[Reprinted from InFlight USA, 12/2000]

Building a Zodiac

By Brent Battles

From my perspective at age 57, there's a tendency to think about life in terms of accomplishments. In a few short years, I may well be thinking in terms of lost opportunities. For me, building an airplane was destined to make one or the other of those lists.

First exposed to small planes at age five in my dad's Navion, I later got my pilot's license fresh out of high school. Years later, I became aware of amateur-built aircraft, visited two under construction, and was hooked. But like most everyone else on the planet, I had plenty of "reasons" why I couldn't take the plunge: lack of time, money, skill, dedication ... and the nerve actually to fly the thing! (I settled for building a balsa model.)

So what might it take to move airplane building from the "I wish I had" to the "By gosh, I did it" column? In the hopes of inspiring just one reader to make that move, I'm going to describe how it came to pass for me.

Zenith Aircraft's Zodiac: "The perfect match for my interests and skills."

In the spring of 1998 I turned 55. That once dormant urge to build an airplane had returned. Semi-retired and living in a relatively low-cost region of the country, time and money were a bit more available. Yet, once again, I diffused the urge, allowing myself a more modest luxury of buying a Mazda Miata in exchange for never again entertaining "that building idea." That resolve lasted five months, and I was off researching the 400 some-odd kit airplanes on the market. Having indulged myself with the sports car, I limited my shopping to a group of rather basic airplanes, which fortunately fit my tastes for flying as well.

Following visits to my two "finalists," I came away from a demo flight at Zenith Aircraft convinced I had a perfect match for my interests and skills. The "Zodiac" had appeared in small display ads in magazines I had read over the years, and here I was, about to write a check for the same sport plane that really had never left my subconscious. Following the 750-mile drive home, I waited a discrete day or two before actually placing my order, so as not to appear impulsive!

Several features drew me to the Zodiac. First, it's built to take stresses almost double that of factory-built Cessnas, and like conventional aircraft, it is made of durable aluminum. What it may lack in speed, it more than makes up for in climb performance (important here in the mountains of Western North Carolina) and incredible visibility through its bubble canopy.

And it could be built in a very reasonable time – as illustrated by one-week completions by inexperienced volunteers at a number of airshows. This feature, build time, all too often makes the difference between languishing for years in a sea of parts and dust and actually taking your first flight ... an event which for the majority of amateur builders never comes. You'll also inevitably hear stories of how an airplane project got between a builder and his (or her) mate, but at least in my case, I avoided this too-costly outcome by virtue of her patience and the fact that the project did not drag on for years, as many such endeavors commonly do. (I also took great pains to keep noise and paint fumes at extreme distances!)

So what does it take to undertake building with justified confidence? Well, I'd suggest that you ought to have had at least some experience in building something. I'd built radio kits as a kid and a couple of houses as an adult. These aren't prerequisites, of course, but having an interest in how things fit together and a taste of assembling something are good indicators that you can get right into building an airplane. The more exposure, interest and curiosity you have, the more eagerly you'll look for ways to customize and improve on the airplane you're constructing.

So what was it like building my Zodiac? My first step was to unpack and inventory all the sheetmetal, formed parts, and plans I had brought home in my compact pick-up truck. The12-foot by 4-foot work table I had built to fit into a basement storeroom left just enough room to walk around three of its sides. On it, I built the three components of the tail assembly, the wings, the center fuselage section, and most of the rear fuselage – all over a period of six months. When I needed more room, I moved to one-half of our garage for the remaining six months of construction. (Yes, the Miata was left outside, not my wife's car.)

I still have the first scrap of aluminum I cut off when starting to form the rudder. Within nine hours, I had the most wonderful structure I had ever seen – an extremely strong airfoil that only weighed a couple of pounds. This was just a hint of the elegance and integrity of stressed aluminum skin construction that characterizes the entire airplane (which completed weighs only 637 pounds, 80-horsepower engine and all).

As I would continue to do throughout the building process, I paid great attention to detail – far more than necessary, but as a matter of pride in whatever level of craftsmanship I was able to bring to the project. I carefully filed and sanded the corners of every metal piece. Ninety-five percent of those corners and edges are forever hidden, but I have the satisfaction of knowing they're done right.

I don’t claim that all my work was flawless! But, when I made an error, I agonized over it and resolved it either by confirming that it was very minor (uneven spacing of some rivet holes, as an example) or correctable by making a replacement part or, in one case, adding a small reinforcing piece. Zenith's constant reminder is that "you're not building a 747" and that the airplane is substantially over-designed for its mission in virtually every respect. That puts things in perspective, but it's still annoying to go to bed knowing something you did wasn't completely perfect.

By the time I had completed the tail, I had experienced most of the processes required to build the entire airplane – drilling, cutting aluminum with tin snips; laying out, cutting, and bending heavier aluminum stock; priming with corrosion preventative; and finally riveting ... in my case, by hand. (I figured it would build character, but after wearing out three riveters in the course of building and acquiring a touch of arthritis at the base of my thumb, maybe I can understand other folks' preference for a pneumatic rivet gun.)

Directions for kit planes can vary dramatically between manufacturers. I found Zenith's traditional plans to be more than adequate, although they've recently added CAD drawings that provide pictorial views of details as they become pertinent in the building process. I found myself working primarily with the plans, even though a "sequence manual" consisting of written instructions was provided covering most of the airplane's assemblies.

From sharing experiences with others, both in person and via the Internet, I have concluded that, if one is lost without step-by-step "cook book" instructions, building with confidence and real understanding is difficult at best. Since building an "experimental" airplane is specifically intended to be an educational process, understanding how and why parts are formed and fit together as they do is an important part of the experience.

By the time I had begun the first of my two wings, I was venturing into the realm of modifications of my own design. With suggestions from one of the Experimental Aircraft Association's amateur builder books, I fabricated a landing light enclosure made from sheet aluminum and plexiglass from a local building supply. Believe me, it took a lot of nerve to make that cut into the leading edge of that wing! I formed the lens in my wife's oven (don't tell her, please) and, after a couple of tries, got just what I wanted. I made a taillight from a small glass jar, a heat-formed piece of 1-inch PVC pipe, and a light socket from an auto parts house. Therefore, I avoided paying $69 for an "aviation" grade fixture and had the satisfaction of doing it myself. You wouldn't believe the comments I get on that taillight!

As you can imagine, it takes quite some time before the pieces start to look like an airplane. I won't bore you with construction details, but will say that I often went to bed well after midnight, maybe a bit tired but always excited about what I had been able to accomplish that day. My project took about 1,100 hours over a one-year period – about the equivalent of four hours per day out of a normal five-day work week. Some days I'd work six to seven hours, others maybe two hours, and sometimes I'd be away from my workshop for several days at a time (not by choice, mind you). Having started in mid-January of 1999, I had the airframe assembled and ready to roll on its own wheels by the end of September.

I was determined to do everything on this airplane entirely by myself, unless physically impossible by virtue of simply not having enough hands. I had help fitting the canopy and lifting the engine into place, but otherwise, nobody else was going (for better or worse) to be responsible for what an observer of the completed airplane was to see. Probably the most challenging work involved designing, wiring and plumbing the instrument panel and radios. In a normal certificated airplane, the owner isn't allowed to do much more than change the oil, much less fool around with critical systems like radios and instruments. So, this was a sobering and deliberate undertaking and commensurately rewarding.

I tackled the upholstering of the seats with great confidence (perhaps born of ignorance), but nevertheless, my first attempt at such a craft was a great success. I just started cutting foam, glued the pieces together, and then fit $4 worth of remnant material to the contoured foam. And "bingo," I had the most comfortable airplane seats I had ever experienced – complete with headrests and lumbar supports and a snazzy gray check fabric to complement my lighter gray painted interior surfaces.

I determined from the outset that, if I were fortunate enough to receive compliments on my airplane, I wouldn't be able to live with a clear conscience if somebody else had done the paint job. I stumbled upon a painting facility about a mile from my home. The owner was most generous in giving me free access to both the huge paint booth and his equipment.

My slowly ascending learning curve stretched an anticipated one-week job into three. Folks say I did a fine job, but I know where every flaw can be found. Nevertheless, I'm very proud of that job, and like the rest of the airplane, I use its imperfections to encourage other mere mortals to go out and do it themselves.

This project has been the single most satisfying personal accomplishment I have ever experienced. I could so easily have deemed myself unfit, inadequately prepared, unworthy, or otherwise disqualified from undertaking this project. I could have made more "sensible" use of the money devoted to my airplane. On the other hand, I could have spent a lot of time – when time is short – regretting the passing of such an opportunity. And I could have missed out on the dozen or more great friendships I have made among fellow builders, to say nothing of the 200-odd Internet-linked Zenith builders with whom I continue to share ideas and inspiration.

And, oh yes, the little airplane is a joy to fly! People can't believe how quickly it climbs, how quiet it is, how little fuel it burns, and most of all, what an exhilarating view you get from that bubble canopy. Sure it's relatively slow as airplanes go, but just like the building of the plane, the world goes by much too fast as it is.

[Reprinted from InFlight USA, 12/2000]