When think of the dawn of aviation, flight was fun and exciting. Fast forward to today and you’re probably not looking forward to your next plane ride. Imagine if flying were actually enjoyable. For Zenith Aircraft Company, excitement is the journey and not just the destination.
Founded in 1992, Zenith designs homebuilt kit planes for sport pilots. Yes, believe it or not, you can build and fly your very own aircraft. “When most people think of flying, it’s for transportation purposes and not for a joy ride; this is especially true when you fly commercial,” said Sebastien Heintz, founder of Zenith Aircraft Company. “On the sport aviation side, transportation is not your primary goal. You’re flying because you enjoy the experience. It’s similar to driving a classic car or motorcycle versus a commuter vehicle. With a classic car, you can take it out on the weekend and drive without much of a destination. You enjoy the vehicle, the weather and yourself. That’s how sport pilots approach aviation. You can obviously use your aircraft to get from Point A to Point B, but it’s more than just for transportation. Sport aviation is more about sport than transport.”
If flying for fun wasn’t a novel enough concept, how about actually building your own aircraft? That’s where Zenith Aircraft comes in to help. The company’s sport aircraft kits have roots in the 1960s when Sebastien’s father, Chris Heintz, earned his engineering degree and actually worked on designing the Concorde. Chris was keen on owning his own airplane, but supporting a young family meant buying a plane was a pipe dream. So as many hungry engineers do, however, Chris decided to go out and build his dream. He designed a simple-to-build, two-seat, all metal aircraft that eventually spawned its own industry. Chris’s friends, who were also flying enthusiasts, loved the design and asked for blueprints of their own and often times needed hard-to-obtain parts that Chris would provide. From here, the DIY aircraft kit industry was born.
Building a sport aircraft is much like flying one. It’s all about the journey. “What I sell is not a finished airplane,” Sebastien said. “If you buy a puzzle, you don’t buy it for the finished picture. You make the purchase because you want to enjoy the activity of putting the puzzle together. Airplane kits are similar. If you want a finished airplane, don’t buy a kit. But if you enjoy the process of building things, then you’ll love a kit.”
How long does it take to build your own plane? Well that varies from person to person. “We say about 500 hours of assembly time,” Sebastien explained. “People do not try to be efficient while building our kits. Remember, they’re looking to take in the experience. Most of our customers have day jobs, so they’ll spend about one to two years building the craft, assembling it over nights and weekends.”
Motivation is key to ensuring customers complete the process. This is where Zenith’s focus on quality instructions really comes into play. The goal is to provide an easy-to-build, easy-to-maintain aircraft, with simple instructions. “We want people to see some progress after spending just a few hours assembling,” Sebastien stated. “We make sure the instructions are easy to follow, so mistakes are avoided even with a basic skill level. I find that if you see real progress, even after one or two hours, there’s built-in motivation to go on.”
Zenith has been using SOLIDWORKS to design its kits for about four years. “Using SOLIDWORKS over 2D CAD allows us to access a lot more information and enables us to visualize designs virtually as opposed to out in the shop,” Sebastien said. “This is especially important for customers. They can really see what and how they’re going to build.”
“From a design standpoint, SOLIDWORKS makes it more efficient to develop new designs from prior versions,” Sebastien explained. “Like most designs, we’re not starting from scratch. There’s no need to do this when planes are still flying the same way. However, SOLIDWORKS helps modify designs, and we can test these updates more efficiently in a computer than in a physical prototype. I’ve been really impressed with the ability to design more efficiently. Now, we’re creating and modeling at the same time, which is much more efficient.”
Now we understand the design work and fun that goes into assembling a safe, simple-to-fly aircraft kit, but what does it take to get your plane off the ground? “The FAA makes it relatively easy to build and own your own airplane,” Sebastien stated. “The FAA does a final inspection on the plane, making sure it’s airworthy, but they otherwise let you build your plane as you want. The other hurdle is obtaining a sport pilot license, which was created to lower the barriers of entry into aviation and make piloting more affordable and accessible compared to the traditional private pilot license.”
After your aircraft is registered and you’ve earned a sport pilot’s license, you’re ready to take to the skies. Sebastien discussed one of his favorite flight paths, from Missouri to Florida, for an annual visit to the U.S. Sport Aviation Expo. “I take three or four stops along the way. We fly from about 1,000 to 3,000 feet above the ground. This is great for sightseeing and it feels like a fun road trip only you get to see more from the sky. We’re also blessed by having the opportunity to visit fun airports with good people. A public airport is like any other public facility; it’s free to use and a great resource.”
If you’re ready to embrace the journey and make flying fun, check out Zenith Aircraft Company and get ready to fly the friendly skies – just like our special guest co-pilot, SOLIDWORKS CEO Gian Paolo Bassi, who captured the below footage: