Labors of love, built to soar


Flying: There’s always a few people willing to try it. Until modern commercial and private aircraft came along, attempts to fly almost always met with spectacular results and often death, or at least the next best thing.

History is, in fact, full of people who suffered injury while attempting to take to the air. Smarter inventors didn’t attempt to fly themselves. Tito “Mouse Lover” Burattini, for example, was an Italian inventor who tied a cat to model airplane in 1647.

Whether these inventors and visionaries used a large kite, hot air balloon or aircraft that required energetic wing-flapping, they had to build the craft themselves, much like modern experimental aircraft enthusiasts.

Carlos Grageda, who studied airplane mechanics at Boise State University in the 1970s, is one of several airplane owners who keep (and build) experimental light aircraft at Martin Field in College Place.

“I’ve always been interested in aviation,” Grageda said, adding his involvement began with plastic model planes as a kid.

Grageda owns two planes, which look vaguely like giant mechanical dragonflies, that he keeps in a hangar at the airfield.

“The planes I fly are classically known as ultralights,” Grageda said, adding his planes are classified as light sport craft because they are too powerful, and carry too much fuel by Federal Aviation Administration standards.

An ultralight plane, by FAA standards, can only carry five gallons of fuel, weigh less than 254 pounds, and reach less than 64 mph in the air.

The FAA also monitors home built aircraft construction, but only loosely, according to Grageda.

“As you build it, you can have inspections on critical structural points of the aircraft,” Grageda said. “Mainly it’s to make sure it’s not going to fall apart when it takes off.”

Grageda added if the plane passes inspection, the FFA grants a “limited certificate.” Planes can earn an open certificate after 25 to 40 hours of flight time.

“With an experimental plane, you have to be the test pilot,” Grageda said.

In addition to owning two planes, Grageda said he is helping Lafe Bissell of College Place build a two-seat Drifter, similar to one of Grageda’s planes. Bissell’s plane is only one of many projects under way at the airfield, however.

Jerry Carlyle, who jointly owns a Highlander light sport plane with Alan Fisher, bought a Pietenpol Air Camper project several year ago, and is currently rebuilding the wood-and-fabric plane.

Developed in the late 1920s by Bernard Pietenpol, the Air Camper was originally designed as a canvas covered, spruce airplane powered by a Ford Model A engine.

“It’s a very good project for a retired guy,” Carlyle said. “(Pietenpol) built a few. He sold plans and he also sold parts.”

The first plans for the Pietenpol Air Camper were published in 1932, and the small planes continue to intrigue modern builders. Carlyle said he had an opportunity to fly an Air Camper at an air-show in the Midwest.

“I must have counted 15 or more Pietenpols,” Carlyle said.

Carlyle is using a spruce and plywood frame and modern Dacron fabric, instead of canvas. Carlyle is also substituting a Chevrolet Corvair engine for the older Ford engine.

“It’s just kind of a nostalgic thing for me,” Carlyle said, grinning.

Fisher, who owns a Sonex plane in addition to part ownership in the Highlander, is building a second Sonex with Don Dawes in Dawes’ garage.

Fisher said he first started flying in 1965, and has owned 20 planes, half of them considered “experimental” planes. He purchased his first experimental plane in 2000.

Fisher and Dawes, longtime friends, are currently building the Sonex with aluminum parts they are fabricating primarily themselves.

“We’re about 90 percent done,” Fisher said, laughing. “We’ve still got about 90 percent to go.”

Luke Hegdal can be reached at or 526-8326.


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