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Pilot Celebrates 40 Years Flying VariEze to Oshkosh

By Katie Holliday-Greenley

July 26, 2017 - A lot has changed at Oshkosh over the past 40 years, but there has been at least one constant: Ken Swain’s VariEze N4ZZ.

Ken said he heard about the VariEze and Burt Rutan through a college friend who showed him the design in a magazine.

“And boy, was I hooked,” Ken said. “I followed every word Burt said, and the very first day the plans were available I ordered them all. And the very hour I got the plans, I turned around and tried to order my raw materials kit.”

At the time, there were two authorized VariEze distributors: Aircraft Spruce & Specialty and Wicks Aircraft.

“I tried to order the kit from Aircraft Spruce, but they said I was hours too late,” Ken said. So he called Wicks and ordered kit No. 7 from them and had it shipped across the country to the Air Force base where he was stationed.

Ken built the VariEze over the course of 17-1/2 months at the on-base home he shared with his wife, Nancy.

“I built all of it that I could in one of the spare bedrooms, until it got to the point where if I glued anything to anything else I’d have to knock out a wall,” he said. “And I figured the government would take a dim deal of me knocking out a wall of their house. So I closed in the carport and built the rest of it [there].”

Shortly after completing his airplane, Ken joined EAA in 1977 after he read Burt’s comments about the importance of the organization.

“He was a big proponent because they were the only voice for the homebuilder,” Ken said. “They still are, but at the time they were a much smaller voice and nobody else cared. The homebuilt movement was a much tinier thing back then.”

The following year, Ken decided to fly N4ZZ, so named because of its resemblance to the prototype aircraft N4EZ, to Oshkosh for the annual fly-in.

“The first year, my wife would not let me go without her,” he said, noting that they stopped in San Antonio on the way to visit family. “We stopped … in St. Louis and … I’m on final to Spirit Field and some guy behind me goes, ‘Hey tower, is that thing in front of me a jet?’ And I just started grinning ear to ear.”

Since then, Ken and Nancy have made it to Oshkosh every year. For many years, both flew in the VariEze, but these days Ken flies in and Nancy drives from their home in northern Illinois so they can keep the airplane load light.

“I’ve flown many different airplanes … many different places around the country, but you come to Oshkosh and you run into the same people in your type,” Ken said. “More than anything else, it’s coming back and seeing folks that you know year after year and reconnecting.”

Ken is currently a pilot for United, but he will be retiring at the end of this year and plans to start another homebuilt project: a Long-EZ.

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