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Never Say ‘I Can’t’

By Roch “Rock” LaRocca, EAA 531536

April 28, 2016 - Can an ordinary guy with no building experience like me actually build an airplane? The answer is yes, and I decided to write this for all those ordinary guys and gals out there who admire all those homebuilt aircraft and have asked themselves that very question.

I grew up like many little boys, in love with airplanes, spacecraft, and the dream of soaring through the sky sitting in front of an instrument panel with all kinds of lights and switches. My love for aviation led me to get my private pilot certificate in 1985. However, the reality of actually building my own aircraft really began for me at age 25 when a friend neighbor in Lubbock, Texas, suggested I consider the possibility of such an endeavor.

I began a little at-home research, which mostly entailed the local book and magazine store because there was no internet back in the olden days of 1985. I quickly came to the conclusion that I was not able to afford a kit aircraft and would need something I could build slowly without putting much money into all at one time. I realized that it was going to have to be plans-built aircraft. It couldn’t be that difficult. Like following a recipe in a cook book, right? I discussed this new found dream of mine with my wife, Barbara. She gave me complete support but made one stipulation: Whatever I built, it had to have at least two seats and it would have to be side by side seats. At some point during my little research project, I was perusing a copy of Kitplanes magazine when I found it. I saw an ad for a particular Rutan type aircraft. The design was Shirl Dickey’s ERacer: A slick looking, plans-built, side-by-side canard pusher with fully retractable gear, no less. I was immediately infatuated with that little 3-by-3 inch picture ad and began some serious dreaming. A few years later after an overseas military assignment, my dream took its first leap in 1991 one Christmas morning, when I opened a present from my wife containing the plans to this magical ERacer aircraft. By that time I was a 30-year-old U.S. Air Force first lieutenant with no experience whatsoever in building any aircraft.

It wasn’t until 1995, in a base housing carport on Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas, that it finally began. My part-time work continued, and I found that there were many ups and downs. Times when I was obsessed with building and would get up in the middle of the night and wander into the garage to check on a layup or try to fabricate something I thought of as I lay in the dark. Times when I would stand there and say “Who are you kidding? This thing will never get done.” Being in the military afforded its own issues like deployments, which put a damper on the building process, as well having to move every three years. Moving the aircraft project was never a simple matter. I had to pack up my garage workshop and load it all on a trailer six times over my 17-and-a-half-year building adventure. Each time it was heavier and more difficult to move, but we always managed to make it happen.

There were years when I made a lot of progress and years when I didn’t get much done due to family and work coming ahead of my hobby. I sometimes heard people say it would be better to just spend all your time building so you can get the plane finished and have an airplane to fly. But I don’t agree and after looking back, I wouldn’t change the way I did it. Of course the Air Force always gave me an airplane to fly in some respect, but I decided that my ERacer project would not come ahead of the things that are really important in my life.  

In 2008 I retired from the Air Force, took a job with Delta Airlines, and moved once again. This time our journey led us south of Atlanta, to Peachtree City, Georgia. My home is within 3 miles of an excellent airfield as well as Aircraft Spruce East headquarters. A true toy store for a guy like me, and it sits right next to my hangar home at Atlanta Regional Airport, Falcon Field (KFFC). This quaint airfield is also the home to the Commemorative Air Force Dixie Wing and an RV aircraft community. The RV squadron guys went out of their way to always help and offer help to a guy like me from the dark side of building composites.

I have to admit that my new airline job afforded me a lot more building time. I was able to complete the hydraulic system, electrical system, and painting in 2009-2011. At that point I had come to a place where I felt like I was all dressed up and nowhere to go. The plane was pretty much complete but I needed an engine.

I knew nothing really about engines or the installation of such. I had an engine mount and I knew I wanted an IO-360 180 hp engine, but that was about it. Where do I get one? New, used, rebuilt? And of course how do I finance it? I was finally able to work out that problem with some creativity, and by January 1, 2012, I had a zero time rebuilt Lycoming IO-360 engine sitting in my garage workshop waiting to be mounted onto the aircraft. When you are loaded with a little knowledge and you’re standing alone in the garage looking at an engine hanging on an engine stand, and a fuselage with an empty engine mount, you just naturally say to yourself, “I can do this.” And I did, by myself, in about 2.5 hours. It was one of the many accomplishments I am particularly proud of. That summer it all seemed to come together, and in June, 2012, with the help of my son-in-law, we loaded the plane on a trailer for that last move to its hanger home at KFFC. 

The following months were full of inspections, engine starts, taxi tests, that culminated into the day of the first flight. 

It was 75 degrees and calm winds on that October 22 afternoon. My wife and two of my three daughters were there to watch also. The flight went perfect. No issues at all. The ERacer handled great, flew straight, and landed nicely. It was such a great feeling as I taxied in and took a few pics with my family. 

I had documented my building on a personal website, but after completing the ERacer I got together with the designer, Shirl Dickey, and I proposed that we create a website where all people interested in the ERacer as well as current ERacer builders and flyers could come to share their pictures and information. I continue to administrate this website and it is a great way to stay in touch with ERacer builders and pilots around the world. I often have people write expressing an interest in building but feel it is too difficult a task. I always tell them the plain truth: If I can build one, anyone can.

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