Oshkosh, Wis. — Until she built her first airplane, Gail Turner's main experience in constructing planes was with the paper variety she taught her kindergarten students to make. But the Belmont, Calif., native easily built her first flier in 1976 with the help of her husband and friends. Her life-size ``cut and paste project'' consumed several thousand hours, she says. Undaunted, she assembled a more challenging design in 1982. ``The thrill of soloing [solo flying] something you've built is an incredible experience,'' Ms. Turner says. ``You really have control over your life when you're up there. It's just you, the plane, and the elements.''
Ms. Turner is among an estimated 16,000 airplane buffs-turned-builders in the United States. The amateur engineers range from physicians to business people to Air Force veterans. They fancy themselves kindred spirits of the Wright Brothers and share an untethered love for the freedom of flight.
An estimated 1 million flying enthusiasts flocked to Oshkosh this past week to attend the annual Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) ``fly-in.'' Many were amateur builders eager to learn the latest designs and techniques. Attendance at the fly-in has soared in recent years, says EAA director Dean Hall, reflecting the growing fascination with airplanes and airplane building.
He explains that ``1984 was the first year that there were more home-built aircraft made than those manufactured by the general-aviation industry in the US.'' According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), about 16,500 of the 260,000 registered aircraft in the US are home-built. That means that about 1 out of every 15 built in this country is constructed by hobbyists in their basements and garages.
These people take their sport seriously. They wear T-shirts with slogans like ``Bury Power Lines'' and give their children stuffed animals called ``Amelia Bearheart.'' When not scrutinizing a blueprint, many are playing ``Flier's Trivial Pursuit.''
According to Mr. Hall, the hobby has taken off for several reasons. New kits and designs have made aircraft construction much easier than it was 10 years ago, when only about 1 in 10 aircraft started was actually finished.
And working at home allows the free-spirited travelers to custom-build their machines. ``You get a lot better aircraft for a lot less money,'' says Tom Wright, a Seattle test pilot for the FAA, who just completed his first plane. ``You get more performance for about 25 to 40 percent of the factory price. That's the real attraction of the home-built industry.''
Most important, though, may be the sheer ecstasy of dancing through the skies on that first solo flight after completion. Amateur pilots claim they have an almost mystical experience the first time they test the fruits of their hard labor.
``It's truly exhilarating,'' says Murrey Rouse, a San Diego contractor. ``There's no way to explain it. It's a thrill, a personal satisfaction, a feeling of well-being.''
Contrary to popular opinion, an airplane maker does not have to be an engineering whiz. According to builders, a certain mechanical aptitude is desirable, but the most important requirements are desire and hard work -- 2,000 to 5,000 hours of it.
The commitment cuts into family time and finances, fliers admit. Nights and weekends become devoted to the machine instead of vacations or friends. Mr. Wright even had to mortgage his home to build his Christen Eagle.
Most people buy kits, much like the model airplanes that children use. The new ``composite kits,'' which feature premolded components, are much easier to use than the old steel tube and fabric construction, says Hall. Among the most popular are the Christen Eagle, the Glassair, Long-Eze, Canard, and Falco.
Some planes can be built with basic hand tools and a lot of hard labor. Others require more machine-shop tools. Most people build them in their garages, basements, or rented space in industrial parks. But airplane parts inevitably turn up in every room of the house.
``One guy in Alaska knocked out a wall in his living room and built it in there,'' says Hall. ``It was the only place warm.''
Costs also vary. The budget-minded can finish a plane with $5,000, he claims, if they dig up used parts, spray-paint it, and find a secondhand radio and engine. Others can spend up to $50,000.
According to successful amateur plane-builders, the task is not as tough as it seems. Engine and mechanical work can be trying, they concede, but usually friends can provide assistance. And the EAA has 900 ``designees'' across the country whose job it is to help plane-builders in distress.
EAA members stress that home-built birds are just as safe as the manufactured breed. Aircraft-quality material and hardware must be used during construction, and builders must follow general-aviation industry standards and procedures. The aircraft is examined twice during this period by FAA inspectors, and once the craft is completed, it must be awarded an FAA certificate of ``airworthiness'' before it's allowed off the ground. This certificate must be renewed each year.
The instruction manuals are also written for step-by-step construction, builders say. In Wright's case, there were 28 volumes, which took up about three feet on his bookshelves.
``When I first saw the plans, I thought it was hopeless,'' concedes Joe San George, a Dunkirk, N.Y., TV technician. ``But after you start working on it, things begin to shape up.''
Mr. San George, like many other builders, uses his plane as much for sport as for travel. The plane costs about $22 an hour to fly but journeys three times as far as a car, he says.
``Some people say that if God had wanted man to fly, he would have given him wings,'' says Randy Roark, an insurance salesman from Houston. ``Well, when I build an airplane, I've got wings.''