It may look like a long, silver canoe, but the shiny metal contraption taking shape in Ed Willard's workshop won't be seaworthy anytime soon.
These are the "skins" of an airplane fuselage, joined together rivet by rivet in painstaking work that sometimes leaves Willard's arm and hand numb. Next up will come the addition of the tail, already assembled and hanging on the wall, and the wings, now leaning up against some shelving.
Then, Willard says, "Instead of looking like a canoe, it'll start looking like an airplane."
The final product will be an airworthy craft known as a Harmon Rocket, the fifth airplane this Roy aviation buff has put together with his own hands. The Rocket is a single-man aerobatic plane capable of flying around 250 miles per hour.
"I figure this is my last hurrah -- I'm getting something wild and then I'll go to some slow, clunky airplane," the 69-year-old retired airline pilot jokes.
Willard is one of hundreds of Utahns building their own airplanes from plans or kits. Sure, you could just purchase a small plane to buzz around in, but to Willard's way of thinking, that means missing out on the joy of creating something.
"Building is fun -- building a birdhouse is fun, building an airplane is fun," says the pilot who works nearly every day on the Harmon Rocket in his hangar at Ogden-Hinckley Airport.
Although dozens of planes will soar through the skies in next weekend's "Warriors Over the Wasatch" air show at Hill Air Force Base, enthusiasts like Willard focus on home-built flying machines with a magnificence all their own.
"If you like to work with your hands, it's a challenge and it's rewarding that first time when you taxi out -- 'I put this thing together,' " he says.
There are 33,000 registered home-built aircraft in the United States, Dick Knapinski of the Experimental Aircraft Association says, and they make up 15-20 percent of the nation's small aircraft fleet.
"I guess you would consider the Wright Brothers probably as the first people who built their own airplanes," the communications director says in a phone interview from Oshkosh, Wis.
The hobby is appealing to those who like building things and to those who want an aircraft that looks and performs differently than a factory-built airplane, Knapinski says. Home-built planes are also cheaper; a new four-seat Cessna might run $250,000, whereas a home-built plane that goes faster and uses less fuel might cost about $60,000, he says.
"The switch-off is, there's a lot of sweat equity involved in it," Knapinski says, ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 hours of labor per plane.
Todd Parker, president of an Ogden EAA chapter that offers assistance to home builders, says members enjoy learning new skills as they create planes from various materials such as wood, aluminum or composites. Some hobbyists build more than one plane and each time, "they build a slightly different flavor," the Kaysville resident says.
The introduction of plane-building kits in the 1970s, complete with directions and many of the materials, "really made this sport take off," Parker says.
Willard got his first taste of flying in high school when a friend took him up for a ride.
"We just flew around for about 15 minutes and that was enough for me to get hooked," says the Illinois native who grew up in Bountiful.
The then-17-year-old started working as a gas boy at a Bountiful airport and went on to get a private license, commercial license and instructor's license. He learned to fly helicopters in the Army National Guard and, by the age of 23, was hired as pilot for Western Airlines. Later in his career, he also flew for Delta.
The dream of building his own plane was always kicking around in Willard's mind until, during the 1970s, he found himself living near a Denver fellow who created the Skybolt, a plane designed as a shop project for high school students.
"If there's ever a chance of building a airplane, this is the one," Willard recalls, and so his own Skybolt was born, created by scratch from purchased plans.
His second endeavor, an aerobatic Pitts biplane, was put on hold for a time while Willard and his first wife, who later passed away, raised their three children. Willard says he dragged pieces of that project around the country for 10 years during various moves before turning them into an airplane.
Both of his first planes have since been sold, and Willard misses them, explaining, "It's sort of like two lost children out in the world somewhere."
Step by step
The under-construction Harmon Rocket shares hangar space with Willard's latest winged beauties -- an RV-3 and RV-8. The RV series is one of the most popular kits on the market, he says.
The RV-8 is a white and blue two-seat plane with Willard's nickname -- "Capt. Wiz" -- emblazoned on the fuselage, along with a nickname for his new wife, "General Dagmar."
His RV-3 is a single-seater with a World War II paint scheme.
"That's olive drab -- it's my favorite color," Willard says as he shows off the RV-3 on the runway at Ogden-Hinckley Airport.
The new Harmon Rocket, also part of the RV series, is the most difficult plane he's ever built, Willard says, in part because it requires multiple sets of plans. He estimates he still has about a year to go before completing the plane. It can be easy to get burned out during construction, he says.
Although he and Dagmar spent last winter in Arizona, he says, "It was great not to think about my airplane and I wasn't in a big hurry to get back to work on it."
But once he starts focusing on how much he has accomplished on the airplane -- instead of how much is still in front of him -- the pilot says he is able to "get back in building mode."
Blot out the world
Although home-built aircraft have increased in popularity in recent years, their accident rates have gone down, making them "safer, as a ratio, through the years," Knapinski says. An EAA report lists 51 fatal accidents nationwide in amateur-built craft in the recent fiscal year ending in September 2011.
Willard says he has no fear of flying in anything he's built and emphasizes, "The more you know about your airplane, the safer the operation is. ... I like to know how things work -- I guess it's my training."
The Roy pilot does most of his flying locally, whether it's taking a monthly trip with some flying buddies to have lunch at a Logan airport or making a jaunt to his winter home in Arizona while his wife drives the car there.
"I go right across the Grand Canyon and, boy it's pretty," he says.
There's something freeing about flying, Willard says -- about climbing inside that cockpit where you can enjoy the day and "blot out the rest of the world."