The barn in Patrick Tippmann’s backyard serves as a kind of catchall for grown-up toys. Helmets hang from pegs on one wall. Mounted deer heads line another wall, with a mountain goat and a boar thrown in. There’s a basketball hoop on yet another wall, and the abandoned efforts of a son’s foray into brewing beer in a corner. Upstairs in the barn loft, there are pool and bumper pool tables.
On the pool table rests a rudder. Scattered on a card table downstairs are small pieces of cut and scrap aluminum. The brown paper lunch sacks on the work table have labels such as “folding wing,” “rear fuselage,” “controls,” “tail” and “wing.”
And then there’s the most obvious thing in Tippmann’s barn. The thing that kind of slaps you in the face when you walk in and makes you say, “Wait, is that … an airplane?”
Yes. Or rather, it’s almost an airplane. Currently, it’s the body of a machine that will eventually be an airplane when Tippmann and his friend, Patrick Borton, finish making the pedals and wings, the rudders and propellers; when the engine comes in; when the black, white-and-red paint job is finished; when any of a hundred details that go into making one’s own airplane are complete.
Tippmann and Borton, both of Fort Wayne, met when they were training for their pilot’s licenses at Smith Field in 2011. Tippmann shared his idea to build his own airplane, and Borton offered to help, knowing he would have free time – he does paintless dent repair, primarily from hail damage, and there isn’t a lot of hail damage this time of year – and his wife would be out of town for six months, in massage therapy school in Milwaukee.
The two estimate they are about halfway done with the construction and hope to have the plane in the air this spring or summer.
The half-finished airplane in Tippmann’s barn is a kit plane – a Zenith STOL CH 750. The pieces arrived in enormous wooden crates in multiple shipments; the men are still waiting to receive the plane’s engine.
“I bought it in Mexico, Mo.,” says Tippmann, who is in investment real estate. “Pat and I flew my other airplane out for the two-day course to train.”
There, the men learned how to work with the metal, how to drill the pieces, how to assemble it, how to deburr it and how to reassemble it – because, yes, building a STOL CH 750 requires putting everything together twice. To create the hole where a permanent rivet will be placed, the men use a Cleco, a temporary fastener. After the hole is created, the men have to take apart the pieces, “deburr” the area (clean off the metal shavings) and reassemble the pieces with rivets.
“I wanna do one, OK? I wanna try,” says Lydia, Tippmann’s 2-year-old daughter, walking around with the Cleco tool. Her sister Sylvia, 8, wants to help, too, and she puts a number of the Clecos into the plane.
The plane will have folding wings, which will allow Tippmann to continue to store it in his barn after the wings are attached at the top of the plane. When the wings are folded, the plane will still fit through the garage door.
Kit planes range in cost from $25,000 to $200,000, and Tippmann says his STOL CH 750 was about $70,000. After the men finish the project, they guess they will have put about 600 hours into the 800-pound machine. They will need to fly solo for a specific number of hours before they take any passengers up in the two-seater plane, and a Federal Aviation Administration inspector will inspect the plane when it is finished.
“I think I’ll have Pat go first,” Tippmann says, laughing.
The plane – conversationally called a Sky Jeep because of how boxy it is – will fly out of Tippmann’s backyard. He has plans to build a grass runway on his 30-acre lot. It will start back by the edge of the property, run past the barn, over the creek and up near Schwartz Road. The runway will be 1,700 feet long, Tippmann says, but the Zenith plane doesn’t require a lot of land space: STOL stands for “short take-off and land.”
People with enough property are permitted to have a backyard runway if they go through the federal Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration.
One day last week when the men were showing the plane to a reporter and photographer, Borton worked on some small pieces, hand-drilling holes into a square of aluminum that will serve as a foot pedal on the plane. As he worked, a newly framed certificate stood by. It read: “This is to certify that Tippmann Field (what Tippmann decided to call his backyard airstrip and barn garage) has met the administrative requirement and standards for a private-use airport.”
Borton pulled up a map of private airports in Allen County and estimates there are six or seven. The hobby may not be commonplace, but it’s more popular than one might think; Tippmann says there are a dozen companies that sell kit planes like his to anyone who wants to build one – not just people with a huge air-conditioned and heated barn in the backyard; Borton tells about one builder who put his kit plane together in his New York City apartment, one piece at a time, carrying them out to storage as he finished each section.
As short as two years ago, Borton says, he never would have thought he would have this hobby.
“Family and friends are like, ‘What the heck? You’re building an airplane and you’re gonna fly it out of the backyard?’ ” Tippmann says. “Two years ago if you said, ‘Do you think you’re ever gonna build an airplane and fly it out of the backyard?’ I’d say, ‘Heck, no.’ ”