Simple Airplanes + Modern Construction = Full-Scale Affordable Flight

By Scott Spangler on September 23rd, 2008

JetWhine_AirdromeAero_SopwithLike most pilots, I dreamed of one day owning an airplane. With the cost of groceries and gas, one son in college and his brother  starting next year, I’d put the dream to bed. Given all the costs, I couldn’t justify it to myself, because I fly for fun, not transportation. But then I accepted Robert Baslee’s invitation to visit Airdrome Aeroplanes homebase, a 1,000-foot grass strip in Holden, Missouri, just east of Kansas City.

If the name sounds familiar, Robert built four full-scale Nieuport 17s in 52 days for the movie, Flyboys. I met him at EAA AirVenture this year (see Fun Flyer Lands Roll in new Amelia Earhart Film).  I have a passing interest in World War I airplanes, but I’d never looked closely at the replicas, knowing there was no way I could cram the full-scale me into a 3/4 or 7/8 scale airplane that was small to start with. 

Robert said if I was fit enough to get in, I’d fit. And then he invited me to try on the full-scale Sopwith Pup shown above. Always skeptical, I clambered into the cockpit, carefully placing my left foot in the fuselage cutout and swinging my right leg up, over, and into the cockpit that swallowed me whole–with room to spare. With a VW engine, I could have a flying airplane for less than $25K, he said. And they meet the definition of a light-sport aircraft, so they are sport-pilot ready.

Say again?

The deluxe kit, which includes the ready-to-install fuel tank and engine mount, is $12,945. That includes covering and finishing materials through silver. The Valley Engineering/Culver Prop firewall forward package is $10K. Hmm. My sleeping dream was stirring. “And you don’t need to buy the whole kit,” he added. “A number of our builders start with the sub-kits, they can afford.” There are a dozen of them, and for the Sopwith Pup the wing kit is the most expensive at $3,595 and the rudder is $245.

An engineer who put himself through school as a machinist, Robert has designed and makes 18 kits. Most of them are 3/4 or 7/8 scale, but with the availability of new engines like the Rotec radial and Valley Engineering VW, full-scale designs are attracting more interest.

JetWhine_AirdromeAero_DR1 Harvey Cleveland, Airdrome’s test pilot, was pushing another of Robert’s full-scale kits, the DR1 Triplane, into the hangar. Asking about the replica’s flying qualities, he said anyone who can handle a Champ, Citabria, or Decathlon could fly an Airdrome Aeroplane. Except for the Triplane. In a three-point attitude the cockpit is so blind, he said, “you  might as well look backwards.”

Regardless the scale, Robert says he tweaks the dimensions of the wing and location of the cockpit, leading edges, and landing gear to make for better flying airplanes. Otherwise, they are dimensionally accurate replicas. He also perfected a modern construction method–aluminum tubes joined by gussets and blind rivets — that takes 400 hours or so. Unlike the originals, the replicas are not aerobatic. I can live with that.

JetWhine_AirdromeAero_Trailer I haven’t fully awakened the dream of owning an airplane. All of them are designed to easily come apart into big pieces and fit in a trailer, he said showing me one of the Flyboys’ Nieuport 17s. That feature pretty much takes care of the hangar question. No, before I awaken the dream I have to decide which full-scale replica appeals to me the most, the Sopwith Pup or the Nieuport 17, 24, or 28. The only thing I know for sure is that it’s not the DR1 Triplane. Looking backwards on takeoff is not my idea of fun. — Scott Spangler

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