Dean Wilson Age: 62 Occupation: airplane inventor
Dean Wilson can make things fly.
The 62-year-old airplane mechanic has been building one-of-a-kind flying machines of utilitarian economy and startling efficiency for more than 20 years.
In the early 1980s, when crash-related lawsuits were strangling factory production of light planes, Wilson saw a market for a new kind of aircraft.
There were few alternatives to factory-built planes in those days that weren’t expensive, risky or time-consuming.
Wilson’s solution was a tiny two-seater, sold in kit form and powered by a snowmobile engine. For safety reasons and shorter build-time, Wilson completed the critical structures in the fuselage and wings.
It used traditional materials: steel tube fuselage covered with fabric.
“I wanted a plane I could fold up, hook to a car and take home,” he explained.
Folding wings allowed the plane to be towed home on its own landing gear to a garage. And it was cheap to own and fly.
His plane, the Avid Flyer, was an immediate success and won Best New Design at the annual convention in Oshkosh, Wis., in 1983.
“He designed one of the most popular planes in the world,” says Avid technician Jim Raeder.
In 1983, everything needed to build the little plane, except the final paint, cost $7,500. Today it’s about $17,000.
The kit airplane industry, in its infancy in 1983, now is crowded with more than 500 designs. Because these airplanes have not endured the FAA’s rigorous certification process, they’re labeled “experimental” and pilots who decide to build them accept the risks.
The airplane that crashed in North Idaho recently, killing two people, and the one that took the life of singer John Denver last year, were well-tested home-built designs. The crashes still are under investigation.
According to the FAA, 22,000 Experimental-class airplanes are registered in the United States, and 1,000 are added each year. Records show that the accident rate for Experimental-class planes is only 1 percent higher than those for certified airplanes.
Wilson still can remember his first ride in a Piper Cub at the age of 3. He was a Clarkston farm boy with a mechanical bent; he was hooked.
Flying lessons were $11 an hour. He took his first lesson at 13 and mowed lawns and sold watermelons he grew himself to pay for flying time, sometimes in 15-minute blocks.
Flying consumed him. He dropped out of high school to become an airplane mechanic.
He worked on cropdusters and flew spray planes for 16 seasons. He also maintained a fleet of antique airplanes for a Boise businessman.
He appreciated the tubing and fabric planes of the pre-war years, and he studied aerodynamics and structural analysis in textbooks dating back to the Wright brothers. He studied the many different ways to overcome drag, create lift and harness power.
The young mechanic rebuilt a Waco biplane he found deteriorating in a field, designing new wings and turning it into a cropduster. His plane outperformed the popular Boeing Stearman airplane and the success bolstered his confidence.
He began designing in earnest.
Believing he could produce a safer cropduster, Wilson designed the Eagle in 1975. A factory in Minnesota built the first one in 1978, but by then interest rates were at 21 percent and sales were slow.
He designed the Avid Flyer and founded Avid Aircraft in 1983.
Tipping the scales about 500 lbs., the award-winning Avid could carry two people for sight-seeing or short trips. The company has shipped thousands of kits around the world. Production quickly maxed out at 15 kits a month.
Hubert DeChevigny of France gave Wilson a challenge in 1986.
“He wanted to know if a guy pulled a Lindbergh, and filled (the Avid’s cabin) clear full of fuel and 141 lbs. of baggage, How far would it go?”
Wilson calculated. “2,200 miles,” he said.
DeChevigny was sold. The well-known adventurer had Wilson add a custom 85-gallon gas tank to the standard Avid Flyer and spent 22 days over polar ice in the tiny airplane, facing 60-knot winds and 60-below temperatures. In May of 1987, sponsored by a champagne company and the French postal service, DeChevigny set down 711 feet from the North Pole, the first experimental aircraft to land there.
Wilson and the 12 employees at Explorer Aviation now are producing a new kit airplane, the Ellipse. Reviews have called the four-seat, folding-wing plane a blend of old and new technology, with remarkable fuel economy.
He’s also flight testing the Private Explorer, a single-engine plane designed for camping, also commissioned by DeChevigny.
“I call it a ‘flying motor home,”’ said Wilson, pointing out the double bed and cavernous interior. Wilson hopes to build more if there is interest.
With such a track record, it seems there may be nothing Wilson can’t do with a plane.
In the mid-‘80s, there were rumors that veteran designer Dick Rutan was building an airplane to fly nonstop around the world. The idea piqued Wilson’s interest.
“I watched (Wilson) punch his calculator and design - on a napkin - an airplane to fly around the world. He told me to fly around the world, you would need a 110-foot wingspan,” said Raeder.
When Rutan rolled out the Voyager, it had a 109-foot wingspan.
Raeder says his former boss has an intuitive sense of what will fly and what won’t. Another aviation colleague taps his temple and says, “He’s got all the numbers up here.”
Wilson says it’s simple science.
There are no computers in the dusty hangar office lined with dog-eared textbooks and framed pictures of Wilson’s planes. The hum of welders and clank of wrenches reverberates.
The shelves are cluttered with rolls of hand-drawn blueprints for future airplanes, each with thousands of fine print notations of stress factors and dimensions, blocky numbers scratched with a pencil.
Wilson solves aerodynamic and structural problems with pencil and tiny calculator from his shirt pocket.
“I kick myself for not finishing high school and college,” he said.
One future design is to fly movie cameras alongside migrating birds. Another is a four-engine flying boat for exploration.
If the money ever shows up, he’ll build them.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
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