Building a Kit Plane – Part 9

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve caught myself telling a student pilot “the checkride really isn’t that bad.” I was nervous when I took mine, but I didn’t let anyone know before I got in the plane. I had no idea the anticipation leading up to flying a plane that’s built by your own two hands (four hands, including Pat Tippmann) for the first time (without an examiner) would increase that same nervousness tenfold.

The Zenith received its airworthiness certificate and operating limitations for phase 1 flight testing on August 12. The weather looked perfect for the morning of August 14, so the ground crew was assembled. There was plenty of ground support on hand; additionally, we decided to have another plane involved as a spotter/chase plane just in case I parked the Zenith far from a runway.

The chase plane was first in the air, and I prepared for departure moments later. The checklist was complete, and I was pleased with the readings on my engine gauges. All I had left to do was say a little prayer, make a radio call, and put the throttle lever to the firewall. About the time the throttle was pushed in, the nose wheel left the ground, followed quickly by the main wheels. The Zenith flies!

My first flight test card required a climb to 3,000 feet and the execution of gentle 360-degree turns. To remain above the airport, I did the first 360 while climbing. Upon leveling off and picking up speed, *BANG*! The copilot door was partially missing, and the remaining portion was swinging from the hinge in the wind. All nervousness was gone. I radioed that I had lost a door and would return to land. I made sure all control surfaces still functioned and started descending. The landing went exactly as I hoped: uneventful, safe, and possibly the best one yet.

As I shut the plane down and cleaned the Plexiglas out of my lap, I realized that being nervous was silly. Many things could have gone wrong and been a serious problem, but none of that happened. It was a great first flight! I have flown just over nine hours since then (with no doors) and enjoyed every moment. The replacement door is now on (with an additional latch) and will be tested before you read this.

I have learned a lot from the beginning of this project. Working out small problems during the build, planning ahead, reading and researching before you execute your idea are just the tip of the iceberg. Going back to my primary training, I followed the most valuable advice any instructor or magazine has given me: FLY THE PLANE!