Real Life Stories: I Built My Own Plane
Bob Jackson was still five years away from retiring from his career as an electrical engineering at Lockheed Martin when he began dreaming of the day he would head off into the sunset. But rather than sailing into the proverbial golden years of retirement, Jackson decided to fly instead.
Together with former colleague and longtime friend Ron Marini, the Windermere, Florida resident embarked on what would become a decade-long project to build -- by hand -- a futuristic-looking experimental airplane called a Velocity that can carry four people with a range of over 1,000 nautical miles.
Both men had developed their passion for flying through military experience. Jackson flew as a Navy pilot in the 1970s and Marini was in the Air Force.
"After flying in the Navy, you've pretty well done all the best stuff and in the best planes -- acrobatics, formation and military operations," says Jackson. So when Marini came to Jackson with the idea to team up and build a Velocity airplane together back in 1998, Jackson was ready to launch.
"All engineers like to build things," says Jackson. "So it appealed to us to build our own plane."
Jackson and Marini
While their careers as engineers were much more on the theoretical side of things, Jackson says building a plane offered a very hands-on process that required him and Marini to do almost everything on their own.
"When you build your own plane you may still do some theoretical design, but the emphasis is on the construction," he says. "You have to do everything, from finding the parts on the internet or at the local Army-Navy store, to extensive fiberglass shaping work and crimping and soldering every individual wire connection. There's no one else to hand that stuff off to like when you're working for the big aerospace companies."
What the partners did not count on, however, was how labor-intensive and lengthy the building process would turn out to be. The original one or two years they expected to invest in building the airplane slowly grew to more than ten years.
For the first seven years, they met every weekend at Marini's house to work on the plane, which was initially stored inside the garage. But as the plane took shape, it quickly outgrew its space. The three car garage was extended first with one full-length, tarp-covered lean-to outside, and then another beyond that when it was time to paint the plane.
Jackson calls Marini's wife, Diana, a "saint." Not only had the airplane taken over the family's garage, but zip-locked bags of half-used epoxy had migrated into the freezer, fiberglass cloth was stretched across the foyer floor, and at one point, the plane's wings and canard were spread throughout the living room.
The partnership, says Jackson, ultimately created a much better final product. And knowing the other would be there each Saturday also provided the additional motivation to complete such a massive undertaking. And Marini and Jackson were determined to finish what they started.
"At the time, when we were building, things could be stressful, but it did create in every case a better airplane," he says, "We always came up with a third solution that wasn't just a compromise -- but a slightly different, and measurably better approach neither of us had thought of originally."
Among the projects that took serious brainstorming from Marini and Jackson was the pair's decision to turbo charge the Velocity's engine, using a custom configuration that allows the plane to fly at twice the cruising altitude and with fuel economy similar to a car, even though the plane travels about 285 miles per hour (around five times faster than a car).
Ultimately, says Jackson, having the same goals for the airplane, which had a successful first test flight in 2008 was vital to the completion of such an intensive project.
"Most homebuilders just want to be able to pop over to the beach and get a hamburger with the wife in their planes," he says, "It's more like a Sunday drive, or classic car thing for them. But both Ron and I wanted to use our plane for very long cross country trips, and as an economic and time competitive alternative to the airlines."
Flying over the Grand Canyon at sunrise
Jackson made his coast-to-coast dreams a reality in summer 2010, setting off for a nearly six-week adventure from the plane's home hangar at Orlando Apopka Airport. His trip around the country covered more than 12,000 miles and 75 hours of flight time.
"It wasn't a test of the airplane other than durability," says Jackson, adding that the trip was less about proving the airplane's abilities than it was about proving a thing or two to family and friends.
"In our family holiday cards and emails, for years, I'd send a picture to show the progress of the plane's construction," he says, "But after a few years, I had to stop even talking about it because it was embarrassing that after so many years we still weren't flying yet."
For his cross-country trip, Jackson put together an itinerary that would allow him to visit family, friends and old Navy buddies who happened to be located in some of the most scenic flying stretches of the country -- places like Kansas City, Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mount St. Helens, the Pacific Northwest, Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons.
"A satisfaction from the trip was getting to see all those great places from my own airplane, circle around a few times if I wanted to, and not just look down from high above if the airliner happened to go overhead," says Jackson, "It was beneficial to show both family and friends that we actually finished the airplane and that it was performing like a dream come true."
Watch highlights from the six-week journey:
He recalls an unexpected detour that led to one of the prettiest flights of the trip: "I was in Phoenix, visiting a Navy friend, and we wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. However heavy thunderstorms nixed that, so we diverted instead to Flagstaff and Sedona. I'd never seen Sedona before, and it turned out to be one of the best sights of the entire trip."
When he finally made it to the Grand Canyon several days later during a sunrise solo flight from Las Vegas, Jackson was treated to a glorious early morning view from the Henderson flight line looking out toward one of the most iconic landscapes in the world.
"Over the course of the six week adventure, what was most striking to me from an aviation point of view were the scenic wonders that are tucked in every corner of the nation," he says, "It was striking and rewarding to see so many of them in such a short amount of time from the air."
A particularly poignant milestone came during a stop in San Francisco, where Jackson and Marini met for a two-hour flight that took them from Napa Valley to Lake Tahoe, along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, through the Yosemite Valley and back to Santa Rosa.
"Ron is still working full time, so there was no way he could take off for the full trip" says Jackson. "That he was able to share in the trip out in a part of the country he knows so well was great for both of us."
The men, it seems, are living up to the logo painted onto the tail fin of their plane and stitched into the leather seatbacks -- a laid-back surfer-type figure with a glowing sun as a backdrop that was designed by Jackson's son, Mike, who loves to surf.
"To Mike, the logo was somebody hanging ten on a surfboard, leaning back and riding the perfect wave," says Jackson, "To us, instead of hanging ten surfing the sea, we were riding the air waves off toward the sunset of our lives -- old guys with pot bellies, still catching the big waves in the sky!"
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