How to Build an Airplane in Seven Days

Volunteers gather at Oshkosh to make a “Wonder” happen.

Volunteers lined up to be one of thousands to help put a Zenith kit together in one week at AirVenture this year. (Caroline Sheen)
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Inside a tent on the opening day of AirVenture 2014 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Experimental Aircraft Association chairman Jack Pelton started the countdown clock for the One-Week Wonder. From that moment, more than 2,500 volunteers would have six and a half days to take a Zenith CH 750 Cruzer kit from pieces on the tent floor to the airshow tarmac, taxiing under its own power. “If anything slowed us down, we were done for,” says Charlie Becker, EAA’s manager of homebuilt programs.

Outside the tent volunteers lined up to perform their main job: Pull a shiny rivet. No experience necessary. After a quick lesson on a sheet of aluminum, the volunteer walked inside the tent and pulled a rivet or two or three, autographed the airplane with a Sharpie, and signed the world’s largest builder’s logs. “We tried to have everybody show up to pull a rivet, to demonstrate that it’s not hard to do,” says Becker. “A friend was there with his two-year-old who pulled the trigger on the rivet gun, and they both signed the rivet.” Along with thousands of riveters, the EAA and Zenith Aircraft also recruited a core group of 25 builders, who worked in two shifts.

“Once you get inside the cockpit, you can only stuff three or four people max in at one time,” Becker explains. After the volunteers completed a major component, Becker rang a cowbell while volunteer Jonathan Porter hopped on a table and worked the crowd to a frenzy:

“When I say ‘One Week’ you say ‘Wonder!’ ’’

“One Week!” he shouted.

“Wonder!” the crowd shouted back.

By Sunday afternoon, the airplane was finished—right on time—and an airworthiness inspector began his work while the crew watched nervously. When the inspector signed off on the airplane at 3 p.m., there wasn’t a moment to spare: The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds would take off at 3:15 p.m., and the taxi demonstration was scheduled just before—while crews walked the runway checking for debris that might shred a fighter engine. “The air operations director was in a bit of a panic because they didn’t think the aircraft was going to make it,” Becker says, so on the way to the runway they radioed the tower, “It’s coming!”

As the homebuilt taxied past the crowd, thousands erupted in applause.

“I’ve never been to a barn raising, but I kind of felt that that’s the closest thing to it,” Becker says. A few days later, the airplane made its maiden flight with Jeff Skiles at the controls, copilot of the U.S. Airways flight that landed safely on the Hudson River after a bird strike in 2009.

So will they do it again next year? “Ummm…” Becker equivocates. “It’s exhausting. Maybe in two years. Yeah. Maybe two years.”

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