By MAUREEN PICHÉ
NORWOOD – After five years, 3,000 hours of labor, and more money spent than he cares to admit, Robert Klein finished building his own two-seater airplane and took it for its maiden flight on Dec. 4.
With a bunch of kits ordered from Oregon-based Van’s Aircraft, the Norwood chiropractor and amateur mechanic constructed the model RV-9A experimental aircraft, getting a serious education in riveting, electronics, physics and aerodynamics along the way.
“It’s a lifetime accomplishment,” Klein said. “Now that I’ve raised my kids, the airplane is a second huge accomplishment. I promise you, I’m not building another airplane.”
To test his mettle, Klein began working on one small piece at a time in 2005, starting with riveting together the tail and wings in the living room of his apartment.
“I was single, and no one was around to say you can’t do that in my house,” he laughed.
He then had to use a lift to move pieces out an apartment window and transport them to a hangar he rented at Massena’s Richards Field. There, he did the rest of the work.
The result is a shiny silver airplane awaiting a series of test flights that will determine its airworthiness. Its eventual home will be the new hangar under construction at Damon Field in Potsdam.
The 1,000-plus-lb., single-engine plane is 20 feet long with a wing span of 28 feet. It's nearly 8 feet high. Its maximum speed is 170 miles per hour, according to the manufacturer website.
The craft’s name, 2SB, or Two Steps Back, refers to the trial and error process Klein and his many assistant friends went through as they learned by doing.
“Whenever something didn’t come out right, I took it apart and did it over again,” Klein said.
The whole odyssey started with his love of all things mechanical. He worked on cars to put himself through chiropractic school. He once built a barn. And of course, he was one of those kids who dreamed of flying one day.
Then, necessity stepped in. In 2000, Klein had a second practice in New Hampshire that required a 12-hour car commute from Norwood. A patient told him about flying to Maine in a small plane in 2 hours. Klein decided to take flying lessons and buy a small Cessna.
But the small plane wasn’t powerful enough to make the ascent over Mt. Washington. In 2004, Klein decided to sell the plane and build his own.
First, he had to collect the many specific tools needed to build a plane. Then, he made friends with people who had already built one or were in the process.
“People loaned me tools and a lot of know-how,” he said. Many lent a hand, too.
Five years and lots of blood and sweat later, the moment of truth, the first test flight, came Dec. 4. Klein would find out whether his hard work had resulted in an amazing flying machine or a potential calamity.
“I was so scared. When something goes wrong in an airplane, it goes wrong very fast,” he said. “All these people had tested it. The FAA had tested it. But still, you never know.”
Klein said he thought about his kids, his grandkids and his girlfriend as he got ready to go. What if he never saw them again?
“But then I thought, ‘I’m gonna do this,’ and I taxied down the runway and gave her the gas,” he said. Once the plane left the ground and all seemed to be running well, he said he felt “tremendous relief.”
The initial flight lasted two hours, as required. He said he stayed close to the airport, doing big circles in the area, just in case an emergency landing was required.
To prove airworthiness, he must still fly the plane a total of 40 hours in daylight with no passenger, staying in a certain geographic area. He will also perform several tests to ensure the craft’s safety and his proficiency flying it.
He will use sandbags to simulate a passenger, stall tests, runway touch-and-goes, figure eights and steep turns. He expects it may take him up to late spring to get all the time in.
He said, ironically, he no longer has the practice in New Hampshire, but he plans to use the plane to visit family in Albany and New Jersey.
In the end, he sees the whole process as an adventure akin to how the Wright Brothers must have felt when they built their first successful plane.
“It’s sort of a real American thing to do, especially the whole idea of experimental aircraft,” he said. “The idea of a person building and owning their own. It’s great.”