Oscar Zuniga – Guest perspective


Here is a story of building philosophy from our friend Oscar Zuniga. He has been around Corvairs for a long time, and was the local host of Corvair Junior College in San Antonio, Texas, in 2003. Airplanes are part of his DNA, something that will always be part of his life. His newest project is a Corvair powered 601 XL. He is a builder of tremendous energy and enthusiasm. His writing has appeared in many publications, and he has contributed a lot of editing behind the scenes to others. He is an engineer with a decidedly practical approach to building. I have known him many years, but the breadth of his mechanical experience still surprises me. I have a 1959 Triumph 650 project in the hangar. Even looking at it in person, few people recognize it. Oscar saw it in a little photo, and e-mailed me a number of pictures of mint restorations of early British bikes that he and his brother had done “just for something to do.” As you read his story, you will come to appreciate why I am always glad to say we have Oscar Zuniga as a member of the Corvair movement. He is the real thing, a genuine traditional homebuilder.   -ww

To Build

We’ve already got “To Fly” (the Sport Aviation Association’s publication), so let’s talk about “To Build.”  Why do I love to build airplanes?


My parents were born in the 1920s and may not have remembered much of the Great Depression because they were kids growing up through that era.  My grandparents surely remembered it, since they married before World War I and started raising their families during the Depression years.  I learned a lot about life and about frugality and practicality from what my parents and grandparents taught me and from how they lived, but I learned even more about those things from my own growing-up years.  I’m the second eldest of 10 children, and what I learned from growing up among a bunch of other growing-up siblings was that if you didn’t want something, or if you wanted it but didn’t express that desire quickly enough, someone else did and it would be gone in a flash.  I also learned to appreciate anything and everything, from leftover food to hand-me-down clothing, to bent nails that we straightened out by pounding them out with a hammer on the driveway, to cutoff pieces of 2x4s and aluminum TV antennas that the wind blew down and the neighbors tossed in the trash.  I’ve used recycled materials and tools to make and repair innumerable things as I’ve gone through life, and everything that I encounter invariably looks like a lot more things to me than it was ever intended to be.  Putting materials to good use is part of why I build.


My wife and I have two Boston terriers and we walk them every evening after dinner, and have done so for as long as we’ve had dogs (which is 43 years now).  On our walks, I find the usual types of lost and cast-off hardware on the streets and sidewalks … screws, bolts, nuts, washers, and other such bits.  I also find (and pick up) pencils, pens, pieces of rope, tow strap, key rings, pieces of pipe and metal, wood and plywood, and anything else that looks like it might have a useful purpose in my shop or hangar.  And everything does, sooner or later.  I have mended things, created things, reinforced things, assembled things, and replaced things with other things that I’ve found, scrounged, or collected over the years.  Still, I’m not an indiscriminate hoarder or junkyard operator or a pack-rat … I’m a discerning collector of useful things that are in need of “re-purposing” ;o)  Call it my inner “sustainable environment” self.  Finding new uses for things is part of why I build.


My Dad used to say (only half-seriously, because growing up we never lived through truly hard times) that a person should never pass a water-hole, because the next one might be dry.  I’ve always taken that motto to heart, and if I’ve already had a donut with my coffee but everyone else leaves the room and there is still a donut left in the box, I’ll take it.  So it is with airplanes, and so it is with the Zenith 601XL that I have just acquired.  I already have a flying Pietenpol Air Camper, along with a composite Flying Squirrel under construction in my shop, but I simply can’t resist something when it looks like it’s on its way to a worse end than the life I might be able to give it.  And that next water-hole might be dry; I might never get the chance to put life into a 601XL again.  Having the opportunity is part of why I build.




Kevin Purtee’s Corvair-powered “Fat Bottomed Girl” and Oscar’s Continental A75-powered “Scout” at the Old Kingsbury Aerodrome near Seguin, TX.  Upon departure from the event and with 2 people aboard each airplane, despite a 5-minute headstart and a 130 lb. empty weight advantage, Scout was quickly overtaken in climb and then outrun in cruise.


So when does an airplane actually die?  We’ve all read about planes that burn down to a pile of black and gray ash, or planes that are ditched at sea, or planes that roll up into a ball in the woods at the end of a runway.  We’ve also read about planes that were built up from little more than a dataplate and a few leftover metal fittings, a serial number and a set of plans, a set of salvaged wing spars or struts, or even some corroded parts that were used as templates to fabricate replacement parts to bring a “lost” airplane back to life.  Rescued from down in a glacier, or from the bottom of a lake, or from a few rusting bones in the Arctic outback.  When is an airplane truly gone, forever?  Certainly some are lost forever, and I don’t intend to dwell on the morbid aspect by reciting stories of terrible losses, but there are always the marginal ones, the ones that could continue into oblivion or be rescued and we look at them and wonder, “what if-?” and “hmmm…!” and see that there may still be a glimmer of life there.  I’m a sucker for lost causes and for things that have the potential for re-purposing … and when it comes to airplanes, the bar is set pretty low for me.  I can’t bear the thought of an airplane, any airplane, being permanently destroyed.  I’ve heard stories of what goes on at Davis-Monthan AFB in the Arizona desert, where untold thousands of beautiful military aircraft have been chopped up, torn up, scrapped, dismantled, and destroyed – and it breaks my heart.  Less than thirty miles from my former home base in Texas, a contractor for the DoD destroyed 53 Slingsby T-3A “Firefly” trainers that were based at Hondo and were used for initial pilot screening.  Beautiful aircraft, summarily destroyed as a lot due to three accidents that appear to be pilot error, not aircraft inadequacy.  And so it goes; there are thousands of sad stories like this one.  Rescuing things from destruction is part of why I build.


601XL as Oscar first saw it in photos, stored outdoors under tarps in rainy Washington state.


Around Labor Day 2012, my 601XL lay outdoors in Washington under plastic tarps, slowly but inexorably yielding to the cycles of climate and the ticking of time.  It’s aluminum, so it would have taken a lot of cycles of climate and a lot of ticks of time before it would have become just pennies per pound for recycled aluminum to buy someone a case or two of beer.  The ferrous bits that were already fabricated and installed on it gave way much sooner, and they aren’t even worth putting in my scrap bin (well, maybe they’ll find a use for something, but not on an airplane).  The airframe was never even graced with a hand-written serial number or a dataplate and the original builder never applied for a registration number for it with the FAA, so it’s a nondescript and plain Zenith.  Or it was until October 7, 2012, my wife’s 60th birthday, when it came into my possession.  When I first found out about it I looked at the pictures of it and saw an airplane that could live and fly, and have a name, and have a highly-polished shine.  I saw what it could be, not what it was.  It’s in my hangar now, and we’re starting the long and slow process of planning how to get it to live and fly and have a name, and to shine like a polished 601 can look when it’s cared for.  Making a nameless “something” into a personal “something” is part of why I build.


My wife Jay (and her mother “Big Jay” before her) has always had a soft spot in her heart for stray animals.  I can’t recall the number of rain-soaked kittens and scroungy mongrel puppies that have suddenly taken on value when they were spotted by Jay or her mother and were taken in for a meal and given a good home.  The 601 that I’ve taken in will be given a good home.  I’ll give it both an N-number and a name.  It will be cared for, cleaned up, stripped down where needed, and then built back up with my hands and my care and my attention.  I don’t farm out my airplane work (except for welding and machining), and I don’t usually spare much in the way of attention and proper engineering scrutiny.  I figure if I do the job right the first time, I won’t have to re-do it and I won’t regret it later.  And while I’m a scrounger extraordinaire, I also admire the beauty of AN hardware much the same as I do fine guns and crisply-minted coins, and I know the difference between the tensile and yield strengths of aircraft-grade hardware and hardware-store materials.  I know where and how to apply each of them and have seen misapplications of both.  As a mechanical engineer, I think I know a little about how this stuff works, but as a lifelong learner, I always marvel when I get to look at machines that others have built, and I never cease to be amazed by the ingenious ways that materials and methods are applied by clever minds and hands to get a job done.  Learning is part of why I build.


As a builder, I love to sit and think about how to make an assembly come together the way I want it to, but even when I have a pile of scrap metal and cans full of all types and sizes of mixed hardware available to me, there are times when I want to open a package that has come to my doorstep, take out the contents, and then hold a perfectly matched set of six beautiful AN-6 bolts in my hand and know that they are going to connect the propeller of my airplane to the prop hub of my engine.  There is no more perfect solution … Earth, Wind, and Fire harnessed together by those six shiny bolts ;o)  Yes, I’ll put them back in the package until final assembly time and will use whatever is in my parts bin for test-fitting and trial assembly, but the Shiny Bolts will be what I fly with.  Hardware, nice hardware, is part of why I love to build.



Oscar’s Corvair engine cases, 2002.  This is when it starts to get good.  Everything has been cleaned, prepped, inspected, and is ready to start building up into an airplane engine.


The beating heart of my 601 will be a Corvair engine.  I acquired my engine as a project maybe 15 years ago without knowing what I would ever mount it onto.  Now I know.  I didn’t pass up the engine (in pieces, in boxes, partially torn down and partially converted) when the chance came up.  The short block was prepared and assembled at the Corvair Junior College that was held at my home field of San Geronimo Airpark in January of 2003 (story and pictures at http://www.flysquirrel.net/AlamoCollege/ACCC.html .)



Beating heart meets airframe, courtesy of a new ZenVair mount.  Older-style firewall will get the updated reinforcing of later 601s.


I also didn’t pass up the 601 as a bare airframe, a set of plans, and little else.  At age 61, I won’t pass up the chance to see where the airframe and the beating heart end up, because the next water-hole may be dry and, as William says, tomorrow I’ll be one day closer to losing my medical.  Realizing that my time as a pilot and builder are limited is part of why I love to build.



Oscar tries on “Miss Nameless” for size.  Even adding seat cushions and a headset, there is plenty of headroom under the forward-hinged Zenith bubble canopy.  Standard 2700cc Corvair conversion short block sits on a ZenVair powder-coated engine mount.  Picture the lines of the engine cowling… plenty of room for intake manifolds, starter, baffling, and accessories.  A proven combination and a no-brainer.


I guess I build because I have to, because my Creator gave me a creator’s heart, and because there is nothing more satisfying to me than to make something unique and useful out of otherwise ordinary things.  It’s my way of expressing myself, of stretching my mind and hands to new limits, of figuring out how to make something work the way I want it to work in a way that maybe nobody else ever has.  Conversely, sometimes I want to make something work in precisely the same way as someone else has, emulating an elegant solution to something and reflecting someone else’s fine work in my own perfect copy of theirs.  Even copying something that I see and appreciate, I can still use it as a model whose image I can paint on my own canvas, with my own brushes and paints, in my own style.  Sometimes it’s wiser to follow a trailblazer than to keep flailing away at the jungle with my own machete, and the older I get the more I enjoy well-worn trails through the jungle.


I am a patient and meticulous person, so looking at a daunting task like drilling out a thousand rivets to install a spar upgrade on the 601 becomes nothing more than a mental, physical, and spiritual challenge and exercise to me.  Some people cross the Sahara on foot, some swim the English Channel, some circumnavigate the globe alone in a small sailboat.  It’s that same kind of personal challenge for me, and something that I have to do and am driven to do.  I’ll do it one rivet at a time, and then another, and another.  When there are no more rivets to drill out or pull, and no more dulled aluminum to polish, it will be ready to put fuel in and fly.  And in the end, that’s part of why I love to build…. To fly.

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