May 16, 2011
Retirement project taking off
Former SUNY Cortland professor nearly done building airplane
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Retired SUNY Cortland professor Dale Anderson has been building a two-seater airplane that he hopes to complete this summer.
CORTLANDVILLE — For Cortlandville resident Dale Anderson, retirement gave him the chance to do something he has always wanted.
Two years ago, after spending his career teaching recreation courses in kayaking, wind surfing, snow boarding and physical education, the 68-year-old SUNY Cortland professor decided to spend his retirement years building an airplane in his garage.
“I decided, no more excuses,” Anderson said.
In 2009, Anderson bought a kit for an 18-by-22-foot Sonex airplane, which has a cruising speed of 125 mph and can fly for nearly four hours at a time. Since then, he has spent hours every day putting the engine together, wiring the controls on the dashboard, assembling the siding and hoping nothing goes wrong.
“It’s like putting a great big three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle together,” Anderson said.
The total price tag for the two-seater airplane is just under $30,000. Anderson said the project is worth every expense.
He has carried a passion for planes with him throughout his life. About 60 years ago, his father, Leroy, a World War II mechanic, took him on his first airplane ride in a Republic Seabee, which Anderson described as a “flying boat” because it could take off or land on water.
In the 1970s, Anderson worked as a mechanic’s assistant at Grand Forks International Airport while attending graduate school in North Dakota. He has a library full of books on airplanes and subscriptions to a handful of aviation magazines.
“It’s just a real thrill to ride in a small airplane,” Anderson said. “I’ll never forget my first flight. I’ve just always wanted to fly.”
When people hear about his project they often say the same thing — “Why would you do that?” — but Anderson is determined. There are online forums where people talk about how to build the Sonex plane and like-minded individuals assembling the plane in Rochester and Oswego.
Anderson wants to build his plane on his own, only referring to Sonex website for help when he absolutely needs to.
“I really want to be able to say, ‘I did this myself,’” Anderson said. “I’m going to test it and maybe it won’t work. But it’s all me. The plane is a part of me.”
He said he started working on the airplane two years ago for about six to 10 hours a day before he slowed down a bit this winter. His family’s cars had to sit outside in the winter as Anderson worked on the plane in the garage.
“My wife has been really supportive,” Anderson said of his new hobby. “It’s been extremely satisfying thing do, and I can’t wait to fly.”
Anderson taught at SUNY Cortland’s Recreation, Parks and Leisure Studies Department for 13 years. He still teaches windsurfing classes part-time in the fall.
He is also the Young Eagles coordinator for the Ithaca chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, a group interested in aviation and building airplanes.
The Young Eagles program provides children between the ages of 8 and 17 with the opportunity to learn about aviation and fly with pilots.
The organization will have an event at the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport on June 4, where children will have a chance to fly with experienced pilots.
Anderson is finishing up his training to get his pilot’s license. He hopes he will be able to take interested children for rides in his plane as part of the Young Eagles program.
He is also looking for space at a local airport hangar where he can put the wings on his plane and apply the finishing touches. Once he’s done, the plane will need to go through a host of Federal Aviation Administration tests before it is fit to fly.
And after nearly $30,000 invested and hundreds of hours of work, Anderson’s Sonex plane is almost finished. He has figured out how to wire the plane with an output for an iPad so he can check weather patterns in flight. He has overcome the obstacles that come with having no experience building planes.
But Anderson said his homemade retirement plane is still missing one crucial element — a name.
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