Fulfilling a Dream: My Sonerai IIL

The thoroughly delightful story of how Bob Barton - an aeronautical engineer but non-pilot - built and learned to fly his Sonerai IIL kitplane. It took Bob more than eight years to finish the task ("I just approached it like a mouse eating an elephant, and kept nibbling away"), but the end result was an unrepentant love affair between man and machine.


Here we are at Winder Barrow Airport, some 45 minutes north-east of Atlanta. It is a beautiful summer morning. The sky is light blue. There is a hint of a cool breeze and just the beginning of what will be puffy cotton balls later, and maybe rain showers in the afternoon.

I need to do some maintenance on N46RB. My little red and gray Sonerai IIL has almost 100 hours on it now and the sun has done a number on my propeller’s finish … To heck with it! It’s just too pretty a day. Let’s go flying!

Starting the 1700cc VW is easy. Brakes set; gas on until it drips out of the Posa Super Carb, then off again; throttle wide open; switch off (make sure!); pull the prop through eight blades. Then with the throttle just cracked; switch on and prop it. … all right! … it starts on the first pull. Gas on … ta-puckita, ta puckita. Climb into the back seat, fasten all the straps, don the hearing protectors, release the brake and rumble out to runway 22.

A careful scan of the sky reveals no traffic so I latch and lock the canopy, hang a left and advance the throttle. Stick back as I accelerate. The VW asks me if I really want to do this by dropping 20 rpm or so for a couple of seconds. This used to make my eyeballs bug out and my pulse hit 3000 rpm but now I’m used to it, so I just say "Yes, let’s go!" and hold it steady down the centerline. (This hesitation is due to the carb not having a float bowl, and I think a lot of people have tried to fix it before learning to live with it). Tail up at 40 knots … wake up feet … pull the nose with the toes. Then ease back at 60 knots and leap nimbly into the air.

Sonerai IIL taking off

The little cotton puffs have grown a little bigger and I thread my way up between and above them where the air is smooth and cool. Here we are 2500 feet AGL … lean it out and throttle back at 95 knots.

How it began

Heading north toward big Lake Lanier, I think back: How did all this begin? How did I get to this fabulous situation?

The year is 1978. In my mind’s eye I see my wife, Rita, and me driving along I-85 outbound on a vacation trip. She says dreamily, "I think, if a person really wants to do something, they should go ahead and do it. If they keep putting it off, they may wake up someday to find it’s too late." If I had been a little more sensitive to her feelings I might have seen, in her eyes, a trip to Europe, Paris nights, tours of Vienna. But no. I responded, "Right! I’m going to build an airplane!"

I’ve been in love with aviation since I was a kid … sitting on our front steps with Daddy’s binoculars, waiting for an airplane to come over.

And I built model airplanes. Gosh! How long did I build models before I got one to fly? Years! I guess that’s one reason I enrolled in Aeronautical Engineering at Georgia Tech … to find out why my models wouldn’t fly.

Well I found out why. I also developed an additional interest. Rita and I were married just two weeks after graduation. I started my career in the aerospace industry by joining the aerodynamics group at Lockheed-Georgia Company.

"Hang your clothes on a hickory limb, but don’t go near the water."

I’m working with the subject of my childhood fascination … airplanes. But it’s all on paper. As we drove along the Interstate, I thought, "I have been here on the ground and for 22 of my 47 years, I have been watching and helping others take to the air. Now it’s time for me to do it myself. Right! I’m going to build an airplane!"

I’m back to the present, cruising along as the cotton balls are beginning to become cotton bales! They are growing higher faster than I can climb. So I peal off down through a hole … throttle back as the airspeed passes 140 knots … pull out at 1500 feet right above the southern shoreline of Lake Lanier.

I’m not sure which boat house down there belongs to our friends … so I’ll just make a run down the inlet and check them all out. Zoom! Wheeling back up in a sweeping turn, the airspeed bleeds off … 140, 120, 100, 80 knots. Level wings and hold 70 as I climb south and head back to Winder-Barrow Airport.

Meanwhile, back to my memories. Bump! Was that a young thermal? Or was it the pothole I always hit as I drive into the campground at the Sun-N-Fun at Lakeland?

It’s January 1979 … my son, Matt, is almost 15 and we have driven down from Atlanta to see if we can actually see a Sonerai II in person. I have read and re-read the articles in back issues of SPORT AVIATION written by Mel Lamb, John Monnett, and Greg Erickson describing John’s Sonerai II (John says he made up "Sonerai" from "Sonic" and "Cosmic Ray"). I have about decided it is small enough to be built in my basement workshop and economical enough to fit into my limited budget

Here at the fly-in, I am a little disappointed. There is only one Sonerai II in attendance. It is for sale. The owner trucked it in because he is afraid to fly it … and he is a helicopter pilot! Maybe this isn’t the plane for me. But others say it flies like a dream. The wing loading and power loading aren’t far from those of the Cessna 150. And what about my own flying record? I’ve never had an airplane accident. Right! I haven’t flown one at all. I am your basic low time (zero hours) pilot.

"Hang your clothes on a hickory limb but don’t go near the water." What the heck! I order the plans anyway.

Still at 1500 feet but nearer to home base, here is the baby-blue water tank at Auburn, GA, looking just like a Jules Verne rocket, poised to depart this earth with the touch of a match. Just in case, I give it a wide berth.

I start a gradual descent over Carl, then Winder with the airport straight ahead. Opposite the end of the runway, I chop to idle and swing down a long graceful arc at 70 knots. Roll out on short final and slip off the extra altitude, then slow to 60 knots over the threshold. Close to the runway I pull the nose up until the landscape looks just like it does when I’m sitting still in the three-point attitude … then hold that as we gradually slow to a perfect squeaker. The airport is obviously completely deserted because you never make a landing like that when anyone is watching.

Fully committed

Sonerai-in-progress, in my workshopThe plans for my Sonerai II arrived and my family hid them to present to me as a birthday present. That was March 1979. By July the first boxes of materials and parts came and I set to work building a 2 x 16 foot work bench and cutting tubing.

Some people wonder why it took me over eight years to finish my airplane. I guess it didn’t have to. Others, when they realize the number of parts and the magnitude of the undertaking, marvel that it could be finished at all. I just approached it like a mouse eating an elephant, and kept nibbling away. I guess anybody could build one quicker, but this was a hobby, not an obsession.

"Is that thing aerobatic?" I hear the same question over and over. And I give them the some answer: "It’s a little more aerobatic than I am."

While I am flying along I keep in mind how I built these wings. There have been several hundred Sonerais built and a handful of them have experienced structural failure.

John Monnett designed a kit for strengthening the wings, but by the time this came out, my wings were already closed up. So I contemplated the number of Sonerais that had flown safely … and done aerobatics without the mod, and I thought about the failures which often involved overweight aircraft and high speed entries to violent maneuvers, and decided to go on with my wings as they were.

Here we are cruising along at 2500 feet and 100 knots. Let’s do a steep turn. Sixty plus degree bank and pull back on the stick. This little thing practically meets itself coming the other way. Wow! I can see that the airplane is responsive enough and the control forces are light enough that the wings can be bent by a ham fisted pilot … especially if he thinks he has an audience.

In order to build an aluminum wing you have to drill, deburr, and dimple a zillion holes. Then carefully put it all together with half a zillion rivets. I added a few hundred to the total when I designed and installed reinforcement for a wing walk on the left panel.

I strengthened the upper surface between the first two ribs with a corrugated reinforcement. And to make the corrugations, I built a small bending brake. What a great education this is! I’m learning : planning, manufacturing, and now tooling. Is this a great hobby or what!

"Did you build this yourself?" That’s another question asked by people attracted to this sporty little airplane. So with a slight swell of pride, I acknowledge that I did. Of course I realize that N46RB doesn’t hold a candle to the fabulous prize winners I read about in SPORT AVIATION or see at the fly-ins. The goal I set for myself was to build an airplane that: (1) was safe, and (2) I could admit, without shame, that I had built … and I guess that’s about where I came down.

My background in aerodynamics gives me a slightly different way of looking at things than the builder whose background is in data processing, insurance, etc. … not necessarily better, just different. I realize that it gives me a phobic revulsion for things that produce drag or add weight.

So it was that I was driven to do something about the wing-fuselage intersection on my Sonerai II. My airplane had to have wing-root fairings. All in all, they turned out pretty well. I’m not sure how much they reduce the drag, but they do wonders for my dragaphobia.

Building in confined places

Psst! … Hey buddy! … Over here! … Want a tip on a great real estate deal? All ya gotta do is buy a house in Atlanta with a basement. Why? Chances are good that in the deal you will also get a big, brand-new boat or airplane. There must be hundreds of them available out there. Because every time I tell someone that I’m building an airplane in my basement, they tell me that they know someone who built a boat (or airplane) in his basement and couldn’t get it out. So you see, there is no telling how many of them there are out there … then again … Maybe there is only one guy with a boat in his basement who knows just about everybody in Atlanta.

It fits in my basement, but just barely!Now my basement workshop measures only about 19 by 14 feet … so small that I have to step outside to change my mind. But the worst is that the door out measures only 36 by 65 inches. So there was a real possibility that I could join that growing legion of fools who have built something in their basements, only to find out later that they couldn’t get it out.

One casualty of this constraint is my airplane’s ability to fold its wings for transport. The plans call for an ingenious mechanism in each wing panel, connected to the fuselage frame, to support the wing during folding. There is simply not enough width in my little shop door to allow the fuselage to get out with those pieces welded on. So I settle for removable wings and save several pounds by leaving the ingenious mechanisms out.

When all the welding I could think of was done, I took all the steel parts out in the yard, rented a sand blaster, and blasted away. Then, before it could rust, I put two coats of epoxy primer on the clean surfaces.

Learning to fly

"But wait! You don’t know how to fly! How can you build an airplane when you don’t even know how to fly one?" Everyone is incredulous. Maybe they are right … baby birds are produced by parents that certainly know how to fly. But then I think: "We build airplanes at Lockheed, and I would be surprised if 2% of the people there are pilots. You don’t have to be able to fly an airplane to build one. But you do need to know how to fly one if you are going to fly it … and I do intend to do that, when it’s finished. So on June 17, 1983, I started taking flying lessons.

"Control it, Bob, control it …CONTROL IT, I GOT IT!" And we swerve back toward the center of the runway. Another botched landing. As far as Nathan Kimble, my instructor, is concerned, I am going to sleep and letting the little C-150 head for the runway lights. I have nearly 19 hours dual now. I should be ready to solo. But I am not … and I know it. "Control it, Bob." Dang! I thought I was controlling it, but nevertheless here comes the edge of the runway until Nathan takes over. I can see something is wrong too.

Then it dawns on me. I wasn’t going to sleep and drifting to one side … I was "wrong-footing" it. Turns in the air, directional control taxiing and on take off were no problem, but here on landing roll-out, I am treating the airplane like a sled … push with the right foot to turn left.

Cessna 150When I told Nathan the good news, that I had figured out my problem, he gave me a tired look and said, "Yeah? … Right!" But I am right. Steering an airplane on the ground isn’t an inborn instinct. Maybe most people get it right the first time. But me? I had to learn – "Pull the nose with your toes." Next time out proves me right. And after 20 hours of dual, Nathan gets out and says, "Make three full stop landings, then pick me up again." Solo! Wow! No problems except that some idiot insists on landing at the same airport I am using. What if I lose sight of the runway? I’ll never find it again!

Here it, the 15th of June 1984 … just two days short of one year since my first lesson, and I have just finished my Private Pilot’s checkride. So I got my license. Rita is here at Peachtree-Dekalb Airport to help me celebrate the glorious occasion. She has consented to be my first passenger as I return the rented C-152 to McCollum Airport, 20 miles west/northwest of PDK.

Now Rita is not an aviation person. So it is really a brave thing she is doing. After all, it is not easy to sit 20 minutes straight without swallowing, blinking, or breathing. But she is doing it … for me.

Finishing it up

If a mouse keeps nibbling, the elephant will eventually disappear. With the wings finished, the canopy and cowling fitted and the fuselage framework and tail feathers primed, I ordered Stits Process materials from Alexander Aeroplane (now Aircraft Spruce – East).

Once the silver had aged, I packed it all up and hauled it all over to Bob McGrath’s hanger at Mathis Airport. Bob generously provided the facility, Clyde Schnars wielded the spray gun, and I did the masking and taping. First it was painted all gray … then masked and trimmed in Eagle Red. Then I towed it back home and put it on the patio for its completion.

The ship was out of the bottle for the last time. Hooray! I would not be one of those guys with an airplane stuck in his basement after all.

Then on January 23, 1988, with the help of several dedicated friends, I loaded the wing panels on Clyde Schnars’ trailer (hooked to Mac Forbes, Caddy), and attached the fuselage to my car, and we caravaned out to Winder – Barrow Airport. We put it all together and I cranked it for a slow taxiing tour of the airport.

The right stuff?

Many people asked me if I was going to do the test flying myself, or have someone else take it up for the first time. I could see the arguments on both sides: I was a low time (220 hours) pilot. I had very little taildragger time. But on the other hand, this "experimental" airplane had been proven to be a docile plane to fly. Several hundred had already been flown. The engine was proven too, since it had been in Jere Rosser’s KR-2 earlier

If the first flight ended in a crash and the pilot was hurt or killed, it would probably be due to some hidden flaw in my workmanship. And if that happened to some kind soul I had asked to fly it for me just because I was chicken … well what on earth would I say to his wife and kids?

So I taxi, and taxi, and taxi. I’ve practiced this until I’m beginning to wonder(along with the few spectators) if I’ll ever fly it.

I did get some good advice from Ed Sterba on first flight procedures: He counseled against the popular practice of doing high-speed runs with the tail up. He said to run up to about 40 knots with the stick full back, then chop the power and brake to a stop. This would allow you to practice the first part of the takeoff and the last part (after touchdown) of the landing. The rest of the takeoff just consists of raising the tail, keeping it straight to 60 knots, and lifting off. And the first part of the landing (the approach) just requires that you keep it aligned with the runway centerline with rudder, and over the centerline with bank. Then pull the nose up to the three-point attitude, and viola!

Each day, as I get ready to go to the airport, Rita asks me, "Are you going to fly it today?"

As usual, I say, "I might … if it feels right."

The big day arrives

April 17, 1988 – Maybe my answer sounds a little more confident this time. Anyway, she decides to come along and watch.

Now I have to decide – am I about to try it too soon, just because people are watching? … or am I becoming a perpetual taxi driver?

"So here we go … give it the gun … No! Here goes somebody taking off on the crossing runway." O.K. Change runways. "So here we go … No, here comes somebody landing on the runway I just left." I taxi slowly back to the end of runway 31 again. The third time is the charm. This time there is no interruption … 40 knots; tail up, 60 knots, already? … pull it off … it’s flying! But look at the altimeter! It’s switching back and forth like an angry cat’s tail … and the airspeed says I’m doing 90 knots … pull up … No! Now it says I’m going 0 knots. The first inkling of distrust in these instruments begins to creep in. I really don’t believe I’m going 0 knots

As I continue to roller-coaster around the pattern, I figure out the problem. Water in the static line (which runs fore and aft in the bottom of the fuselage) sloshes back and forth, making the altimeter and airspeed indicator respond to attitude and acceleration as well as altitude and airspeed.

There is certainly no reason to climb to altitude and check the stall speed. I couldn’t trust what the ASI said anyway. I must admit my pattern was a little ragged and a little low. I made one pass down the runway and decided to land on the next circuit. Around again … set up the approach … No! They located the runway 30 feet too far to the left. Pour on the coal and try again.

The approach looks better this time, but if I slow up too much, the airport disappears under the nose. So I come whistling down final at what I guess was about 80 knots … over the threshold about 20 feet up … power off … I drop abruptly and catch it in time with up elevator. Now keep it aligned … keep easing back on the stick …float … float … finally, squeak, rumble, rumble and I brake to a stop, then taxi back to my parking spot.

Whew! What a relief! Rita asks me if I’m going to take it up again this afternoon. But I say, "No, that’s enough for today." That’s odd … I’ve never heard myself talk like Mickey Mouse before.

After that first wild flight in the Sonerai IIL, I disconnected the static tube behind the instrument panel and blew out the water that had entered the static ports toward the rear of the fuselage. The next few flights went much more smoothly. The airplane proved to have a top speed of about 140 mph and stalled, after a pronounced shudder, at about 45 knots, with no tendency to roll. (Aeronautical Marketing Tip: Always give top speed in mph and stall speed in knots). These values were about what John Monnett had originally predicted. Of course, I could have gotten the stall speed down some by having a lighter pilot and putting the C.G. at its rear limit.

I practiced all the standard maneuvers, steep turns, chandelles, and lazy eights. The only problems I had were due to the Sonerai’s being so much more responsive and nimble than the Cessnas I was used to. It’s not at all unstable … just enthusiastic. I had trouble making the maneuvers open enough.

Now…what do I do with it?

Some people enjoy nothing more than going round and round the pattern … circuits and bumps, as the English so aptly put it. Not I!. I like to visit places. Let me describe a typical outing.

Early on a crisp February morning, I dragged the heavy hangar door open and swapped positions of my little red truck and the Sonerai. A thorough pre-flight preceded setting the Loran and taxiing out for takeoff. I had arranged to meet Mac Forbes at Mathis Airport some 30 miles east, and slightly north of Winder. The runway at Mathis: (1) is short, (2) is narrow, and (3) has a steep embankment along one side. For these reasons I deemed it wise to circle a couple of times while Mac took off in his tan and blue C-140 and joined up for the 133 mile jaunt to Winchester, TN, where the members of EAA Chapter 699 regularly extend their hospitality with a Saturday morning fly-in breakfast.

This particular morning, the air was fairly smooth but traveling at a good clip from west to east. Our route ran very close to the point where Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee all meet. As we skimmed across the ridge which runs NE/SW, we looked through crystal air at a beautiful valley some 1500 feet below. There, the Tennessee River runs quietly on its way to the Gulf. We could see a tugboat pushing a big barge, a train crossing the river on its neat trestle, and the beautiful little town of Bridgeport, AL with a white steepled church in the foreground. It would be the perfect layout for a model train enthusiast to duplicate. Now that is the kind of thing that our under-privileged earth-bound neighbors never see. How sad!

A few more miles and we circled down to the Winchester airport. The food was great and the company was entertaining. Mac is especially good to go with to a fly-in. He knows just about everybody you will see there.

The trip home should have had a good tailwind, considering the headwind we had coming over. But then, who ever really had a tailwind anyway?

Other trips took me to the Sun-N-Fun in Lakeland, to Hickory, N.C., and to Beaufort, S.C. on the coast. No records set … none attempted. Just perfect relaxation. … Except for one thing: I must get a more comfortable seat in that thing.

Let me end this tome with a tribute to John Monnett for designing a fine little airplane … The Sonerai is just a delight to fly. And to all my friends in the EAA who helped me take to the air. The neat thing about EAA members is that if you have a problem, they will always be glad to give you their advice … of course, no matter how many you ask, you will never find any two pieces of advice to agree … so you will still have to make the decision yourself.

Let me see, I guess I ought to write at least one more chapter to this happy saga, but … to heck with it! Let’s go flying! … Clear prop!