Kathleen Evans Builds a Plane
By Claudia Mosby
Flight PlanAugust 2015
By Claudia Mosby
Photos: Brenda Cross
Can a woman with no mechanical experience build an experimental aircraft in less than a lifetime? Kathleen Evans decided to put it to the test and discovered it only took 1,143½ hours.
“I have taken apart and put back together a sewing machine, but that does not really qualify one to build an airplane,” says Evans, a visual artist who has exhibited at the Carter House and Main Street galleries and at Anselmo Vineyards. “I have worked primarily from the right side of the brain since age 10.”
Involved with aviation since her mid-20s, Evans flew all over the country in a Cessna 182 with her first husband. “He had gotten his pilot’s license by spinning the books instead of going to ground school,” she says. “I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”
The detail-oriented learning curve, however, proved too much. “I used to fly flat and level,” she says. “I would focus on a point on the horizon and fall asleep. Invariably, after a couple moments, the nose would be pointing to the ground.” She discontinued her studies but says it nagged at her.
Thirty years later, after remarriage to another pilot, her confidence had matured and with her husband’s encouragement, she earned her pilot’s license just before her 60th birthday.
The two flew a Piper Tomahawk that she says was “dog slow.” “We wanted more of a cross-country airplane, something faster,” she says. “One option was to buy a homebuilt kit and do it ourselves. It started out as a joint project, but evolved into my project, my plane.”
They purchased a Vans RV7 Experimental Homebuilt Aircraft kit and to satisfy FAA requirements, Evans’ husband created a website to document the building process. The site drew an international response from women building planes and those who had wanted to do so, but thought it was too big an undertaking—something Evans understood.
“When the first section arrived, we opened it up, spread it all out and said, ‘Oh, my God,’” recalls Evans. “It was aluminum sheet metal with pre-drilled holes and thousands of pieces of hardware, each one numbered on the many pages of inventory sheets.”
She collected the pieces, put them in separate bags, numbered and attached them to a large corkboard (“it took me awhile to figure out what to do with it,” she says. “I am a visual person, so I needed to see it all.”). Meanwhile, her husband built assembly benches in their converted basement workshop.
After receiving the first part of the kit, the pair attended a one-week course in Oregon. “Of the 15 people in the class, I was the only woman and the only person who had not used hand tools with metal,” says Evans. “I learned as much as I could in that week, but after that it was all on the job.”
Few individuals build a kit plane alone from start to finish, since many tasks require two people to complete. Evans worked both partial and full days over the course of five years and her husband provided a second set of hands, also taking on tasks that she did not wish to learn. “I had a lot of interest in building the plane but not in painting it,” she says, “so he did that and also the electrical hookup.” He helped in other ways, too, by bringing her lunch and taking pictures of the developing plane for the website.
When it came to the engine, Evans negotiated an arrangement with the manufacturer that allowed her to work with the mechanic to assemble it. “I wanted a sense of what was involved, how the parts fit together and how they all worked,” she says. “It was totally outside my realm of imagination but the mechanic was patient, happy to explain every step.”
She finished the plane in 2012 but when the FAA cleared it for flight, there was one poignant problem: Evans had insufficient experience flying that type of aircraft. She watched from the tarmac, tears streaming down her face, as her husband took the inaugural flight.
“It was absolutely thrilling,” she says. “It sounds prosaic, but it was breathtaking, heart-stopping.” After an additional 10 hours of flight instruction, she was newly certified and has taken the plane as far east as Santa Fe, flying over the Grand Canyon en route from Zion.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Evans. “If you’re thinking about building an airplane, start when you’re young.”