Doctoring do-it-yourself airplanes

Posted: Thursday, February 06, 2003

LEWISTOWN, Mont. (AP) -- Even the most knowledgeable flying enthusiasts don't always know what they're getting into when they plunk down $25,000 or more for a do-it-yourself airplane kit.

Enter Noel Simmons, owner of Blue Sky Aviation of Lewistown. He has made a business of bailing out airplane builders who are in over their heads.

''Most companies don't advertise that it will take 2,000 hours and roughly four years of your life to build a plane," Simmons said.

In a hangar at the Lewistown Municipal Airport, Simmons helps kit aircraft enthusiasts correct their errors and get their airplanes runway ready.

The work is slow and tedious. Simmons, 28, works on four planes a year -- spending hundreds of hours on each. He's finished 17 planes since he founded Blue Sky Aviation three years ago.

It hasn't been exactly a hugely profitable venture either. Given the time investment, a reasonable shop rate of $55 an hour would scare most customers away, so Simmons charges what he needs to live on and pay his one part-time employee.

But he's not complaining.

''Some people dream of being rock stars and all that,'' Simmons said. ''This is my dream.''

Simmons works on experimental aircraft, the legal category for homebuilts, as well as ''certified'' planes such as Cessnas and Pipers. In addition to builder assistance, he offers plane fabric covering and painting services, instrument panel construction, troubleshooting and rewiring and other services.

But his specialty is helping to undo the mistakes of others.

On a recent afternoon, he sanded Bondo filler off of a sporty, fiberglass Glastar plane. Often used for car body repairs, Bondo can't safely endure aircraft speeds, he says.

Were this pint-sized plane to take off, the Bondo fill on the tail could catch the rudder, leaving the pilot unable to control the plane.

''I've thrown about half of this aircraft away because it just wasn't up to standards,'' Simmons said.

The aircraft, still unfinished, already has had three owners.

Planes often arrive at Simmons' hanger with holes drilled in the wrong places, sections installed inside-out or as loose parts jumbled in a box.

Under federal aviation law, Simmons can't finish his customers' projects for them. The Federal Aviation Administration requires kit builders to do most of the assembly work themselves to ensure that they understand how their plane operates and how to maintain it.

But Simmons can correct his clients' errors because the work isn't a step in the kit instruction manual.

He then guides the builder through the remaining steps.

One client from Michigan took two months off of work to finish his plane under Simmons'' tutelage; for others it's a matter of days.

Collin Gardner, a contractor and hobby pilot from Alamosa, Colo., turned to Simmons when his plane project began to idle.

''The longer I had it, the harder it seemed to be able to spend time to work on it,'' Gardner said. ''I just wanted to get it done and get it flying.''

Simmons started his business on his parents' ranch in Hilger in 1999. He has been at his current location since October.

''Lewistown is a place that has an absolutely fantastic runway,'' he said. The people are nice and there's not a lot of traffic so if you're going to be testing an experimental aircraft, this is the place to go.''

Plus, he said, there are a lot of safe places to land in an emergency in the empty countryside.

Simmons caught the flying bug in high school in Kremmling, Colo., when a friend earned his pilot's license.

''My mom said, 'If you want to go flying, get your own license,''' he said.

As Simmons worked through the courses, the subjects he loved in school, such as calculus and physics, suddenly clicked.

''Flying is all about math and seeing about how things work,'' he said. ''It just pulled all of those together and made it all real.''

After four years as an aircraft maintenance specialist in the Navy, Simmons went to college and earned an associate's degree in aircraft maintenance.

A classmate helped him get a job at Accipiter Aviation, a Denver aviation company that helped assembled kit aircraft. Within a year, he bought the company, renamed it and moved it to Montana.

At Accipiter, Simmons learned one of his specialties, the dying art of wood and fabric wing construction.

''Wood takes an awful lot of time to do, but it is still the strongest medium for building aircraft,'' Simmons said.

To start, Simmons snips through a 72-inch bolt of fabric with pinking shears and rolls it out across the plane's wooden wing structures, called ''ribs.''

''It's just as loose as a rag when you put it on,'' he said.

He glues the fabric around the perimeter of the wing, then uses a handheld steam iron to shrink it down to fit.

Customers have come to Simmons from as far away as Australia for instruction in the technique. Few entrepreneurs build such a rapport with their clients.

''Customer relations are very important,'' Simmons said. ''There's so much time you put into an airplane that it really becomes part of you. I call it putting your heart and soul into it.''

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