S. Hutch businessman finds solace in kit aircraft.
By John Green The Hutchinson News firstname.lastname@example.org
Whenever W.J. Wilbeck takes off from the Hutchinson Municipal Airport, his pilot knows to circle the city once or twice before heading to their destination.
The intent, said Wilbeck, 68, a longtime South Hutchinson businessman, is to spark an interest in flying among those on the ground.
He has the plane to do it.
Whether on the runway or in the air, Wilbeck's "Velocity" is sure to draw second looks. Built from a kit, the small plane is canard-style, meaning its smaller "tail" wings are at the front of the plane and its larger main wings and engine in the back.
"I have a passion for aviation and I want to share the joy of flight," Wilbeck said.
It was a passion born when he was young, but one which Wilbeck didn't really pursue until relatively recently, following a life-changing accident.
"My dad had an airplane, a twin-engine Cessna Bobcat," Wilbeck recalled. Built as a trainer for the Air Force, it was retired after the war. "At 9 cents a gallon, it burnt more fuel than he was comfortable purchasing, so he traded it in for an Ercoupe."
Among four boys in the family, W.J. was the only one interested in aviation. His own children enjoyed flying when they were young, but don't have the interest as adults.
Wilbeck routinely flew for his business, Agri Center, delivering parts to farmers in the field when they had a mechanical breakdown. He first saw a canard-style plane at the 3I Show in Great Bend in the early 1970s and thought "I should build one of those."
"But life got in the way," Wilbeck said, "and I didn't have the time or money to pursue it."
After being severely burned in fire in 2005, landing him in intensive care for six weeks, Wilbeck became despondent about the things he wanted to do and hadn't. Once released from the hospital, "while still heavily medicated," he joked, he went online and found a kit for a Velocity with a diesel engine.
"A year to the date of my injury, my son and I went to the Velocity factory and began work on my first one," Wilbeck said. He spent six weeks there, and his son two.
"We wanted to build the central structure of the plane at the factory with supervision, to ensure it was properly constructed," he said. Then they put the completed fuselage and wings on a truck to bring it home to finish, where he has since worked on it off and on.
It typically takes about 10 years for the average person to build a plane from a kit, Wilbeck said, noting "some guys like the building as much as the flying."
The Velocity kit cost about $50,000 - plus the engine, avionics, interior finish, paint and labor.
"If you can afford a good used car, you can fly if you want," Wilbeck contends. "You can spend as little or as much as you want."
After realizing the engine he wants in his plane won't be ready for a while - it's not been certified as flight-ready - Wilbeck went back online to find another plane. He found one built by a Continental pilot who had an avocation of building model planes.
"I bought it sight unseen," Wilbeck said. "A friend and I rented a truck in Naples, Fla., and then took it to the factory to have them finish it. A year and a half later - and another $50,000 - and I had an airplane. Since that time I've spent hundreds of hours continuing to work on it, redoing the paint on it and a bunch of little things that make it extremely reliable."
It's similar to building a model airplane, Wilbeck said, another of his avocations. He belongs to a radio-controlled model airplane club, which "welcomes visitors with an interest in aviation," he said. "Go to hutchbunch.org for information."
He has a private pilot's license, but Wilbeck hired professional pilot Shane DeWeese to fly the Velocity, which is classified as an experimental airplane because it's from a kit.
"I like experimental airplanes, but I don't like to experiment," Wilbeck said. "Safety is No. 1."
DeWeese, 33, a pilot for 14 years, took specialized training to fly a canard-style plane, which takes off and lands differently than traditional airplanes.
As an experimental airplane "it allows you to make any change or improvement you want," Wilbeck said. "It's inherently stronger built than a factory airplane and it's more efficient and faster."
An example of the difference, said DeWeese, is that to change the spark plugs in a manufactured airplane means buying "certified" plugs, which can run $80 to $90 per plug.
"They're the same plugs you can get at an O'Reilly store for a few dollars," DeWeese said. "If you don't have to have certified parts there's huge money and time savings."
One drawback, the two men noted, is they can't offer chartered flights, though they can offer free ones.
During his Hutchinson High School 50th class reunion earlier this year, one of the venues was at the Airport Steakhouse. On the spur of the moment, Wilbeck decided to offer flights to his classmates. He expected a couple of takers, he said, but DeWeese ended up flying from about 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Compared to a standard four-seat Piper or Cessna, the Velocity has more interior room and can fly faster on the same or less fuel.
"It can fly 160 knots, or about 190 mph," DeWeese said.
That compares to 125 to 130 mph for a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, "the most mass-produced plane there is," Wilbeck said.
With the wings toward the back, there are vertical stabilizers on each wing replacing the non-existent tail. With the engine in back, it's much quieter in the cockpit and there is no propeller wash over the plane.
Still, DeWeese said, it's more challenging to fly than a conventional airplane because of the weight in the back.
"When landing, the nose wants to come down before the rear," he said. "You have to get a lot of rudder control. It's not as docile as others."
In flight, if the engines stalled, rather than nosedive, the plane, which weighs only about 1,300 pounds, would flutter down, side to side, like a leaf.
There are about 100 Velocities that are flying, Wilbeck said. In Kansas, there are others in Ellsworth, Pratt and Olathe, and one under construction in Newton.
Wilbeck, who is semi-retired, hopes to get the diesel engine for his other plane within the next year. With 200 horsepower and a turbo charger, it should run about 70 mph faster than his current plane and run on jet fuel, which is cheaper than the fuel he uses now.
"It's a compression engine, which doesn't have spark plugs, but uses compression to fire," he said. "It should be a real game-changer."