A & S Interview: Andy Chiavetta
The Reno Kid, raceplane builder par excellence.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
Since building Darryl Greenamyer’s Lancair Legacy, Race 33, in 2000—which won the Sport Class Gold in the National Championship Air Races from 2002 to 2006—Andy Chiavetta has built custom raceplanes, designed and built the LT-1 kitplane, and, with friend Aaron Peluso, founded Exile Skimboards. Chiavetta, the founder of Aerochia, Inc. spoke with Air & Space Editor Linda Shiner.
Air & Space: How did you start working with Darryl Greenamyer?
Darryl was looking for someone to build a Lancair. He thought “These Legacys are fast. I could build the plane and win that Sport Class pretty easily.” [The Sport Class is open to kit airplanes with 650-cubic-inch or smaller engines.] He stopped by an airport where I was working and asked an old friend for a recommendation. The guy told him about a project I was just finishing. He said, “He’s done everything by himself, and he does nice work. You should talk to him.”
Plus, I was affordable.
A & S: Lancair must have been pretty happy to hear from a race legend like Greenamyer.
The salesman we talked to at first didn’t know who Darryl was, and the kit we got—Kit 3—was supposed to go to another pilot. But when [General Manager] Bob Fair heard that Darryl was interested, he said “Give him anything he wants.”
A & S: After Darryl first took the Gold, do you think it promoted the Sport Class?
The year following that race, the whole Sport hangar was filled with airplanes.
A & S: Did it have an impact on your work?
My business skyrocketed. Things have slowed up a little now, because of the economy. But I don’t sit around much. If I’m not moving, something’s not working.
A & S: How many of your aircraft raced last year?
I built Race 5 Breathless, Pokey, Miss Karen II—all Lancairs.
A & S: Do you make a lot of Lancairs for customers?
No, not stock Lancairs. We make raceplanes. A standard stock Legacy is maybe 220 or 230 knots. Ours cruise at 275 or 280. And at Reno, we’re pushing 400 with them.
A & S: When you push 400 mph at Reno, do you use up the engine?
Well, I think we’re up to nine engines on Darryl’s plane.
A & S: You designed the new airplane, the LT-1, from nothing, right?
Yeah. I started building airplanes when I was around 18, and they’re difficult to build. And I was trying to find an easier, simpler, lighter way to build an airplane. So while I was in college, I was designing the airplane. And it basically started from a piece of paper.
The LT was kind of planted in my mind when I was in grade school. I always liked the small fighters, the quick, nimble little airplanes. That’s basically what I build. I did a lot of drawings as a kid, and as I was drawing, I was thinking, How would I make the structures themselves?
My father is a hot-rod guy. So the mechanical stuff I had from my father. But there was an airport near where I live, and when the waves were bad, I’d be at the airport. I would walk around and look at all the different aircraft and see how they were built.
A & S: What did you study in college?
I have an AA in aviation, which is a four-year program at Orange Coast College. It’s not a very large college. It was mostly flying classes—navigation, private pilot, some commercial. There were some aerodynamic classes, but nothing really like what I’m doing now.
A & S: What does LT stand for?
[laughs] When people ask, I say it stands for “Light Tactical.” But the real story is we call it “Little Turd” because Darryl calls it that. Darryl has flown some incredible aircraft—his F-104, his Bearcat [which won the Gold race in the Unlimited category six times between 1965 and 1971]. All these airplanes have excessive amounts of horsepower. One cylinder in his Bearcat has more horsepower than I have in my whole airplane. So he was always joking around and calling it a little turd, and the name kind of stuck.
A & S: Did Darryl test fly the airplane?
Darryl did most of the testing. Originally, he was supposed to do the first flight, but he was doing some landscaping at his house and moving some 150-pound rocks—by himself; he’s an older guy, but he’s tough as nails—and he tripped and broke a rib. He was still going to fly the airplane, but he couldn’t get in and out of the airplane quickly, and, with the first flight, if there’s a possibility of having to get out of the airplane, it would have been hard.
A & S: What did you do?
I brought a friend in—a guy name Len Fox. He’s done a lot of test flying for Lancair, the certified and the kit company. He did a lot of the testing for the Columbia [which competed for market with the Cirrus SR22 and is now part of the Cessna line]. He did the actual first flight.
A & S: After Darryl tested it, how did he comment on his handling qualities?
He was complimentary. Darryl gave us a glowing report for his raceplane, the Legacy that we built. He said it was the nicest-flying piston airplane he’s ever flown. So when I was making the LT, I wanted to duplicate the flying characteristics of the Legacy—make it an easy handling, nice-flying airplane. And Darryl says the LT handles better than the Legacy. So that makes me feel really good.