There is a saying among the builders of experimental aircraft: The project is 90% done and there is 90% to go. In other words, the builder/pilots are more focused on getting the project finished than the building experience. That’s the wrong attitude, says Chris Christiansen of Tempe, Ariz., the designer/builder/pilot of a high-wing one-off airplane.
I caught up with the boyish 29-year-old at Oshkosh, where people gathered around his airplane carefully studying the curves of the composite fuselage. One person remarked that the graceful lines of the design made it look a little like a dolphin with wings.
“It is a clean sheet design. I named it Savor, as in ‘savor the experience’,” he explained. “Most people are anxious to rush through their projects or they are so focused on flying the airplane that they don’t enjoy the building part.”
The Savor is the third aircraft Christiansen has built. He is a construction worker by trade, and combining his building skills with his aviation passion just seemed like a natural thing to do, he said.
“I have been into airplanes since I can remember. I was always into models and ultralights and hang gliding. I taught myself to fly when I was 17, and when I was 20 I got my private pilot’s license,” he said.
Designing and building an aircraft to cater to his wants and desires was the next logical step. “The first I built was a small ultralight. I didn’t put too many hours on it,” he recalled. “It was a tiny machine, then after a few hours I thought that it was too dangerous, so I designed another aircraft. That one was too slow and I didn’t like the engine.”
Christiansen thought a 160-hp Lycoming O-320 would be a good engine to use, then started designing an airplane around it. “It went from drawing board to runway in just 15 months,” he said, reporting the first flight was in September 2009.
It sounds like a relatively quick process, but according to Christiansen, sometimes it seemed like it would never get done.
“If anyone wants to do it, they need to be ready to be stressed,” he laughed. “When you are doing a one-off, you are on your own. You may think that the design has room for a particular control rod, but you don’t, and the rod ends up in the trash. Since most amateur builders don’t have CAD (Computer Aided Design) programs, you have to go with the flow. If something doesn’t fit, you try something else.”
The Savor has a wingspan of 23.5 feet, which makes it about 10 feet smaller than a Cessna 152. It has aluminum control services and a fiberglass empennage and wings similar to a GlaStar.
“The landing gear is aluminum rod. The cage frame goes all the way back to the tail,” he said, running a hand over the smooth curve of the tail. “The most challenging aspect of the construction was the molds for the skins. I built the frame and had the shape. The shells are one piece. Because of the angles and curves, the shells didn’t want to come out of the molds.”
The shells are held in place by metal fasteners. The wings are removable. “That was by design. I wanted to be able to take the wings off and haul the airplane just in case I got stuck somewhere,” he said.
The wings are designed to have fuel tanks, 10 gallons on each side. For the trip to AirVenture Christiansen put an additional fuel tank in the rear passenger compartment.
“I really designed it to be flown as a single seater because you spend a lot of time flying by yourself. I wouldn’t recommend flying all the way from Arizona to Oshkosh, but if you want to take someone to breakfast with you, it’s okay. It has about the same room as Piper Cub.”
The interior dimensions were created around Christiansen.
“I am 5 feet 5 inches tall and weigh 120 pounds soaking wet!” he crowed, then proceeded to remove the pin holding the gull wing door in place so that he could enter the cockpit. He doesn’t sit in the airplane in so much as he wears it.
The front seat is 36 inches wide, while the back seat measures about 27 inches, he said. “I like the wrap-around feel of the panel and the center stick. I made the airplane so that I can raise the seat up because without it I can’t see over the nose. I made it so the frame can accommodate someone who is 6 feet tall. If you look closely you will see that the seat is 12 inches off the floor.”
The interior is finished with textured semi-plastic foam. “The texture can hide a lot of flaws and it is good for soundproofing,” he said. “That’s 2 inches of insulation. The airplane also has carpet to help take the sound down.”
Empty weight is 1,110 pounds, while gross weight is 1,550 pounds for the airplane, which cruises at 165 mph and lands at 60.
The airplane is painted white and gray with black accents. On the left wheel pant the names of Christiansen’s parents are carefully inscribed. “They couldn’t make it to Oshkosh, but they have been very supportive of me. I wanted them to be here in spirit,” he explained.
Several people were impressed enough by the Savor that they asked Christiansen for copies of the plans. “But nobody has written a check yet. I probably wouldn’t turn it down,” he grinned.