When he was growing up, Larry Attebery would regularly be one of about a dozen kids flying model airplanes in a field where Kirksville High School stands today.
Attebery didn’t then dream of doing that building on a larger scale, saying he wasn’t thinking that far ahead in those days. No, it was about five years ago when he started attending seminars at the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, an annual event in Wisconsin that draws airplane enthusiasts from across the nation, that the thought took hold.
Attebery wanted to build his own plane.
He did his homework, his research and on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2016 began building a Zenith 650 airplane. A little more than two years and about 2,300 construction hours later, on Thanksgiving this year, a blue and white aircraft raced down the Kirksville Municipal Airport runway and climbed to the sky.
It was late in the day, with little daylight to do much of anything. He flew out to the west, got up to about 3,500 feet, turned around and landed.
Short, but successful.
“It flew,” Attebery said.
Born and raised in Kirksville, Attebery developed a passion for flying when he was in second grade. A friend of his father invited him and his dad to take a flight to Texas for a rodeo. That flight had him hooked.
“I just loved it,” Attebery said. “Ever since then I’ve been hooked on flying.”
That passion was expressed in different ways. When he was younger it was model airplanes. As a student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, his prime studying spot was at a small nearby airport.
“In the springtime or summer I’d go out there and study, sit under a tree and watch the airplanes come and go,” he said.
He started taking flying lessons in the late 1960s, got his private license and then his instrument, multi-engine and commercial ratings. He later joined the Adair Air Association.
“Once you get started, there’s no stopping,” he said.
Self-employed with his own engineering and surveying firm, Attebery and his wife, Regina, moved to St. Louis in the 1980s. They were there for about 25 years before retiring and coming back to Kirksville.
He’d been attending the annual event in Oshkosh for about 20 years and eventually decided to build one as “a fun thing to do” in retirement. The only thing left was convincing his wife.
“It went from an emphatic ‘no,’ to ‘well, maybe,’ to ‘well, OK,’” Attebery said. “She’s a good sport about it and has been very helpful. I’ve spent a lot of time out here working on this thing. I let things at home slide that I shouldn’t.
“Now that it’s in the air, things are going to turn around a bit. I’ll get some of these projects done at home.”
The plane comes from Zenith Aircraft, a company in Mexico, Mo. Formed in 1992, Zenith designs, develops and manufactures kit aircraft. Attebery received portions of the aircraft in different various kits, and then went about putting them together. He said the company provides drawings, specifications and videos to help in the construction process.
“It’s a long, tedious process,” Attebery said. “Not anything real high tech. It just takes a lot of persistence.”
After the plane’s body and tail were constructed, Attebery took it to be painted. He settled on a blue and white scheme with the Loony Tunes’ character Tweety Bird on the tail, along with the words “Purtty Bird.”
“I thought it was appropriate,” Attebery said.
Later came constructing, painting and attaching of the wings, and installation of the engine and electrical components.
With endless pages chronicling his thousands of hours of construction, Attebery felt Thanksgiving 2018 was a good time for a test flight. After some finishing touches around the Thanksgiving meal, and with many of his family members – including his 101-year-old aunt – looking on, Attebery considered doing only a high-speed taxi and a landback, where the plane ascends only three or four feet before touching down.
Before he knew it, he was 30 feet in the air and climbing.
“I just kept going,” he said.
The flight was smooth, and the testing has only begun. He’s now in the initial part of his 40-hour flight testing program, during which he’ll fly the airplane through a series of exercises designed to ensure it meets safety standards set by the FAA.
Eventually, the plane will be cleared to fly with a passenger, and he and his wife plan to get a lot out of it.
“I’ve got kids and grandkids all over the country. We’re going to use it to go see them. I have one grandkid down at Padre Island. We’ll be down there. I’ve got grandkids in Oklahoma City, kids in Wichita and Charleston, South Carolina, in San Diego, and family all over. We’ll use it and fly around,” Attebery said.
“It was fun to build it. It’s going to be fun to fly.”