Building and Flying Your Own Aircraft

My interest in aircraft started when I was a young boy back in the 1940’s, starting with paper aeroplanes and then slowly moving up over the years to balsa wood gliders, rubber band driven flying models, small diesel engine driven models and finally radio controlled models in my late teens. These were all hand-built, either from a kit of parts or from scratch. I even built all the radio control systems from scratch. That was all put aside when I went to university in the late 1950’s.

Upon graduating from university with a degree in electronic engineering I was offered a job to work on the development of Concord. Initially I was quite keen on this idea, but then decided to turn it down in favour of a more exciting life in seismic exploration. This took me to many places around the world and involved a lot of flying in small aircraft and helicopters to get to places that were inaccessible by commercial transport. On some of these flights the pilot would say “Do you want to have a go at flying it?” and so began my interest in flying real aeroplanes.

Some years later I was offered a management position at our head office in Bromley, Kent which I accepted, and we moved down to Orpington from the Midlands. It turned out our office was just half a mile from Biggin Hill airport, so I could sit at my office desk and watch small aircraft and business jets taking off and landing. I would often say to my wife, Chris, that I would like to learn to fly but never did anything about it until one Christmas she bought me a flying lesson and I was hooked. Several days a week I would turn up at Biggin Hill at 7 am for a flying lesson and then go into work for 9 am. After four months of this I had accumulated enough flying hours and passed enough exams and flight tests to be awarded my Private Pilot Licence. Over the next few months, I added a Night Flying rating and an Instrument Meteorological Conditions rating to expand my flying capabilities. I then bought a one sixth share in a light aircraft based at Biggin Hill and for the next twenty years flew all over the UK and Europe in it.

In 2004 we had both retired. We’d had enough of the rat race in London so we decided to move out to Norfolk. I sold my share in the aircraft and looked for a similar deal at local airfields. I joined the flying club at Seething airfield, bought a share in an aircraft and continued my flying from there.

In the club were a small group of pilots who wanted to build their own aircraft. I thought that was a great idea, so I joined the group, coughed up my share of the money and we bought a Jabiru J400 airplane kit from Australia which duly arrived some months later. This was a glass fibre aircraft, so we needed a mix of talents to build it.

Out of the group there were 4 pilots with strong engineering backgrounds which covered all areas of the construction. My background was in electronics, so I took on the responsibility for the electrical/electronic/avionics installation. This was quite a challenge to my rusty electronics, so much research into aircraft electrics and avionics ensued before the installation began. The aircraft was completed and flew six months later.

In parallel with building the Jabiru, myself and my pilot friend and fellow Jabiru builder, Steve, decided that we would like to buy and build a more challenging aircraft so we put our money down on a starter kit (tailplane and fin/rudder) for a Vans RV9A aircraft from the USA. This aircraft was totally different to the Jabiru as it was constructed of riveted aluminium panels, had a more powerful engine and a more sporty performance.

My build partner was a retired MD of an aerospace company, so had a wide range of experience but neither of us had any experience with riveting aluminium panels. Luckily, one of the other Jabiru builders had extensive knowledge of constructing riveted aircraft as he had already built his own version of the same aircraft. He became our tutor, teaching us the art of riveting and any other necessary missing skills and he became our go-to guru for helping in solving any problems we encountered.

During the first few weeks the learning curve was very steep, with many damaged rivets having to be drilled out and re-done but we soon got the hang of it and building speeded up. We completed the starter kit build in about two months, enjoyed the experience and learning, so we put in our order for the remainder of the airplane kit. There was an eight months delivery time, so we whiled away the time with lots of flying trips in the Jabiru.

The kit arrived on time in three large wooden crates which took us a few days to unpack and check all the components were correct. Luckily, there was sufficient space in the hangar at Seething to safely store all the components and still have space to build the aircraft. Most builders of this particular kit take 5 – 10 years but we didn’t want to wait that long so embarked on a strenuous six day, 9 am – 6 pm non-stop schedule to try to cut the build time down.

This intense build schedule paid off and 2 years to the day since we first ordered the starter kit our test pilot came to Seething and after a thorough check of all systems took her for her first flight. This lasted about 30 minutes and after landing the test pilot said she flew beautifully which brought a great smile to Steve and my faces. In the following couple of weeks, we were allowed to join the test pilot to complete the series of tests required by the licensing authorities and to gain experience on this new aircraft under the guidance of the test pilot.

Basic maintenance involves a pre-flight check of engine, airframe and controls before every flight, a 50 hours or six months (whichever comes first) check, which involves an oil change, lubrication and a more thorough check of all controls and systems. Finally, an annual check is required which involves strip down of the aircraft and thorough checking of all components for wear, corrosion, damage and replacement/repair as necessary. A licensed engineer will need to check and sign-off this annual maintenance.

I enjoy my flying in two ways. Local flights over East Anglia, returning to Seething. On local flights I can enjoy the ever-changing scenery of Norfolk/Suffolk countryside, from patchwork fields of brilliant yellow rape, colourful tulips or roses to country mansions/estates and wonderful coastal scenes. The other is Cross-Country flights where I visit other airfields before returning to Seething. Cross-Country flights can include touring which may cover several thousand miles and overnight stays in other towns/countries. On Cross-Country flights I can enjoy the challenge of negotiating complex controlled airspace, channel crossings, foreign air traffic controllers, mountains and tricky airfield layouts. These flights may be made with another pilot to share the load, or a friend or even on my own.

In the ten years since that first flight myself, and co-owner Steve, have completed over 1,000 hours flying between us and covered over 100,000 miles in UK and Europe, visiting nearly 100 airfields in the process.

Brian Greathead