Out in the Breezy

With little fanfare (and less structure), the Breezy homebuilt spreads the message: Flying is fun.

Beneath a replica Piper PA-12 wing, sits this Breezy pilot Matt Hlavac, near San Diego. (Jason Paur)
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Their two big purchases were a brand-new 90-horsepower Continental engine for $1,700, and $800 for a radio, which brought the total cost of the airplane to $3,500. After six months of welding and cobbling together parts, the team had a prototype ready. Roloff was chosen to make the first flight, based on the fact that he had had his instructor rating the longest. “Two weeks ahead of time we gave him his wake,” Unger says about the party at a local bowling alley. On August 7, 1964, the first flight went flawlessly, with Roloff taking off from Lansing Airport in Michigan. The three took the winter off, then resumed testing the following year. The Breezy was on its way to that first EAA airshow and many others throughout the upper Midwest. Once, when Roloff stopped for gas during an early test flight, the airport manager took a long look at the unusual aircraft and remarked, “A little breezy, ain’t it?” The name stuck.

When Unger returned home after that first airshow, there was a stack of letters at his house from people asking for brochures and plans. “We never thought anybody would want to ride on it, let alone build one,” he says. “We had no plans; we built it out of our heads.”
After the rush of requests, the three started to reverse-engineer the Breezy, carefully measuring the original in order to develop a set of plans. One American Airlines captain was so eager to build one that he often stopped by the hangar to help; he ended up with the first set of plans, and the second Breezy ever built.

Since 1965, more than 1,000 sets of plans have been sold. Potential builders “don’t know what they’re up against, and I warn each one of them,” says Unger. “I’ll tell them, ‘Listen, when you get this thing finished, everywhere you go and stop for fuel, they’re going to ask for rides.’

“I love it, but I want them to know what’s going to happen,” he adds, grinning.

Despite its appearance, the Breezy is not an ultralight. Because of its weight, fuel capacity, and top speed, it falls into the experimental category, like many homebuilt airplanes, and requires registration with the FAA and a pilot’s license to fly. And many pilots who have flown a Breezy say that in addition to being fun to fly, the aircraft, because of its open fuselage, is one of the easiest.

Matt Hlavac (pronounced le-VACK) flies a Breezy in the San Diego area. Because the airplane flies so slowly (90 mph is fast for a Breezy; most cruise at 60 to 70 mph) and has very little fuselage, Hlavac says it can be forgiving in challenging conditions. “I’m never thinking in the back of my mind, Oh boy, I’ve got a big crosswind, it’s going to be a handful to land.”

Of the many Breezys flying, several include their builders’ personal touches: There’s a biplane Breezy; a four-place Breezy (the original can fit three passengers, with two sitting close together on the rear bench seat); a Breezy on floats; a high-powered, aerobatic Breezy that performed at a handful of airshows. “There’s even a guy who built one in South Africa with real leopard skin seats,” Unger says, thumbing through one of his many picture albums.

Arnie Zimmerman of Downers Grove, Illinois, has been flying passengers at Oshkosh and other airshows in his Breezy for more than 20 years. He estimates he’s given rides to more than 9,000 people. “It’s unusual, it’s a feeling…. It’s an airplane you fly low and slow and you can see everything.” Zimmerman says of the Breezy’s appeal, “It’s a conversation piece.” While some people start the ride with white knuckles, “ninety-nine percent of them end with the biggest smile.”

Over the years, Zimmerman and Unger have given rides to far more people than they can remember. Kids are always fun, they say, but both have had some memorable famous passengers. Zimmerman recalls one passenger who was put on the back seat and immediately reached forward and began working the controls. “I didn’t know he was one of the world’s top test pilots,” Zimmerman says of cosmonaut Anatoly Artsebarsky. Zimmerman had been told only that he was a visitor from Russia. “He loved it,” Zimmerman adds.

In 1994, on the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing, the Apollo astronauts were honored at Oshkosh. And, being pilots, many of them wanted to experience the Breezy. Charles Duke, the lunar module pilot on Apollo 16, went for a ride, but he says it was his wife who surprised him: “She won’t fly with me in a light aircraft, but she really enjoyed the Breezy and was just thrilled to be up and feel the wind and see the visibility you have with the thing.” Duke says the Breezy provides “a feeling of freedom that is the attraction of aviation.” He says he enjoys the highly technical side of aviation and complex aircraft, “but these real simple ones show you what a little ingenuity and practicality will do. It was just a lot of fun.”

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