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Pulling Together

By Larry Engert, EAA 549577

Olson Ranch
Olson Private Airstrip near the Canadian border. A favorite place for Engert to practice landings in his Mini-Max.

Kootenai Valley
Typical landscape in the Kootenai Valley. Green and golden brown wheat and canola fields punctuated by hills and mountains.

Mini-Max Cockpit
Cockpit of Engert’s Mini-Max.

Maximum fun above northern Idaho.

This is a story about how I resumed my dream of flying and how I believe so many others could do the same. A lifelong passion with planes started for me the first time I can recollect looking up in the sky and watching a plane fly over our house in northern  Idaho. By the summer of my eighth birthday - I’m now 53 - I was riding my bike over four miles to the airport so I could touch the planes and smell avgas. Oh boy! Does it get any better than touching the landing gear on a Stinson Gullwing and looking up at that shiny spinner and massive round engine? Oh yes, it does! I was such a pest that eventually the FBO let me wash what airplanes I could reach and in return I got a ride with the local Ag operator in his Piper PA-18 Super Cub for my eighth birthday in August of that year.

Skip forward to my senior year in high school, and one day on a dare, two of my friends and I stopped into an airport 60 miles from our hometown to take the $25 intro flight. Long story short, I took $700 from my paper route money and signed up for lessons (without my mom’s blessing) and began instruction in J-3s and Cessna 150s. After about five hours and the eventual blessing of my mother (my father passed when I was 7), I completed my private license about 45 days before my 18th birthday, and the journey began. I flew as much as finances would allow, but college and life in general took a big chunk of my available time and money. I continued to fly after college for about two years, and when my last medical expired I went on sabbatical for about 15 years: building a business, raising my son, buying one house, and then upgrading to a better house. We’ve all heard the stories and they sound very much alike. Let’s just say life got in the way of my flying dreams.

One day while checking out the local grocery store for a new R/C model magazine, I stumbled onto an interesting cover of Kitplanes. A Mini-Max graced the cover, and I was so intrigued that I had to read the story. I was shifting back and forth between whether it was ugly or cute. Open cockpit and made out of wood. Wow, a giant model airplane was my first thought! That led to ordering the video, and a month later I sent my check to TEAM Aircraft for my plans.

Jump ahead now 15 years having have completed three airframes (one for a friend) and flown two Mini-Maxes a total of over 700 hours. My red, white, and blue Mini-Max is my second one, and I have flown close to 385 hours; I plan to convert to the experimental category so I can increase the fuel load. I still have nothing but good things to say about this small plane and its designer, Wayne Ison (a true gentleman in every respect). Building and flying Mini-Maxes allowed me “back into the game.” I’ve had minimal investment and maximum fun.

I like to fly up to the Kootenai Valley to a field called Olson Private Airstrip, which is about four miles south of the Canadian border. On calm days I go out there and perfect my Bob Hoover routine. Soft field, short takeoffs and landings. One wheel left and right wheel landings and three pointers till I’m about out of gas and have to head home. Twenty touch and goes in 25 minutes are about the norm. I own a hangar at Boundary County airport in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where I house my Mini-Max. I also have in partnership a Rans S-4 that I have housed at Hackney Airfield just north of Coeur d’Alene. I use the Rans to fly north and roll out my Mini-Max to do my fun flying. We take off and land the Rans on the river banks and a couple of islands that show up when the river is low.

The Kootenai Valley is about 26 miles long and mostly flat for the entire distance. Of course the mountains surrounding go up to just under 8,000 msl. I often take off from Boundary County and after clearing the airport area drop into the valley since it’s mostly just open farmland. I fly anywhere from 5 to 500 feet for the entire distance of the valley up to the Canadian border. After the wheat or canola crops are harvested and the stubble is short, I’ll stop by about any old field along the way and say hi to the many farming friends I have when they are servicing their combines or stopped for a break. They enjoy having me stop in and are always friendly. I love these Minis. They’re the best bang for the buck a person could ever dream up.

I will never forget the day a local man came up to me, obviously intrigued by my Mini-Max but skeptical as one would expect from someone who has only flown indoors behind Plexiglas with systems and engines graced by certifications. His question to me was, “How can that be any fun because it only goes 65 mph?” I told him, “Simple. I go 65 mph to nowhere just like you go 145 mph in your Cherokee 180 twice as far to nowhere.” He walked away scratching his head.

I also spent 30 years riding trail bikes and snowmobiling and downhill skiing since I was 10 years old. Slowly I’ve watched the divide-and-conquer mentality eat up each and every person’s options to enjoy what they want to pursue in favor of a particular group promising to have all the correct answers. I don’t want to see this happen further in our small aviation segment. In effect, I’m asking all pilots to not look down their noses at the guys who experiment and are the true inventors in aviation. We are not the enemy. If just the corporate turboprops and executive jets are pampered to, the pilot population will continue to dwindle down to pathetic levels not seen since before WW II. Everyone has a place and their place should be respected, but there is positively no reason why all aspects of aviation can’t use our airspace and pursue our own level of participation, and keep the skies safe.

Alas, I have succumbed to bigger, faster, and higher. I’m approximately two-thirds done with my Sonex/Waiex. Will the Waiex will be the end of my Rans and Mini-Max flights? Not so. I’ll use it as my commuter to go get my slow flying toys to enjoy the flying that really makes me happy. Yes, I will go out in search of my $100 pancakes for no reason other than to get my feet off the ground. I will thoroughly support and encourage those who don’t have the means and financial resources to build and fly the latest Whizbang 4000 or to pursue their dreams of flight by homebuilding and experimenting. I don’t like what’s been coming our way in the kit industry for so very long. I saw it happen in radio control with ARFs (Almost Ready to Fly), and now I’m seeing it with kits prefabricated to the point of being basically an almost certified airplane you buy in a box. It’s commercially viable, but it accelerates the decline of true homebuilding.

Kits allow many people to participate that don’t have the skills and time to build from plans. It has also created a kind of “vanilla pudding” sameness to the homebuilt community that has watered down the creativity of many skilled craftsmen. I hope that the EAA continues to embrace and foster the tinkerer and experimenter. I look forward to flying my Waiex and going places for no reason other than to experience a different type of flying, but in no way I expect it to be anymore rewarding than hop scotching my way across the countryside in my Mini-Max.

I encourage each and every pilot to see the upside to those who fly their powered parachutes, their trikes and sailplanes, their Bonanzas and King Airs. Encourage individuals to take introductory rides and dip their toes in the big pond we call flight. We as pilots can do much to encourage others to expand their horizons and take the leap, take the chance and live their dreams of flight, and support and revive aviation dreams in this country.

With the advent of SportPilot.org and new avenues to pursue, the dreamers of personal flight are numerous. Let them get a taste of flight, and if they are successful that experience will lead them to the upgrades of certificates and further training. If you can afford the new Whizbang 4000, go for it and congratulations for being successful enough to do so. Just don’t be the one who throws sticks at the guy who works late nights in his shop, welding and fitting and building his dreams on a shoe string because it can be done safely, done well, the results of which can lead to a lifetime of memories.

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