Homemade plane completes lifelong dream



December 3, 2011 - 12:00 AM

It took a while for Elvin Nelson’s lifelong dream – flying – to become reality.
“I wanted to do it as a kid,” he recalled.
But he never got the chance.
Even after four years in the Air Force, the experience of taking controls of an aircraft still eluded Nelson, now 62.
“I didn’t take up flying until I was 50,” he said. “Best thing I’ve ever done.”
Fast forward about 12 years, to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day, when Nelson soared above Allen County Airport in his latest project, a homemade Just Aircraft Highlander tail-dragger, a two-passenger airplane he built from scratch.
“I don’t think you could call this a hobby,” 
Nelson said, referring to the long hours he spent assembling the plane, during evenings, weekends or any other spare minute during the past 19 months. “It’s safer to say that this plane has been my life.”

NELSON, OWNER of South Town Auto Body, started with a basic Highland kit, manufactured by Just Aircraft in South Carolina.
A pre-welded fuselage and engine were about the only items already in place. The other assortment of metal pieces, fabric covering and other components were added one piece at a time – not unlike assembling a model airplane.
“I just used their instruction manual,” he said, a booklet several inches thick explaining in great detail the steps necessary to turn a pile of metal and wood into a functional aircraft.
“There were two or three times I needed help,” he said, at which case he would call the manufacturers. “They would get me pointed in the right direction, and I’d just redo it.”
The plane itself features metal fastened around a fabric-encased fuselage, creating flexibility and strength.
“It was quite a procedure,” Nelson said.
While some claimed to have built their planes in as little as six months, Nelson’s slow-but-methodical approach – taking 19 months in all – proved just as reliable.
His work was done largely on his own, save for the occasional times when other local pilots would stop by to check on his progress.
“The problem was that if too many people showed up, we’d wind up doing nothing but trading stories,” he said with a laugh. “Nothing would get done.”

ATTENTION TO detail was an obvious necessity from the start.
Inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration were on hand early on the process, once the basics were in place, then again at completion.
Nelson pointed to a warning posted inside the cockpit warning passengers that the Highlander was not built to federal safety standards.
“That’s because it’s better,” he said with a laugh.
The aircraft is powered by a six-cylinder, 120-horsepower Jabiru engine.
Unlike Nelson’s first airplane, a high-performance Bellanca Viking – a “go fast” airplane – the Highlander will rarely reach speeds over 100 mph.
“This thing is built to go low and slow,” Nelson joked.
But with room for wife Earline, plus plenty of storage behind the cockpit for luggage, Nelson envisions plenty of travel opportunities in the future.
Nelson sold the Bellanca, in part to be able to build his own airplane.
He almost decided against it, instead looking at another already built plane.
Nelson went back and forth, wondering if the time necessary to build a plane would be worth the payoff.
“My wife asked me if I really wanted to buy the other plane,” he said.
His lack of a definitive answer was definitive enough.
“Don’t buy it,” she said.
Now, after 19 months of hard, often monotonous labor – “There were times I’d work all day, and you couldn’t tell anything had been done,” he recalled – was the effort worth it?
“Absolutely,” Nelson declared. “Even if I had to quit tomorrow, this was money well spent.”
Building a plane, as opposed to buying it pre-assembled also had another benefit.
“If you buy a plane, it probably costs twice as much as if you build it yourself,” he said.
So how much did he spend?
Nelson declined to answer.
“That’s almost like asking a woman how much she weighs,” he chuckled.

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