A contingent of relatives was on hand when Paul Winkels landed his RV-7 airplane at the Perham Airport at about 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 8.
With light crosswinds ranging from 8 to 10 mph, he set the aircraft down gently despite a wind gust just as the wheels touched the runway.
Under normal circumstances, Winkels probably would have landed the plane with no fanfare whatsoever, but this flight was special — it was the long-distance maiden flight of an aircraft he built over the course of 10 years.
It wasn't the first time the Van's RV-7, with the registration number of N77PB took to the air, he said. It had been flown by a test pilot once all the ground inspections had been completed, and he had flown it in a test area in central Georgia, near his home.
"It flies perfectly," Winkels said. "It doesn't really have any quirks at all. It's a very quick aircraft."
As a kid, he was fascinated with planes and why he went into avionics, spending 29 years at Northwest in Eagan, and three years at Delta in Atlanta, Ga.
"I told (my wife, Becky) before we were even married that I was going to build a plane," Winkels said. "I knew I would since I was a teenager."
He got his pilot's license while in college at Alexandria Technical College, but his dream was put on hold as his family grew.
"When you have kids, life gets in the way," he said. "I couldn't afford it, especially with the kids."
But as they finished college, he started saving up for the project — his goal was to avoid borrowing money and after 10 years, he can say he saved and paid for each step in the process without borrowing money to do it.
"I saved up for it all," he said. "We didn't drive new cars or have a big fancy house. That's where you sacrifice," Winkels said.
Well, another small sacrifice was made as well: the couple's cars sat outside because the plane was housed in the garage.
"(Becky) didn't complain much," he said. "Only sometimes in the wintertime when she had to scrape the windshield."
Becky supported her husband's dream and was actually his part time partner in the building of the plane, he said, doing her "Rosie the Riveter" imitation at various times on the more than 18,000 rivets that hold the plane and its parts intact.
Winkels bought the plane kit — which contained all aluminum parts and skins, and is precut and pre-punched — and started building the aircraft in his Lakeville garage in 2006, while working for Northwest. About three years ago, he was hired as the general manager of the avionics shop at Delta, and finished work at a rented hangar.
In addition to the kit, Winkels had to supply the engine, avionics and propeller for the tail dragger aircraft, none of which was cheap, he said.
"You don't have to buy everything all at once, I started with tail parts," Winkels said about paying for the plane.
The couple moved to Newnan, about 30 miles southwest of Atlanta after his hire at Delta, and he had the aircraft trucked to their new home. Using a company that transports planes, the pieces were loaded into a fifth-wheel trailer on a very cold and snowy January day in 2014, he said.
Many people questioned his sanity, Winkels said, and even he wondered more than once what he had gotten himself into with the project, but he just kept plugging away, one part at a time.
"I didn't really keep the end in mind, that was too overwhelming," he said. "I'd start on a part, finish it, then move on to the next part. It was a series of finishing parts so I felt like I was accomplishing something."
He averaged about 20 hours a week working on the plane, with a lot of work done on weekends, he said, adding he probably has about 3,500 hours into the plane over the 10 years.
The most difficult part of building the plane was fitting the bubble canopy on the plane in order to get everything to fit right with a good seal. He had the choice of a sliding or a tip-up canopy, and chose the sliding one because it offered a better fit.
Once the plane was completed, he had "many eyes" look at the plane. As a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, he could request an inspection at any time throughout the building process from EAA tech counselors. He also had fellow pilots and builders look at the plane while it was being built.
"They point out mistakes or ask 'did you intend to do this?'" he said of the inspections.
The final inspection opens all areas of the plane for a Designated Airworthiness Representative, or DAR, to check everything over. It lasts about three hours and is a very thorough inspection, Winkels said.
"Inspection plates are removed, everything is open and the DAR inspects the cables, flight controls, the engine, everything," he said, adding the inspector didn't find any problems.
"It's the most perfect RV he's ever seen," Winkels said of the inspector's comments. "It felt extremely good."
After the inspection, a traditional ritual is to get a picture of the "RV grin," he said, but Winkels didn't get that photo in all the excitement of the moment.
The maiden flight of the aircraft came when the test pilot took to the air.
"He has many hours of experience—he has two RVs of his own — and he would know if there was anything wrong at all," Winkels said. "He said it flew perfect."
Winkels flies the plane using Visual Flight Rules which means see and avoid air obstacles, rather than by the instrument panel. The plane carries 42 gallons of fuel — 21 in each wing tank — and burns about 8-1/2 gallons of fuel an hour. Cost for fuel varies — he paid $3.52 per gallon in Newnan and $3.95 per gallon in Lincoln, Ill., where he stopped for a break. He averaged about 160 to 170 mph on the trip to Minnesota, which took about seven hours, he said.
He began his pre-flight check at 6 a.m. and was cleared to take off at about 7 a.m. Eastern Time, landing at about 2 p.m. Central Time at the Perham Municipal Airport, to a welcoming delegation of family.
A stickler for details and with test flights and inspections indicating the plane was safe to fly, Winkels had no qualms climbing into the cockpit for the long flight home.
The perception that homebuilt planes aren't safe is a myth, he said. People question how a plane built in a garage can be safe, but he said very few aircraft crashes are the result of a problem with the plane, it's typically pilot induced.
"Aviation itself can be dangerous and you have to respect that," he said, "but the odds are higher of getting into a car accident than an airplane crash. Frankly, I'm flying myself and my family so my standards are pretty high. There were lots of things I'd redo (during the building process) because I didn't like the way it looked."
Because a tail dragger is a more challenging plane to land and because he hadn't flown for a decade, Winkels chose to do an 40 additional hours of training, seven hours dedicated to tail wheel and stalls training and 10 hours of transition training, primarily practicing landings and takeoffs, which he estimates he did about 113 before the training was completed.
"That's where you need the work, once you're in the air, that's easy," he said. "I didn't just hop into the plane and start flying."
Winkels will eventually have the aircraft professionally painted, but he hasn't decided on a paint scheme yet. For now, he said he plans to take to the skies as often as possible and enjoy a life-long dream come true.
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