Home Grown Airplane

What do you do for an encore when you’ve spent your career flying for the military, then working in military avionics?

Build your own plane, of course!

That’s what electrical engineers and IEEE members Bob Jackson and Ron Marini did after meeting at Lockheed Martin, where they helped pioneer the development of the night imaging and computer vision technology fields for military aviation applications. The construction saw them through a dozen years of fits and starts, and two job changes. Jackson now runs Jackson Technologies , an aviation camera systems firm in Apopka, Fla., while Marini works for the Orlando office of L3 Communications, an international aerospace company.

The result was a redesigned Velocity, a sleek 4-seat experimental plane that they customized from a factory kit to fly up to 1000 nautical miles (1609 nautical km), 250 knots (459 kph), and altitudes up to 25 000 feet (7620 meters). Since its first test flight in 2008, the pair have logged close to 100 000 miles (161 934 km) and 500 flight hours, including Jackson’s six-week, 12 000-mile (19 312-km) jaunt around the U.S. last summer.

Jackson figures they spent twice the original US $35 000 kit cost for the extra equipment they installed, and estimate their labor time translated to a similar amount. However, he says, the Velocity only costs him about $1000 in fuel to fly four people round-tip from Florida to Denver, where his daughter lives – about the same as commercial flights – but with the convenience of flying their own plane.

“We picked the Velocity – which has its engine and propellers in the back - for a modern design that was potentially much faster, quieter and more efficient than traditional designs, with the engine in front,” says Jackson. “It also uses a fiberglass construction that is lighter, stronger and allows more modifications, and the Velocity plant is within driving distance. Plus, the plane looked cool and different.”

Just because a plane comes from a kit doesn’t mean it goes together easily. Timelines can range from four months with factory assistance, to the five-year average to a very common ten years depending on the builders’ skills, experience, available time, and – in the case of Jackson and Marini – how many subsystems they want to redesign or construct differently. “More than half of kit aircraft are never finished – at least by the original builders,” says Jackson.

The friends hatched their plan in 1998, and began meeting at Marini’s nearby Windermere home every Saturday, originally anticipating a one- to two-year timeline. “Neither of us had any particular aerodynamics or mechanical engineering experience, other than the normal EE school classes and system exposure gained while building large military avionics systems,” says Jackson. “We set 'usage objectives' for our Velocity early in the construction process which ultimately added many years to the build timeline.”

For example, the standard Velocity is a regional and recreational flyer, generally confined to good weather. But the pair wanted an airplane with national range, achieved at higher altitudes and in all kinds of weather, both day and night. That departure from the original kit required a custom turbocharged engine, electronic instead of mechanical avionics instruments, crew and passenger oxygen, electronic cabin climate control system (for large temperature differentials between ground and cruising altitudes), and dual redundant electrical power and distribution systems. “During the first two years of test flying, we also had to replace or redesign both electronic flight instrument systems, the engine monitor and autopilot subsystems, as well as the landing gear and engine electronic ignition systems,” says Jackson.

But the real test came with Marini’s wife, who watched the plane’s construction site expand from their garage to two massive tarp-covered lean-tos in the driveway, the inside foyer (which stored the fiberglass cloth), the living room (which housed the wings), family room (for miscellaneous parts), and the freezer (laden with bags of reusable epoxy). Where most people send pictures of their growing families on Christmas cards, Jackson sent picture of the plane’s progress. By the time he made his cross-country trip, it was more a matter of proving to everyone that he’d finished the thing than that it actually flew.

“We moved it to a hangar at the Orlando Apopka Aiport several years ago, but Ron’s wife was a saint for having all that stuff in her house for all those years,” says Jackson. “They’ve now done a total remodel of the house – maybe that was something Ron had to promise her in exchange for her patience with the plane.”

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