Breezing Through Oshkosh

The Breezy is as close to a flying carpet as you’re going to get.

Of all the projects that makers can conceive, I’d wager that none is so challenging to both mind and body or has such a rich and historic legacy as the home-built flying machine.

Long before the Wright Brothers, makers were trying to emulate bird flight in balloons and gliders. Early success stories were few and far between. But since the Wrights, building airplanes has been the maker’s mark, the cynosure of amateur craftsmanship and mechanical design. No other amateur construction commands the respect and admiration of an airplane.

Serving the needs of skyward-dreaming makers is the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), an international organization of aviation enthusiasts.

Each summer, 170,000 people attend the group’s week-long AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis. It’s a happening place, so much so that the comparatively tiny Oshkosh airport temporarily becomes the world’s busiest, its control tower managing hundreds of takeoffs and landings hourly.

A few of those takeoffs and landings involve the U.S. Air Force’s best and most modern craft — for example, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. On demonstration flights, these airplanes scream by, 90 feet above the runway. Then, with afterburners on, the Raptors climb vertically until the red glow of the exhaust is just a dot. It’s mighty impressive in a loud, showy sort of way. But it’s not inspirational in a maker sort of way. Each F-22 is the result of a million hours of highly specialized labor, and it’s far more a symbol of national and global politics than an expression of technological joy.

Fortunately for makers, there’s excitement and  vibrancy at the other end of the runway. Far, far away from the gray-black military jets sits the airplane I liked best. It’s called the Breezy.

Comparing a Breezy to an F-22 is like comparing Seabiscuit to a donkey. They both have four legs and a tail, but the differences overwhelm the similarities. I found the F-22 moderately interesting, the Breezy sublime. The Breezy is approachable, human-scaled, and, for a machine, downright cute. Given the time and inclination, any maker with enough gumption and money could probably build one.

The Breezy was conceived in 1965 by amateur aviators Charles Roloff, Carl Unger, and Bob Liposky. It remains one of the most distinctive and unusual home-built airplane designs ever imagined. And with its open cockpit, it’s as close to riding a flying carpet as you’re going to get.

At the Oshkosh air show, pilot Arnie Zimmerman offered me a chance to ride in his Breezy and I jumped on it. We taxied onto the concrete, one of a dozen aircraft queued up for clearance to take off. Preceding us were a formation of World War II fighter planes, a Ford Tri-Motor, and a number of conventional private aircraft.

We turned into the wind and accelerated down the runway. Within a few hundred feet, we were airborne. The airplane gained altitude fairly rapidly. I quickly found out how it feels to be 1,200 feet up with nothing holding me in but my seatbelt. Three inches of nylon strap never seemed so inadequate. At first terrified, I eventually got used to the feeling and the freedom. There’s nothing between the flyer and the sky except a pair of goggles. For a view and fresh air, the open cockpit that makes a Breezy so breezy — no door, no windshield — cannot be surpassed.

In every respect, the Breezy is a real airplane, not a mere ultralight. An ultralight aircraft is defined by federal government regulations as a single-seat flying machine with a fuel capacity of 5 gallons or less, an empty weight of less than 254 pounds and a top speed of 55 knots. The Breezy’s specifications exceed every ultralight limit by a factor of two or more.

As homebuilt aircraft go, the Breezy is pretty simple. Its fuselage is a matrix of triangles welded from 4130 chrome-moly steel that resembles a slightly bent construction crane boom. The control surfaces are simple as well, just a rudder and a pair of elevators controlled by an exposed wire-and-pulley mechanism. (More sophisticated airplanes have additional control surfaces such as ailerons and flaps.) Wings are typically bought ready-made, and the Breezy’s flight characteristics are such that many different types of wings work.

Where do the wings come from? Well, sometimes they’re salvaged from crashed planes, although that’s just one source among many. And that’s not something I choose to think about, especially when I’m 2,000 feet up with nothing to cushion me against the onrushing terrain except the hair on the head of the pilot in front of me. I checked the FAA records of crashes in this type of airplane, and I found five incidents, three of them involving fatalities. Although a thousand plans for these homebuilt planes have been sold since 1965 and thousands of flight hours logged, those numbers indicate that Breezy owners have at least a bit of the daredevil in them.

» Breezy Kits:

YouTube has videos showing the Breezy in flight.

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William Gurstelle is a contributing editor of Make: magazine. His new book, ReMaking History: Early Makers is now available.

View more articles by William Gurstelle
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