QUITO – On board a wooden biplane built over the course of seven years in garage after garage in a romantic neighborhood in Quito, Juan Rodriguez intends to repeat the first flight over the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains, a journey made by Italian pilot Elia Liut on Nov. 4, 1920.
Impressed since he was a child with the feat, Rodriguez used knowledge about construction he got from his father and set out upon a crazy adventure: building with his own hands an aircraft similar to that piloted by Liut, despite the fact that he had never assembled even a model airplane.
Like anyone who makes a purchase, in 2003 he went online to order a US-made biplane kit and, when he opened it at his home, he could not even make an inventory “of so many tiny pieces of wood and aluminum” that were in it. “What did I get myself into?” he thought.
At that time, “I didn’t even have any space (to build the plane); I was renting a home, I put some of the parts under the bed and the others in closets,” he recalled, adding that he had to rent ever-larger garages in the La Floresta neighborhood as the meticulous assembly job progressed.
There were thousands of pieces. “The smallest little pieces of wood are like little ice cream sticks and they are the ribs of the wing. The thickest ones are not even 12.5 centimeters (5 inches), the longest one about 3.5 meters (11.5 feet), but they’re of white pine, a wood that has no knots, which makes it tougher,” Rodriguez told EFE.
Ninety percent of the biplane is made of wood and the rest of aluminum. It measures 5.2 meters (17 feet) long, is 1.86 m (6.1 ft) high and 6.8 m (22.3 ft) wide, and its wings are covered with a special cloth.
With a red fuselage and silver-colored wings, the aircraft weighs 276 kilograms (about 610 pounds), including the 100-horsepower engine that he put in it, replacing the 65-horsepower engine recommended by the factory, since he needed more power for high-altitude flights.
Flying at a speed of up to 75 miles per hour, Rodriguez will be alone in the plane since he removed one of the seats to reduce the weight, given its bigger engine and two extra fuel tanks that he installed.
As luck would have it, the project was delayed quite a bit and he could pay the $35,000 cost of the plane in comfortable installments while he put together the pieces using a highly adhesive glue.
“Often I wanted to throw in the towel and I said: ‘What did I get myself into? I don’t want to do this, it never ends!’” he said, recalling the meticulous process of assembling the biplane, piece by piece, then waiting for the latest section to dry, and the process of painting and lacquering it, as well as covering the wings with the specially certified cloth.
Regarding the construction process, Rodriguez said that often he got to his workshop at 9:00 pm and worked for five hours after spending the day with his little daughter and devoting his energies to his adventure tourism business and taking flying lessons.
“Liut,” as he named the biplane in honor of his hero, can remain aloft for about two hours and travel 140-150 miles within that time. But if fuel runs low, he lands and buys it in the same kind of canister he uses for his automobile.
The biplane has three fuel tanks: one of 30 liters (7.9 gallons) in the forward part of the aircraft just behind the engine and one of 11.35 liters (3 gallons) on each wing.
“A float that rises and falls tells me more or less (how much fuel I have). I have to look when I think I need fuel, there are no fuel gauges, there’s nothing … It’s all very basic,” he said.
To the speedometer, altimeter and compass that all aircraft have, Rodriguez recently added a transponder as required by the Civil Aviation Directorate but, he said, “I didn’t know where to put it.”
“I like to navigate as they did in the past, calculating the wind direction, doing all the calculations on maps, because it’s a way of getting to know the geography,” said the 54-year-old certified sports pilot.
One time, landing got complicated for the adventure lover when he came down too hard, wrecking his landing gear and having to replace it.
In the biplane, “visibility is terrible, it’s rather unstable in turbulence, but at the same time it’s magic.” Landing – he said – is a headache, “but that makes it interesting.”
“Are you going to fly in this wooden thing?” is the question relatives and friends always ask him, said Rodriguez, who is sure that his mother “has entrusted (my protection) to all the saints there are,” adding that she may also have hidden “a rosary somewhere in the plane.”
He also said that “people sometimes have difficulty understanding how a little wooden plane can fly.”
“Since 2010, he has flown the Liut along Ecuador’s coast and into the mountains, and next month he’s planning to recreate the journey of the Italian pilot who, for the first time, linked Guayaquil and Cuenca by air 100 years ago.”
Liut, who has been an Italian air force pilot in World War I, came to Ecuador in 1920 at the invitation of Quito’s consul in Rome, who asked him to develop an aviation program in the South American country.
The Macchi-Hanriot HD 1 he brought with him was named the “Telegrafo I” and that was the aircraft he used to cross the Ecuadorian Andes.
Rodriguez’s idea now is to commemorate, along with other ultralight aircraft, the centennial of that trip and cover the Italian’s route in an hour and 20 minutes, but he has several potential routes he can follow if he runs into weather problems, and with the flight he also intends to celebrate the bicentennial of the independence from Spain of his hometown of Cuenca, the same reason Liut set out on his flight from Guayaquil to celebrate the centennial of that event.
If he wants to faithfully recreate that journey, Rodriguez would have to depart from Santo Domingo, where his biplane is at this time, arrive at Guayaquil and from there fly to Cuenca and return to Quito, and this would be the longest flight he has made since he learned to fly a decade ago.