The Planes Mark Learned to Build

Like most stories its’s probably best if I start at the beginning.

As a young kid during the sixties I was both mesmerized and motivated by the American space program.  What a great time to be a kid! The excitement of our space exploration gave me a focus that lead to a wonderful career in aviation flying ultralights, tail draggers, larger transport category aircraft and working in aviation safety. Notice, I did not mention fixing or building anything!

I first met Lee Fischer, founder of the Winchester Skonkwerks at AirVenture 2014. He had displayed there a highly modified Robertson B1-RD. It was the Demoiselle style pioneer aviation type of aircraft which I had always loved. Remember “Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines”?

Because of the many people who displayed interest in the Demoiselle style aircraft he decided to build the 23 bis. For AirVenture 2015. I visited the Skonkwerks Hanger in Winchester Township several times over the winter and followed construction very closely leading up to Airventure 2015.

During AirVenture 2015 I hinted (strongly) many times that it might be a great project to build a pair of “evolved” Demoiselles for AirVenture 2016. During late fall, plans were finalized and construction began.

Now this is where my story really begins. I have rarely worked with tools beyond the most mundane house repairs.  It was always easier on my ego to call a repairman! So…beginning the 24’s project I assumed the seat was a simple and good beginning… wrong!  Now just looking at the seat one might decide that it is a pretty straight forward structure. It; in actuality, is extremely difficult to match all of the bends and curves; but with the mentoring of someone who has worked with his hands all of his life the task was easily accomplished.

I learned the difference between a drill and a driver. Came to the realization just how difficult it is to “free hand” a straight hole through a single piece. of aluminum tube and picked up on a variety of other tasks.

As the 24’s progressed and I learned how sewing, welding and machining were done, I developed a great appreciation and respect for the art, and the people whom accomplish it. The proper equipment and the tools in the hands of skilled craftsmen, is a wondrous thing to behold.

As my skills grew, rudimentary at first but soon I was actively participating in the construction of two identical aircraft. The pride I felt in watching these two piles of tube and Dacron, become recognizable aircraft was a feeling which I will never forget. Building something with my own two hands, building something Magical, building something that will FLY.

One of the most interesting parts of construction were the wheels. Four wheels were purchased and laid in front of me. I remember as I was taking all of the spokes out, mixing up the piles of parts, that we would never get them put back together with the new long hub. With a little instruction I was able to accomplish this feat and the wheels which you see on the 24s today are a testament to what can be accomplished with proper tools, knowledge and dexterity. And great mentoring!

Rigging the cables which has always seemed a perplexing endeavor all became clear when the simplicity was revealed. Lay the cables out and make sure the left and right are the same lengths. Simplicity, State of Art, Pure in thought.

It has become an unanticipated, very rewarding experience. The looks on my friends and families faces says it all….you’re not going to fly it….are you? “Remember when you tried…”

The Skonkwerks Aviation Spirit is helping others achieve a dream, teaching someone a new craft is what our sport is all is all about!

My time over the last year has been well spent in a learning experience at the Winchester Skonkwerks. The learning has become the objective rather than the necessity. As I write this, I must remind myself to reimburse Lees’ Therapy and Counseling sessions! It has not been easy on him!  I am still being instructed on that darn drill…..


Learning to drill straight and true holes is a difficult task.

Sewing sails takes patience and concentration… and a really big table.

Mark Solper, is a 24 year ATP veteran, he has been involved in flight safety, accident prevention and pilot training.  Mark has held multiple positions in the safety and the training field that included working for the FAA, Manager of Training Standards for a major airline, Chairman of the Airlines Pilot Associations Accident Investigation Board as well as chairman of multiple safety programs. Most importantly he is currently serving on the EAA ultralight council.

Skunk Works is an official alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), formerly called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects.

The name “Skunk Works” was taken from the moonshine factory in the comic strip “Li’l Abner.” Where it was originally spelled “Skonkworks” and their swill was made from old boots and dead skunks.

The original spelling is currently being used in Winchester Township Wi. Where a hanger was dubbed “The Skonkworks” by a neighbor in the early years. Used by a loosely knit informal organization of like minded engineers/designers/tinkerers/builders/neighbors  and fliers known as the “Lone Buzzerds”   an ultralight club, operating out of the “Winchester Skonkworks”  or sometimes “Squirrelworks”  hanger  in Larsen, Wi.

To avoid copyright infringement “Kelly Johnson’s”  serious looking  “skunk” was changed to a comical, whimsical black and white squirrel looking mascot wearing a red crash helmet and giving a smiling “thumbs up.”

The designation “skunk works”, or “skunkworks”, is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy, unhampered by bureaucracy; tasked with working on advanced or secret projects. In this case the spelling “Skonkworks”  but in most cases; “Skonkwerks” is being used in jest to project an aura of something outside of the norm being worked on, developed or flown; while staying in touch with meager roots. The term fits well within the ultralight  community as there is no direct oversight by any government organization, in addition ultralighters  generally operate at the bottom of the aviation financial food chain. Not unlike “Li’lAbner” making “moonshine” from an odd variety of items, or what ever they had on hand.  Adventure Aviation  or the sport of  Ultralighting is also,  often reduced to.. “screwing what you have on hand together and making it fly.”

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