Raceplane Builder Par Excellence

The Reno Kid, Andy Chiavetta.

Andy Chiavetta inspects a new carbonfiber wing for his LT-1 kitplane at his shop in San Clemente, California. (David Levin)
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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.

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.

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