Guest Writer: Pietenpol builder/flyer Kevin Purtee
Below is a tale of adventure, penned by Kevin Purtee. He is very well known in the Pietenpol community, and in the land of Corvairs he and his wife Shelley are best known as the hosts of Corvair College #22 in Texas. People who have met Kevin understand that he has a whole other life in a different branch of aviation, but here he focuses on his love of building and flying homebuilts. For anyone who has completed a plane, Kevin’s words will ring true. If you are still working on your first, read the story closely, it insightful and motivating.
I have long intended that this site, among other purposes, be a focal point for this type of story. When reading Kevin’s words, he is obviously covering a subject near to his heart. This type of essay is out of place on technical sites, and is not family oriented enough for magazines that only publish dumbed down, vanilla flavored, offensive to no one, copy. Here we have an appropriate place for real homebuilders to speak as they would in their own hangars. We have had a number of guest writers before, and I welcome more. The format here isn’t really a discussion group, but I would like it to have input from a number of people who are motivated to put in a few hours to write down thoughts that come from experience in building and flying Corvairs.-ww
Hi Folks – Here are a few of my thoughts on the joys of homebuilding and flying.
I live for the small, slow end of aviation. I’ve been working diligently all my adult life to create a retirement that provides the opportunity to build and fly little airplanes full time, or at least as full time as I want. I’m blessed to be able to fly at work, and it’s great, but what I REALLY want to do is spend my time building and flying little airplanes and hang out with people with the same interest. I’m very proud to have successfully completed a plans-built airplane.
I distinctly remember my father making the comment when I was a child of 7 or 8 that people build airplanes in garages. That notion has stuck with me. I was trying to figure out what to build when the July 1992 Kitplanes showed up in the mailbox. Jim Malley’s stunning Pietenpol was on the cover. My at-the-time wife said, “That’s it!” “What’s it?” “That’s the airplane you’re going to build.” Fair enough.
I bought the plans, the newsletters, the Tony Bingelis books, the AC 43.13, and several other reference books. I started cutting wood in February 1993. The at-the-time wife wasn’t really wild about me flying an airplane I built myself, but she no doubt thought I’d never complete it. She was wrong. (Do y’all remember the “My ex-spouse wanted me to quit flying” T-shirts that William and Grace used to wear?) I did complete the airplane, though I traded the spouse. The one I have now is as much as part of the hobby as I am. More on her later. Anyway, this is me climbing in for the first flight on 19 September 2009, 16 years and 7 months after I started building.
The build took a long time – a classic plans-built project. In fairness, there was a lot of other stuff going on. I had a couple of major job changes and moves, I had multiple jobs at once, and frankly, I had other hobbies. I was also out of the country for a few years. Without all the distracters it was probably a six year build.
I really like this photo.
While it took me more than 16 years to build the plane, I flew the tar out of it when it was finished. In 2 years and 10 months (subtract 10 months for out of town training for work) I flew the airplane 340 hours. That’s 170 hours a year in a Pietenpol that I built myself. I flew the airplane back and forth from Austin, Texas to Brodhead/Oshkosh 2.5 times. (Current spouse, Shelley, ground crewed on all but ½ of those trips. Makes life a lot easier.) There are Pietenpols that were started in 1992, finished in 1994, and haven’t flown anywhere near 340 hours. I was making up for lost time.
The bottom line on building airplanes: you’ve got to go to the workshop and build. Airplanes do not get built on the internet and they do not get built by watching TV. I encourage you (and me!) to get out there and start making parts.
In 1999 I chose an engine. I found William in the back of Sport Aviation. Mr Pietenpol had used a Corvair so I felt like I was being true to the design, and William offered plans for a starter. Perfect! I tell people that I’ve been a customer and student of William’s since 1999, and we’ve become friends over the last 3 or 4 years. What’s amazing is that William taught me how to effectively convert an automotive engine for use in an aircraft remotely, and I have a minimal mechanical background. I used the GM manual, his Conversion Manual, and his website to successfully complete the motor. I used to monitor the Corvair internet discussion group, but decided early on that since William was the only one actually building and flying these motors, and the only one gathering enough useful data to be valid, that I’d stick with him. So far so good.
Another unique and positive aspect of our relationship with William is that he gives us access to him and the other Corvair All-Stars for several days at a time via the Corvair Colleges. The next one is coming up in November in South Carolina. Shelley and I will be there. If you want to learn about Corvairs for flight use, this is the venue. Shelley and I hosted a College earlier this year and we had a blast. I cannot emphasize this enough: Corvair Colleges are extremely helpful.
Kevin, William, Grace, Scoob-E, Shelley.
The Joys of the Hobby
I enjoy the pleasant aspects of flying. I love flying on a crystal clear day with no wind and smooth air. I love flying at 500 feet and looking around. It brings me pure joy. I also love traveling with friends for the $100 burger. What a blast!
Matt, Pete, Kevin and The Law on one of our many flying adventures.
I also enjoy the challenging aspects of flying. Crosswinds, weather, cold, all combine to keep things interesting. Here I am bundled for winter flight. (The dented wing was on an airplane we found at that little airport.)
I intentionally challenge myself with lots of takeoffs and landings in lots of varied conditions. Good or bad, I like it when people comment on how windy it is when I walk into the FBO. I like turning the motor off on final when I’ve got the runway made (ignition back on, hand ready at the starter).
I love flying.
Trials and Tribulations
There are challenges in the hobby.
This is a picture of the most frustrating day of my life. The left landing gear gave out at the 2010 Pietenpol fly-in at Brodhead. I learned to weld on this airplane and in this case it showed. It’s a tribute to the people in this hobby that we recovered so quickly from this event. One of the local guys at Brodhead, Matt Smith, my hero, repaired the gear that day and I was flying the next day. We subsequently took the airplane to Oshkosh and then back to Austin. I made the permanent repair to the gear and went on to make several hundred more landings without the gear giving way. My welding’s gotten better, by the way.
I am speaking of the airplane in the past tense because I wrecked her coming home from Brodhead this year. There was water in the fuel. As I was taking off from Brodhead the engine started losing power. I tried to turn back to the airport and ended up in the classic stall-spin scenario. The airplane and I were both damaged badly. The way I describe it sounds simple, but there are several layers of subtlety that require a more thorough explanation. If you want to talk to me about it please come to Corvair College 24 and I’ll spend all the time with you that you need. If you absolutely just cannot make it to the College (a mistake), then e-mail me at email@example.com.
I told you that I love aviation. The accident was 3 months ago and I was hurt badly. Here’s a picture of me flying my friend’s Wichhawk a month ago.
And a picture of me working on the Wichhawk two weeks ago.
And a picture of me rebuilding the Piet 3 weeks after the accident.
By the way, I received medical clearance to start flying for my job last Friday. The flight doc kept telling me not to rush it. I’m not. I’m ready to fly. I proved my point this way: the last test was the flight doc telling me I had to drag him through the parking lot, up onto the building porch, and then into the exam room at the end of the hall. The exercise was designed to prove I could pull people out of an aircraft in the event of an accident. I pointed out that I could not drag him like that BEFORE the accident. Fortunately, he had a tiny co-ed student shadowing him. I asked if I could carry her instead of him. He agreed. I picked up this tiny young woman, ran through the parking lot, up the stairs, through the door, and down the hall into the exam room. The entire flight medicine cadre for the organization was in the hall as I ran between them, laughing, with the young woman in my arms. I think that single event convinced them that I was ready and fit to fly.
I bring all these items up to make one point: flying is fun. I love to do it. I will not stop doing it unless I’m incapacitated. The accident was neither fun nor pleasant, but I know what happened, know what to fix in the future, and I’ll keep flying. A lot of people build airplanes and then are afraid to fly them. Got it. It can be scary sometimes. The only way to solve that, move on, and get better is to GO FLY! I found one major aspect of my professional flying to be very difficult when I first started. I vowed to get better at that aspect. The only way to get better is to practice. 25 years into the process, I’ve developed a lot of skill in that flight mode, and I am, at best, a pilot of average abilities.
Shelley in front.
William made a post about Claire Jeffko and her understanding of her late husband’s overwhelming need to fly. I am fortunate in that I am married to someone very similar to Mrs. Jeffko. Took me three tries, but I found her. Here’s an example: Shelley rode with me in the ambulance from the site of the aircraft accident to the medevac helicopter. One of the first things we talked about, literally, was rebuilding the Pietenpol. She knows what this means to me. Some of you may not be so blessed. I’m sorry. Ply your significant other with gifts, bring them to a Corvair College so we can charm them, and work on them yourselves.
Here’s Shelley ironing fabric on the wing. She rocks!
Most of you already realize that the internet is a double-edged sword, particularly if you’re new to a subject. The quality of information and advice ranges from wonderful to criminal, and it’s often hard to tell who has good advice. The good news for the Corvair world is that William is here to offer large doses of truth based on experience. He makes the point that he wants us to fly proven, reliable (boring) equipment. Darn straight! There’s enough experimenting going on without trying to convert a Corvair to a turbo-prop.
Log off and build. When your airplane flies, you’ll get back on the list and find the same people arguing about the same things and that they haven’t finished anything.
What’s the point to all this blather? Go build. Go fly. You’ll love it.