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Build-It-Yourself Replica Fighters on a Budget

By Frederick A. Johnsen

July 28, 2017 - There’s a corps of homebuilders who yearn to experience the rush of fighters without the outflow of dollars that warbirds demand. They live in the world of replica fighters, where modern materials, and occasional concessions to size and horsepower, result in affordable avatars.

At EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017, a crisp, full-scale replica of a World War I Sopwith Pup biplane fighter uses a modern Rotec radial engine to stand in for the original Pup’s rare and costly rotary powerplant. Nearby, a scaled-down P-51 Mustang replica rides behind an automotive V-block engine. Legendary among replica builders is the one-third scale, four-engine B-17 that is nearing completion, and may one day fly at AirVenture, using four Hirth engines of 60 hp each.

To serve as a clearinghouse for ideas as well as commiseration, the Replica Fighters Association is a rallying place for those who want to build their own fighter. Tom Kusant, a member of the group’s board of directors, said members range from those who assemble available kit fighters, to those who build from available replica plans, to the ambitious who design their own plans.

Member Myron Winchester, the organization’s photographer, urges newbies who want to design their own replica fighter to learn from the experiences of others by incorporating safety features, modern airfoils, and other aeronautical improvements that weren’t heard of when the fighters of WWI challenged their own pilots as much as the enemy over France. “One of the things we really stress is safety,” Myron said.

Tom agreed. “We want them to be safe,” he added. Tail wheels instead of tail skids? Fine. Modern wheel brakes? You bet. He enjoys coming to AirVenture where workshops can hone members’ construction skills, and where “you’re surrounded by doers.” “If you want to build it, you can,” he said. Time to build is as variable as anyone’s schedule. Myron said some have built a replica fighter in months, while others have spent the better part of two decades getting one done when time allows.

Ongoing advances in suitable powerplants have increased options for replica fighter builders. Automotive V-6 and V-8 conversions have been used, as have small Rotec radials and general aviation air-cooled engines. At least one SE5 fighter is said to be powered by a Model T engine.

The Replica Fighters Association publishes a slick magazine for members. Membership in the United States is currently $25 a year, $35 for overseas addresses. Tom said, “We’d love to be able to be used as a resource” for builders of replica aircraft. Tips on materials and methods, plus lessons learned, can make the project smoother.

It’s all part of the world of sport aviation championed at AirVenture. 

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