Retired pilot makes and sells airplanes
May 14, 2013
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  • Military jets flew above farmland near Woodbine, Iowa, pushing 800 mph. Booming sounds, like bombs, detonated as the jets broke the sound barrier.

    Seven-year-old Jerry Ronk looked up in amazement.

    He wanted to do that. He wanted to fly.

    “The windows would rattle and shake and the animals would go wild,” Ronk said. “I always thought it would be interesting.”

    Three years later, in 1956, Ronk saw an opportunity when he spotted an open hangar in Woodbine.

    Bus Brown, who built trench-digging equipment, agreed to take him up in his brand-new Beechcraft Bonanza in exchange for some work on the hangar.

    “It was just unbelievable,” Ronk said. “That really got me hooked there.”

    The flight, over the Boyer River in Woodbine down to the Missouri River north of Omaha and back into town, inspired Ronk to want to fly his own planes. Now, as a 67-year-old retiree in Omaha, he builds them.

    Ronk is one of thousands of people nationwide who build homemade airplanes out of kits or blueprints. The kits are available in a wide range of prices, from a few thousand dollars to more than the cost of a new house.

    Thanks to a successful career as a pilot and some help from the stock market, Ronk can afford to build kits in the $50,000 range.

    Most builders, Ronk included, make single-engine small airplanes classified as “experimental.” You don’t need a license to build a plane, but you need to take classes and earn at least a recreational license if you want to fly what you build.

    Builders gather in groups like the Experimental Aircraft Association, made up mostly of pilots. Members of the Omaha chapter point to Ronk as the expert on homebuilt projects.

    “A lot of guys are just trying to build their first plane,” said Tom Mann, president of the Omaha group. “(Jerry) has built several planes. He’s kind of got it down to a routine now.”

    Ronk is a retired pilot with more than 13,000 hours in the air, 8,000 in jets. Since retiring from his pilot job in 1999, he has built three airplanes by himself and is nearing the completion of his fourth.

    “That guy’s forgot more about planes than any of us will learn,” said Tom Wieduwilt, a fellow pilot and association member.

    Ronk has flown charter jets for wealthy businessmen ranging from Willy Theisen of Godfather’s Pizza to a guy in California who claimed he had the largest dental laboratory in the world. He helped start a new regional airline, founded his own house-building company and survived some hairy situations thanks to midair heroics and lucky landings.

    His newest challenge: building a rocket.

    No, it’s not a missile and it won’t make it to the moon. It’s a tandem two-seat airplane designed in the Czech Republic and sold by Team Rocket in Texas, supporting a low-wing underneath the cab.

    Team Rocket’s F1 Rocket has a maximum speed of 253 mph and can fly from Omaha nearly to the Atlantic Ocean on one tank of gas.

    “It’s better than any jet I’ve ever flown,” Ronk said. “It’s way more sophisticated.”

    His older brother, Murlyn, also a pilot, said the F1 Rocket is more advanced than the Boeing 737 models that the brothers used to fly.

    The $30,000 electronic dash has live weather and traffic data, shows fuel usage and provides mapping. As a cherry on top, Ronk is installing an iPad dock.

    “If I set it up before I go, I could die up there and it’d get me back to the airport,” Ronk said. “It wouldn’t land it, though.”

    The Rocket sounds like a space shuttle compared to Ronk’s first plane.

    In 1965, the Ronk brothers bought a 1947 Aeronca Chief, a high-wing plane that had a broken tail and a damaged rudder from a hard landing. They fixed it up, and, as it sat outside a maintenance facility awaiting inspection, a hailstorm hit Omaha.

    Mother Nature hole-punched the plane’s fabric exterior 201 times.

    “It just looked like a polka-dotted airplane,” Ronk said.

    Within a year, the brothers fixed and sold the plane for double what they paid for it. Ronk then bought his own plane, a Piper Pacer.

    He had to rebuild this plane, too, when his brother’s friend flipped it in a bean field.

    He fixed the damaged wing and propeller and sold that plane for a profit, too.

    “Being raised on a farm … is a really good training ground for anything you do,” Murlyn said, complimenting his brother. “His workmanship is phenomenal from what I’ve seen. I’m real proud of him.”

    Rather than going into airplane production, Ronk applied his talents to house construction, starting Jerry Ronk Homes. He built homes for most of the 1970s before he approached his brother with an idea.

    “One day he told me, ‘You know, I want to do what you do and fly airplanes instead of build these houses,’” said Murlyn, who was the top pilot at Casino Express Airlines in Elko, Nev., at the time.

    There was a problem: Jerry had only a private license.

    So Murlyn trained him so he could get commercial and multi-engine licenses. Once it came time to test, Jerry passed without any turbulence.

    “He just has a feel for flying,” Murlyn said. “He’s got the aptitude that a lot of people don’t.”

    Homebuilt airplanes didn’t enter the picture until Ronk retired.

    The small airline he helped start in Des Moines, Access Air, had dissolved. Ronk was living in Los Angeles to be close to his daughter and grandchildren. He kept active in aviation, flying his personal airplane with his 3-year-old grandson Austin to various airports, sometimes just to grab a bite to eat.

    When his grandson started school, Ronk’s retirement became a lot less busy.

    He had a few girlfriends, but they never seemed to stay long, he said. He had a lot of time on his hands and needed something to occupy it.

    “I was bored to death again, so I started building airplanes,” Ronk said. “It was mainly just something to do.”

    He bought a half-built Van’s RV-6, a side-by-side two-seater, low-wing plane known for speed and fuel economy. He and a friend took on the project, which was intended to be a quick build.

    But then he met the dentist. He flew charter flights all across the country, leaving little time to tinker with the plane.

    Building an airplane isn’t quite as simple as assembling a model. Work begins on the tail section, moves to wing assembly and then to the fuselage.

    The final step makes up the bulk of the work, as the fuselage houses most of the electronics, the engine and the propeller, all labor-intensive.

    Between his work as a charter pilot and the time he spent with his family, he had little time left to build.

    “It was probably a three-month deal that turned into two years,” Ronk said.

    In 2003, the plane finally came together and was ready to fly.

    First-flight horror stories are common. Like any piece of handiwork, it’s usually imperfect.

    Early in his career, with about 300 hours of flight time under his belt, Ronk was a main character in one of the stories pilots tell about when a freeze plug blows out on the propeller.

    Ronk banked the airplane, blinded by the oil-caked windshield. After a few circles around the runway, he curved into a safe landing.

    Despite all the “what-ifs,” Ronk said disaster was far from his mind when he tested his first homemade flying machine. He had a few fellow pilots inspect it, and took it up for 2½ hours without a problem.

    “It’s terrifying for a lot of people, but because I have so much experience, it was exhilarating for me,” said Ronk, who flew the plane as long as six hours in one flight from California to Kansas. “What a fun airplane to fly.”

    He built a yellow RV-7, an upgrade from his first plane, from 2004 to 2006. It took another two years because of an arm injury.

    Ronk flew in his grandson from Los Angeles to help with the build. Now 17, the grandson says his experience riveting the wing and working on other parts of the plane inspired him to want to get a pilot’s license.

    Ronk’s third attempt, the most recent model in the RV series, the RV-12, finally went quickly, taking only eight months to build and one month to sell in 2010.

    In a good market, planes like his sell for around $100,000, leaving little wiggle room for profit. He knows he might lose money on the F1 Rocket, which cost $55,000 before adding any electronics, an engine or a propeller.

    Ronk has sold every plane he’s owned, usually within a couple of years of purchasing it. It’s not about the profit, he said. It’s about the thrill of the build and the flight.

    Some weeks, he works on his plane like it’s a full-time job, but most of the time it gets attention only when he has a free block of time.

    “It’s more for relaxation. I enjoy doing it, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it,” Ronk said. “I get a project done and go six to eight months, then get bored, and then I do a new one.”

    While his plan is to sell the F1 Rocket quickly after the build is complete, this one will be harder to part with than the rest of his planes.

    “I saw one out in an airport in California one time — it was just like a rocket ship going up,” Ronk said. “They say it’s like a rocket. It just sets your hair on fire.”

    Maybe it’s the tech-savvy dashboard that’s unlike anything he’s flown before. Maybe it’s the excitement of flying a lightning-fast airplane he’s only heard rumors about. Or maybe it’s the thought of making a kid look up to the sky in awe the same way he did at 7 years old.

    Regardless of the reason, Ronk is excited to put his Rocket into orbit.

    “I think this might be the most fun to fly yet,” he said.

    If all goes according to plan, Ronk’s F1 Rocket will launch by the end of the year.