Kirkwood's Dennis Kelly Flies "Home Built" Aircraft

Pilot made most of the small plane in his basement

Dennis Kelly of Kirkwood sits in his Thatcher CX4 outside his hangar at Creve Coeur Airport. He has been a pilot since 1984, and has logged about 750 hours. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
June 19, 2009
A big smile lights up Dennis Kelly's face when he talks about his new pride and joy: a sleek blue-and-gray airplane which he built in his Kirkwood garage.

"It's a gorgeous little airplane," Kelly beamed.

The Thatcher CX4 "scratch-built" aircraft accidentally took its inaugural flight on March 26 at privately-owned Creve Coeur Airport. That flight could be likened to a baby bird which prematurely falls from its nest and spreads its wings.

"It wasn't pretty," Kelly said. He had only intended to power up the engine, let the plane lift off for couple of feet as it rolled down the runway, and then settle back onto the ground.

Kelly, who got his pilot's license in 1984, is used to flying his 1946 Cessna 120. He wasn't expecting such a quick response from the CX4. As a pilot, he has logged about 750 hours.

"The plane has a lot more power than my Cessna," he said.

When Kelly powered up the CX4 and started down the runway, the plane lifted off the ground and began veering to the right.

"I used the control stick to try to correct and I tipped the plane on its side. I came close to putting the left wing in the ground," Kelly added.

Too high to settle back onto the remaining runway, he wobbled the plane up into the air. He then circled the area and got a first-hand feel for the CX4's flying characteristics before landing uneventfully a few minutes later.

The small experimental airplane was moved in September 2008 from Dennis Kelly's Kirkwood home to Creve Coeur Airport where assembly was completed. photo courtesy of Dennis Kelly (click for larger version)
"It was beautiful, but I was shaking like a leaf," Kelly said.

Building A Plane In His Basement

Kelly started building the single engine, one-seater aircraft in 2005 after a friend pointed him to the plane on the Internet. He and some buddies drove to Pensacola, Fla., to see the prototype. Dave Thatcher designed the new plane around a 60 to 75 hp air-cooled Volkswagen engine.

"I fell in love with the plane on the spot. I bought the drawings and construction manual right there and then," Kelly said. Unlike some planes, at a total cost of $14,500, including radios, the CX4 is affordable and needs very few special tools to build, he noted.

After buying the drawings and manual, Kelly was ready to buy sheet metal, punch holes and build an airplane.

In April 2005 Kelly started building the plane in his basement. There he built most of the plane including the wings and center fuselage.

"As the plane got bigger and bigger, I moved it to the garage," Kelly said. In the garage, among other things, he fitted wings and controls, assembled the engine and painted the plane.

In September of 2008, the CX4 went to Creve Coeur Airport for final assembly. There, it now shares a hangar with Kelly's Cessna and another Cessna 120.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) classified it as an "experimental home built" aircraft. At 3,000 rpm, the plane has a cruising speed of 115 mph; maximum speed at 3,200 rpm is 125 to 130 mph. It holds nine gallons of gas and burns three gallons an hour, Kelly said. His plane marks the 11th CX4 to fly.

"This is a new design for the aircraft world," he said. "It's purely for recreational flying."

Kirkwood's Dennis Kelly at Creve Coeur Airport with his Thatcher CX4. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
To date, Kelly has taken the CX4 on four short flights, totaling 2.5 hours, while testing the engine and systems.

"I have to fly it 40 hours within a designated area north of St. Charles in an unpopulated area before it can be flown as a regular airplane over populated areas," Kelly said.

"He can't buzz the house just yet," said his wife Trini. The couple has lived in their Kirkwood home for 35 years.

Cold Water On A Dream

Shortly after the CX4's fourth flight, Kelly got a "very disconcerting" letter from the Missouri Department of Revenue. The letter stated that he owed use tax, plus penalties, from 2005 to 2007. He owes about $800 plus penalties.

"That was a true shocker," Kelly said. He noted he was not the only small plane builder taken by surprise by this tax.

Kelly cautioned others about the use tax. According to the Missouri Department of Revenue, individuals may owe use tax if online or out-of-state purchases exceed $2,000 in a calendar year.

"I was so upset I couldn't fly for two to three weeks. I couldn't believe somebody could dump cold water on my dream," Kelly said of the tax notice.

Airplane Number One

The CX4 was Kelly's second foray into building an airplane. His first attempt wasn't as successful as his second.

"Even before I got my pilot's license I was interested in building an airplane," said Kelly. "I bought drawings for a much more sophisticated airplane called the Mustang 2."

That plane is a high-performance, all metal craft and more difficult to build than the CX4, he said.

Kelly started working on the Mustang 2 while he was still working and traveling a lot with his job - about 25 years ago. He took early retirement about 11 years ago as operations manager at Metal Goods.

"It (the project) stretched on for years," Kelly said. "About 2005 I was really waning on that project."

With the cost skyrocketing from about $8,000 to complete when he started the project to upwards of $40,000 in 2005, he was ready to scrap it. A friend salvaged the Mustang and has it, still unfinished, at the airport.

Modified Plan

Kelly's next project isn't as ambitious as building another airplane.

While Kelly loves the plane, the cockpit is a tight fit for his almost 6 foot frame. Since Kelly purchased the plans, CX4 designer Thatcher has modified them for a wide and tall version of the plane.

Kelly is looking to rebuild his plane with that modification to make it more comfortable.

As a finishing touch, the CX4 will soon have a decal with a picture of its namesake on the tail: the bird, the blue-gray gnatcatcher.

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