Minnesota's wing nuts

  • Article by: TONY GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 25, 2008 - 9:47 PM

About 30,000 Minnesota hobby pilots, home airplane builders and dreamers are heading to Oshkosh, Wis., for the annual Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture show.

He measures to the nearest half-millimeter and levels to 0.0 degrees, but when it comes to the nearly 13,000 rivets that his home-built airplane will require, Patrick Hoyt counts aluminum fasteners in terms of full coffee cans.

The 45-year-old Eagan man is building a two-passenger Zenith Zodiac 601XL in his garage.

"And you can still get the snow blower out," said wife and unofficial navigator Mary, 47, who scoffs at Patrick's plans for a larger garage, but who looks forward to bringing their 2-year-old Lhasa apso, Piper, for rides.

They'll have to wait.

Patrick is just 19 months into a three- to- five-year endeavor that will ultimately let the Hoyts, like any ambitious recreational fliers, skip across the nation's 7,000 airports, free from earthbound traffic.

Starting Monday, the destination for aviation buffs is Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wis., where the annual Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture will attract more than a half-million spectators and 10,000 airplanes through Aug. 3 for daily air shows, world-record flying attempts, music, camping, flying lessons, affordable flying tips and an airplane parts flea market -- the "Fly Market."

"You can talk about airplanes until the cows come home and nobody's eyes are going to glaze over," pilot Nancy Carter, 52, of Elk River said of AirVenture.

"Once you go, it's really hard not to go back," said home builder John Koser, 66, of Bloomington. "It's gargantuan. Picture 12,000 airplanes in one area.

Koser, Carter and Hoyt are three of about 30,000 Minnesotans traveling to Oshkosh by road and by sky, some of whom will sleep, literally, under the wings of their airplanes.

An airplane emerges

Hoyt began building model and remote-control airplanes as a child and first attended the Oshkosh air show in 1971. Now, working beneath a childhood photo of himself and a friend holding small red airplanes patched together with black garbage bags, Hoyt is taking himself up on a dream long postponed for cost and work reasons.

He can go into his garage at any time, glance at more than 100 pages of step-by-step blueprint directions and assemble a piece at a time.

"I never leave anything half-done," Hoyt said. "It's just an interactive process, piece after piece after piece. Eventually, an airplane emerges."

When finished, the Zenith Zodiac will be at least 90 percent self-built, including an engine conversion, but that doesn't mean Hoyt is building alone. Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 25 in Lakeville boasts a number of home builders, all of whom have an "open invite" to look at Hoyt's project. His work is inspected routinely and will undergo hours of testing before its first flights with passengers.

"You can't have an ego when you're a home builder," Mary said.

Patrick agreed: "The reality is, I'm a first-time builder."

Hoyt's project is an investment of approximately $35,000. He didn't have sufficient money while driving an 18-wheeler and when doing traveling computer consultant work, but he started the project as soon as he could.

"I can always say I'm going to wait a few years. ... I've met old men who say they wish they'd done it," Hoyt said.

More than point A to B

Carter took years off from flying, but now tries to touch the sky three times a week. She flies a 1946 Aeronca Chief, stored at the American Air Wings Museum hangar at the Anoka County Airport in Blaine and belonging to friend Kari Trostad, a new mother who has put flying on hold.

Carter has volunteered to fly children with the EEA's Young Eagles program, and served as the EAA Chapter 237 president, but her involvement doesn't stem from a childhood of flying interest.

"I did not have aviation parents or anything like that, but I did live in [Wasilla] Alaska, and there are a lot of airplanes there," Carter said.

She saved money and invested time over about four years to get her license.

"I was never in my life discouraged. For one thing, I'd see guys doing all the fun stuff ... out there snowmobiling, on motorcycles, doing all kinds of fun stuff, you know. That's what I wanted to be doing," Carter said. "I didn't have a lot of people telling me I couldn't do stuff, and if they did, I just didn't listen."

Carter described small-airplane flying as more than "going from point A to point B."

"My friend and me, when we go flyin', we just, you know, we just talk and it's relaxing," said Carter, her frizzy reddish-brown hair and heart-shaped metal earrings blowing in the wind as she stood by the yellow and maroon two-seater. "And we'll be flying around talking about stuff, just like people sittin' to have a cup of coffee."

They figure out corn mazes, take aerial photographs and trace highways.

"To get in a little plane and see what it's like from 3,000 feet, that's another ball of wax," said Koser, pilot of one of the four home-built two-seater Sonex airplanes that EAA Chapter 25 members have assembled.

"I just have a great satisfaction flying this thing I built myself. We hope this kind of thing will be contagious," Koser said. "They're very sprightly little airplanes."

Aerobatics possible

Koser shares a hangar with Bill Brown, 67, who has crafted three airplanes and owned 11 in his 45 years of flying.

In addition to volunteering to fly children with the Young Eagles program on the third Saturday of each month, the pair fly together from Airlake Airport in Lakeville every week.

Without a hiccup, Koser's airplane is off the runway and soaring over wind turbines and the dusty clouds of cars on rural roads. It's his three-year project, 3,000 feet up, and a testament to the hundreds of photos he took to document his work.

When Brown goes up in his white Sonex with red and blue stripes, it's as much about aerobatics as it is relaxation. The visibility is at least 50 miles, and without much wind before 9 a.m., Brown can roll his home-built airplane upside down, doing barrel rolls, loops and "hammerhead" stalls (it's like climbing a wall, turning, and descending straight back down).

He can turn stomachs, too, but Brown is relaxed, even without a hand on the control stick.

"What?" he asked. "Do you think I'm going to fall out of the sky?"

Tony Gonzalez • 612-673-7415

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  • EAA AIRVENTURE

    When: Monday-Aug. 3. Where: Wittman Regional Airport, Oshkosh, Wis. More info: Find schedules, maps, EAA membership details and AirVenture ticket sales at www.AirVenture.org.

    EAA YOUNG EAGLES FLIGHTS

    What: Free airplane rides for ages 8 to 17. When: Monthly on Saturdays. Where: Airports throughout the region, including Lake Elmo Airport ( 9 a.m. Aug. 9) Airlake Airport in Lakeville (9-11 a.m. Aug. 16) and Anoka County Airport in Blaine. More info: Sign up for flights at www.youngeagles.org or at EAA chapter websites: www.eaachapter237.org, www.eaa25.org and www.eaa54.org.
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