Soldotna pilot builds his own airplane, from scratch

Posted: Sunday, September 02, 2001

KENAI (AP) -- You have to wonder how Dudley Abbott can stand to wait.

The experimental Piper Super Cub replica he started building 15 years ago stands spit and polish by his shop. The Federal Aviation Administration inspected it early last 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 wingspan is 38 feet, three 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. 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.

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.

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.

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

''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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