By Laird Durham
A group of intrepid pilots based at the Napa County airport build the planes they fly. There are two amphibians that can take off from the Napa River as well as the airport runway; a high-speed plane, built for aerobatics; a STOL (short takeoff and landing) plane that can land in as little as ten feet and take off in 40, and two-seat and 4-seat sport planes. Some look like conventional, factory-built airplanes, and some are exotic looking, with propellers in the rear and swept-back wings. Some were built from kits, and some from scratch, with nothing but drawings, diagrams, and thousands of rivets.
Building an airplane from a kit or from scratch is a major project, driven by passion. Although, technically, a kit airplane can be assembled in a year’s worth of man hours, most of the Napa Eagles spent many years at the task because jobs and family affairs meant they could work only part time at it. Don Schosanski spent 7,000 hours, spread over many years, to hand-build his Cozy Mk IV from fiberglass sheets over plastic foam. Joe Nelson spent 12 years building his Van’s RV8 from a kit, and it took Darren Stevenson 7 years to build his Zenith 701 STOL plane. Mark Henderson, who retired after 35 years as a Napa Public Defender, put his Van’s RV 12 together in little more than a year.
Most of the builders were pilots when they began building their wings. Bill Wheadon flew for United Airlines for 25 years, and Mark Henderson has been flying since he was 15 years old. Keith Hezmalhalch is a professional aerial photographer. But not all had a pilot’s license when they began building. Bob Smith was more than half-way finished building his SeaRey when he “guessed he’d better start learning to fly.”
Although saving money is not the primary reason for building their own wings, the cost of building their own is about half the cost of a factory–built equivalent–not counting the labor. Here are some of the more important motivations. When he was younger, Darren hiked the wilderness rivers of Idaho and Montana in search of trout. Arduous trekking now beyond him, he built his STOL to take him back to the wilds where he could land on sandy beaches. Wilderness fishing was the incentive for Bob Smith, too, but rather than beaches, he plans to land his SeaRey amphibian on remote lakes. Keith enjoys flying from the Napa River to rivers as far away as Idaho and Montana and, he says, hanging out from his open canopy over his plane’s nose is a good way to take aerial photographs.
But for most of the Eagles who build their own wings, it has just been a life-long dream.