16 years in the making

For 16 years, the airplane taking shape in John Powell’s carport didn’t get off the ground. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t serve a purpose to his neighbors along the winding streets near Webb Park Golf Course.

“It was kind of a landmark,” Powell said. “This is a confusing little section, and people would say, ‘Look for the airplane.’”

Only now they can’t — unless they look up at the right moment. This aluminum-sided eagle has finally spread its wings and left the nest.

On March 14, an effort that began in 1996 reached its climax when Powell’s single-engine plane lifted off at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport. The first flight lasted less than an hour, but was immensely satisfying to Powell and a small group of friends who came to witness it, including Powell’s wife, Nancy.

“It did fine,” Powell said after taxiing to a stop outside PAI Aero, the airplane’s new home. “My heart wasn’t beating fast, but my brain was working overtime.”

Working overtime is as good a description of this project as any.

Powell, 60, took his first flying lesson in 1992. A Baton Rouge real estate appraiser, Powell had owned a small peach orchard in East Feliciana Parish that was located near a grass airstrip whose owner had a family member who used it frequently.

“I’d be out there sweating in the orchard and he’d be doing aerobatics right over my head, and I kept thinking, ‘He’s having a lot more fun than I am,’” Powell said.

Learning to fly only reaffirmed that sentiment, so he wanted his own plane. The most affordable way to get one was to build it, and Powell chose the Van’s Aircraft RV-6A, a versatile and popular two-seater. The airplane kit he chose offered nothing pre-assembled, but Powell didn’t think that would be a problem.

“They said it takes about 2,000 hours to build it, which is one working year for an eight-hour day,” he said. “I figured I could do that in two years, no problem. I could work every night …”

Powell stopped to laugh at that thought.

“Everything you do just takes five to 10 times longer than you thought it was going to take,” he said. “You’ve got to do it right.”

The tail section was first, and it went together fairly easily. Next came the wings, which were larger, but manageable. The fuselage was another matter.

Its size required a better work space than Powell had, so he built a shop at his house, which was a six-month project. The design also called for using rivets that stay flush to the aircraft’s exterior “skin.” This takes longer, and there are a whole lot of rivets in an airplane. Powell did most of the work by himself, but several people, such as neighbor Ernie Gremillion, who helped with the riveting, and friend Barry Tanner assisted throughout the project.

So, the construction went on. And on. One of the questions friends always asked was when it would be finished.

“You’re so hesitant to tell people, ‘I think it’s going to be finished next year,’ because pretty soon you just seem like a total liar,” Powell said. “I’ve been telling them the same thing year after year.”

Powell never lost interest in the airplane, but decided early on that he wasn’t going to obsess over it. One of his neighbors had a terminal illness, and Powell’s mother was aging. Powell said he chose to give family, friends and fellow members at First Baptist Church a higher priority than the airplane.

“Relationships first and this thing second, and then try to look at each stage of it as a goal rather than the plane be a goal and not worry about when it was going to be finished, just enjoy the process,” he said. “And I did. I like to build stuff. I could really enjoy the process.”

Little came easily. The engine he bought on eBay needed new cylinder rings. The gas tank failed its first leak test. But Powell kept plugging away, and earlier this year loaded it on a trailer and took it to the airport.

“All the neighbors came out of the woodwork,” Powell said. “They’re all helping me and giving me advice. Everybody was so excited about seeing that airplane move.”

That included Nancy, and not just because the carport can now cover both their vehicles. She applauded with joy when his first flight landed and he returned to PAI Aero.

“I’m excited for him,” she said. “It took a lot of stick-to-itness.”

Federal Aviation Administration rules prevent Powell from taking a passenger with him in what is classified as an experimental aircraft until he has flown it for 40 hours. Once that happens, Powell said he and Nancy will use it to visit friends and family in other states.

“I think I’m really going to enjoy flying it,” he said.

His neighborhood, however, will have to find a new landmark.