A & S Interview: Andy Chiavetta
The Reno Kid, raceplane builder par excellence.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
(Page 2 of 3)
A & S: How did you go from skimboards to airplanes?
I did them at the same time. I worked for a company making carbon-fiber sailboat masts for boats competing in the America’s Cup. At the time, that company was the only one making carbon masts. At about that time, I was getting into better materials and working with carbon fiber and epoxies. I’d been skimming since I was eight. I noticed the boards that I was riding were very poorly built, in comparison to the materials I was working with. So I started building my own boards for myself and my friends. And they’re basically wing panels. They’re made from the same materials I use for planes now. It was a good cross-over, and we made them lighter and stronger than the competition. It wasn’t a good revenue-earner when I was younger. The planes were much more lucrative, so I just did it for my friends at the beginning. But over time, a very close friend wanted to start a company with it, so I taught him and some other people how to make them.
A & S: And how’s the company doing?
We’re known for doing the really high-end boards, the pro-model boards. Most of the top skimboarders in the pro division are riding ours.
A & S: I watched the videos (exileskimboards.com). It looks like fun.
Oh it’s a blast. I used to do it professionally too, but I’m juggling a lot of things, so I’ve kinda backed off from it. And it’s a young man’s sport. You’re running 100-yard dash all day in the sand, running as hard and as fast as you can all day. It wears you out pretty good.
A & S: So flying is easier; you can sit down.
Yeah. Another thing too is the location of my shop. I have an industrial building in San Clemente, and it’s a weird place to be. San Clemente is not known for its aviation community. I’m located here so I can be close to Laguna Beach, where I live. And Laguna Beach is the mecca for skimboarding. There are more good skim spots in that one town than there are on the entire east coast. Eventually, I’ll have to move away from it though.
A & S: Where to?
Well, if the LT catches on, I’ll need a bigger facility. The overhead in this general area is really hard to do that. I do have a lot of friends from Scaled Composites, out in Mojave. That’s a possibility. It’s very affordable out there. Darryl lives out near Thermal. That’s where the plane is right now. And that’s also a possibility. Very good testing area.
A & S: Why did you build a second LT?
The second LT is a duplicate of the first one, just to see how long it takes to build one up, and how much it costs. It took eight years to build the original one, and it was kind of on and off when I could work on it.
A & S: That sounds like a long time.
To do a composite airplane, it’s three steps. You make a plug—the positive shape, or what you want the part to look like—a mold, and a part. So it’s hard to estimate how much time it takes to make the part. Now that the molds are done, I just have to make parts for the plane. So that’s the step we’re doing now.
A & S: Will you sell the LT-1 as a kit?
Yeah. All the tooling has been made to make more of them. That’s why it took so long.
A & S: What do you hope the experience of building an LT-1 will be?
It will be a good introduction to composite construction. A lot of the hard work will be done here at the shop. They won’t have to know how to do large lay-ups, which require a higher skill level. They’ll have wing skins and ribs and parts, and they’ll be bonding it all together. It will be more like building a model airplane.
A & S: Have there been advances in composites since you’ve been making skimboards and airplanes?
Yeah. In molding. Patricia and Jon Sharp, who built Nemesis NXT, started using a new molding technique. They’re our main competition at Reno but also friends.
A & S: That’s how it goes at Reno, doesn’t it? Race teams can be fierce competitors, but they seem to help each other out.
That’s not always the case. [laughs] The Formula One class is very competitive. Darryl puts it this way: Everyone likes a winner—but not too much. People in the Sport Class were getting a little mad at us too. They were trying really hard to beat us, and when we win every year, it gets tough. Tension builds up.
A & S: So the Sharps are winners and you’re a winner and that’s why you can be friends?
I guess. Of course we’d always like to be the ones who are winning.
A & S: Will you win this year?
No, we’re not racing this year. We’re still working with the problem of horsepower. It will take a lot of horsepower to get to the NXT speeds. We’re close, but it takes a lot more.
The last few years we’ve been really thrashing to get the engine running properly. We decided between the both of us that we’re going to test more than we have in the past, and if it’s not coming up to speed, we won’t race. If it looks like it’s going to do well, we will. A lot of times, we’ll build up the engine, test it, get it safe, make everything work, but we don’t push it all the way until we get to Reno because it’s risky. You could blow up the engine prior to the race. What you’re doing is you’re opening the envelope at the race. If you run into something like we have the last few years, that’s not fixable within that week, then we’ve lost our chance.
A & S: What about next year?
If the engine is working well, we may try for the straight-and-level record in our class, where you fly four passes, and [the National Aeronautic Association officials] take the average of the four passes. We were planning on doing that at Tonapah if it’s available….
A & S: Where Darryl set the record in the F-104…