A conversation in Illinois decades ago resulted in the founding of a longstanding aircraft club in the Ozarks.
In the 1960s, Delores Langley and her husband, Jim, were living in Illinois. One day, she tossed a coupon in the trash for a free flight at a local flight school, and Jim fished it out.
Delores never liked to fly and couldn’t believe her husband wanted to give it a go.
“He had been in the Air Force but never flew in the Air Force and wanted to learn,” she recalled “(After the flight) he came home and was thrilled to death. He said, ‘I am going to take lessons.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy. When you learn to fly, what are you going to fly? We don’t have a plane.’ He said, ‘Then I’ll build one.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
Crazy or not, Jim went on to build 13 airplanes and a helicopter. We’re not talking about radio-operated machines, but real aircraft.
After Jim and Delores moved to Republic in 1983 with a friend, they founded the Springfield chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, EAA Chapter 821. They had belonged to chapters in other places they’d lived and decided to start one here.
The national Experimental Aircraft Association launched in 1953 in Wisconsin and boasts more than 1,000 chapters. People who belong to the club are aviation enthusiasts. Some are pilots. Some are not. Some build experimental planes. Some buy planes. But they are all united by a love of flight.
“Like a lot of kids, when I was little, if a plane flew over, I was looking up at it,” said Larry Nelson, Springfield chapter president. “I grew up in Omaha and would hear the airlines coming and going at night and wonder where they were going.”
While the organization’s foundation was home-built aircraft, it varies today, Nelson said.
Through the decades, the organization expanded its mission to include antiques, classics, warbirds, aerobatic aircraft, ultralights, helicopters and contemporary manufactured aircraft.
The Springfield chapter has about 20 members, and their professions range from lawyer to photographer to mechanic. They meet at 9 a.m. the third Saturday of each month at the Air and Military Museum. Meetings are open to the public.
“It doesn’t matter what their interest in aviation is, if they like anything that gets off the ground, they will like this kind of stuff,” said Dan Baker, the group’s webmaster.
Jeremy Dunn is constructing his first plane and said the group has helped his project because they share ideas, trends and research with each other.
“I’ve always been into machinery. Some are excellent woodworkers. It’s about pulling together and sharing so everyone learns from each other,” Dunn said.
If you build it
Richard Harris is a legend in this club.
With two hours of flying lessons under his belt, he took to the skies in a plane he built (actually known as an ultralight).
“It was a little spooky the first time,” said Harris, who is a machinist by day.
His ultralight is powered with a military surplus generator engine.
When Dunn’s plane is complete, it will be powered by an engine from a 1973 Porsche 914. A mechanic, he’s refurbishing it himself.
And the wings of his plane will be covered in special polyester fabric, maybe even some latex paint.
“A lot of the cutting-edge stuff in general aviation is coming from experimental aviation,” said Baker.
There is a historical precedent for this type of spirit, said Nelson, who is an architect by day.
“You’d be surprised how much that happened in the early history of aviation — when barnstormers would leave a wrecked airplane at a farm and a farm boy would restore it and teach himself to fly,” Nelson said.
The cost of building a plane ranges from thousands to more than a hundred thousand dollars.
Dunn bought a kit online for $80 and received a binder full of drawings and instructions from the seller.
He buys parts when he can afford it.
“The advantage of something like this is you can buy a little at a time. It’s a couple hundred here and a couple hundred there, not $30,000 at once,” Dunn said, standing by the steel frame of his aircraft, which he’s building in his workshop.
In the end, his plane will probably cost $7,000 to $8,000.
Some of the home-built planes are classified as light sport or ultralights and have different regulations.
Ultralights are very lightweight single-seat aircraft used for sport and recreation and can include everything from hang gliders to “cruisers” weighing less than 254 pounds. Flying an ultralight does not require a pilot certificate and there are no minimum age or training requirements. It doesn’t have to be inspected by the FAA.
It cannot exceed speeds of 63 miles per hour, said Harris.
Dunn is building a light sport aircraft, which has more regulations.
“The light sport aircraft are actually considered to be regular aircraft and require registration for the aircraft and licensing for the pilot. But the light sport category was designed to allow people to learn to fly with fewer hours of training and less cost than traditional aircraft,” said Baker.
Light sport planes also have a two-seat maximum, maximum speed in level flight at 138 miles per hour and maximum takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds (1,430 pounds for seaplanes), Baker said.
When Dunn’s plane is ready for the skies, there will be temporary heavy restrictions on where he can fly to make sure the plane holds up.
He’s confident it will.
“If something goes wrong, it won’t be construction. It will be pilot error,” he said.
A founder's enthusiasm
Although Delores Langley never wanted to fly, she frequently accompanied her husband in the skies.
She even learned how to help him work on planes.
Today, Jim Langley has Parkinson’s disease and is in a nursing home, so he no longer builds. But when he did, he could craft a plane in six months, said Delores, the club’s treasurer.
Once he retired, he lived in his shop “and only came inside to eat or sleep.”
“He could do just about anything,” said Delores. He even built a car from a kit, which his son drove daily from Republic to Springfield for college.
He’d build a plane, fly it for awhile, then go to a show and see another plane he wanted to build.
“I’d say, ‘As soon as you sell the one you have at home, you can buy it,’” said Delores.
For a woman who never liked to fly, Delores laughs to think how Springfield’s Experimental Aircraft Association club started.
“Let me tell you, don’t ever give your husband a free airplane ride or you will get in trouble for years,” she said.
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