Monday, January 26, 2015

Peter Dixon: Building an airplane, one rivet at a time

Peter Dixon figures he has about 500 hours of work left before his Van’s RV-7 airplane is ready to fly. 
Photo by Laurelle Walsh

By Laurelle Walsh 

After two years of not really knowing what his airplane would look like, Peter Dixon’s Van’s RV-7 is finally becoming recognizable. “It’s only looked like an airplane for about the last two months,” he said.

Putting the fiberglass nose cone onto the fixed-pitch catto propeller three weeks ago was the most recent landmark event in Dixon’s labor of love.

“Right now it seems like I’m doing about a thousand things at once,” Dixon said. Within the last few weeks he has also finished the wiring and the instrument panel and started installing the engine baffles.

The in-wing fuel tanks were the hardest things to build, he said. The next big milestone will be when the RV-7 is finished, about five to seven months from now, he estimates.

“It’s so hard to tell how much more time before I finish. It will take as long as it takes,” Dixon said.

Building this airplane has been Dixon’s full-time job for the last two winters. On winter days he can be found working on it from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily in the hangar he rents from Don and Pat Owens at the Twisp airport.

During the summer, the 32-year-old Methow Valley native works in construction and gets in a few hours of work on the plane when he can, he said.

An early start

Dixon remembers being out in his parents’ large vegetable garden as a child, and watching Stan Gardner fly over in a tiny ultralight. “I thought it was pretty cool, but looked way too dangerous,” he said.

He started flying around age 14 with Ed Matthews out of Chelan. “Ed was kind of a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. I did the book work on my own,” he said.

The youngster hitchhiked or got his parents to drive him to Chelan for lessons, which he took whenever he had spare money from odd jobs. “I saved up money and flew whenever I could, a few hours here and there,” he said.

Dixon got his solo license at age 16, before he had his driver’s license. He had to wait until he was 17 before he could get his private pilot’s license and take a passenger along with him.

His first foray into aircraft building was assisting Fred Cooley with his as-yet-unfinished RV-4 about 20 years ago, Dixon said. “Fred taught me how to rivet.”

Since then, countless hours of drilling and de-burring holes, riveting, polishing and putting pieces together have made Dixon pretty adept at this process by now. Building a plane from a kit gives him the advantage of getting some parts pre-cut and pre-bent; however, other components Dixon has had to build himself.

Another advantage of building his own plane will be the ability to do his own maintenance on it and save money in the process, he said.

The best of all worlds

This is actually the second RV-7 Dixon has built. He built the same airplane in 2005 but never flew it because he couldn’t afford to put an engine in it at the time, he said. He sold it to a man from California in 2007, who came to Twisp and “handed me a big stack of money,” Dixon said.

Dixon also helped Don Owens build his RV-7, which is parked just a few feet away from the one in progress. “But Don has helped me more, every step of the way,” Dixon said. “Both Don and Pat have been awesome. I couldn’t have done this without them.”

The Van’s RV-7 is the best design for performance and resale, Dixon said. “You can actually build it and make money on it.” A high-demand airplane, once it’s finished it could sell for around $75,000, Dixon estimates.

“Buying this plane already built would be more than I can afford,” he said. By the time he’s done, he will have put about $45,000 and 2,000 hours of work into it, he figures.

But cost and resale value aren’t the only factors in Dixon’s decision to build this airplane. It’s also the best-designed plane for general use, he said.

The RV-7 cruises at 200 miles per hour, using about 7 gallons of gas per hour — about 30 miles per gallon. The plane is nimble, fully aerobatic, able to do loops, rolls and spins, Dixon said. And “it’s built for travel. It’s the best of all worlds,” he said.

In comparison, a more common entry-level airplane, the Cessna 150, might cost under $20,000, but it’s “not fun to fly,” said Dixon. “It’s super slow; it flies barely faster than a car, and there’s no performance.”

Dixon plans to use his RV-7 for camping and visiting friends who live far away. He figures it will get him to San Diego in about 12 hours. “I’ll fly it as long as I can afford it,” he said.

Dixon plans to tell no one about the first launch of his aircraft. “It’s better to keep the pressure low,” he said. “It’s a big deal to fly it for the first time.”

He plans to invite friends and family out for a launch party after he’s flown it a few hours, he said. It will take about 40 hours of flight testing before the airplane can be certified and he can take a passenger up in it.

In the mean time, Dixon figures he has about 500 more hours of work before first takeoff. He must document each step of the building process for the eventual FAA certification. The RV-7 will be certified as an Experimental Amateur-built Aircraft. Best of all, even after it’s sold to somebody else, Dixon’s name will still be on the plane. “I will always be the manufacturer of this airplane,” he said.

Plus, it’s too soon to talk about being done, Dixon said. “You’re never really finished building it. I’ll always be fixing things.”

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