"Hey, there's a guy down the street building an airplane in his garage."
That bit of neighborhood news recently hit the Mount Vernon community of Waynewood when folks heard about Michael Witte's unusual project. A quick peek through his garage door windows confirmed the rumor. No Ford or Chevy here, just two partially assembled aircraft wings.
Witte, a retired Naval aviator and current employee of the Army at Fort Belvoir, is assembling a two-seat, all metal aircraft from a kit he bought from Van's Aircraft of Aurora, OR. His wife Patti, thinks that she is responsible for her husband's formidable undertaking.
"When we met, Michael was in the Navy and I wanted him to take me up and do loopy loops, but he said that he couldn't do that with his Navy aircraft," said Patti Witte. "So he decided to build his own plane."
"I have always enjoyed building things," said Witte, a former Navy test pilot. "Once I researched the kit plane options, I realized that I could make a plane that far exceeds the performance of comparable production aircraft and at far less cost."
Witte said that he flew to Van's factory last November, took a test flight in the model he wanted, then ordered the kit. When fully assembled, his plane, a RV-7A, will have a top speed of 217 mph, a range of about 800 miles, a ceiling of 25,000 feet, all from a plane with a gross weight of only 1,800 pounds. The kit, less engine and avionics (gauges, communications and navigation equipment), costs just under $17,000.
"The company starts you off with the tail assembly kit," said Witte. "The parts are smaller and easier to handle and it gives you a chance to learn how to follow their instructions and to perfect your riveting technique. You have to learn how to rivet—there are about 16,000 in the kit."
Van's, whose spokesman Tome Green said is the world's largest manufacturer of aircraft kits, offers a telephone hotline for kit builders with questions and problems. "I have called them eight or nine times and they were very helpful," said Witte. "If I make a mistake, I just order a new part. Also, there are several Internet groups and chat rooms for people building Van's aircraft, so help is everywhere."
WITTE IS ASSEMBLING the wings now and will store them inside his house when he starts on the fuselage, the aircraft body. When he is finished the major components, he will rent a hanger at a nearby airfield for final assembly. "I work on it every night," he said, "and I hope to finish in about two years."
Kit planes are called amateur-built aircraft by the Federal Aviation
Administration. To qualify for this special category, the owner must build at least 51 percent of the plane and use it only for fun and educational purposes.
All amateur-built planes must be inspected and certified by the FAA just like production aircraft. One must be a licensed pilot to fly
Are they safe? "Yes," said Dick Knapinski of the Experimental Aircraft Association, an organization that supports recreational aviation.
"Amateur-built aircraft have an accident rate only slightly higher˜less than one percent˜then the general aviation fleet," said Knapinski. "The insurance rates for production and amateur-built aircraft are the same."
Nevertheless, Witte acknowledges the need for precise fabrication of his plane. "Safe operation of this plane is always in the back of my mind," admits Witte. "I know that it will be my rear end on the line when I take off for the first time."
BUT THERE IS MORE to safe flying than rivets and wrenches. "Ninety four per cent of all aircraft accidents are attributed to pilot error," said Van's Tom Green, "so if you are a bad aviator it doesn't matter what you're flying."