Marshall County is lush and green on this Tuesday morning, stretching out a thousand or so feet below, and Tom Odehnal is more than merely in his element.
He’s in his airplane.
Not his just by ownership, but his by construction, built rivet by rivet and screw by screw and piece of aluminum by piece of aluminum, in a painstaking, 1,300-hour process over some six years.
Lil Coupe is an RV-12, a kit plane offered by Van’s Aircraft of Aurora, Oregon. It is the pride and joy of Odehnal, 75, and his wife, Sandy. The Odehnals are natives of Belleville, Illinois, who moved to Kentucky in 1994 after Tom retired from a career as a service manager for NCR.
“We’ve been around home-built airplanes all our life, but just never did pull the trigger to build one,” Odehnal said. “I made a couple of attempts at some tail kits early in my working days but working and trying to build an airplane is tough, especially with a demanding job.
“It wasn’t until we retired down here in Kentucky that I had the time and the interest to do it.”
His eyes and a wide smile revealed his enthusiasm as he added, “It was a fun, fun project.”
Odehnal’s interest in aviation stems from a stint in the Marine Corps Reserve.
“I was a flightline tech and was around airplanes, and that stirred the interest,” he said. “I started flying in 1965 and got my ticket in 1966. Been flying ever since.”
Very early on, he got his first aircraft, in a partnership with a friend.
“We just went from partnerships to eventually being able to own our own and we’ve lived on several airport communities, and that’s why we’re here at Pirates Cove,” he said. “We love this.”
The first plane was a Piper Clipper. There were “a lot of small Cessnas, two-place and four-place Cessnas,” and then there was a stint in which the Odehnals were “Mooney drivers,” flying the single-engine planes with the vertical tail fin that looks as if it is leaning forward.
“We flew Mooneys for 20 years,” Odehnal said. “They’re a very fast, cross-country, nice, roomy, four-place airplane.”
They also had a Beechcraft Bonanza and an old Cessna 195, “a big, monster, radial-engine airplane, and that was fun,” Odehnal said.
Most recently, they had a Piper Cub.
Since 1994, their aircraft has been housed at their residence in the Pirates Cove community, which has its own private airstrip.
They bought the property in 1990, and when they retired and moved from Mexico City, they opted to build the hangar first, and then the house.
“We talked about it, and decided the hangar was more important,” Sandy said.
Then came Lil Coupe, which gets its name from another airplane the Odehnals flew.
“We got that name because we owned an Alon A2,” Odehnal said. “They called ‘em Aircoupes.”
Some company advertising refers to the plane as an “Ercoupe,” a label derived from the manufacturer, Engineering and Research Corp. (ERCO), which developed the plane just before World War II.
“It’s similar to this [the RV-12], in that it’s a low-wing, canopy-type airplane, two-place side-by-side,” Odehnal said. “And when I flew this for the first time, I told her, ‘It’s just like our coupe on steroids.’ It’s such a fast airplane, great performer and it just reminded us so much of the little coupe.”
One difference is that the Alon had a distinctive twin tail.
The Odehnals’ first attempt at building a kit plane was an earlier model from Van’s, an RV-6.
“We started, and we were both working” at full-time jobs, Sandy said. “We managed to get the tail done, and we said ‘We’re never going to finish this airplane,’ so we sold the tail.”
Years later, after retirement, they saw the RV-12.
It’s a home-built aircraft, but there’s nothing second-rate or “shade-tree” about it. The plane is finely engineered and Odehnal, after retirement, earned federal A&P (airframe and powerplant) and IA (inspector authorization) licenses.
The plane was assembled in the basement of the Odehnals’ house. The wings had to be removed to move the completed airplane out of the basement and into the hangar.
It weighs 770 pounds, with a gross-weight capacity of 1,320 pounds. It is powered by a Rotax four-cylinder opposed engine which moves it along at a cruising speed of 120 knots, just under 140 miles per hour.
It is fully equipped with avionics including autopilot, weather, navigation and communications functions.
“It’s a very capable airplane,” Odehnal said.
They discovered the RV-12 on a visit to the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2008, and placed an order.
The Oshkosh show, one of the world’s largest, has been an annual event for the Odehnals since the 1970s. They are already in Wisconsin this week for the 2014 edition, which will include a performance by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds among the many attractions on the schedule July 27-Aug. 3.
But there is much more than the exhibitions.
“You meet friends there and it’s like an extended family,” Odehnal said. “You look forward to going back and we camp typically with the same group.”
Many attendees travel by airplane to the fly-in event, but the Odehnals take their motorhome for an extended stay. They make it a two-week trip, arriving early and staying late just for the camaraderie.
The Lil Coupe helps them make regular visits with their children, two in St. Louis and one in Lexington, and one granddaughter.
“I’m not a pilot,” Sandy said. “I’ve always done all the navigation, and I have charts on my iPad, so I set the radio frequencies. I look up the airports and set them and all he does is push the buttons.”
“It’s a lot different flying without her,” Tom said. “It’s nice to have another pair of eyes up there.”
Odehnal takes his hobby seriously, but attention to detail enables him and Sandy to enjoy recreational flights.
“Our dawn flights with a cup of coffee around the lake are leisurely,” he said.
He emphasizes the importance of going beyond the requisite qualifications and training.
“You self-certify,” he said. “You get up in the morning and you say, ‘You know, I didn’t sleep well last night. I don’t feel well.’ So you don’t fly.
“If I feel good, I fly. You check you out first, and then you check out the airplane, and then you go fly.”
Lil Coupe is ready whenever Tom and Sandy are.