For much of his life, Ray Veatch has been interested in airplanes, particularly World War II fighters and bombers, but he avoided actually climbing into a small plane. "I get airsick," he told Pam Smythe when she invited him for a ride in her plane.
"You can cure that," she responded.
"Tell you what, I'll take you for a ride and let you know what I'm doing every step of the way."
He climbed aboard with trepidation and they headed west across the Uncompahgre Plateau. They flew around the LaSal Mountains in Utah, and got an intriguing glimpse of the red rock canyons surrounding Moab. By the time the wheels of Smythe's Comanche 250 touched down in Delta, Ray was hooked. He started looking into flying lessons. He was just starting to build his insurance business and money was tight, so when his instructor suggested it would be cheaper to buy than to rent an airplane for his lessons, he checked out that option. He wound up buying a Cessna 150 for around $16,000.
"That plane was so low powered I couldn't even fly out of the valley, but it got the job done."
Ray got his pilot's license, sold that Cessna for $15,000 and began progressively working his way up to complex airplanes with retractable landing gear and constant speed propellers. He ultimately ended up with a Comanche 250.
Ray and his wife Margie soon decided if they couldn't get where they wanted to go in that Comanche 250, they just wouldn't go. That's how delighted they were to leave behind the stress, inconvenience and physical confines of commercial aircraft.
Then, as they approached retirement, they began reversing the process, working their way down to less expensive airplanes to avoid the expense of required annual maintenance on certified aircraft.
That took Ray to the realization he could build his own plane. "I found out that I could do the maintenance on it, and I could do the annual inspections on it, if I built it myself."
In-depth research and a close look at their needs led them to a company called Zenith Aircraft, based in Mexico, Mo., which specializes in first-time builders.
"That was important," Ray says. "If we were going to get into it, we certainly wanted something that was simple enough to build."
They visited Zenith's factory in Missouri to get a closer look. "I wanted to make sure Margie could get in and out of these airplanes," Ray says.
The company representative assumed Ray, the pilot and primary builder, would want the first test flight. "No," Ray said, "I don't even want to feel this airplane unless my wife likes it. You take her first. If she comes back and likes it, then I'll take a ride and we'll go from there."
As the airplane was taxiing back to the hangar, Ray recalls seeing Margie grinning from ear to ear. "I turned to the company rep and said I just bought an airplane."
He placed an order shortly after, confidently telling the sales rep he believed he could have the project completed in three to four months. "Little did I realize that from beginning to end, it would take two years."
Three gigantic cardboard boxes full of parts arrived in January 2016. "We inventoried the parts in those boxes for about the first three weeks," Ray recalls. The engine was in a box of its own, with a quick-build fuselage -- meaning the factory had done most of the work.
Shortly after the Veatches placed their order, Margie fell and broke her leg. Ray decided to move initial assembly into their house so she could still be involved. He took out the dining table and built a 4-foot by 12-foot work table in its place. They started with the rudder, moved on to the horizontal stabilizer and then assembled the elevator.
"That's the beauty of the way Zenith works their plans," Ray says. "You start with the easiest part, which is the rudder, and progressively learn as you go. It gets more and more complicated until you're finally at the far end."
Margie, of course, was involved every step of the way, and friends and family members occasionally stopped by to help. But the biggest boost came from the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
"Those guys, when they found out we were building, started showing up to help." One member brought by some aluminum and rivets, and taught Ray how to rivet.
"It's quite a learning process," he says. "You've got to drill the holes, debur the holes and make sure there's no rough edges, then make sure the rivet sets flat."
It turned out to be a valuable lesson -- Ray's plane has 10,000 to 12,000 rivets.
"Part of the whole experience was having these guys from EAA come in and teach me how to fit connectors, how to wire the instruments properly. Graham Meyer is the electronics wizard in our club, and other guys came in with helpful advice. When you build an airplane, sometimes you have to unbuild it to get things right."
"It seemed like we had a constant flow of those guys in here," Margie says.
"I never named this airplane, but if I did, I'd call it Dracula because when you work with metal you'd better expect to bleed a little," he says.
They built the wings, rudder, elevator, flaps and slats in the house, then moved the assembly operation into their spacious, but unheated, barn.
The plane was finished and certified by the FAA in September 2017, one of five EAA aircraft certified by the FAA that year. This year, Ray expects EAA members to complete two to three more.
"These experimental amateur built airplanes are a real force to be reckoned with in aviation," he says. "I don't know for sure but I think probably as many of them are being built now as certified airplanes. And they're just as safe."
While Ray's plane is designated "home built," he says he was always conscientious about making sure it was built well. He knew his life depended on it, as well as those of friends and family members.
"This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime," he says. Grateful for the expertise and assistance of fellow EAA members, he's now paying it forward. "It's my time to give back, to help the people who are building their own airplanes. Our club is small, but we're a very tight group. Anybody needs help, we try to give them what they need."
Ray's Zenith 750 STOL is now housed at Blake Field, and he takes it out whenever the weather allows. STOL stands for short takeoff and landing, which means Ray can get off the ground in 300 feet. He and Margie agree the two-seater is very comfortable with amazing visibility.
"It's got a view to kill for, just like a helicopter," Margie says.
Cruising speed is 90 to 95 mph, compared to Ray's other planes that could cover 120 to 180 miles an hour. "This plane is really designed to fly low and slow, so you can just enjoy the view."
He says that's somewhat counter intuitive to what he was taught. It's commonly accepted that altitude is a pilot's friend. If your engine quits and you're 6,000 feet up, you've got plenty of choices for landing. At 500 feet, your options are narrowed. But Ray is confident in the integrity of his construction, and he knows that a big part of flying is just thinking ahead.
Having bought and sold a number of the planes over the years, Ray was asked if he would ever part with this one. "This is my last airplane. At some point I will have to sell it."
But until then, he's flying high and enjoying the freedom of his 750 STOL.