Thursday, November 20, 2014

Low and Slow: Pilots assemble aircraft to feel the wind

Jim Schroeder (left) and Henry Bader stood at the Le Mars Municipal Airport Thursday by a Sonex plane they built together. It took the gentlemen several years to construct the aircraft in their spare time. It travels at about 120 mph and cruises at an altitude of about 8,000 to 9,000 feet. 
 (Sentinel photo by Bennet Goldstein) 

If you see two airplanes gliding low in the sky over a snaking creek, it may be Le Mars residents Jim Schroeder and Henry Bader spreading their wings.

Or if you own a restaurant in a nearby county, and a group of hungry pilots suddenly appears in your entryway after landing their planes, you would be serving pancakes at a flight breakfast.

The activities you witnessed are just some of the things the two are able to do in their free time using the light sport aircraft they assembled themselves.

Those are the sorts of planes people build in their living rooms, said Le Mars aircraft dealer Tom Mullally.

They are light and strong, and make human flight affordable, he said.

Parts, paint, electronics and space rental for a light aircraft can start at $17,000, with upper limits determined by the builder's desire to customize the plane.

For these two pilots, the bells and whistles under a plane's skin are not what draw them to aviation.

It's the joy of flying low and slow.


Bader's passion for flight ignited in his native St. Libory, Neb.

He remembers watching veterinarians flying over alfalfa fields in the 1940s.

"Instead of driving a car, a lot of times they just flew to the farm places. That was so much faster for them," he said.

Bader, 85, learned to fly shortly before he served in the Korean War.

As soldier in the US Army, he was trained to spot enemy aircraft.

He also dropped mail to the front lines.

Bader also piloted after he moved to Le Mars in 1964.

"After a hard day's work, I'd just go fly around here to relax," he said.

Schroeder, 75, received flight lessons in high school.

"Back in 1957, my uncle Joel McCormick ran the airport out here (in Le Mars). As a high school graduation gift, he gave me some flight hours in aircraft," Schroeder said.

Schroeder remembers learning to fly in a tandem airplane, with the instructor sitting behind him, communicating through a funnel over the blare of the engine.

Schroeder returned to the runway after a 30-year hiatus.

While taking pilot's lessons at the Le Mars Municipal Airport, he noticed other pilots were handling home-built planes.

"It really intrigued me," Schroeder said. "And I thought, 'You know, I think I would like to build an aircraft.'"


For both men, creating things with their hands came naturally to them.

Bader began by building contraptions with his brother.

"We lived on a farm. When it snowed, we wanted to get around," he said.

They created a makeshift snowmobile using a motorcycle engine and a propeller.

"It was pretty crude," Bader said.

The first airplane Bader constructed appeared on the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine in the 1960s.

The Parker Jeanie's Teenie, he said.

Bader was hooked and has constructed aircraft ever since -- four at the moment.

"I like to build and I like to fly," he said. "If I build one and sell it, then I don't have anything to fly, so I've got to build another one."

Schroeder's first airplane took shape in hour-or-two spurts between 1999 and 2002.

He estimated it took him about 600 hours to construct his Challenger aircraft, which he painted to look like a shark.

Burning unleaded gasoline, it flies at about 75 mph.

Cruising altitude is generally between 1,200 and 4,000 feet, Schroeder said.

The Challenger came from a kit, with an instruction book several inches thick.

"It's literally like putting a model airplane together," he said.

Rivets and gussets bracket aluminum tubes, which form the aircraft's frame.

The body is covered in a special fabric similar to rayon, called Ceconite.

It has to be glued and ironed onto the wings.

Schroeder noted fabric may seem like flimsy material for a plane, but even aircraft that flew in WWII used fabric coverings when they were traveling several hundred miles per hour.

The plane is often called a "rag and tube" plane, he joked

"You put rags over metal tubes, and they fly," Schroeder said.

For such a small plane, the Challenger contains sophisticated electronics, he noted.

Altitude, airspeed and fuel levels are all monitored, and measurements delivered to the pilot's control panel.

"It was a real learning curve in order to build this," Schroeder said.

Assembling one's own aircraft is advantageous to the pilot, said Bader.

It familiarizes the pilot with all the aircraft's strengths and weaknesses.

Self-building also allows the pilot to perform maintenance on the craft throughout the year.

"You take care of your equipment better," he said. "You're looking at that thing all year long, trying to spot the problem."


Schroeder's second aircraft was actually a collaborative project he undertook with Bader.

They assembled a Sonex aircraft.

Reflective silver with a single propeller, the aircraft is hangared by the Le Mars Municipal Airport Runway.

The Sonex cruises faster than the duo's other aircraft, "like a sports car," said Schroeder.

The two pilots share rides.

Rather than fly through traffic, cutting sharp turns, they still prefer flight in the slow lane.

"When you fly a fast airplane you're busy flying," Bader said. "When you fly a small, little airplane like these, you're looking outside all the time. You really learn to look out and fly the airplane by feel. You don't use the instruments so much."

Schroeder agrees.

Light aircraft respond to wind gusts, forcing the pilot to pay attention, he said.

Low, slow "flyers" allow pilots to enjoy the scenery of the earth as it passes below.

There are moments when Schroeder has seen pilots fly above cornfields, letting their wheels rub against the tops of cornstalks.

Sometimes he catches smells or sees animals jump when he restarts the engine midair.

"It's the freedom of flight," Schroeder said. "When you're up there and you fly over a town like Le Mars, you look down and it's so small. Your personal problems just kind of vanish when you get the perspective of all this."

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