By ZACH MORGAN, Guardian staff writerNovember 7, 2008
Anyone who has built a model airplane understands Air Force Maj. Chris Mallory's excitement as he nears the completion date of his airplane. Mallory's plane is no model though -- he will be able to jump in the cockpit and fly as soon as he gets it certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Mallory began assembling the mail-order kit plane, a Vans Aircraft RV-8, "two PCSs, two wars and six hurricanes ago." This process is more technical than building a plastic model by far, but Mallory said it's just as fun. "It's a model airplane, just on a bigger scale," said Mallory. "If you go into it with that kind of attitude, it's not quite as daunting."
Mallory, the Air Liaison Officer for Fort Polk, Louisiana's 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, has logged more than 3,000 flying hours for the Air Force, and 700 hours in civilian aircraft. He is an airframe and power plant mechanic, but he said despite those qualifications he is not a licensed airplane builder.
"Because I'm not a licensed builder, I have to stamp 'experimental' on the side of the craft to let everybody know that it was amateur built." Mallory doesn't seem like an amateur though -- at first glance, every rivet on the plane looks like it was placed by an expert. That personal touch is an advantage too, according to Mallory. "A lot of people might be afraid to fly something that they built themselves. I look at it the exact opposite: I know the guy who bucked this rivet -- me. I know he wasn't drunk when he showed up to work. Every plane gets inspected annually. On an experimental plane it's called a conditional inspection. I will know if something is wrong with my plane before someone else would, because I built it. I think an experimental plane is safer because it's me doing the work and it's me flying it. I have a vested interest in making sure it's safe."
This project, currently housed at the Leesville (Louisiana) City Airport, has had some turbulence. "There were little problems all along the way," said Mallory. "For me, that's half the fun. Having to figure out how to fix a problem is what I like about it. It's kind of like a puzzle."
He hasn't been alone. The Experimental Aircraft Association, a national organization of amateur airplane builders and enthusiasts, has a local chapter, of which Mallory is a member. "Those guys have a wealth of knowledge," said Mallory. "If one of us hits a snag, we can talk to the other members and they can help work out a problem." Borrowing tools is another advantage of the network. "Some tools involved in building airplanes cost $200, and I'm only going to need them once. Somebody in the chapter is bound to have them."
Besides the satisfaction Mallory has derived from his project, the plane is also practical. Though it is only a two-seater, he will be able to shuttle his family back and forth to visit his daughter at college faster than driving one way. It is more fuel-efficient, too. "It will cruise at 200 knots, so it's good for cross country," said Mallory. "You don't have to worry about traffic either, and there are no speed limits."
Mallory has been able to involve his family in the endeavor as well. His wife, Terria, came to the shop often to help out. His brother, getting started in web design, needed content for a new web site. Mallory agreed to provide a step-by-step narrative of his project. The resulting website, www.kit-plane-advice.com, shows detailed photos and descriptions of each step of construction.
The end is in sight for Mallory as he finishes the final steps required to make the airplane flyable: hooking up the engine and assembling the engine cowling. He is looking forward to the maiden flight with considerable excitement. "I've flown all these different planes for the Air Force, and they've all been used by the time I get into them. It will be a big rush to fly this plane for the first time, knowing that I built it, and no one else has flown it yet."