It was Dave Cadugan’s dream to own his own plane by the time he retired.
Now at 73, he’s only semi-retired — but he’s got his plane.
He and his wife, Kathy, 70, built the RV-8 themselves using a kit from Van’s Aircraft.
They turned the garage at their Penn Township home into a workshop and spent hours every night piecing together the two-seat, single-engine plane.
It took them nearly five years, 16,000 rivets, multiple inspections and a Federal Aviation Administration sign-off before the first flight in June 2005.
Kathy Cadugan confesses that she was “a basket case” for that flight out of Butler County Airport, a few miles from their home.
Dave Cadugan said he was never scared.
“I was cautious,” he said. “I had inspected that airplane so carefully and I’d been flying other airplanes. Those were 30 to 40 years old, and I never had any problems with those.”
After that, their first longer flight was to Bar Harbor, Maine, and back in a day.
“We decided that was a pretty nice way to travel,” said Dave Cadugan, who works as a part-time sales manager for a Pittsburgh manufacturing company.
In the past 10 years, the couple has flown about 325 hours. Some of them over the Midwestern states to Oregon, the California coast and Arches National Park in Utah.
One of their most memorable trips was to the Grand Canyon, where they flew through one of the canyon corridors used by the tourist planes.
“We have seen sights that only other small-airplane adventurers would have had,” said Kathy Cadugan, a retired teacher’s aide. “To fly over the Rockies in a small airplane. … We’ve created memories that no one can take from us.”
ON THE RADAR
The Cadugans are part of a growing number of people who fly in homebuilt aircraft. The planes are also called experimental aircraft, because that’s how the FAA classifies them.
The number of homebuilt aircraft has grown steadily over the past four years, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association, a member and advocacy group for those who fly homebuilt aircraft.
On average, about 1,000 new homebuilt aircraft have been registered with the FAA each year for the past four years, according to Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the EAA.
There are more than 30,000 homebuilts on the FAA register, he said.
The Cadugans belong to the local EAA chapter based at the Grove City Airport. A second Butler County chapter is based at the Venango Regional Airport in Franklin.
The two chapters have a combined membership of about 70, said Jim Gaiter, president of the Grove City chapter and vice president of the Venango chapter.
He said there are five pilots in the Grove City chapter who are building planes. He said the work is “very technical” and the plans need to be followed exactly, but the effort is worth it.
“When you take your first flight and you’re in control of an airplane, that is something you never, ever forget,” Gaiter said. “That grows in the guys, and they say, ‘I want to keep doing this. I want to build my own and see if it will do what this other aircraft does.’
Experimental amateur-built aircraft represent nearly 10 percent of the U.S. general aviation fleet, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The agency conducted a study of experimental aircraft in 2011 because of their growing popularity and safety concerns.
The study found experimental aircraft accounted for about 15 percent of the total U.S. general aviation accidents in 2011, and 21 percent of the fatal crashes.
Not long after the study’s release, the FAA began better tracking of experimental aircraft and introduced more stringent inspections and first-flight test regulations.
According to the Experimental Aircraft Association, while the total number of registered homebuilt aircraft has doubled since 1994 and the total number of hours has increased by more than 123 percent, the total number of accidents has stayed nearly the same.
The Cadugans say they were meticulous in their construction. Kathy Cadugan insisted that each assembled part not be just “good enough,” but perfect.
Sometimes, Dave Cadugan would take a section apart and order new pieces.
“It was very interesting because it’s his dream,” said Kathy Cadugan. “And I thought, well, I’m sure I can help — tell me what to do.
“That’s how I became the riveter. I wanted to make sure it was well-built.”
A technician with the local EAA chapter came out several times for hours-long inspections of their work and advised them on what corrections to make.
“I felt fairly confident that the first time that I took off that it would fly fairly well,” Dave Cadugan said.
Cost is one of the reasons the Cadugans decided to go with a homebuilt plane.
The kits cost range from $10,000 to $100,000. A new factory-built plane costs about $250,000.
With a kit, plane sections aren’t ordered all at once. As time and money permitted, the Cadugans ordered parts.
It takes between 1,000 and 3,000 hours to construct a homebuilt aircraft, according to the EAA.
When Cadugan finished his plane, he painted it himself using epoxy paint similar to what would be used on a car. The green-stripe design is similar to one he saw on an old biplane.
The final assembly took place in a hangar at the Butler County Airport.
That was where they glued on the wings in preparation for that first flight.
LOVE FOR FLYING
Before building his own plane, Cadugan rented planes since he received his pilot’s license 40 years ago.
He caught the flying bug from his uncle and a few in-laws. Then his son decided at age 15 that he wanted to take flying lessons.
That’s when Cadugan decided to join a flying club in Butler and get his pilot’s license.
His wife doesn’t have a license and says she prefers staying grounded now that they’re older.
Dave Cadugan says he still takes short trips to other local airports, which frequently hold breakfasts for pilots.
“I’ll fly to Cleveland for a lunch, just to stay in practice,” he said.
“They call it the ‘$100 burger.’