The world comes to Mexico, Mo.,
for kit airplanes at Zenith Aircraft
by Jeff Joiner
Heintz offers advice for working metal to Winfred and Velma Myers
of Garland, Texas, during a Zenith Aircraft workshopThe company sells
home-built experimental aircraft kits to pilots around the world.
John MacIver leans
over a set of drawings and examines them in deep concentration.
Covered with criss-crossing
lines, arrows pointing here and there and exploded views of small details,
it's a little hard to tell what he's looking at. But the plans are just
the first steps in MacIver's quest to build his own airplane.
Stover, is participating in a workshop organized by Zenith Aircraft at
the company's facilities at the Mexico, Mo., airport. Zenith manufactures
experimental kit airplanes designed to be built by those with little or
give people hands-on instruction and build confidence. All the process
requires is time, lots of time.
The company says
its smallest plane takes just 500 hours to complete.
"The fellows I've
talked to say you can probably double that," says MacIver. "I like to
take my time. This is the kind of thing that if you're looking to get
it done quickly you're going to have a hard time."
managed by brothers Sebastien and Nicholas Heintz, is a small and little-known
company outside the close-knit world of home-built airplanes. But within
that group of dedicated build-it-yourself pilots, the company is well-known
for developing airplanes of the highest quality and reliability.
planes are designed by Chris Heintz, father of the two brothers. Chris,
a French aeronautical engineer, worked on the Concord supersonic jetliner
for the company Aerospatiale. He also designed and built a small sport
plane in the 1960s.
Production Manager Nicholas Heintz inspects the company's model 701
two-seater before taking it up for a flight.
In 1973 Chris
moved his family to Toronto, Canada, where he went to work for de Havilland
Aeronautics. In the meantime his designs for the small sport plane he
called the Zenith took off and a year later Chris started his own company
to build and sell Zenith kits.
The company grew
rapidly and in 1992 Chris licensed the kit manufacturing and marketing
rights to his sons who moved manufacturing to Mexico, Mo.
Zenith Aircraft's designs for simple, all-metal planes quickly became
popular in the United States.
with the solid feel of the airplane." says Kenneth Heide of Albany, Wisc.,
who attended the recent builders workshop and took a flight in the company's
model 701 STOL, which stands for short takeoff and landing. "Little things
like the handling characteristics, how quiet it is and how fundamentally
solid it feels make all the difference."
Heide was so impressed
with the plane that he bought a kit at the workshop and hauled it home
to Wisconsin in a rented trailer.
The 701 is the
company's most popular design. The plane is a small two-seater designed
to take off and land in less than 300 feet of runway or grass field at
speeds under 50 mph. In fact, the plane, and a slightly larger version
which carries four people, is popular with farmers and others living in
rural and particulary remote areas.
"If cows can
graze on it you can land on it," says Sebastien.
"Low and slow"
flying is what most of the company's designs are all about. "Flying for
most people is a hobby. They just want to enjoy flying and see the country
from the air," says Sebastien. "That's why we're seeing more interest
in sport flying rather than in faster cross-country airplanes."
of Hoffman Estates, Ill., gets some encouragement from Melissa Young
as he works on the tail section of a Zenith kit plane during a builder's
workshop at the factory. The company offers workshops to people interested
in learning to build their own airplane.
The planes sold
by Zenith are far from ultralights and Sebastien chaffs a bit at the Federal
Aviation Administration classification of home-builts as experimental.
The Zenith 801 can carry 1,000 pounds and has a range of more than 600
miles with an additional fuel tank.
the only difference between a home-built and a factory production model
is the need to build it.
are often considered an affordable way to get into flying, the investment
is still steep. The two-seat Zenith 701 kit costs more than $12,000 while
the 801 sells for nearly $21,000.
The kits include
everything needed to assemble the plane except for the engine and instruments
which the builder chooses on his own. A recommended engine for the 701
is the 100-horse Rotax 4 cycle, a custom aviation engine costing more
than $10,000. A larger aviation engine for the 801 can cost as much as
$20,000 and ready to fly, the planes cost more than $30,000.
buy the planes in sections, like the wings or tail, and spread the cost
out over several years.
"It may take me
400 hours or it may take me 4,000 hours, but it's going to get built,"
Zenith kit planes are relatively simple to construct with tools many people
have in their workshop, says Sebastien. The only special tools needed
are sheet metal snips and a sturdy rivet gun.
The model 701 plane
is held together by more than 7,000 rivets.
Butner (left) and his son Mark work on their second Zenith model 801
in Butner's garage at his home near Marshall.
"The average person
with shop tools can put one of these planes together," says Sebastien.
"It doesn't require any kind of special mechanical aptitude. That's what
we're really all about is trying to keep it as simple as possible."
is so impressed with the plane the retired auto mechanic is now nearing
completion of his second Zenith model 801. Working daily in his garage
at his home just outside of Marshall, Butner can finish a plane, with
the help of his son, Mark, in about a year.
"I love to build,"
says Butner who began by putting together radio controlled airplanes.
He says he naturally moved up to the real thing.
alive when you're on final." says Butner, referring to a pilot making
his final approach to land. "Your feet are busy. Your hands are busy.
You're just alive as you approach those numbers (on the runway)."
Word about Zenith
kit airplanes has spread around the world and of the company's sales,
half are overseas. The short takeoff and landing planes are ideal for
use in the Third World and many are flown in places where airports are
few and very far between, another testament to the planes' reliability.
In dealing with
customers all over the United States. and the world, the Heintz brothers
are often asked how they happened to locate in Missouri. For Sebastien
the answer is easy. The brothers wanted a location in the center of the
United States with a good airport. And
for Sebastien the small-town setting and quality and cost of the local
workforce didn't hurt any either.
"We looked at
a lot of communities but we wanted a rural setting to avoid busy airports
in metropolitan areas. And we like Mexico for its quality of life. I wanted
to work where I'd be happy to live."
puts the final screws into a box filled with an entire airplace at
the Zenith factory. The box contains all the parts needed to build
the model 801 except for the engine and instruments. On the floor
waiting to be shipped are the parts for the smaller model 701. Customers
can buy a complete kit or purchase just sections, like the wings,
to spread the cost out over time.
With Zenith Aircraft
shipping two to three airplane kits a week, the plant is close to its
capacity and keeps 17 employees busy making more than 600 parts that go
into the planes. And Sebastien and Nicholas are preparing for the flying
season. The company flies their planes to air shows around the country
including the granddaddy of them all in Oshkosh, Wisc., where Zenith organizes
a gathering of its customers.
to its customers that makes Zenith popular. In
fact, Kenneth Heide, preparing to take his kit home to Wisconsin, was
at first interested in buying a used Zenith 701.
"I talked to a
lot of people and I couldn't find anyone who was willing to part with
their plane. To me that says a lot."
about Zenith Aircraft visit the company online at www.zenithair.com;
or write Zenith Aircraft Company, P.O. Box 650, Mexico, MO 65265. For
more information about experimental aircraft, visit the EAA