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‘It’s been a lifelong dream’

New London man, 74, decides to build an airplane

At age 74, Wilbur Orson, of New London, decided it was time he built an airplane.

His dad built one in 1928 at age 19, a Heath Parasol that had a high wing and a Henderson motorcycle engine. It had 37 horsepower, and he flew it on the farm by the Green Lake outlet in Irving Township.

“I joined the Air Force when I was 17, and now I’m 74, so between then and now I’ve wanted to do this. I’ve been a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association for many years – my dad also. It’s been a lifelong dream to do it, and now that I’m retired, I decided to do it.” he said.

Wilbur Orson, of New London, with the RV12 he is building. Photos by Bev Ahlquist

Wilbur Orson, of New London, with the RV12 he is building. Photos by Bev Ahlquist

In 1992, Orson had heart disease and had to have a heart operation which just about killed his flying career. “I was a pilot and mechanic before that. I had to do a special issuance from the Federal Aviation Administration each year in order to keep my medical license up. I did that for three years, and it got too expensive and too aggravating so I decided to stop flying.”

In 2009 the FAA and Experimental Aircraft Association and others decided they were going to come up with a new category of airplanes called a sport pilot. “You have to have a sport pilot license to fly these, and you have to have limitations on the sport pilot category of airplanes and list at 1,320 pounds maximum gross weight.” But, he said, you don’t need to have a medical license to fly these particular airplanes called light sport aircraft. “So in 2009 I found that out, but it wasn’t until August of 2014 at the Experimental Association annual fly-in at Oshkosh that I decided to plunk down the money, and I started building it in November of 2014.”

He was living in Eagan at the time and had to come back to New London every week to take care of things at home, and see his mother, who was living in the same house in which Orson grew up. She died in 2012, and just last year Orson sold his house in Eagan and came back to New London to work in their electrical store.

 Wilbur holds a photo of his dad when his dad built a plane in 1928. Photo by Bev Ahlquist

Wilbur holds a photo of his dad when his dad built a plane in 1928. Photo by Bev Ahlquist

Orson said his dad bought this building in 1946, so they’ve been there a long time. “My brother, Marlyn, runs the electrical contracting business, and he had a space here, and I asked him if I could use it, and he said okay, so I’m here building it (the plane) inside the building. It’s a nice warm hangar. There’s not much space to work with, but it’s better than nothing.”

While he doesn’t have an actual hangar at this time, he figures he’ll need one when he gets a little further along in the building of the plane. “Then I’ll probably rent a hangar and bring it out there to work on. With this particular airplane the wings come off, and you can store and transport the airplane wherever you want to go. I don’t necessarily need to have it in the hangar until it’s done.”

He’s building the plane using a kit. He did a lot of research before deciding on just what he wanted. “This is an RV12, and this series of airplanes is designed by Richard Van Grunsman. This is the only one that’s a light sport aircraft, the others are RV3s and RV4s, RV5s and up to RV14s.”

With this light sport plane, Orson said, he doesn’t have to have a medical license anymore and do all those stress tests. He can keep flying with his driver’s license. “Anybody with a driver’s license can fly these airplanes, but you still have to have a sports pilot license.”

Orson is also a mechanic and was a commercial pilot, flight instructor, flight engineer, a sea plane pilot and multi-engine pilot. “I have a lot of background in flying and fixing them. I used to be a shop teacher in high school, then my dad influenced me all those years ago, and I thought this was a good time to do this. I’m retired and I don’t have a family, so I decided to build this airplane.” He’s been at it since September 2014. Things are going a little faster now that he’s home and doesn’t have to travel back and forth to Eagan.

“It’s a lot of work building a plane – I have about 1,300 hours of build time already. First you order the parts, get the kit, open it, inventory everything and then you start on page one, step one, read the instructions and keep going until you’re done.”

Last week he got the engine for the plane and was eager to get that put in. The engine is a Rotax 912, 100 horsepower, horizontal – four cylinder, is air and water cooled and was made in Austria.

Orson said, there are five kits that come in a wooden crate. The first kit is a tail section with the vertical, horizontal stabilizer, and the tail cone. Once you get that first kit done, you then order the fuselage kit which comes in another box. “That’s for the cabin basically, and then you get the finishing kit which has all the other stuff, the seats and the fuel tank, the canopy. Once you get the finishing kit done then you order the main wings. The last is the engine kit. That comes with all the power and the other accessories that go with it.”

It’s exciting to work on this, he said, and once you get it all done you get it certified by the FAA. They come out and look at it, make sure all the paperwork is correct, and examine it. After that the flight testing has to be done. “There’s five hours of flight testing that I do, and once I get certified and have insurance coverage, I can fly anyplace I want to go.”

This airplane runs on automobile unleaded gas as opposed to other planes that run on a small engine airplane gasoline, 100 no lead. The small engine airplane gas is two to three times the money as pump gas for automobiles. “That’s one advantage of having this one.”

He describes the airplane he’s building as real reliable. Rotax is used by the military for all of its drones, he said, so it’s a reliable engine. It’s partially liquid cooled and partially air cooled. “It has 100 horsepower, it’s reliable, and it’s a good engine. There’s other engines that go with light sport aircraft but [Van Grunsman] decided to put all Rotax in his engines.”

The rivets, aluminum and fiberglass hold the plane together. “There are 20,000 plus rivets that go into it, the firewall is stainless steel, and the rest is all aluminum. The skin is aluminum alloy that has copper alloy in it so it makes it softer, malleable, strong and resistant to cracking and corrosion. Alclad has proven to have increased resistance to corrosion at the expense of increased weight when compared to sheet aluminum.

“When the manufacturer makes this aluminum, they roll it out in rolls and then squeeze it with a pure layer of aluminum on both sides, and then squeeze it together so the outside of both sides is pure aluminum. That’s why it’s shiny, and inside it’s copper alloy.” They do that because over time the Alclad will erode from the air, and this prevents it from going inside to deteriorate the copper alloy metal there. “Generally aviation in general is all this type of metal, and the skin is either 20 thousandths to 25 thousandths thick.”

The painting of the plane comes later. Orson will probably test fly it first before he paints it just to get all the bugs out. He’s not afraid of test fly it. “Aviation’s all about managing risk. Once you do this for a while you manage all the risk that you can do and come to a conclusion you can fly it safely.” When you’re a pilot, he said, you train to fly and you have an emergency checklist in case you have a problem. “You always train for that and practice landing without any engine support, you glide in. Everybody is trained that has a license; everybody is trained to land without an engine basically. They do that routinely – as a flight instructor they do that routinely.”

In flying a plane like Orson is building or a 747, he said, they all have to go through training and emergency check procedures. “That’s a small problem for people in aviation. We train for that all the time.”

Flying is a lot of fun, he said, and especially in this airplane. “It has a bubble canopy, and you sit forward on the wings so you get really good visibility. You feel connected to the airplane when you fly; you feel like you’re the airplane.”

It has a side-by-side stick controller. The plane holds two people, the pilot and co-pilot, and either one can fly the plane, which has 20 gallons of fuel and a 50-pound luggage compartment in the back.

“My goal is to fly all over the United States and visit all my friends and relatives, and my former students. I used to teach mechanics and flying so wherever I get to an airport there’s bound to be somebody I know somewhere. I did that for a long time and had over 2,000 students.”

Orson said the plane he is building is a very safe airplane. He hasn’t the foggiest idea what color to paint it, and he’s debating if he should paint it himself or have someone else paint it. “If I do it myself I need a place, some practice and need to buy some expensive tubing, etc. The first time it may not turn out as well. The professional painters do a very good job, and they charge a lot of money. The paint is real expensive too.” Orson has painted the inside of his plane himself using a spray gun. “It was $74 for a pint of paint. I probably used seven pints for the interior.”

The interior was an option he had to buy. He put in side panels, the flooring, carpeting, seats and cushions. “I also bought an option for wheel covers and that will increase the aerodynamics of the airplane. This reduces the drag so you get more bang for your buck.”

He said the paint on the plane will have to be scuffed with Scotch Brite and primed with a primer designed for aluminum, followed by a coat or two of paint, a clear coat and then a hardener. “It’s a long process. A friend of mine painted his and it took six weeks for it to dry, then he put tape on it and then stripes. When you put the primer on you only have a short time to put the rest of the paint on…you have to do it all in one process.”

The plane has an all-glass cockpit, a 10-inch computer screen, a moving map and a two access auto pilot so you can do tracking or heading or altitude mode. “You can program it ahead of time, and the plane will fly to that altitude without any more input, and if you want to turn, you just program it, and the plane will turn and go wherever you program it to go.”

His plane also has the required emergency location translator. “If you crash, it sets off a signal, and they can track you to this plane. All planes have that. The ADS-B is new and will be mandated by the FAA in January of 2020.” His plane has a transponder, he said, but “at major airports you have to have ADS-B and it will replace or augment the radar system.” “Each plane that’s flying will have this feature, whether it’s an old or new plane. It will transmit from the plane and broadcast around in all different directions, and when there is an airplane flying below, above, alongside, in the front or in the back, it will register on your screen and tell what altitude they’re flying, what speed and what their heading is.”

That also transmits to the FAA by ground stations. “They can see you also. It’s to enhance safety. It’s going to cost a lot of money for everybody, and since it’s going to be mandated, I’m putting it in now. It costs a little extra money, but I’m going to have a cross-country airplane, and I want to make sure I can go anyplace I want to go.”

The aviation electronics for the plane cost him $17,710, and as for the total cost to his plane…..“I think it will be somewhere north of $70,000.”

Orson purchased a lot of extra options for his plane, and he said, this is the only one he knows of that has the unique feature of removable wings. As to what he’s named his airplane….. RV12 after the man that created the kit.

Once Orson has accomplished his goal of visiting everyone he wants to see, he will return to New London. “I may sell this plane and start building an amphibious airplane that can land on water. They have kits for that too.”

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