The following article was written by my Dad's wife, Gloria.
Dream of building, flying own airplane comes true for Ionia man
By Gloria Garman-Schlaefli
Dick Schlaefli, Ionia, has achieved his dream of building and flying his own airplane. It took 15 years to complete, but for Dick being able to now fly his Pietenpol Air Camper was well worth the long wait.
Dick developed his love of flying during high school when his three uncles, Ray and Dan Richardson and Jim VanSickle, each had his own airplane and Dick would take frequent rides with them. His interest in flying continued into college and while attending Fort Hays State University, he took lessons and earned his pilot's license. He built model airplanes and did control line flying with them, but hoped some day to be able to fly in his own airplane.
It was in a magazine article that he first learned about the Pietenpol airplane. He learned that Bernard Pietenpol designed and built the first Air Camper, in 1929 in Cherry Grove, Minn., using a Ford Model A engine to power the plane. Pietenpol reproduced his airplane and also sold the building plans to others seeking to build the aircraft. Pietenpol's legend and his airplane have continued through the years and many have been built and are now flying in the United States and Europe. There is a Pietenpol newsletter, a website and the Pietenpol is a featured airplane in many personal aviation publications.
Dick began to think the Pietenpol would be his choice to build because it is a "simple, open air, inexpensive airplane to build and operate. While visiting a relative in Salina, he was introduced to a friend of the relative who had built his own bi-wing airplane and a trip was made to see it in a hangar at the Salina airport. Dick said he noticed a wing skeleton in the back of the hangar and inquired. He was told a man named Maurice "Buzz" Baer had started building a Pietenpol in 1979 but had died recently, leaving the project uncompleted and soon for sale. Using spruce wood, Baer had completed the wooden frame of the body and wing for the Pietenpol. Dick said he thought the project would be a perfect one for him to finish, and his first wife, the late Peg Schlaefli, encouraged him to make an offer on the airplane.
The Pietenpol frame and wing were purchased and brought to the Schlaefli farm in December 1997. The project took center stage in the farm's machinery shed, with Dick spending day and night, between his farming and livestock duties, building his airplane. He did hours of reading, researching, and visiting with others building or flying Pietenpols, to see about the continuing steps in the construction process.
In July 1997, he attended a Pietenpol fly-in at the airport in Brodhead, Wisc., where current and hopeful Pietenpol owners come together for workshops and input about the airplane.
Work on the Schlaefli Pietenpol steadily advanced. Materials used in the project beside the spruce frame were polyester fabric and metal. Gluing was done to attach the fabric to the fuselage. Dick purchased a mold in Minnesota to create the cowling for the airplane and ended up making two more cowlings for other builders. A handmade wooden prop was purchased in Iowa, but a second prop from Missouri would later have to be ordered because the first one was damaged in a test. Photos were taken of the construction progress and a log book of the hours on the project was kept.
While they were dating, his current wife, Gloria, helped with the rib stitching on the wing. The process was done with a special needle and heavy thread sent back and forth through the fabric to tie the fabric to the wooden ribs. The wing was on its side, with one person on each side of the wing, passing the needle back and forth, with Dick making the tie. He also had to decide on the color and design for the exterior of his airplane.
"This is not a kit airplane," Dick said. "Construction was all done using a set of blue prints, taking more hours to complete the project."
During the construction process, Dick worked on the flight time required to renew his pilot's license, renting a Cessna 172. Currently he is taking aerobatic flying lessons, another thing he has wanted to do.
During a family gathering at the farm, the engine of the airplane was first started, with a cousin, uncle and brother-in-law helping with the test. The prop was hand turned to start the engine. The test was successful.
The Pietenpol was completed in March 2009, with 750 hours devoted to construction and a total of 6,800 hours, included Baer's original hours. About a month later, with the help of several neighbors, the airplane was moved on two trailers the wing on one trailer and the fuselage on another. It was transported to a hangar at the airport in Beloit, causing a stir along Highway 24.
The airplane was reassembled and awaiting a maiden flight. Before the maiden flight could be made, in May 2009, the Pietenpol underwent a complete inspection by FAA inspectors. It passed and was issued an "air worthiness" certificate. Dick was given a limited flight area to stay in, and 40 hours of flight time must be completed with the Pietenpol. During those 40 hours, different air speeds must be determined and engine reliability must be checked out. A pilot operating handbook must be developed and it must remain in the airplane. When these requirements are met, Dick will not be restricted to a certain flight area and will be allowed to take on passengers.
The maiden flight was delayed while problems with the engine were addressed. He installed an electric starter, to replace hand starting using the prop. That installation required the rebuilding of the cowling, taking more time than planned.
In May 2011, Dick took his Pietenpol up for the first time. The airplane went up 1,000 feet and started to lose and gain RPM, so a quick landing was made. The problem turned out to be overheating of the coil. Dick restationed the coil and on the next flight there was overheating of the engine oil that sent Dick back to research. He found the problem would be solved by changing the engine baffling to get the right air flow over the engine.
Earlier this month a successful and complete flight was taken by Dick in his Pietenpol. His long time dream has been accomplished.