Dreams take flight (some assembly required): Local pilots build and help build their own aircraft

Peter Elsea sits in the cockpit of his Arion Lightning XS aircraft at the Northampton Airport. He helped build the airplane along with staff from a Tennessee company that sells a number of kit aircraft.

Peter Elsea sits in the cockpit of his Arion Lightning XS aircraft at the Northampton Airport. He helped build the airplane along with staff from a Tennessee company that sells a number of kit aircraft. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Around a dozen aviation enthusiasts gathered for a recent meet-up of a regional chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association at Northampton Airport.

Around a dozen aviation enthusiasts gathered for a recent meet-up of a regional chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association at Northampton Airport. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Into the great wide open: Peter Elsea takes off from Northampton Airport in his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraft.

Into the great wide open: Peter Elsea takes off from Northampton Airport in his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraft. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Gaining elevation: Peter Elsea takes off from Northampton Airport in his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraftrday afternoon.

Gaining elevation: Peter Elsea takes off from Northampton Airport in his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraftrday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Gaining elevation: Peter Elsea takes off from Northampton Airport in his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraft.

Gaining elevation: Peter Elsea takes off from Northampton Airport in his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraft. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Peter Elsea readies for a flight of his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraft at Northampton Airport.

Peter Elsea readies for a flight of his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraft at Northampton Airport. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Rebecca Chapman, left, with rivet gun, and Jason Lorusso work on assembling the vertical stabilizer of their RV-10 a few years ago. 

Rebecca Chapman, left, with rivet gun, and Jason Lorusso work on assembling the vertical stabilizer of their RV-10 a few years ago.  Image courtesy Jason Lorusso

Peter Elsea fuels up his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraft before a flight from Northampton Airport.

Peter Elsea fuels up his Arion Lightning XS kit aircraft before a flight from Northampton Airport. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Peter Elsea shows the instrument panels in the cockpit of his Arion Lightning XS, a kit aircraft he helped build along with staff from the Tennessee company that sells these types of models.

Peter Elsea shows the instrument panels in the cockpit of his Arion Lightning XS, a kit aircraft he helped build along with staff from the Tennessee company that sells these types of models. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Jason Lorusso of Hadley with his Van's Aircraft RV-10 at the Northampton Airport. He and his wife, Rebecca Chapman, built the plane from a kit over a four-year period.

Jason Lorusso of Hadley with his Van's Aircraft RV-10 at the Northampton Airport. He and his wife, Rebecca Chapman, built the plane from a kit over a four-year period. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Peter Elsea with his Arion Lightning XS aircraft at the Northampton Airport. He helped build the airplane along with staff from a Tennessee company that sells a number of kit aircraft.

Peter Elsea with his Arion Lightning XS aircraft at the Northampton Airport. He helped build the airplane along with staff from a Tennessee company that sells a number of kit aircraft. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Jason Lorusso look at the build manual for his Van's Aircraft RV-10 homebuilt airplane at the Northampton Airport. “It helps to be mechanical,” he says of the process. “But I think it’s doable for anyone if you can follow the instructions.”

Jason Lorusso look at the build manual for his Van's Aircraft RV-10 homebuilt airplane at the Northampton Airport. “It helps to be mechanical,” he says of the process. “But I think it’s doable for anyone if you can follow the instructions.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Jason Lorusso with his Van's Aircraft RV-10 homebuilt airplane at the Northampton Airport. He and his wife, Rebecca Chapman, built the plane from a kit over a four-year period.

Jason Lorusso with his Van's Aircraft RV-10 homebuilt airplane at the Northampton Airport. He and his wife, Rebecca Chapman, built the plane from a kit over a four-year period. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Harmen Vandervelden, left, and George Danziger talk shop during a meet up of a regional chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association at the Northampton Airport.

Harmen Vandervelden, left, and George Danziger talk shop during a meet up of a regional chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association at the Northampton Airport. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Jason Lorusso of Hadley shows the blueprint for his Van's Aircraft RV-10 homebuilt airplane at the Northampton Airport. He and his wife, Rebecca Chapman, built the plane from a kit over a four-year period.

Jason Lorusso of Hadley shows the blueprint for his Van's Aircraft RV-10 homebuilt airplane at the Northampton Airport. He and his wife, Rebecca Chapman, built the plane from a kit over a four-year period. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-10-2024 3:09 PM

Modified: 05-13-2024 11:57 AM


If you build it … you can fly it, too.

As Peter Elsea and Jason Lorusso have discovered in recent years, there’s a special satisfaction in building your own plane — or at least assisting in that construction — that can make the experience of flying even sweeter.

And given the cost of buying your own plane outright, constructing a plane from a kit can also mean significant savings, while the aircraft becomes a great long-term investment. Unlike cars, notes Lorusso, private aircraft can hold and even increase their value over time.

“This is kind of our home away from home,” said Lorusso, who with his wife, Rebecca Chapman, spent about four years building his Van’s Aircraft RV-10 single-prop plane from start to finish. He’s been flying the four-seat aircraft for about two years now, including a trip he and his wife made to Florida this past March.

Lorusso, 44, who grew up in Chester and today lives in Hadley, says he and his wife are expecting their first child this summer — and as such, they specifically choose to build a four-seat plane in anticipation of being able to take family trips sometime down the road.

“This will be our vacation,” he said with a laugh.

Elsea, of Easthampton, is also flying a new plane these days, an Arion Lightning XS that was put together piece by piece in Tennessee last year and earlier this year. Elsea made a few two-week trips down South to assist in the construction, working alongside staff from Arion Aircraft, a kit aircraft manufacturer based outside of Nashville.

“It’s a beauty,” Elsea said of his new single-prop plane, which, like Lorusso, he flies out of the Northampton Airport. “It’s fun to fly and maneuver, and it’s a lot faster than what I flew before.”

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Elsea, 58, says he previously co-owned a Cessna 152, a plane he jokingly likens to “a used Honda Civic,” certainly reliable but with a top speed of perhaps 100 mph and limited range.

“On a hot day, with two people aboard, you can have trouble climbing” in the Cessna, he added.

Elsea and Lorusso’s new aircraft, by comparison, both easily cruise at 200 mph and can fly 700 to 800 miles without needing to refuel.

Both pilots say one of the best parts of building their own planes, or in Elsea’s case having an important role in putting together his, was how much more they learned about aircraft and flying in general.

“I consider myself a lifelong learner, and there was so much to learn with this that I really enjoyed it,” said Elsea, a family doctor. “There was an orderly, step-by-step process to it that really appealed to me.”

And Lorusso, who took many machinist courses when he attended Smith Vocational High School in Northampton, says having mechanical skills was a plus for him in building his RV-10, but that he still got “a massive education” from the experience.

And working so closely with his wife on the project, he said, meant that “we learned a lot about each other, and being with each other. That’s another big plus.”

Into the blue yonder

Both Lorusso, who works as a bridge inspector, and Elsea came to flying from different directions. Elsea says he went up in an ultralight plane a few times as a teenager, but it wasn’t until he was in his mid-40s that he returned to flying, taking lessons at the Northampton Airport. He earned his license in 2015.

Lorusso built model airplanes as a kid but says he had a fear of flying growing up, perhaps because of news stories about plane crashes. His first time in an airplane didn’t come till the fall of 2005, when he wanted to make a trip to Florida and decided it was too far to drive.

“So I bit the bullet and took a commercial flight down there, and I actually had a really good experience,” he said. “When I came back, the first thing I wanted to do was take flying lessons.”

He did just that, taking lessons at a few different airports before settling at Northampton Airport, where he earned his license in 2006. Because of financial constraints at the time, his flying was intermittent for some years; he rented a plane from time to time, then became part of a group that collectively owned a small plane, a Cessna.

But about eight years ago, Lorusso learned through some other pilots about the possibility of building a plane from a kit. “I didn’t even know you could do that,” he said. “But I love building things, and it seemed the most affordable way to own your own plane.”

The company he bought his kit from, Van’s Aircraft of Aurora, Oregon, is the largest of that kind of business in the world, he says, with some 11,000 of its models currently flying. “They have a great support network, with online help and technicians you can call.”

Still, building the RV-10 “was a really big commitment,” Lorusso says, as he and his wife likely spent about 30 hours a week on the project over a four-year period, outside of their regular jobs. But it also gave them something to focus on during the COVID lockdown, he noted.

There’s the expense, too: Lorusso says it cost about $130,000 for all the parts of his plane. But finished models of this and other kit aircraft typically sell for two to three times that amount, he says.

Elsea opted from the start to get his Lighting XS through a “Builder Assist” program that Arion Aircraft offers; he felt he didn’t have the technical background or the time to build the airplane himself.

“If I tried to do that, by the time I finished it, I’d be too old to fly,” he said with a laugh.

Both planes had to undergo various test flights as well as detailed FAA inspections before they were certified for regular flight. Elsea flew his craft back to Massachusetts from Tennessee in March with an Arion staffer, who then caught a commercial flight back to Tennessee.

Elsea and Lorusso have also become friends over years, and they’re part of the larger group of pilots connected to Northampton Airport, people who Lorusso says “have been really great mentors, just a great source of support for me.” He’s returning the favor: Today, he says, he’s mentoring two other people building RV-10s.

And in the end, for both pilots, the value of having aircraft they enjoy is really about enhancing the things that drew them to flying in the first place.

“I’m a bit of a thrill seeker,” says Elsea. “I enjoy the sensation of speed. But I also love looking down and seeing the earth spread out beneath me, and I love being able to take everything I’ve learned, all these skills, and put them to the test.”

“There’s a real sense of freedom, of calmness, when you’re flying,” Lorusso explains. “You’re so focused on what you’re doing that all the other things you’re dealing with in your life, all the problems in the world … they really just melt away.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.