The plane-building bug is airborne in Albany

Wing Nuts
2009-09-16T13:00:00Z The plane-building bug is airborne in AlbanyBy Steve Lathrop, Albany Democrat-Herald Albany Democrat Herald
September 16, 2009 1:00 pm  • 

Ken Elwood's wife says he's a wing nut. He doesn't disagree.

He admits to a fondness for things with wings - specifically airplanes. An aerial gunner in the Navy during World War II, he was bitten by the flying bug when he was just a kid.

"I was hooked on flying after I saw a German dirigible fly overhead," said Elwood, 84. "I guess my wife is right. I've had a pilot's license since I was 21."

He's built five planes, including his Starduster Too, an open-cockpit bi-plane finished in 1971 that he was still flying up to a year ago. The retired teacher and member of the Experimental Aircraft Association even helped his students at South Albany High School build one some years back.

Of course there are plenty of other wing nuts around. As many as 10 planes are currently being constructed in Albany, and many more have been built here over the years.

Roger Rhodes, 61, a former student of Elwood's, can attest to that. He's helping friends build at least three at the Albany airport. And, of course, he has one he built for himself.

"I'm here just about every day," Rhodes said. "People need some extra hands to get this done. And they can't be there every day so I do some work for them."

Rhodes was helping Dean and Dana Wheeler with their Vans RV6A aircraft last week. They are nearing completion on the plane they started 17 years ago.

"I had black hair when I started this," said Wheeler, 68, who worked for 32 years for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Most of what we've done on the plane has been done in the last two years."

Dana said the plane started in the couple's basement and moved to the garage before finally finding a hangar at the airport.

"It's taken a while," Dean Wheeler said. "I had to earn a living."

The Wheelers' nearly complete aircraft and Rhodes' finished plane were built from kits but most of the parts for the planes were formed by the builders.

"It's a lot of work. I had to trim the aluminum to size and bore the holes for all the fittings myself," Wheeler said.

It's not that intricate a process now. The kits bypass all the hand work.

"We had to build them," Rhodes said. "Now you assemble them."

As for Elwood, he searched a little harder for the parts for his bi-plane back in 1971, finding materials all over the country. Most of his aircraft is steel tubing, although the wings are what he called aircraft spruce.

"I built it straight from the plans. No kit. It took almost two years," he said. "I worked nights, weekends and vacations ... no bowling, no fishing."

Now Elwood's bi-plane is for sale. He figures the plane he built 38 years ago for about $7,300 is worth $75,000 now.

"My wife wants me to sell it," he said.

And although he no longer gets airborne, he taxis his plane once a week.

"I don't want the engine to sit idle," he said.

As for the Wheelers, they plan to get their plane in the air within the next six to eight weeks. Dean says it is designed to cruise at about 190 mph but he'll likely fly it at closer to 160.

Dana, also a pilot, has been helping him since the start. She put in all the wiring for the aircraft.

It's taken the Wheelers about 3,300 hours and $80,000 - due to some modifications - to build the plane.

That's not so bad. He said buying a new one would top $200,000.

Rhodes' completed plane was a four-year project. Now retired from the phone company, he's had his pilot's license since 1991.

"I couldn't afford to buy one so I thought I'd build one. When you think about the fact that you can do your own maintenance it seems like you're way ahead if you build your own," he said.

Like Elwood and the Wheelers, Rhodes is certified to make repairs on his plane. He has modified his craft by inserting a Chevrolet engine, which helped him cut costs to around $36,000 for the completed project.

Wheeler said that worldwide there are more than 5,000 planes like those he and Rhodes fly.

The Wheelers hope to have their plane in the air before Christmas. And then next spring they hope to fulfill their dream to fly to Florida and then take a 700-mile flight through the Bahamas.

Copyright 2015 Albany Democrat Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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