Native Vermonter and Vietnam War veteran Pete Laframboise of New Haven has had a long affinity for things with wings. The 62-year-old private pilot got a real taste for flying as a gunner aboard a Huey helicopter in Southeast Asia during the 1960s. Later, he learned to fly at the Middlebury State Airport. And now with more than 30 years of VFR (visual flight rules) flying experience under his belt, Laframboise has completed the dazzling task of building a first-class experimental aircraft called the RV-7A.
Classified as "experimental," a new class of civilian sport planes came on strong in the private aviation market starting in the 1980s. By the 1990s, homebuilders could purchase planes as kits, building and paying for sections as they go - everything from gyrocopters to private jets.
"I was attracted to the experimental RV-7A manufactured by Van's Aircraft; it's the most popular kit plane on the market," he said. "It's fast, very sleek, and ideal for aerobatics."
Lamframboise began building the highly aerodynamic RV-7A in the basement of his New Haven home in early 2006. Crates arrived over the span of a year as the pilot began the tedious assembly process. He taught himself how to read aircraft blueprints and even rivet aluminum to complete the airplane.
"When the plane got to be almost too big to fit through the door of my basement," he said. "I moved it to my garage. Once the fuselage and tail assembly was complete, I moved everything to the Middlebury Airport."
Laframboise encountered some technical roadblocks. However, he found virtual friends on a Van's Internet forum who were also building their own "X-planes" (not to be confused with the USAF's and NASA's storied series of research X-planes). Bloggers shared their tricks and secrets. Before long, Laframboise was confident that he could complete assembly by the end of summer 2008.
The RV-7A has a roomy cockpit that will easily accept two adults with sufficient leg, head and elbow room to stay comfortable aloft for four hours at a time.
"It's an all-around sport airplane, with excellent cross-country capability, fine aerobatic qualities and superior handling."
With its clear, sliding, jet fighter-inspired canopy, the RV-7A is a cool shapeshifter - a propeller aircraft that was probably a jet fighter in a previous incarnation. But unlike most propeller and jet aircraft, Laframboise's RV-7A is capable of very short take-offs and landings.
Equipped with a fuel-injected, 360 cubic-inch, four-cylinder Superior Air Parts engine, Lamframboise's RV-7A can fly between 150 and 200 hp. According to its designer, while cruising at 160 mph, the RV-7A can achieve better mileage than many of the compact cars it's flying over.
"It has a roller cam, something totally new," Laframboise said. "It makes an aircraft engine run easier and the cam shafts last a lot longer. Yet in so many ways it's solid 1930s technology. No battery needed for ignition, just magnetos. It's basically low-tech when compared to a modern automobile engine."
At the very end of the assembly process, Laframboise hired the expert services of J&M Aviation, operators of the Middlebury State Airport, to paint the bird in a dazzling patriotic red, white and blue. Following Laframboise's sketches, J&M rendered the final product as a visually magnificent, glossy "sports car" with wings.
The RV-7A's maiden flight took place on a warm, sunny day last September. The pilot's wife, Bonnie Laframboise, was on hand to see her husband take off. While she may have been a little leary, she sure didn't show it on flight day. While not a certified pilot, Bonnie is comfortable around aircraft and airfields, too. She has learned about flying, first hand, in the family's Archer aircraft.
All went well during the RV-7A's first flight. The plane performed flawlessly - from basement workshop to blue sky.
Subsequent test flights are now helping the builder-pilot get a better feel for the bird plus work out any technical bugs. So far so good. However, Lamframboise's wife, two sons, daughter, and five grandchildren will have to wait for their turns in the twin-seat experimental craft. The FAA requires experimental planes such as the RV-7A to fly at least 40 hours before passengers are permitted aboard.
In the meantime, you may be able to see Pete Laframboise flying his RV-7A through the airspace of Addison, Chittenden and Rutland counties. The plane has a distinctive engine sound; with its rakish, electric-like lines of red, white and blue, it's also easy to spot.
So, just when the rest of us ground hogs are easing our cars into the morning traffic pattern on Route 7, Pete Laframboise is already up and out in his experimental RV-7A-free as a bird and zooming off into that wild blue yonder.