Shifting Gears With Ivan Gromala

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What’s that? A custom-built Zenith STOL CH 701 taildragger? Now that’s something you don’t see every day. As we all know, Experimental aviation provides builders with more room to, well, experiment. Ivan Gromala of Quality Sport Planes (QSP), took advantage of this additional room to roam and put his STOL CH 701 on conventional landing gear.

Originally designed as a nosewheel airplane, Zenith’s STOL CH 701 has excellent short take-off and landing performance, allowing pilots to get off the ground in less than 90 feet of hard surface or 120 feet of grass, at gross weight. The tricycle-gear configuration also allows for better forward visibility, an added bonus when operating off-airport. Overall, the combination of short-field capabilities with ease of construction makes for a great backcountry option for low-time pilots and first-time builders who don’t necessarily want a tailwheel airplane. That’s partly why Zenith has prioritized the trike in its kit offerings.

But what if you do want a taildragger? Ivan was up for the challenge. This is what happens when you have the freedom to experiment. As we all know, homebuilts reduce the amount of obstacles builders face when trying to modify their aircraft. You can build what you want, using the parts, materials and resources you want.

Ivan was inspired to do the conversion because numerous QSP customers showed interest. His shop is located in beautiful Cloverdale, California. Wine country. He noted there are some really nice spots to fly in and out of, where you might want more prop clearance. His airplane has a 75 inch three-blade WhirlWind propeller, Rotax 912 ULS with an Edge Performance fuel injection kit and Beringer wheels and brakes with 29 inch Alaskan Bushwheel tires on it.

As for the gear and shocks? Tony of Shock Monster created those. Ivan modified everything for the airframe to fit the gear and tailwheel, which took a lot of trial and error. His tool, die and machinist background proved valuable as he worked to get it structurally sound. He’s still working with the gear to get it more aligned by changing angles, camber, tire pressure and pressure for the shocks.

Ivan didn’t build his CH 701 himself. He purchased it from a customer and flew it as a trike for over a year. The tailwheel conversion project took roughly 250 hours total, accumulated over the course of a year. “Would’ve been a lot less now knowing what I know,” he laughed.

He did most of the work himself and received a lot of valuable information and advice from his “old timer” friend, Eric, who’s been a tailwheel pilot the entire time he’s been flying. “If I don’t know something, I’m gonna ask people who’ve done it and who have gone through building different airplanes throughout their lives,” Ivan said. “You know, that knowledge you can’t get from a book.”

When asked if he ran into any major obstacles, Ivan said everything was really doable; he just lacked time. He’s a general engineering contractor who runs an excavation company during the week and QSP during his free time and on the weekends. QSP offers builder assistance, so Ivan’s very busy overseeing that.

Ivan finished the gear conversion project roughly five months ago and went right into tailwheel training, earning his endorsement shortly thereafter. I asked how his airplane compares to the tricycle gear version of it and he said, “It’s a whole different animal.”

“I can’t tell you differences because I haven’t flown other tailwheels,” Ivan said. “But it pops off the ground in 50 feet.”

You could hear his smile through the phone. He’s been enjoying the tailwheel life. You can see Gromala’s custom taildragger in action here:

Ivan bought QSP from former owner Doug Dugger in 2019 and kept a sort of open door policy, which encouraged a group of pilots and hangar rats alike to come in and drink coffee with them every morning. “They’ve been a huge help and good for business,” he said.

Ivan’s excited about his airplane’s potential. A lot of people have already called, asking if a conversion kit will be available through QSP. Sebastian Heintz of Zenith will be heading to QSP soon to review all of the parts Ivan and Tony made for it, with hopes of making the STOL CH 701 conversion kit available through Zenith Aircraft after it undergoes inspection and engineering tests. Ivan said Sebastian has received a lot of phone calls as well.

“Getting it engineered is going to be pretty awesome because there’s a lot of want for it in our area,” Ivan said.

Ivan first became interested in flying after going up with Doug in his CH 750 STOL. He fell in love with flying low and slow. We can only imagine what Ivan’s younger self would say if he knew he’d be where he is now; running the place that drove him to earn his PPL.


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