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Air Force Dream Comes True Thanks to EAA

By By Bill Hoffer, EAA 446731

June 9, 2016 - It's not often that second chances come along, but sometimes you get lucky. After four years on an Air Force ROTC scholarship at Tulsa University and North Texas State, Bill Hoffer, EAA 446731, was denied a pilot training slot following a pre-commissioning eye exam. It was quite a disappointment, but he was glad to get the next-best thing: navigator training at Mather AFB in Sacramento. After earning distinguished graduate honors, he selected a C-141 Starlifter slot at Charleston AFB in South Carolina, and navigated the big cargo jet to countries all over the globe, including Southeast Asia during the Vietnam era. 

After active duty, he got a graduate degree in foreign languages and taught for a couple years, but it seemed like aviation kept calling him back. While continuing to fly in the USAF Ready Reserve, he taught refresher classes in the international division for captains and first officers at the American Airlines Academy in Dallas. Then the FAA hired him as an Assistant Air Traffic Controller, which later developed into a career in flight service as a pilot briefer at Anderson, South Carolina.

It was during this period that Bill started looking at kitplane magazines (like Sport Aviation), and wondered if this just might be his second chance at becoming a pilot. The dream of building his own plane became the motivator to finally get a pilot's certificate. He took some refresher lessons, and soloed at age 45. He then ordered a tail kit for a Van's RV-6A around the time he retired from the Air Force Reserve with 25 years of service. With help and encouragement from some of the guys and gals at EAA Chapter 249 in Greenville, South Carolina, the long journey to his own Air Force plane began.

Working evenings and weekends, it took Bill about 13 years and 4,500 hours to finish. He built control surfaces and wings in his garage and, after moving to an airpark, finished the bird in his own on-field hangar. Bill's wife, Toni was always there to offer a hand and even buck a few rivets. He first got the idea to mimic the Northrop T-38 Talon, which he would have flown had he passed that eye test, while working on the fuselage.

As the building progressed, ideas started flowing on ways to make this plane look like Air Force issue. For him, this was the “fun” part of building – where the builder can use his imagination and personal preferences to make the kit his own creation. Bill went for the bigger O-360 engine, and Sensenich cruise prop, and started making small modifications, while still staying true to Van's specs. One of his first mods was re-shaping the seat backs and adding head-rests – mock ejection seats that mimic the T-38. Bill found some cool '60s-era stick grips on eBay still new in the contractor's box! Bill wired them to run the flaps, radio, intercom, and a few other tasks.   

He decided not to install Van's boarding steps for more of a military jet look, and because it's not that hard to board with the flaps in the full down position. Since the plane was to be hangared, Bill installed threaded studs in the wing tie-down slots for a cleaner look, and stows the rings in the on-board first aid/emergency tool box if ever needed.

Bill decided that instead of standard flush-mounted instruments which remove from behind, his panel would be front-loaded for easier instrument removal – like the Air Force does it. The maintenance guys simply unscrew the faulty instrument, pull it out, and pop in another bench-checked one. Bill also fabricated two auxiliary panel extensions to handle switches for ignition, lights, engine monitoring selectors, and headset jacks. They also support the cabin air vent outlets. 

Bill found three small sub-panels from Boeing jets, that – with modification – he incorporated into the main panel. Each mini-panel has its own function grouping – power and bus panel, pressure panel, and oil/fuel quantity panel. These Boeing mini-panels set the pattern of how the rest of the main panel would look – pewter gray with white recessed lettering. 

This became a challenge, though. How do you make gray placards with white recessed lettering from scratch? Cut the required placards out of 1/8-inch clear plexiglass sheet, sand them, then hand-paint them with plastic model paint mixed to match the Boeing color. Take the painted pieces to a local shop that does laser cutting, along with drawings of the text you want engraved, then dab a water-based white paint into the lasered lettering. This allows wiping off the excess with a damp cloth without disturbing the gray oil or enamel paint around it. The lettering then becomes white and readable. Once dry, Bill sprayed the completed pieces with a clear flat lacquer coat to seal them.

About the time Bill was starting work on his sliding canopy, Sport Aviation published an article about Chalkey Stobbart's method of attaching a Van's canopy using Sikaflex marine adhesive instead of screws and drilling. Although Van's could give no assistance on this option, Bill was drawn by the simplicity of it – a canopy with no screws and no risk of cracking the plexiglass. It took a little extra care to get the slider to mate with the windscreen, but it came out perfectly. And it's not coming off in this century. Bill always thought it was fortunate that Chalkey's article came out the very month he was starting his canopy.

Other ideas he incorporated into the plane were “push-to-extinguish” annunciator lights, large aircraft toggle switches, and DC flasher units to make certain annuciators blink. Using micro-switches, his canopy seal light blinks until the slider is closed and locked. And the flaps deployed light comes on anytime the flaps aren't in the full-up position. For the exterior, he used Van's “no-primer” paint method, computer-cut stencils, and lots of decals. He fabricated an aluminum mount for a custom-ordered throttle quadrant in lieu of standard push-pull throttle and mixture controls. Red side-marker lights (Walmart auto section) swing out from the longerons to light the entire panel, saving night vision. And, in true Air Force tradition, Bill put together a 50-page Tech Manual (Operational Manual) with electrical schematics, functions of every switch, replacement part lists, checklists, fuseblock connections, and so on.

Nearing completion, Bill decided he needed some help to just 'get over the hump' of those final building tasks (brake lines, engine baffles) that were holding things up. His neighbor, Steward Baylor (also a member of the Fighting 249th) was there that spring to help. Bill selected a tail number ending in 707 – the designation of his old Reserve squadron – and a 707th insignia sticker somehow found its way onto the tail. The letters on the vertical stabilizer (AJ) are in remembrance Bill's parents, Alan and Jean.

The plane was test flown on D-Day 2009 by Danny “Speedy” Kight –  a member of Team Aerodynamix – the famous RV formation flyers. Retired Piedmont Airlines captain Dale Ellis flew chase. Both are devoted EAA Chapter 249 officers. Years earlier, Danny helped buck the wing rivets, and answered all the questions Bill could throw at him.  

What Bill found most rewarding was learning to electrically wire up the entire aircraft. With little engineering or building experience, he found that the learning process gave rise to “imagineering” ideas into tangible results. The dream had become a reality with help from his local EAA chapter. He's now flying his own “Air Force” plane.

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