There are things that money can't buy. One of them is a homebuilt airplane. To construct your own plane is to join a religion defined by engineering, adventure and deep self-belief – it takes a particular brand of faith to fly a machine you bolted together in your garage.
From the time I was a small boy, I dreamed about building a plane of my own. I sent away for brochures, studied technical manuals and considered a series of designs, including a Pitts Special biplane, a miniature jet and an aircraft called the Long-Eze, which has its tail in the front.
I finally decided on a classic machine: the Van's Aircraft RV-8, an all-aluminum two-seater that looks like a shrunken Second World War fighter. I converted my garage into an aircraft workshop, with riveting guns, meticulously levelled construction tables and a hockey-rink-style heater that hung from the rafters, beaming down radiant energy that would allow me to work even in the dead of winter.
I immersed myself in the RV-8 project, absorbed in a series of challenges: milling aluminum, countersinking rivets and bending gleaming wing skins that would carry my wife and I through the sky someday. Or so I hoped. After two years of work, I realized that my project would probably never be completed. My career was presenting new demands, and my relationship with my family was suffering. I had spent countless hours in my workshop, a would-be Leonardo who spent his evenings crafting aluminum instead of hanging out with his wife and kids.
A few years ago, I sold my partially built RV-8 to a young guy who doesn't have kids. I knew it was the right decision, but as the buyer loaded my tools and meticulously built components into his truck, a piece of me went with him. The end of my homebuilt project had an upside – I had more time and money available for flying. I racked up a lot of hours in sailplanes, and bought a new hang glider (it cost less than the tools I needed to build the RV-8.) But it still hurt to give up on my dream.
If you've ever flown a light aircraft, you understand that the experience is far different from the folklore. Many small aircraft are the aerial equivalent of a high-mileage Chevy Chevette – tinny, underpowered machines with uninspired handling, worn-out interiors and zero charisma. Not the RV series. I flew one for the first time back in the 1990s, and it was pure aviation joy: It handled like a sports car, and climbed like a rocket. The bubble canopy and crisp controls made me feel like I was in a downsized F-16. No wonder I wanted to build one.
The RV-8 is one in a series of aircraft designed by Richard VanGrunsven, a legendary figure in the homebuilt aircraft world. His planes combine inspirational performance with practical engineering, and have been thoroughly proven. The homebuilt aircraft world has seen countless designs come and go. Some have been excellent. Others have been cursed by design errors, engineering flaws or construction so complicated that few are ever finished. I knew one builder who embarked on the construction of an amphibious seaplane with a hull crafted from laminated wood. He had spent 14 years on the project, and it looked like he had at least a decade to go.
Giving up my RV-8 project was tough. To me, homebuilt planes represent the spirit of can-do and invention, the leitmotif that drove postwar America. The value of skill was driven home to me long ago. In my first year of university, I had a roommate who was a guitar virtuoso. His instrument was a worn Fender knockoff that he'd picked up at a yard sale and refurbished. Then one of the guys in our dorm showed up with a brand-new Gretsch that – he made a point of telling us – was exactly like the one John Lennon played. It had cost the dormmate's parents a small fortune. And the dormmate wasn't much of a player. My virtuoso roommate listened for a minute, then walked out. Later on, he gave me his verdict: "You have to earn a guitar with your hands." I saw his point.
This summer, I flew down to the Oshkosh airshow in Wisconsin with a friend in his single-engine Rockwell Commander. Oshkosh is the mecca of personal aircraft construction. There were thousands of aircraft, but one stopped me in my tracks: Beautiful Doll, an RV-8 built by a guy named Danny King. When I was building my RV-8, this was what I hoped it would become.
Some homebuilt planes are flying shanties, with mismatched panels, protruding screw heads and wonky paint. Not Beautiful Doll. It has been flying for more than a decade, and it's a fabrication master class, with impeccable workmanship, letter-perfect detailing and well-chosen components (Garmin glass panel, constant speed propeller, Lycoming angle-valve motor… this is the stuff that aircraft builders dream of).
And then there's the paint, the part that everyone notices. Beautiful Doll's colour scheme is timeless: battleship gray with Air Force insignia and a Second World War-style checkerboard nose. Looking at Beautiful Doll, I wanted to set up shop again. In a world where machinery is nothing more than a lifestyle backdrop, a machine you build yourself is a vote for a different way of life. Like my roommate once said: There are things you have to earn with your hands.