Jim Stone sits in the cockpit of the 2008 Harmon Rocket II he built and flew to the Sun 'n Fun International Fly- in and Expo at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.
LAKELAND — Jim Stone's interest in aviation took flight during college.
Stone, who flew a home-built Harmon Rocket II to Sun 'n Fun, grew up in Lancaster, Pa. His father flew planes during Stone's younger years from the time he was 7 until the age of 10. It was his first taste of what it felt like to be airborne.
The hobby for Jim's father became too expensive, and soon after Stone turned 10, his father gave up flying.
Flying again, let along building his own plane, seemed worlds away but during his sophomore year at Pensacola Junior College a spark was lit.
Twice a year a Navy recruiter would show up wearing a summer white uniform and informing students about the Navy and what it's like to fly.
"He had a table set up with a bunch of pictures on it," said Stone. "He also had a little sign that was advertising free airplane rides. I had only flown once or twice with my father many years prior. That memory came back to me as I was standing there at the table."
Stone at the time had an interest in biology, chemistry and medicine but the offer of being in the air again was too hard to pass up.
"I said to myself, 'Yeah, I would like to go for a flight,' he said. "I didn't know what I wanted to do at that time in regards to my education and career so I walked up to the recruiter and asked what I needed to do to get that free plane ride."
The recruiter told Stone he needed to take a test in the pilot entry program. It took Stone four hours and he passed. He was ready to rekindle that childhood memory he had with his father so many years ago.
"I put my helmet and flight suit on and talked to him on the ICS system," said Stone. "We flew in the Navy's basic trainer, the T-34 Bravo. I was instantly in love. It's like when you see that girl that you want to marry for the first time. I was like, 'Oh my God, this is it.' I loved it."
Shortly thereafter Stone sent in his application and within a year he was enlisted in the Navy. He attended flight school at Pensacola Junior College.
Kathy Stone, Jim's wife, met him in 1981 while she was working in Virginia Beach for McDonnell Douglas, an American aerospace manufacturing corporation and defense contractor. The couple currently live in Louisville, Ky.
"He was a Navy lieutenant," she said. "He had a small airplane at the time and that was my introduction to aviation."
Stone served for 20 years before retiring in 1995 as a commander. It was then Stone could focus on building his own plane.
"Around the 10-year mark in the Navy I became interested in building my own plane," he said. "At that time I moved around too often while serving in the Navy to start building anything and there weren't any good plane kits at the time."
A trip to the Airventure Oshkosh Fly-In Convention shortly following retirement, the largest fly-in convention show in the country in Oshkosh, Wis., was the moment Stone knew which model plane he wanted to build and fly. His friend alerted him to a Harmon Rocket and he was in love.
"I was walking back to the campground and then I just remember stopping and saying, 'That's the best looking plane I've seen,' " said Stone. "I did my own research and sent in for a kit soon after."
It took Stone nine years years to build the Harmon Rocket II that he said costs between $100,000 and $120,000. The six-cylinder, 300 horsepower engine built in Zephryhills was $31,000.
Construction began in 1998 and was finished in 2008. It took Stone 7,000 hours in the shop to finish.
The grey, black and red color scheme is custom, with the paint being purchased at a Chevrolet dealership. They are Corvette colors.
"It's amazing how it has evolved over time," said Stone. "I would come to Sun 'n Fun and take pictures of planes to see what colors and patterns I liked. It was something interesting and not boring. I accumulated hundreds of pictures.
He has been flying it once a week since 2008 and has flown to Colorado, South Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin. Stone said it looks brand new because he treats it like a weekend car, keeps it stored in a hangar out of the elements.
"My favorite part about having our own plane is it's something we can do together," said Kathy Stone. "It's something he loves and is passionate about. It's his life. If I want to be with him I have to jump in the back seat and fly."
Original article can be found here: http://www.theledger.com