Craft & Design


Daniel Parker’s hobby isn’t for everyone. He’s devoted most of the last five years to designing and building his own high-altitude airplane.

Parker, 33, started flying in high school, joined the Experimental Aircraft Association at age 15, and built his first plane (an all-wood biplane) in college. Now he’s hoping his current project might just beat the altitude record for small piston-engine aircraft.

Parker’s background lends itself to such a complex hobby. He has a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics, both from Stanford. Taking time off from school to work at a composite airplane shop in Santa Monica, Calif., Parker was fortunate to find a friendly and skilled airplane builder/mentor, Dave Ronneberg.

Building a lightweight high-alt plane was attractive because it combined low mass, which Parker assumed meant less stuff to buy and build, with a definite yardstick for measuring success. Dubbed the Parker P1, the plane is made from aluminum and carbon fiber, and uses a Rotax 503 two-cylinder single-carb engine. The initial assembly began in Parker’s one-bedroom apartment.

Parker’s first priority is to conceptualize, build, and test-fly an airplane of his own design. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have his eye on a prize: the high-altitude record for the C1a0 weight class (under 661 pounds for plane, fuel, and pilot). The current record of just over 30,000 feet was set in 1989; Parker needs to beat it by 3% to get into the record books. At over 12,000 feet, supplemental oxygen is needed, so Parker’s relying on the same system used by the U.S. Air Force.

The build has taken 6,000 hours and $40,000 so far, not counting workshop rent or specialized tools. But Parker says that it’s really not all that difficult. “There were lots of frustrating moments, but I often say that there’s no single process in building this plane that I couldn’t teach anyone in an afternoon.”

High Altitude: