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Zenith Aircraft Company's 20th Annual Open Hangar Day

... and Builder Fly-In Gathering

Story and photos by Sebastien Heintz, EAA 386637, Owner of Zenith Aircraft Company, for Experimenter

Zenith group

The gang at Zenith Aircraft recently held its 20th annual Open Hangar Day and Builder Fly-In Gathering at the kit manufacturing factory in Mexico, Missouri. On September 17, 2011, despite some rain and unexpected cold weather, the company had a wonderful event, proving once again that it’s about the people and the planes, and not the weather!

Our Open Hangar Day event was initially developed for the local community of Mexico, Missouri. Originally, our annual “open house” was to show local residents our small airplane factory and to demonstrate the importance of our small city airport to the local economy. However, over the years, more and more of our visitors have become either existing Zenith customers (active builders and owners of completed Zeniths) or area pilots wanting to learn more about building and flying their own airplane. In recognition of this development, we’ve created more activities for active builders and owners, including a Zenith Builders Banquet.

Zenith Open Hangar Day

In addition to exhibiting our kit factory and demo planes, we invite suppliers and business partners to participate at the annual event. While these same companies exhibit at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and other aviation gatherings, our grassroots event provides a more relaxed atmosphere for exhibitors and allows them to spend time with Zenith builders and pilots, offering the chance for them to develop or fine-tune products or services of interest to our customers. As a producer of airframe kits, we rely on a network of suppliers to help our builders successfully complete and fly their project, from engines to avionics to wheels and brakes, etc. (And our customers will typically spend more dollars with these suppliers than with Zenith.)

Zenith Open Hangar Day
The new Zenith power panel measures just 6.25 inch wide to align nicely with a radio stack.

Wayne Lanza of Composite Design, which manufactures popular prewired power panels, introduced at Open Hangar a brand-new power panel developed specifically for Zeniths in response to customer requests. The new RSP1 power panel works well with new glass panel display systems, such as the 10-inch Dynon SkyView. The RSP1 fits nicely under the radio stack, with the same standard 6.25-inch width. Zenith now offers this power panel as part of the new “avionics instruments” kit along with the Dynon SkyView system and Garmin SL40 comm radio.

We started off the educational portion of the event on the day before Open Hangar. A total of nine seminars on Friday afternoon were hosted, including: engines, avionics (from both Dynon and Garmin), aircraft weight and balance, sport pilot training, and a seminar hosted by EAA’s own Charlie Becker titled “How EAA Can Help You Build and Fly Your Own Aircraft.” Charlie’s forum covered how EAA’s available resources for helping builders, owners and pilots of amateur-built aircraft, including the technical advisor and flight advisor programs, can assist the homebuilder of any design.

The Zenith Builders Banquet on Friday evening was a fun gathering with more than 170 Zenith builders, pilots, and employees (and their spouses and friends). I hosted a fun quiz with questions about Zenith Aircraft’s 20-year history in Mexico, Missouri, and EAA’s Charlie Becker provided a follow-up report on AirVenture and EAA activities. There were dozens of door prizes awarded, including a Garmin Aera 510 GPS valued at $1,200.

Zenith Open Hangar Day
Corvair guru William Wynne. There are potentially more Zenith aircraft currently flying with Corvair engines than any other auto engine conversion.

This year, we were pleased to have four different engines represented at the Zenith Open Hangar: Jabiru and ULPower, along with William Wynne’s Corvair conversions and Jan Eggenfellner’s Honda conversions. Zenith is one of the few airframe kit manufacturers that encourages builders to choose the engine best suited to their requirements, including automobile conversions (for meeting their budget, fuel type, expertise, etc.), and we don’t focus on selling our customers an engine and firewall-forward package. Kit airplanes are experimental after all; encouraging and allowing customers to choose their powerplant installation gives them more control over their airplane project and promotes much-needed innovation in light aircraft propulsion systems.

Zenith Open Hangar Day
Jan Eggenfellner holding court in front of his Viking Honda auto conversion engine

Two relative newcomers generated a lot of interest from builders: the ULPower engine from Belgium and the Viking Aircraft Engines Honda Fit auto conversion. Both of these engines don’t use carburetors but instead use modern multipoint fuel injection and are controlled by an engine control unit for continuous peak efficiency and simple single-lever control as with most modern engines. The ULPower 260i engine was developed from the ground up as a modern, light aircraft powerplant with a familiar configuration—direct-drive, air-cooled, horizontally opposed four cylinders, while the Viking engine was developed by veteran auto engine converter Jan Eggenfellner using a recycled, low-time automobile engine with a geared propeller speed reduction unit and liquid cooling.

We’re currently flying our CH 650 with the 213.77-cubic-inch 130-hp UL350iS engine from ULPower and are finalizing complete plug-and-play firewall-forward engine packages for both the CH 650 and our popular high-wing STOL CH 750 (which both share the same firewall dimensions). Robert Helms, ULPower North America’s general manager, introduced us to Andrew Burr who will be running the first official North American ULPower service center.

Jabiru aircraft engines were well represented by Zodiac builder Mark Stauffer from Jabiru USA, and the six-cylinder 100-hp Corvair auto conversion was represented by engine guru William Wynne and his wife, Grace Ellen.

It was very interesting to see two very different, yet equally affordable, automotive conversions (Corvair and Honda). And learning from the experts who developed them, we found it equally encouraging to see the evolution of modern light aircraft engines (and true plug-and-play firewall-forward packages) such as the Jabiru and ULPower engines.

There were flying examples of all these engines at Open Hangar Day, giving builders the unique opportunity not only to hear about these engines, but to actually hear them and see them in action—and a lucky few were even able to fly behind them. We also looked under the cowls at the firewall-forward installations. In addition to the above four engines represented at Open Hangar Day, light aircraft engines from Rotax, Continental, and Lycoming, as well as countless auto conversions such as Subaru, Volkswagen, Suzuki, and many others, continue to be popular choices with many Zenith builders.

Kit Manufacturing
In the Zenith Aircraft kit factory, we showed off our state-of-the-art kit manufacturing technology, including the two large computer numerically controlled (CNC) router tables, demonstrating the incredible accuracy, fit, and high level of finish of the match-drilled parts now standard in most of our kits. Several employees also demonstrated welding and rib forming and finishing. To give our visitors the chance to experience kit assembly, we once again offered hands-on mini kit projects: This year visitors assembled their own all-metal three-hole binder from parts precut and drilled on the CNC router, following Zenith’s step-by-step photo assembly guides.

Zenith Open Hangar Day
Building the three-hole binder project: 10-year-old Christopher Dubbert (son of Zenith demo pilot Roger Dubbert) and Freddy Heintz (son of Sebastien Heintz) assemble their own binder at the Zenith Open Hangar Day.

Travis Kobush, our production manager, guided several tours through the factory, explaining the different steps in the kit parts production process, including quality control, inventorying, packing, and crating. He also demonstrated the assembly of the various parts, showing how the match-drilled parts cleco (clamp) together in just minutes. Our new kits are radically easier and quicker to assemble than our kits from a decade ago, and it’s always a real pleasure to demonstrate the difference to both builders of earlier models and to novices.

Roger Dubbert, our demo pilot, was busy throughout the day with demonstration flights in the original two-seat STOL CH 701, the new STOL CH 750 and the ULPower-equipped CH 650, as well as the four-seat utility CH 801.

Also in our factory were representatives from additional suppliers and partner companies, including Aircraft Spruce & Specialty, Matco Wheels and Brakes, HomebuiltHelp.com, Flight Crafters and American Light Sport Aircrafters builder assistance centers, Zenair News, Wicks Aircraft and Motorsports, and Buzz Air LLC – Flight Academy. Garmin’s own Tim Casey demonstrated the brand-new Garmin Aera 796, and local EAA Chapter 1225 provided a barbecue lunch.

Zenith Open Hangar Day
Zenith Open Hangar Day - on the ramp

We had visitors from across the country travel to attend Open Hangar Day, as well as several Canadians. While most stayed at local hotels, several camped with their planes or in their campers; we have a nice new airport terminal with 24/7 access to the pilot lounge which has showers and Internet access.

While we’re already planning great activities for next year’s event - we’re thinking of adding some flying activities such as STOL competitions - we remind potential builders and customers that there’s no need to wait until next year’s Open Hangar Day: Our factory is open year round for factory tours and demo flights, and we hold two-day hands-on workshops in the factory every month.

For an image gallery of the event, click here.


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