MANSON - Mike Cooper spent 20 years in the Air Force flying some of the most advanced airplanes in the world. When he eventually retired after 18 years at Northwest Airlines, he again wanted to fly a high-performance plane.
So he built one.
"I started - Sept. 30 of 2007 was when the first kit arrived," Cooper said. "I flew it for the first time Labor Day last fall. It was 3,167 hours of labor."
Mike Cooper wheels his RV-7 plane out of the hanger into a better position. Cooper built the plane from kits in his shop in Manson.
For his effort, Cooper now has a sleek two-seat all-aluminum tail dragger plane. It's called an RV-7, a kit manufactured by Vans Aircraft. It cruises at just under 200 miles per hour, can go 750 miles on one tank of gas and can withstand 6 G's -or six times the force of gravity when pulling acrobatic stunts.
"An airplane that is not aerobatic typically is stressed to 3 G's," Cooper said.
Completing such a big project takes expertise and the right equipment.
"I fiddle around with my shop. I usually have a car I'm working on," he said. "When I was a kid fiddling around with cars, I pieced together banged up Corvettes for a while. I have that kind of a background. And it's the same - it's a machine, you know?"
Cooper has a 32-by-50-foot shop in the south end of a storage building he owns in Manson. He also owns a car wash there.
The plane comes in multiple kits; you buy and build the tail, then the wings, and so on. Cooper bought the fuselage with the quick-build option, but even that took quite a bit of work.
"It came in one piece, but maybe only 50 percent of the labor was done," he said.
Which parts gave him the most trouble?
"I don't think anything gave me trouble," he said. "There were some tasks which were somewhat daunting, the canopy being one of them, the fuel tanks another. Another was the instrumentation. It was, where do I start? If you get all done, you get that top skin on there and it doesn't work, you've kind of got a mess.
"You want to be careful. I'd go in to work and I had this guy to help me. I told him I don't care if we don't get anything done today as long as we don't mess up any parts."
Cooper kept a written log and took photos of the work he did on the plane. This wasn't just for his own benefit; he said the Federal Aviation Administration likes to have those things to prove he did the work himself.
"In order to qualify as an experimental plane, you have to do 51 percent of the work," he said.
The experimental category makes homemade planes possible, he said. The other option would be to build a certified plane, which he said would be impossible for a home builder.
"Cessna will spend millions to get an airplane certified," he said.
A plaque on the dashboard warns passengers that the plane is experimental and to fly at their own risk. But Cooper did have to complete a process proving the plane was safe.
"You have to fly 40 hours within 25 miles of a designated point before you can take anyone with you," he said. "You can pick any point. When you get that, you're free to use the airplane as you want, except you can never fly for hire, so you can't take money. I'm a commercial pilot, an air-transport rated pilot, so I can fly for hire, but my airplane can't."
Now that he's completed the requirements, he's gone on plenty of trips. The longest was when he went with his cousin to Brownsville, Texas.
"It's in the South Padre area, way down south. It took about seven hours of flying time," he said.
They flew from there to the Sun 'n Fun air show in Lakeland, Fla., where Cooper won an award for Outstanding Aircraft in the homebuilt division.
Though he wasn't able to make it this year, Cooper hopes to take the plane to the Oshkosh, Wis., airshow.
"I try to get to Oshkosh every year. It's a big airshow," he said.
Cooper first realized he wanted to build an RV-7 years ago, when he was a pilot with Northwest Airlines and got to meet the plane's designer.
"The first time I flew in an RV I thought, man, this flies so much like a T-38 I gotta have one," he said. "When I retired from the airline in '06, my wife said, 'Don't start yet. Give it at least six months and see if you still want to do it.' So it was six months and I ordered the kit."
Cooper flew his first tour in the Air Force in the T-38 advanced trainer. He moved on to F-4s, then flew F-15s for 10 years.
"The F-15 has such horrendous power; this airplane doesn't have that. But this airplane is really responsive on the controls. It's very, very sensitive. It's acrobatic - I mean I can do a loop and I can do rolls. I can do just about anything with it. It's a different degree than what flying a fighter is, but it's a real agile little airplane."
Though he has approximately 15,000 hours of flight time, he said he has to keep flying in order to keep current.
"You can't be proficient if you don't do it on a regular basis," he said. "In order for me to really feel comfortable in the airplane I have to fly in it every two weeks at least."