Friday, September 23, 2011

Of Tom Whelan, Pilot and Aircraft Builder: Hangar of Dreams at Whelan Farms Airport (CT01), Bethlehem, Connecticut

Tom Whelan with the Bounty Hunter II plane that he built a hangar at his private airport in Bethlehem. 

Tom Whelan working on a reproduction of a classic Mustang.



Tom Whelan is a busy man, even at the age of 66 and several years removed from his career flying corporate jets for a Fortune 500 company.

Considering that he manages a 40-acre property that includes a very active farming operation, one might think Mr. Whelan has precious few hours to do anything but maintain his home and land.

The farm is only part of his life. Whelan Farms Airport, LLC is where he lives out his passion each day.

His property is home to a Federal Aviation Administration-licensed 1,400-foot grass landing strip that is so well manicured it resembles the fairway of a posh private golf club.

There are hangars and outbuildings off to the sides of the runway, and one of those is the “favorite room” where Mr. Whelan enjoys his most beloved hobby, building airplanes from scratch.

On a recent late-summer day, he had just returned from the blue skies that framed this quiet section of Litchfield County. He had taken a hot air balloon flight at dawn, another one of his newest hobbies.

Mr. Whelan showed his visitor several Firefly balloon baskets stored in a garage, one of which he calls the “Rolls Royce” of hot air balloon baskets. He is currently being trained by instructor Mick Murphy of AerBlarney.com, who also gives rides to wide-eyed customers.

He then took me to his 5,000-square-foot hangar, where he is working on an S-51-T Mustang, a 7/8’s scaled version of the classic World War II fighter plane. At another end of the hangar sits a brilliant yellow and blue plane called Bounty Hunter II that he built over the course of two years.

The Bounty Hunter II is a high performance airplane weighing 2,500 pounds, with a 435 horsepower engine capable of cruising speeds of 250 miles per hour. The interior of Mr. Whelan’s shop is so clean that you could spread a blanket on the floor and enjoy a picnic. Tools and parts are meticulously located in compartments, lockers and cabinets along the side walls.

“The Mustang is a work in progress,” he said, pointing to the shell of the plane made of high-grade aluminum and steel. “It may not look that way, but I’ll have it done next year. The wings need to be attached, the engine installed, the landing gear mounted and the electronics placed in the cockpit, but the majority of the work is complete. I just have to put it together and put the finishing touches on it.”

Mr. Whelan brings these airplanes to life on his own, with an occasional helping hand from a friend or family member.

“I like to work alone. Other people in the process can be distracting. I’ve got hydraulic lifts for larger parts and the engine and occasionally I’ll need a helping hand with something. But I like to do the work myself if possible.”

Mr. Whelan is a fully licensed airframe and powerplant mechanic with no limitations. In his hangar are myriad machines and other equipment he uses to create pieces of a complex puzzle that eventually result in a stunning airplane such as the Bounty Hunter II that can take him and one passenger to Florida in “roughly 5 hours … depending on winds and weather.”

Some of the airplanes begin with a kit that has hundreds of detailed drawings. He uses them to take him through the various stages of construction. He often adapts the original design and upgrades it by making parts by hand to create a sturdier, more efficient and, most importantly, a safer airplane.

“The main goal is always safety,” Mr. Whelan said. “I want my airplanes to have the best upgrades so that the plane will be extremely safe to fly in. That’s why I take such time with things such as the landing gear, making separate pieces of the gear stronger so that there won’t be any problems down the road.”

Mr. Whelan’s wife PJ, and stepdaughter, Chelsea, wholeheartedly endorse his hobby and love of airplanes. He moved to this property in 1978. The land was part of what was known as the Benedict Farm and was a working dairy operation at the turn of the century.

“When I came, I started from square one by clearing the fields and building a log cabin. I also built the shop, barns and hangar and created the grass landing strip. I had to work at it part-time for many years because I was flying for UST, Inc. (a Fortune 500 company based in Greenwich).”

Since retiring from corporate flying, Mr. Whelan has been able to devote even more time to his farm and airport operations.

“I got into airplanes about 45 years ago. I enlisted in the Navy at 17 years old right at the beginning of the Vietnam War. When I got out, I began building and racing drag bikes and muscle cars. Flying was a way to get to the tracks quicker. I wound up going to flight school on the G.I. Bill and later spent some time in Southeast Asia flying. I worked for UST for 30 years, which was phenomenal. We were flying the best jet aircraft and operated all over the world. I was able to meet some fascinating, high profile people and it was a blast. I’m also a FAA licensed flight instructor.”

One of Mr. Whelan’s favorite pastimes is encouraging youngsters to learn about aviation and flying and airplanes.

“We are Chapter 1097 of the Experimental Aircraft Association headquartered in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Our Young Eagles Program helps teach kids about flying and give them rides as our schedule allows,” he said. “We have had some Boy Scouts out here that we have shown the basics of flying and then taken them up for a 15-minute ride. They all loved it.”

Whelan Farms Airport, LLC is a private, restricted facility used by the owner, several friends and occasional visitors who have received prior permission. Anyone wishing to visit must make an appointment with the owner. The airport and farm have an elaborate security system to safeguard it at all times.

The owner has competed in a number of national Air Shows, winning several prestigious awards. He received the Lindy Award for a Champion Kit-Built RV-4 at the Oshkosh Air Show in 1993, and he later received the Wright Brothers Award in 1995 at the United States Air and Trade Show in Dayton, Ohio, for the original Bounty Hunter. Mr. Whelan has toned down his visits to air shows in recent years, preferring to spend his time making and maintaining planes, flying from his airport and tending to his farm and home.

“I began building and restoring airplanes about 40 years ago,” he said as he stood by the Mustang that gleams with a silvery glow. “I spend most of my winters out here. The best time to work is in the evenings. The summers are pretty busy, with taking care of the property and farm, but I do get out and work on the planes from time to time.”

Asked what the biggest reward of his hobby is, Mr. Whelan said, “It’s that first flight after completing an airplane project. That is such a great feeling.”

After years of hard work, detailing every move with documentation and photographs, reading countless drawings and sketches and fine tuning every little detail, Tom Whelan is flushed with pride and the thrill of flight when he hops into his newest creation and rolls it onto the runway. Like other men have for hundreds of years, his dreams reside not in his favorite room, that 100-by-70-foot hangar where his airplanes come to life, but rather in pushing the throttle forward and lifting off into the sky to free himself from the bonds of the earth.

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