LIVING THE DREAM – ROB LONERAGAN speaks with David Barrow

Have you ever dreamed of building and then flying your own aircraft? Not a model; the real thing.

If you have, you’re not alone. Many people have spent years contemplating such an ambition but have not acted for many reasons, chief among these being the cost and complexity of the task.

Yes, flying can be an expensive pastime but with the advent of kit aircraft that require basic handyman skills, you may be pleasantly surprised at how affordable building your own aircraft may be. Licensing requirements have also changed allowing recreational and sports aviation pilots much easier and cheaper access to the skies. Suddenly, the dream of building and flying your own aircraft is much closer to reality.

So it may be cheaper and easier to realise the dream, but is it still relatively the province of the wealthy?

Rob Loneragan has long held the ambition to make aviation more accessible to aspiring flyers. Aviation is in his blood. From an early age he followed in the footsteps of his father and uncles who were accomplished pilots and made flying a family tradition. From there the passion developed as he progressed as a multi engine, command instrument rated pilot. This led ultimately to Rob pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities in commercial aviation. On a daily basis he speaks with aspiring aviators and those already enjoying the pastime.

Rob developed an interest in kit aircraft as the key to making the sport of flying more affordable. Many of those he speaks with who have a passion to build and fly aircraft are over fifty five, some closer to eighty. All share a sense of adventure and Rob is quick to dispel some of the myths that stand as obstacles to becoming involved in flying for recreation.

Take the license required to fly for recreational purposes. ‘If you have a licence to drive a car, there should be nothing in the way for you to obtain a recreational pilot’s license’, he says. ‘This license allows pilots to fly in what is called uncontrolled airspace; places where there is no conflict with commercial or general aviation. That means you cannot fly into major or regional airports that require compliance with strict operating procedures, but you can fly to small towns and villages where no such restrictions apply. In Australia for example, vast areas are open to recreational flyers. There are rules to obey such as height restrictions, flying only during daylight hours unless qualified to fly at night and of course a common-sense approach to safety. The opportunities for recreational flyers to explore the country are boundless.’

To obtain a recreational pilot’s licence, the trainee must be physically capable of safely operating an aircraft in much the same way as one must demonstrate capacity to drive a car. Flight training by an approved instructor then takes the trainee through the principles of flight, all aspects of safe operation and developing the essential skills to fly the aircraft.  Flying training for recreational pilots is typically much cheaper than for general aviation. Next comes purchase of an aircraft.

Before building a kit aircraft, you can research the range of aircraft types on offer to see what suits you best. At the simplest and cheapest end are powered hang gliders and gyrocopters. Both provide a wind in the face flying experience but are restricted in range. Then come the more advanced kit aircraft.

Rob Loneragan has built four kit aircraft to date. His latest is a two seater SeaRey amphibian; a sleek enclosed cockpit aircraft imported from Florida, USA which can incidentally be flown with the cockpit bubble retracted for those who prefer the fresh air experience. The basic airframe kit costs around AUD$45,000 + import freight costs and GST. Add engine and instruments, painting and final inspection and certification and the completed aircraft ready to fly will cost somewhere between $95,000 and $115,000 depending on the various options selected by the builder.

SeaReys and their owners enjoy a long lunch by the water’s edge

How complex is the building process? As Rob explains, ‘It is not difficult. A person with general handyman skills and some basic tools can easily undertake the work. You need to be thorough and to follow the instructions carefully but essentially it is about bolting and screwing components together in a set order. The aircraft of course needs to be safe and at specific stages of the build inspections are undertaken by authorised personnel.  Building my aircraft requires between 600 to 800 hours, so that’s about three and a half months full time or around twelve months to completion part time.  After the aircraft is completed there is a short period of flight testing to gain the final flight certification required. And then you are free to roam.’

Rob speaks of the pleasure he obtains in flying his home built aircraft. ‘This aircraft, being an amphibian has a boat shaped fuselage and one of my greatest joys is making the perfect landing on water. Just greasing the surface, smoothly and gracefully with barely a bump. Having an amphibious aircraft gives you the best of both worlds. I regularly fly to country areas where the airstrips are commonly dirt or grass. My aircraft is equally at home on country strips or on the water. The aircraft is a comfortable two-seater and with the long-range fuel tanks, has a range of just over five hours flying at a cruising speed of around 80 knots. The freedom to travel where you want is at the core of owning your own aircraft and it’s worth noting that wherever a boat can operate, so too can a seaplane. The only requirement is that the seaplane pilot must also have a boat licence, as a seaplane is deemed to be a navigable vessel.’

‘Something to remember’, says Rob, ‘is that some aircraft can be noisy and can be invasive of privacy. For example, you may like the idea of practising landings on water or the land. Touch and go’s in pilot speak. However, if you are performing the routine on a river or a lake, chances are there will be other people around who are there for peace and quiet. One or two ‘touch and go’s’ may be highly entertaining and interesting for onlookers, but more may stretch the friendship. Like any activity you should consider the needs of others or you may find objectors curbing your fun.’

So having built four kit aircraft, would Rob do it again?  ‘No. My wife has said that’s enough so I’m content to get the most out of this one and move on with my other interests like developing an Airpark where those keen on flying can have a home or a hangar right on the airfield. If you so desire, that could be the next step after building your own plane.

(A story about  how to build on an Airpark will be told in a later edition of “Fifty Five Plus’).