Zenith kit airplane workshops offer hands-on training

Zenith kit airplane workshops offer hands-on training
Chris Carstens inspects his first go at working with sheet metal during a recent workshop. [Dave Faries]
Dave Faries

So you decided to build your own airplane. Where do you start?

At Zenith Aircraft Company’s monthly kit airplane building workshop you start with the rudder. On a Friday morning several people were huddled over factory tables drilling holes, connecting parts and inspecting their own work.

“This is the first sheet metal work I’ve ever done,” said Chris Carstens, who drove from Kansas to take part in the workshop. “It started ugly, but it’s getting better.”

Zenith designs and manufactures award-winning kit aircraft in a facility at the Mexico Memorial Airport, shipping to enthusiasts around the world. The company’s president, Sebastien Heintz, explains that the rudder is a component that requires one to master all of the skills and tools involved to complete the rest of the plane.

So it’s a good place to start.

Elwood Johnson traveled from the state of Louisiana to take part in the workshop. He said he is looking to purchase one of Zenith’s models and wanted to see if piecing it together was something he could actually do.

“Everything I’ve touched is all new to me,” he said, taking a break from drilling.

Heintz and his team began the workshops shortly after the company began operations in 1992. He understood that a hands-on experience would give novices the opportunity to learn and gain the confidence necessary for such a project.

After all, constructing a plane from a box of parts, however well designed, is not something one does every day.

“Failure is not really an option,” Heintz said. “You need to do it right.”

This week 15 people came to Mexico for the two-day course. By Friday morning several participants had completed work on the tail section and headed home. Others still toiled away, with rudders in various stages of completion.

“There are a lot of holes to drill,” noted Matthew Fritz, brushing off a curved section. “I’m glad that’s done.”

Fritz drove from the Lincoln, Neb., area to hone his skills. He became interested in kit planes because it’s not a typical hobby.

And that’s what motivates most of the enthusiasts. Zenith’s aircraft are for recreational flying — taking to the air in the same spirit as, say, someone wanting to cruise with the top down on a winding highway or spend a day out on the lake.

“The takeaway is ‘are you having fun?’ ” Heintz said. “This is a hobby. These are fun little airplanes.”

The workshops are like a getaway, as well. Attendees get to test fly one of the company’s demonstration models, for instance. And the pace of the course is leisurely, although quite a bit of information is packed into both days.

Participants learn the finer points of reading manuals, which in this case also means mastering the metric system. They go over the tools and equipment required for the process, as well as how to measure — the folks at Zenith are “measure twice — or more” advocates – drill and rivet. There are also tips on maintenance.

“It’s extremely valuable,” Johnson said of the hands-on approach. “They don’t let you stray too far down the wrong path.”

Yes, there are mistakes. It’s part of the learning process. But there’s also a sense of accomplishment.

Standing over a piece he had just punched with holes, Fritz appears satisfied with his work.

“What I’ve learned is what I need to do to complete an aircraft,” he said.


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