Soldotna pilot decides to build his own airplane from scratch

Out of the blue

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2001

You have to wonder how Dudley Abbott can stand to wait.

The experimental Piper Super Cub replica he started building about 1986 stands spit and polish by his shop off Robinson Loop. The FAA inspected it early this month, and he is waiting to hear back.

"They're supposed to give me an air worthiness certificate, first. Then I can fly it," Abbott said.

He said "Levitator" is just like a factory Super Cub, but better.

"They were built with 1020 steel, which is mild steel," he said. "This is built with 4130 steel, which is twice as strong."

Levitator's wing-span is 38 feet, three feet more than the span of the factory Super Cubs manufactured from 1949 to 1982.

"The only way to improve performance, with fixed horsepower, is to add wingspan," he said.

Abbott designed his plane for the Bush. With the larger wing, it should take off at 23 mph, compared to the 35 or 40 mph a factory Super Cub needs to get off the ground, he said. But that is a compromise, he said.

"The bigger the wing, the quicker it will get off the ground and the higher it will fly. But you're also more subject to turbulence," he said.

Another compromise is the Borer propeller Abbott has ordered to shorten his takeoffs.

"It's a long, thin foil that moves a lot of air at once," he said.

That gets an airplane off the ground in a hurry, but cuts cruising speed. With a standard propeller, Levitator probably could cruise at 105 mph, he said. With the Borer propeller, it probably will cruise at just 85 or 90.

Abbott should know. After leaving the U.S. Navy in 1969, he went to airframe and power plant mechanic school on the GI Bill, and also obtained a pilot's license and instrument and floatplane ratings.


Moore says he enjoys working on airplanes as much as he enjoys flying them.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

He has been fixing and flying small planes ever since.

Now, he makes his living conducting annual inspections of certified airplanes.

"Before I sign off on a certified plane, I always tell them, 'You're going to take me for a ride and make sure it flies,'" he said. That gives his inspections credibility.

When it comes to his plane, Abbott made other improvements. While the factory Super Cub has a single door on the right side, Abbott moved the controls to allow doors on both. He also put a key for the radio microphone on the end of the stick. He moved the engine oil cooler to the rear of the engine area and installed a shutter he can use to block air from the outside. That helps warm the engine on cold winter days.

"Usually, the oil cooler on a Cub is mounted in front, and you have to put something in front of it to heat it up," he said.

His experience with Super Cubs began in 1972, when he took a job maintaining planes for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Lake Hood in Anchorage. Several years later, he took a job maintaining planes for the Alaska State Troopers. In the early 1980s, he maintained planes for Homer Air in Homer. From about 1986 until 1989, he maintained planes for Kachemak Air Service in Homer.

"Working for the troopers, I accumulated a whole bunch of Super Cub drawings. I decided one day I was going to build one from scratch," he said. "For Bush flying, there's never been a better airplane built. There's so many of them around, and they're mostly in Alaska.

"The Italian army used Super Cubs for high-altitude rescue and border patrols in the Alps. That's where I got a couple of these struts."

The Super Cub is probably the safest plane in the world, he said.

Abbott said building from scratch actually has been easier than restoring crashed and aging airplanes.

"Depending on how damaged or rusty it is, when you rebuild, there's always a danger of missing something," he said.

There is always a little suspense.

"The first time you get into turbulence, you remember every weld," he said.


Moore works in his spacious shop near Soldotna.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Abbott, 58, said he has been building model airplanes since the 1940s. He joined the Experimental Airplane Association when he returned from duty in Vietnam in 1969. He started building Levitator about 1986 in Homer.

"I'd get some time. I'd work like crazy on it. Then family gets in the way. I figured out one thing. You can have an airplane or you can have a wife, but you can't have both," said Abbott, who is now divorced.

The first step in building Levitator was to draw the trussed sides of the fuselage on a plywood table. Once that was done, Abbott started welding steel tubing to make the frames. Then, he stood them up and added cross pieces and diagonals.

The welds were tricky, Abbott said. With 4130 steel, he had to heat broad areas to keep the metal from turning brittle, and heat makes the metal expand.

"You can't clamp it rigidly, because it expands. You have to fight distortion. You have to keep plumb bobs on your frame," he said. "You heat until it expands. Then you weld. Then, you heat the surrounding area to distribute the stress over a wide area. You let it cool slowly, because if it cools too fast, it could become brittle. You work front to back -- that minimizes stress -- and you heat both sides to distribute the stress."

He said the work can be frustrating. He spent six hours building a support for the controls to the stabilizer, then had to start over -- twice.

"I welded it. I measured it. It was crooked. I cut it off," he said. "I made another and welded it on. It was crooked. You have to shut the door and turn the lights off and go home. I came back later and made another one that was perfect."

He said he tried to sell the unfinished airplane a couple of times.

"I threatened to hack-saw it apart and take it to the dump," he said.

But it didn't sell, and he couldn't cut it up. He brought it when he moved to Soldotna about 1993 and worked with a will beginning in 1998.

By 1999, he had finished the fuselage. He welded on fittings for the wings, landing gear and floats.

In 2000, he started the wings, which he built with aluminum ribs manufactured by Frank Hendrickson in the Mackey Lakes area of Soldotna. It took a year to lay out the spars, cut holes for all the fittings and slide the ribs into place, he said. There was no welding. The wings are fastened with rivets.

"Then, I put in all the parts and pieces, installed the gas tanks and stitched fabric on it. You glue it to the trailing edge, then shrink it with an iron," he said.


Abbott has modified the design of his plane from the Super Cub to best suit his flying needs.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

The fuselage he sandblasted, sprayed with epoxy primer and a top coat and covered with fabric, too.

He finished the fabric with weatherproof coatings.

"That's why I was sick for a year, I think. I developed asthma," he said.

Finally, he bolted the pieces together -- wings, landing gear and tail gear.

"Then, you've just got started, because you've got the engine to go to," he said.

Abbott installed a four-cylinder, 150 horsepower, direct-drive Lycoming engine, with extra equipment to make it easier to start by hand.

The alternator came from a Toyota, he said, and so did the hand-brake handle that controls the flaps. The boot cowl he made from aluminum bought from Peninsula Hardware.

He said he does not even want to know how much money he has invested in the plane.

His shop is filled with specialty tools -- pliers for notching sheet metal, pliers for dimpling rivet holes to recess the heads, a tool for bending crisp corners in sheet metal, a pneumatic rivet squeezer and two pneumatic rivet guns. He has a hole saw mounted on a jig to cut the U-shaped ends required when he welds the end of one piece of tubing to the middle of another.

Some tools Abbott made himself -- clamps the right shape to bend sheet metal to the leading edge of a Super Cub wing, jigs for assembling the rudder pedals and the bell crank that moves the flaps.

"You've got to have all this stuff to do a good job," he said.

With Levitator barely finished, Abbott already has started his next project, an Air Bike ultralight airplane.

" I got an engine for it a couple of weeks ago off e-Bay. I got the propeller off e-Bay," he said.


Moore works in his spacious shop near Soldotna.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

He is building wooden ribs for the wing on a jig in his apartment.

"I have a band saw in my apartment and a drill press and a sander. They're little tiny -- apartment size," he said. "People think I'm nuts, and they're right."

A bundle of metal tubing for the Air Bike fuselage hangs from the ceiling of Abbott's 14-by-40-foot shop. The assortment of aircraft parts overhead includes a set of wing tips, spreader bars for some airplane floats, a bundle of old Super Cub struts and the stabilizer spar for a Cessna 206.

"That, I just can't throw away. I might need it some day," he said.

There are damaged Super Cub spars he used as patterns to drill the holes in the new spars he bought for Levitator. There are fiberglass molds for the nose bowl of a Super Cub.

"I got those at a garage sale for $5. I couldn't believe it. They're probably worth $1,000. My nose bowl is Fiberglas. Originally, they were metal, but I'm the manufacturer, so I can put whatever I want on there," he said.

On the walls are patterns for the ribs inside Levitator's ailerons and flaps. There is a collection of Washington, Alaska and Yukon license plates and the seal from a Peterbilt mud flap. There is a red cut-out of the word "Wright," the name of a former politician.

"I couldn't throw that away," he said.

The word was written in the same style as the word "Wright" on the engine in a 1929 Travel Air plane Abbott restored for Kachemak Air. The engine was just one model later than the one that carried Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic.

Hanging by the door is a wooden propeller with a riveted copper leading edge. That came from a Piper J3 Cub, the plane Abbott wants to build after he finishes the Air Bike.

"I want to build a standard Piper J3 Cub, a replica, 65 horse, no flaps. You have to fly it from the rear seat," he said.

The weight of the pilot counterbalances the weight of a fuel tank in the nose.

"It's a bad disease, these airplanes," he said. "I don't want to prove anything with it. I just like building.

"Sometimes, I think I like it better than flying."

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