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The Melnik’s Kitfox Safari
A Variation on a Theme - and a Great Looking Airplane!
by Mary Jones

Kitfox Safari Laura and Danny Melnik’s Kitfox Safari is one great looking airplane. If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider that it’s been named "Best Fabric Airplane" at Sun ‘n Fun the past two years and a "Champion Aircraft" at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh ’98. That’s a pretty cool accomplishment for a couple of young people building their first full-size airplane.

The road that led to the Melniks building a Kitfox Safari started with Laura taking flying lessons. She immediately loved flying, so the couple began thinking about owning an airplane. They looked at used, type certificated airplanes but weren’t comfortable with what they were finding.  Laura had some experiences with the radios in her training aircraft failing on occasion, a nosewheel that shimmied and other niggling problems.  As they began shopping, they found most of the used aircraft they could afford were - well, old and worn.  That’s not what they wanted.

In 1995, Laura and Danny, who live in Pembroke Pines, Florida, decided to attend the Sun ’n Fun EAA Fly-in to check out homebuilt aircraft. While Danny has built model airplanes all his life, the thought of building a full-size aircraft had never really occurred to him.

However, now, that looked like it might be a way for them to get the kind of airplane they wanted in the price range they could afford. Laura and Danny had established some criteria for their potential aircraft - they wanted an airplane that had good short field take off and landing characteristics as they wanted to be able to visit the many grass strips in their area; they wanted a fabric-covered aircraft; and they wanted an aircraft with a certified engine. They shopped the various kit plane manufacturers, "interviewing" the companies with aircraft that met their criteria, and decided that the folks at SkyStar gave them the most comfortable feeling about the whole process.  They made a deposit on a Kitfox Safari kit and took delivery of it in August of that year.  That’s when the fun began.

The Melnik’s building experience was "vintage" homebuilding. Their single car garage became their workshop, housing the fuselage as it was completed and covered; their two motorcycles and two-year-old son Zach’s toys being pushed aside. The airplane’s wings were hung in the living room until the fuselage was completed. Once the fuselage was finished and off to the airport, the wings took center stage in the garage.   Danny estimates they put about 1,600 total hours into building the airplane over a period of a year and eight months, but he adds, "we probably spent double that time just thinking and planning things out. Every night after we’d finish working on the airplane, Laura and I would sit down and review what we worked on, who worked on what, how much time it took. Laura’s my best friend in the world, but we don’t always work together really well because we each have a different way of accomplishing tasks. With the Kitfox, we each picked the things we liked to do and worked separately. On big projects, we’d help each other; otherwise we’d just stay out of the other’s way. I did all the engine work, the wiring and avionics; Laura did 100 percent of the covering and painting."

Laura’s work also included rib stitching, which isn’t required on the Kitfox Safari but was something a friend recommended. Laura explains, "There’s a lady at our local airport who refinishes fabric aircraft for a living, and she highly recommend that we rib stitch as I plan to do light aerobatics with the aircraft. We used Poly-Fiber fabric and the Superflite finishing system and paint; with that system, the glue is designed to hold the fabric to the airplane. Our friend emphasized that rib stitching would be a 100 percent improvement in case a glue joint failed. It was a lot of extra work, and I had to get pretty innovative with needles and safety wire, especially on the tail, as there’s a former that’s an inch tall which I needed to stitch around. But, in the end the results were worth the effort and now we have that extra peace of mind."

Because this was their first full-size homebuilding project, Danny and Laura were hesitant to make changes to the kit. "The only real change we made was with the landing gear. On a standard kit, the landing gear bolts to the bottom of the airframe and is basically exposed; we made a small fairing and extended the floor a little so that it would cover up the center section and give a more finished look. Our panel, of course, is our own design, but that’s pretty typical of most builders. When we first started building, we adhered strictly to the Builder’s Manual, but as we became more comfortable with the homebuilding process and spent more time around other homebuilders, we did began to do a little customizing here and there on the aircraft, but nothing of a structural nature."

Danny says he’s looking forward to a second homebuilding project. "Now that I’m comfortable working with aircraft and have been around the homebuilt movement a couple of years, I’ll probably be a little more open to experimenting. For example, on the Safari, we gave some consideration to using an auto conversion engine but decided against it. At the time, we hadn’t really set out to build an experimental aircraft, we simply wanted a new airplane and a kit plane was the best way to get what we wanted."

Painting their aircraft was probably the most arduous part of the project for Laura and Danny - but also part of the secret to their covering success. A friend, Chris Baumberger, is a professional painter and has his own spray booth, which he offered to allow Laura and Danny to use.  The only catch was they could only use it from seven o’clock at night until the early morning. Accordingly, Laura’s daily routine became: Have dinner with Danny and Zach, drive 30 miles to the spray booth, mask and/or paint the airplane, go home to sleep and return about four a.m. after the parts had partially dried to move them to a storage place for the day. "The Superflite paint system has a long set up time, which is the secret to the beautiful shine. That’s why we wanted the spray booth - to have a place where we could have our parts bug-free for 14 hours."

The Melnik designed their paint scheme on their home computer and then transferred the dimensions to the aircraft. The checkerboard pattern on the underside of the wings and vertical tail stabilizer and rudder, for example, took two nights of masking and painting alone. Danny credits Laura for the looks of the airplane; "She’s the one who did the designing and the work. She’s the one really responsible for how the airplane looks."

While lots of Danny’s friends envy his having a wife who’s a pilot and loves airplanes - and he admits that it is great - he says there’s a downside, too. "The guys at the airport come up to me and say, ‘Wow, I can’t even get my wife to sit in an aircraft.’ I tell them it works both ways, though. When I’m looking at parts catalogs and stuff and say to Laura ‘here’s something we need for the airplane,’ she knows whether we really do or not. She’ll just say, ‘No, we really don’t need that,’ so it has its detriments, too. I can’t talk her into extra toys easily." Laura’s currently the only pilot in the family, but Danny says now that they have the Kitfox he’s planning to get serious about getting his license again.  "I started lessons a couple of times but never finished. I’ve always had friends with airplanes so there was never a problem in hitching a ride with someone when I got the urge to go flying.  But, now having our own plane should make it easier to make the time to finish my license."

The Melniks are obviously enjoying their airplane, having put 115 hours on it since its maiden flight on March 4, 1997. When Laura arrived with the airplane at Sun ’n Fun ’97, the Hobbs meter read 41.6 hours. Laura literally took off from her home airport, circled in the designated test area until she reached the 40-hour mark, and then headed to Sun ’n Fun. It’s probably safe to say that’s the mark of an enthusiastic airplane owner.  It might also be safe to safe the Melnik’s are converts to homebuilt aircraft.



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