Getting the lowdown on a high-flying engineer
Nothing can cause butterflies in your stomach like getting into a plane with the word "Experimental" stenciled behind the seats and this warning on the instrument panel: "This Aircraft Is Amateur Built and Does Not Comply with the Federal Safety Regulations for Standard Aircraft." But I climb into the cockpit anyway, reassured after an hourlong chat that my pilot, Bruce Uvanni, is a reasonably sane, safe person. The 46-year-old from Shelburne is, after all, an IBM engineer -- who just happens to have some of the most hair-raising hobbies in the company.
Uvanni has built this bird -- a shiny Vans RV-6A -- from scratch, jumped from a plane hundreds of times, and leapt from an 876-foot bridge into a gorge. He describes this last experience as "a horrible feeling," and yet he repeats it every October. Yep, sane and safe.
Uvanni twists, pushes and pulls a few knobs, and we're off, shooing the seagulls from the Shelburne Airport runway, a blip of grassy landing strip tucked behind the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory. The propeller whirs and suddenly we're flying away on a wing and -- in my case -- a prayer.
According to the magazine Kitplanes, between 55,000 and 100,000 aviation enthusiasts around the world are currently in the process of building an aircraft, hoping to save money and improve performance. "The speed, handling, landing capabilities and custom designs are not available in 50-year-old factory-built planes," says Kitplanes publisher Cindy Peterson. "And by trading sweat equity, they get much more plane for the dollar."
A brand-new Cessna 182, for example, fetches more than $200,000, while a comparable kitplane costs half as much to build. Plus, the builder can save thousands of dollars on mechanic expenses by learning how to make repairs alone.
This is a frightening concept to someone who can't even fix a faucet, but making, and flying, a homemade plane was a natural pull for Uvanni. "It's every kid's dream to be a pilot," he says. "But one of the expensive parts about owning an airplane isn't buying or flying it, it's the maintenance. If you build your own, you become the repairman for that airplane."
Growing up in Rome, New York, Uvanni began to hike, bike and rock climb -- and build model cars and airplanes. "I was always getting into mischief, but not really anything dangerous," he says. "When I was in high school I wanted to go into the Air Force and become a pilot, but back then you needed 20/20 vision and I had something like 20/30, 20/40; it was enough to knock me out."
After graduating from Clarkson University and joining IBM in 1980, Uvanni was stationed in Portland, Oregon, where he began studying toward his pilot's license in 1984. "At that point I thought about building my own plane," he says. "I had the itch as soon as I started flying." But with little free time on his hands, and concerns about how big the project would be, Uvanni waited until 1999 to make the leap. After helping out a friend who was building a similar model, he made two major purchases. The first was a factory-built 1940 Luscombe aircraft with fire-engine-red flanks. "One of the toughest things about building an airplane is not having one to fly," explains Uvanni. "You've got the toy in front of you, but you can't play."
Then, he sent away for the Vans RV-6A kit. "I chose it because it's fast, it's pretty much all metal -- I'm better at working with metal than fiberglass," he says. "Plus, the support group's out there, with almost 3000 similar planes flying in the United States." (The RV-6A is also the choice of the Nigerian Air Force -- not exacting the most intimidating swarm in the African sky, but one of the most stylish.) Still, with two years, or 2000 estimated hours, of work ahead of him, Uvanni says, "It was pretty daunting."
In fact it's been four years, and 3000 hours since the first parts arrived at his garage, and he's still not quite finished with the paintwork and other finishing touches. "The last 10 percent takes as long as the first 90 percent," says Uvanni.
In 2002 he bought some property next to the Shelburne Airport and built his own hangar, where he now stores the Luscombe, the RV-6A and the skeleton of his next project, a Murphy Moose seaplane. The two working planes stand tip to tail in the immaculate workspace. "It's a lot more complicated than it seems," Uvanni suggests, showing me part of the Moose. What looks like a rabbit-ears antenna turns out to be the center reinforcer for the "elevator" on the back of the plane. In a time-consuming process, holes must be drilled, clecoes (temporary fasteners) inserted and everything aligned perfectly before the rivets are attached. No wonder kitplane builders need support groups.
I notice a television set at one end of his workbench, and ponder aloud whether Uvanni watches "Wheel of Fortune" or other shows to prevent boredom while building. He laughs. "I don't get bored," he says, explaining that the set is for instructional videos. "Sometimes I'd get frustrated, reading the directions or looking aat the drawings and not being able to figure out what they were saying." He pulls out a thick sheath of drawings, and I agree -- I can't even figure out which way is up.
"There are times when you work on things and you don't see what you've done at the end of the day -- those were frustrating, too," says Uvanni. "But there were days when [I had] a finished part in my hand -- those were rewarding. And the ultimate reward is when you take off for the first time."
Uvanni took his first flight on the RV-6A in August 2003, but "there was something drastically wrong," he recalls. "It was nerve-racking, very scary." After taking off and landing three times, he finally figured out that the propeller was operating backward. Three days later, he had a repaired prop in hand and was circling above Shelburne safely.
Not that falling from the sky would have been anything new to Uvanni, who began skydiving in 1989 while stationed in Austin, Texas, and has since logged some 1400 jumps. "Skydiving is like flying: you're in control," he says. "You're falling through the air, but you use that air to fly your body, and you can fly over to people."
Uvanni uses this technique in his "social" sky dives, or "big ways," in which dozens, even hundreds, of people attempt to hold hands while plummeting toward the ground. Last February in Thailand, 357 skydivers set the new world record for the largest freefall formation; this summer Uvanni and others went for a regional record with a 100-way in Massachusetts -- alas, only 81, including Uvanni, made it due to weather problems, he says.
And then there's the "free way," in which jumpers eschew airplanes altogether and leap from a building, antenna, span or the earth -- the four platforms form the acronym BASE. There's a heart-pounding freefall before the chute opens -- just four or five seconds -- and about a minute, Uvanni says, to set up for landing.
Because nobody wants to be responsible for potentially splattered bodies on their property, BASE jumping is illegal in many places. Uvanni got hooked, legally, in October 1999 during Bridge Day in West Virginia, when officials opened the span over the New River Gorge to the public -- including parachutists.
"In skydiving, you don't get a sense of falling, but BASE jumping is completely different," Uvanni says. "It's quiet. You step off that bridge and you get the sensation of falling and you can hear it starting to whistle. All of a sudden it just starts building up, whoooooooit, and you can see the ground coming up at you -- that's what's exciting."
I ask Uvanni if he's scared to BASE jump. "Yes, yes!" he says emphatically. "When you're looking over the edge and watching the others jump, it's a horrible feeling. But once you go, you're rushing to get that next jump in."
After hearing about his most frightening moment -- when his hand slipped from the chute on a Bridge Day in West Virginia -- I'm relieved he doesn't invite me to join him this October. But it's then, just as I'm about to head for the relative safety of my Toyota, that Uvanni asks if I'd like to fly in the RV-6A.
How can I refuse? I cross my fingers and say yes. Shortly after takeoff, I manage to peel my eyes away from the warning placard and gape down at the shores of Lake Champlain, where evening is creeping in. We fly over the Basin Harbor Club and the mouth of the Otter Creek as the sun streams through the clouds, then back north over Mount Philo. It's a tiny glimpse of the thrills that 3000 hours and a sky full of patience can purchase.