Monday, July 29, 2013

Plane in yard draws looks in Nogales

Bud Riley read a magazine article in 1984 that sparked his imagination. Nearly 30 years later, he is the proud owner of an ultralight aircraft that he designed and built himself.

The ultralight has taken shape in his relatively small backyard, and the sight of bright-white wings stretching across the yard has caused some recent rubbernecking by drivers on Western Avenue.

Up close, the aircraft is as barebones as Riley could possibly make it, with a cloth fuselage and a pilot’s seat made of rope.

“They look like the result of a love affair between a butterfly and a lawn chair,” he said, grinning as he referred to ultralights.

The 67-year-old Michigan native and longtime Tucson resident moved to Nogales a year-and-a-half ago, bringing a partially constructed aircraft with him. Since then, he has worked diligently in his backyard, visible from Western Avenue across from the city cemetery, to finish the job.

He expects the inaugural flight of the “Banshee,” as he named his aircraft, to take place sometime in the next month.

“I’ve always wanted to do it since I was a kid,” Riley said of building an ultra-light.

When he read the magazine article in 1984, he saw photos of ultralights and was struck by the “beautiful and delicate” aircraft. He also learned that anyone could build and fly an ultralight, without the need for engineering expertise or a pilot’s license.

The Banshee is not ultra-fast, topping out at an estimated 70 mph and a cruising speed of about 55 mph, he said.

Riley took some flying lessons, but decided that after learning the basics with an instructor he could learn the rest on his own, especially with an aircraft that is so easy to pilot and is not permitted to fly above 10,000 feet, he said.

However, federal aviation regulations state that if the weight of an aircraft that uses a propeller passes 254 pounds when empty, it can no longer be classified as an ultra-light and a pilot’s license is required. For the past year or so, he has waged a battle in his backyard to make the aircraft flight-ready without adding so much weight that it passes the threshold.

He found ways to trim weight throughout the Banshee, such as installing a propeller made of wood, a fuselage covering made of cloth, and a pilot’s seat of woven rope.

“It was the lightest seat I could come up with,” he said.

He also took off the brakes, which he said are not necessary on an aircraft that only needs about 150 feet to stop after landing.

The Banshee is designed to carry a maximum of 500 pounds, a low threshold considering that the plane’s weight combined with his body weight and fuel amounts to about 450 pounds, he said.

“They talk about using ultralights to smuggle and everything, but I don’t know where you could fit it,” Riley said in reference to reports in the past few years of smugglers using ultra-lights to carry drug loads across the border.

“I don’t know how they do it,” he said.

In August, he plans to take the ultra-light to the Nogales International Airport for a trial run. Before he can do that, he will have to dismantle the fence along one side of his property so he can move the aircraft from his backyard to a truck that will carry it to the airport.

He was hoping to fly over his house, but the proximity to the border and the danger of getting caught in the wake of the law enforcement helicopters that fly over Nogales make realizing that dream unlikely, he said.

For Riley, the Banshee is his first ultralight, but not his last, he said.

“I’ll play around with it for a while at the airport then sell it and build another one,” he said.

“Only next time I’ll have a better place to build it in,” he said with a chuckle.

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