veritable aviation movement, as hundreds of flyers are purchasing homebuilt aircraft kits from the world’s most popular manufacturer, Van’s Aircraft in Aurora, Oregon. The RV series of airplane kits was the brainchild of Richard VanGrunsven, a mechanical engineer and pilot who transformed a 65-horsepower Stits Playboy into his first RV-1, and flew it from 1965-68.

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A German Fokker D-VII biplane stands at left, nearly complete, beside a Fokker DR1 triplane that will need a lot more work. Aerodrome proprietor Roger Freeman builds the old warbirds for wealthy customers, for museums, and to entertain crowds during events at the old World War I replica airfield.

RV usually means recreational vehicle, but in this case, the airplane kits he manufactures bear his initials. And, after 30 years in the experimental aircraft business, 4,436 RV kits, from RV-4s to the newer RV-10s have been built and flown worldwide.

“We ship about two aircraft a day,” says Ken Scott, spokesman for Van’s Aircraft, “with new completions coming at one-and-a-half per day somewhere in the world.”

The enthusiasm is well-founded, says Scott. “These aren’t just a bunch of wild-eyed wackos putting things together with metal tubing, wire, and sailcloth with a staple gun. These airplanes are built by people that really care about what they are doing. They really do it right.”

Van’s RV series of aircraft, designed for recreational, aerobatic, and utility flying (meaning, flying cross-country instead of driving that great distance), are popular because they are well-designed and well-built, and the result is, Scott says, “like getting out of a Chevy pickup and then driving a Porsche; and the fact that there are so many being built is proof they are satisfying many people.”

They may be expensive toys, but experimentals are genuine airplanes that can fly night and day, anywhere, but only for personal use, not for hire or other commercial purposes. They are versatile, designed for a fun flying experience, not a physical workout.

A careful reconnoiter of a neighbor’s garage might reveal the presence of a home-built airplane afficionado. There are clusters of RV builders in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Waco, with possibly 400 to 500 of the kits currently under construction in Texas. And in San Antonio there are many experimentals in various stages of construction sitting in hangars or garages.

Bourne flies his first homebuilt whenever he gets a chance, and he has a second RV-8 under way in his garage; he’s helping a friend.

“It has always been my dream to build an airplane once the kids got out of college, and that was paid for,” says Bourne, who also teaches flying as a single- and multi-engine instructor and is certified by EAA as a technical counselor who also serves as a flight advisor to homebuilt kit builders when they are ready for a test run.

Building an airplane is not a project for people with short attention spans.

The first step is to open the “boxes, boxes, and boxes of parts,” says Bourne, and it’s at that point that would-be homebuilt aircraft assemblers will determine if they have the temperament and the money to complete a project. The basic tool kit costs $1,500, and the tail section is another $1,500, plus the wings, fuselage, cowling, canopy, engine mount, and engine. The tab could total from $35,000 to $60,000, or more, depending on what a builder decides to install in a project. Van’s Aircraft maintains a homebuilt kit cost estimator on its website, vansaircraft.com.

Bourne built his own custom fairing and oil cooler, and crafted a leather interior in the cockpit, which makes his first RV-8 resemble the interior of a Lexus. He spent three years and a day riveting, dimpling metal, cutting the angled aluminum pieces, mounting the aluminum skin onto spars, and fitting all the pieces together with acute attention to detail.

“Airplanes are still built the old-fashioned way: You rivet them together,” says Bourne.

When his first RV-8 was nearly complete, he rolled it out of his garage, tied the tail to the tree and prepared to test the engine. His neighbors filed out of their homes to watch, and they applauded when it started on the first try. From there, it was a trip to the hangar to mount the wings, and readiness for a test flight at New Braunfels Airport. About 25 flight hours later, all systems were go, and today Bourne and his wife, Stacy, have flown across the Everglades to the Florida Keys and taken several cross-country trips.

“The first time you fly an RV you get this grin on your face, you can’t wipe it off,” says Bourne. “They do everything very, very well.”

By Michael Cary

More by Michael Cary



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