Zenith Aircraft Company

Zenith Aircraft Co.




  • By Terry-Lynn Findlay
    FIFTY-FIVE PLUS magazine, October/November 1995
    Ontario, Canada

In the autumn of 1992, on a clear, crisp day, John Richards piloted his home-built Zenith 300 aircraft [an earlier Chris Heintz design] on its inaugural flight with his granddaughter as passenger. Since then, Richards says, "Everyone's been up but my wife."

When asked what it was that sparked his fascination with flight, Richards reflects, "I've always been interested. I was one of those kids hanging off the fence at the Ottawa Flying Club dreaming of flying. My real involvement began in 1939 when I worked there as an apprentice mechanic. It was then that I went for my first flight (as a passenger) in a biplane for a dollar."

During World War II, flight schools were asked by the military to teach recruits how to fly. Richards worked during that time as an aircraft mechanic. After the war, he began a 37 year career as an engineer with the National Research Council (NRC) testing aircraft engines. "I wasn't involved with air frames then," Richards says, just engines."

At the time, regulations did not permit Richards to earn a pilot's license because his eyesight was not 20/20. He had to content himself with building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes. Each new model airplane that he built was a little bigger, and a little more complex.

One day, while leafing through an aircraft magazine he read about the challenge of building a full-size plane, and decided to purchase plans and materials from Zenair, an aircraft company located in Midland.

Because of his work at the NRC, he was well prepared for the task of building a plane; he was a jack-of-all-trades there: carpenter, plumber, sheet metal worker; and had hands-on experience with all of the tools in the machine shop.

He built his 1,150 pound Zenith 300 airplane mainly from raw materials, but he refurbished a used engine, and bought the cockpit canopy and two small wing tips. "The engine was an old, used Lycoming 0-320, 150 horse power. It only cost $6,000, but I had to completely rebuild it."

Richards confesses that he likes building even more than he does flying. This is a good thing, because he describes the materials he acquired to build his plane as "an awful big pile of small pieces."

The entire project took four years to complete and occupied much of Richards' spare time; he began construction while still at the NRC and finished once he retired. Most of the work was done in his basement and garage. Richards describes the task of painting the assembled plane in his back yard as an ordeal. "It was difficult to keep leaves and dust out of the paint, and the neighbors wondered what was going on."

Richards asserts, "Building your own plane is not an impossible dream, but it's got to be done right, and it takes a lot of time. Commercial aircraft have nothing on the home-built now. The sources of kits are limited, but the aircraft can be on a grand scale. You don't have to build everything from scratch as I did, but a molded fiberglass kit can be in the $40,000 price bracket."

John Richards sits proudly in his labor of love, a Zenith 300 airplane. Excluding the engine, cockpit canopy and wing tips, he built the entire plane himself from raw materials.

His plane was checked out by pilot Stan Kurelik of the NRC. After a test flight there are often adjustments that have to be made before a plane can be certified for flying; but upon landing, Kurelik gave the "thumbs up" signal to John and said that there were no misalignments at all. Richards' plane flew perfectly. He says, "I remember watching my plane taxiing down the runway a couple of times, but seeing that first liftoff was exhilarating."

Now that he had his own plane, Richard decided it was high time to learn how to fly - at age 72!

Thinking back to the days when he was excluded from learning to fly because of his eyesight, Richards laughs, "There are fewer restrictions now: pass a medical, be able to see and hear a bit, and put in your minimum dual and solo time." However, he does remember when a pilot could solo after three hours, while 20 hours is more common now because there are so many more air traffic regulations today.

Richards trained at Uplands and soloed at the Ottawa Flying Club. Although he knew how to fly, understood the mechanics of airplanes, and could navigate his way home, he wasn't "navigating strictly by the book" and so could not acquire his license.

Richards says, "I never had any trouble with flying, it was navigation that got me. I could always get back to the airport, but not by the book. You have to figure exactly where you are by the minute. When I sat down at my desk, it seemed easy to calculate distances and time; it was no effort at all. But when you're flying, your confidence can go down the drain."

He had almost given up hope of becoming a pilot until he talked to John Greer of Ottawa Aviation Services (OAS). Greer convinced him that he could master navigation if he stuck with one instructor for the duration of his training. OAS dispelled the misconception that he was too old to fly. Richards says, "John Greer stuck by me. He's a very good instructor."

OAS is small aircraft oriented. Their philosophy is that anyone with the desire can learn to fly regardless of age. They maintain continuity by ensuring that trainees don't get transferred from instructor to instructor. John Richards feels his pilot license is proof that their philosophy works.

John Sjolander, a partner at OAS, says, "John Richards was an unusual case, being the age that he was when he came to us. One of the popular misconceptions retired people have is that they're somehow too old to learn, either because they can't be medically certified, or they can't be taught the mechanical skills of aviation. That's just nonsense. The retirement age of an airline pilot is 60. My business partner Lary Loretto is a senior pilot with Air Canada, with over 30 years of service. He's due to retire in 1998, and there's nothing to say he won't be able to fly his own aircraft after that time."

As of August 1st of this year, the intermediate Recreational Pilot Permit was introduced as an alternative to the private license. Although this permit is more limiting than the full private license, it is a bridge between the full license and the ultralight license which is more restrictive still. The recreational permit allows flight during daylight hours in Canadian airspace, with only one passenger, while the ultralight license allows for flying only ultralight aircraft, and no passengers. Sjolander says, "The new recreational permit bridges the gap between the ultralight license, which has a tremendous number of restrictions, and the private license." Working toward a recreational permit is easier. "They have shaved many of the training requirements and reduced the minimum flying time from 45 to 25 hours. And a large part of what you do to get a recreational permit will count toward the 45 hour minimum for a private pilot license."

Sjolander feels that the new recreational permit will revitalize the industry by giving people an option that is more easily attainable. "The private pilots we're turning out now are effectively the equivalent of the commercial pilots we turned out 15 years ago in terms of the length of time they fly and the skills they have. By putting so much emphasis on the academic side, we had lost sight of what flying is supposed to be. Not so much for professional pilots, but generally for most of us, flying is supposed to be fun. It still can be. This recreational permit is one of the things that will allow us to put the fun back into flying.

"Whether you go for the full license or the private permit, if I've done my job right, you probably won't get into serious trouble," Sjolander says. "And if you do, you should know how to either get yourself out of it, or survive it. The number of accidents in small airplanes is miniscule. And a large number of accidents can be legitimately classified as pilot error, and people being just plain stupid. If you fly by the rules, and don't test your limitations, you'll never get into trouble."

The full private pilot license averages 65 hours of dual and solo flying time, with a minimum of 45 hours. This is an advanced course that qualifies pilots to go on to become commercial pilots if they wish. Based on the average time, this would cost approximately CAN$ 6,000. The recreational permit takes an average of 35 hours with a 25 hour minimum, which shaves the cost closer to $3,500 much more affordable for the average enthusiast who often doesn't want to fly at night or out of Canadian airspace anyway.

Richards confirms this opinion. "I'm a Sunday pilot. I like to fly to Morrisburg, Smiths Falls, Iroquois. I go to all the fly-in breakfasts that flying clubs put on." He likes flying out of Carp. "The country you fly over when you follow the river is picturesque."

He recommends that people interested in aviation visit their local flying club. "Members of flying clubs have a variety of interests and knowledge, and are always willing to help," Richards says. As a rule, flying clubs encourage visitors. During the summer months, clubs hold impromptu meetings, which often start with a fly-in breakfast. "As many as 80 planes show up for the fly-in breakfasts at Carp."

Attaining his private pilot license and building his airplane are enormous accomplishments, but Richards says he has one small regret: he hasn't made a perfect landing with Greer sitting in the cockpit beside him. "I'm always better landing on my own," he says, "but I'm going to get John up with me again.

FIFTY-FIVE PLUS magazine, October/November 1995 (Ontario, Canada)


NOTE: This article represents the viewpoints of the author, and not necessarily those of Zenith Aircraft Company.

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