Fly like an Eagle

Two Lynnfield residents have bought into a fad shared by amateur aviation buffs in the 1970s — building and flying your own airplane.

Main Street resident Vern Rich and his Perry Avenue neighbor Brett Lombardi are catching their fellow town residents’ attention. Their project to build an airplane — totally from scratch — has drawn the interest of many a passerby, gawking and wondering what the two tinkerers are up to.

All you need to do is take a quick stroll past Rich’s home, located just a stone’s throw from the Lynnfield Middle School,  and there it is — a KR-2s sports airplane, awkwardly jutting out of Rich’s standalone.

“It’s been fun to have people drive by and see this thing sticking out of the garage,” Rich said. “We’ve had cookouts and it’s the talk of everybody. People have asked if this is the largest radio-control airplane. They ask ‘what the hell are you two doing in that garage?’ It’s been a lot of fun.”

“This is the ultimate challenge in aviation, building your own airplane and flying it,” added Lombardi, a licensed pilot and physical therapist.

The pair said the plane is about halfway completed and they hope to be airborne in about a year.

The plane is a knock-off of the original Rand Robinson Engineering KR-2 aircraft, a do-it-yourself kit dating back to the early ’70s. The plane’s popularity was based on its efficiency, its low-cost, the fact that it was quick and easy to build and was fun to fly.

Designed to use standard-size building materials, the KR-2 was extremely lightweight and sported a wooden frame (known to Rand fans as “the boat”) with a fiberglass skin.

Powered by an ordinary Volkswagen Beetle automobile engine, the plane featured a two-blade wood propeller and could reach a maximum cruising speed of 180 miles per hour. Thousands of kits were sold with hundreds of models flying by the end of the decade.

Rich, who works for a construction-management firm, and Lombardi began their project on July 31. Rich’s garage workshop is stocked with a huge assortment of carpentry tools. He said his passion is “building, restoring and fixing things.” His most recent project was the restoration of a 1979 Jeep, which sports a bright-red paint finish.

“I had just finished the Jeep when Brett approached me about the plane, so we moved the Jeep out to make room for the next project,” Rich said.

A specially-constructed workbench was assembled from four benches to allow the duo to work on the plane. Lombardi said he keeps a log tracking construction, which is required by the FAA.

Lombardi began the project with an internet search, purchasing three partially-built KR-2 planes in various stages of completion. He is salvaging the best parts to assemble the new plane from plans he bought online.

He purchased a 1964 Corvair automobile engine, which is presently in Southborough at the J & M Machine shop being completely rebuilt.

“They did a great job with the engine for the Jeep, so when I called them to see if they could rebuild the Corvair engine for a plane, all they said was ‘there is no breakdown lane in the sky,'” Rich said. “This isn’t like building a canoe. They understood it. Good is good, but this has to be perfect.”

Lombardi said the aircraft is technically classified as “experimental home-built.”

A propeller will be added to the engine at the end of the drive shaft. The final thing to be added will be the wings, which have a wingspan of nearly 21 feet and are removable. By the time the plane is ready to fly, it will have a gross weight of about 9,000 pounds and will have cost about $20,000.

“You can build this by buying a kit, which were first sold in about 1970, but that’s expensive and costs about $100,000, which was not in my price range, so I opted for plans-built, which is the hardest because you have to find all the materials,” Lombardi said.

The plane is capable of climbing up to 14,000 feet and has a maximum speed of 200 mph. It carries about 13 gallons of fuel, using up just three gallons per hour and giving the plane the ability to remain airborne for up to four hours.

The Lombardi/Rich KR-2s is 14-inches longer in the tail section than the original KR-2, bringing the plane’s length to 16-feet 8-inches, which Rich says will provide greater stability.

Yet unnamed, the KR-2 is affectionately referred to as a “taildragger,” said Lombardi. In addition to two “go-kart” 10-inch wheels on the front, the plane has a rear wheel (the size of a hockey puck) to assist landing.

Rich said that an average of 2,000 hours are needed to complete the project, which usually takes most do-it-yourselfers years. The duo combines for an average of three hours per day working in the garage, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on glue dry-times, which can sometimes take up to two days.

“Our motto is simple,” Rich said. “Two years. Two hundred miles. Twenty thousand miles.

“We’ve greatly accelerated the timeline compared to the people we bought the three planes from and we figured if we both spend an average of 30-40 hours a week working on it, we will keep to the goal of having this up in the air in a little more than a year or so.”

When completed, the plane will be transported to Beverly Airport on a boat trailer (included in one of the partially-built kit purchases). The plane must be  inspected by the Federal Aviation Administration to determine air-worthiness before taking flight. Lombardi said the first 40 hours of flight time are restricted to a low-altitude, rectangular pattern over the airport.

Lombardi said the plan needs only 350 feet to take off and about 900 feet to land.

“I’ve never flown one with a wheel in the back, but these planes are definitely trickier to land,” Lombardi said. “Beverly has more than enough length on its runways to takeoff and land so while I’ve never landed one like this, I think it won’t be a problem.”

Lombardi, nicknamed “The Muscle,” has been flying for more than 20 years out of Beverly, flying mostly Piper Archer four-seaters on “fun trips around New England.”

When finished, the cockpit will measure a little more than three feet across at shoulder width with room for two (extremely-narrow) seats. While Lombardi doesn’t know where he will take the plane on its maiden voyage or if anyone will be in the co-pilot’s seat, Rich has no intention of flying any friendly skies with his good friend and neighbor.

“I asked him where the parachute goes, and Brett said it was too expensive and weighed too much,” Rich joked. “He tells me it has a one-minute glide time every 1,000 feet, and I’m hoping he will fly mostly over water, but it’s not for me.”

All Lombardi could say in response was, “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without Vern.”

Follow Rich and Lombardi as they near completion of their KR-2s project on their “Vern’s Garage” YouTube channel.