Building one's own plane to travel is not rare these days as kits for building airplanes are available. But putting them together requires considerable skill and much patience. Alappuzha native Ashok Thamarakshan is thrilled and happy to have new wings to fly in a self-assembled plane.
Settled in the UK, Ashok flew to countries like Germany, Austria, France and the Czech Republic. The journey was for seven days. Is assembling an airplane as easy as it sounds? Can ordinary people buy and fly a plane? Ashok's journey has answers to these queries.
Many people turn to such aircraft manufacturing (this is called home-built aircraft) in the UK during their retirement from work. But Ashok did it at the age of 39. That too not just for fun, but with the intention of using it for travel purposes. This is the story of that journey and Ashok's efforts.
The backyard workshop
The traffic block on the road made Ashok think of having his own plane. Not only that, he loves to travel with his family. If you want to bypass the traffic block and travel long distances, you need a plane. Chartering a small plane often can be expensive. That's how he thought of assembling his own plane. He had heard about it and got more info when he researched it.
Ashok obtained his pilot license from the British Civil Aviation Authority in 2019. He had taken aircraft on rent from time to time. But all the new planes available for hire were only two-seaters and the four-seaters were very old. The 'risk' of traveling as a family on a 30-40-year-old plane put off Ashok. Though the old planes could be bought for up to 30,000 euros, Ashok said that those planes have flown for thousands of hours and do not feel very safe.
At that time, small aircraft company Sling's TSi aircraft caught his attention. He visited their manufacturing facility in Johannesburg and test-flew the aircraft. He realized that the plane was great on the very first flight. Ashok returned after placing an order for the kit for the new aircraft. About Rs 1.8 crore had to be spent on the making of the plane. The aircraft was named G-Diya after the name of his youngest daughter Diya and G, the icon of British aviation.
Ashok is the son of former Mararikulam MLA Prof. A V Thamarakshan and Dr Sukrutha Lata. Ashok had informed his family about the construction of the plane. Ashok said that since he has a license and is a mechanical engineer, he did not have to struggle to convince his father and mother.
The kits that were ordered came one by one during the Covid lockdown period. This lockdown was not going to continue forever and once it ends there are so many sights to see. Thus, Ashok was preparing to take to the sky during the Covid-19 time when the world had shrunk to his own home.
It took about a year and a half to complete the construction of the aircraft.
His first concern was a hangar, a place for keeping the aircraft. And, he was unable to go out. Renting a hangar is expensive. To reduce costs, the large garden of the house was converted into a construction workshop. For months, the components of the plane were stored in various rooms of the house, in the kitchen, etc. Airplanes have very complex components. Therefore, mistakes should be avoided. Each component was painstakingly assembled with great care.
Ashok works in Ford. He says the lockdown and work from home have been a boon for assembling the aircraft. It was at that time that the avionics, wings and fuel tanks were installed. Avionics are the electronic systems in an aircraft. Fitting them was one of the biggest challenges. Avionics include communication, navigation, etc. One mistake and everything goes for a toss. But Ashok managed to overcome all that successfully. The assembling of the plane was estimated to cost Rs 1.5 crore. But as work progressed, he decided not to compromise on anything. For eg, the favourite colour was chosen. And, the final bill came to around Rs 1.8 crore. But Ashok said that the plane could fetch about Rs 2.5 crore if he decides to sell it.
The construction that started in May 2019 got completed on November 21, 2021. The engine was started for the first time in November itself. It takes three months' test flight to get a licence. The first flight was on February 7 in London for 20 minutes. Even though the construction of the aircraft was completed, the Light Aircraft Authority has to check the safety of the aircraft and issue a certificate that it is fit to fly. It took some more time. Initially permission will be given only for test flight. After 15 hours of flying with an instructor and several landings and takeoffs, one would be cleared to fly solo. Ashok completed all those hurdles before he embarked on a seven-day European trip.
The Alps block
Ashok's maiden flight was with a pilot friend. It was a group of five planes. Ashok's plane was among the three flights from the UK. The remaining two joined from Germany. From the UK, they first crossed the English Channel and went to France. They had to stop there for customs clearance. Then they took off to Germany. After going to a couple of places there, then left for Austria. From there the plan was to go to Venice in Italy. But the weather in the Alps became a problem. That's how he decided to go to Prague in the Czech Republic. From there back to the UK via northern Germany.
The freedom of having your own plane is great. There is no need to wait for the flight; one can go to the places of one’s choice and there are many more benefits. Ashok's longest journey in the plane has been 3 hours, although it can fly non-stop for up to 8 hours on a full tank of fuel. Ashok said that he was able to accept the hospitality of European pilots on his first trip.
There are thousands of such planes in Europe and they have their association too. In consultation with them, the decision regarding where all to land the plane was taken earlier. There are many airfields in the UK. They do not need any runway like big airports. A runway similar to the size of a field is enough. There are about 50 airfields in Essex County itself where Ashok. There were also many private airstrips in the places they went. Ashok said that the people there gave a very warm welcome to the plane.
The support given by his wife Abhilasha and children Tara and Diya helped in the successful completion of the building of the aircraft. Without their support and help his dream would not have come true, said Ashok. He said that the joy he felt when he travelled in his own plane was beyond words. Ashok said that the seven-day journey was to gain enough 'experience' for the flight.
Ashok came to London for higher studies in engineering. Later he settled there permanently. Having previously flown the Sling TSi aircraft and having an engineering background helped a bit. Moreover, their aircraft kit is made in such a way that anyone can assemble it. Also, one can get good support from the company. Ashok reiterated that he did not design and build his own aircraft. Mike Blyth and James Pitman are the founders of Sling Aircraft, a South African company. Ashok bought the plane designed by them as a kit. But putting the components of that kit together correctly and ready for travel is a painstaking task.
Not an easy job
Although it is said that the aircraft kit is bought and assembled, its construction is not so easy. That's why it takes a long time. Though all metal components can be fitted with nuts and bolts accurately, fibre parts and some other components must be cut and finished the buyer and made to fit. This work is not as easy as assembling furniture. That is why those who build such aircraft are called aircraft builders. The design of the aircraft, the design plan and the rest belong to Sling Aircraft. The Light Aircraft Association and the Civil Aviation Authority have a '51% rule'. They are made according to rule. This means that 51% of such aircraft should be built by the manufacturers and the rest by the kit buyers.
Sling TSi aka G-Diya
Sling TSi is a small kit aircraft manufactured by Sling Aircraft. This four-seater aircraft is the new generation of the company's Sling 4 model. The engine used in the aircraft is Rotax 915 IS, an Austrian aircraft engine. It can generate 141 hp power and can travel at a maximum speed of 148 nautical miles (275 kmph). At an altitude of 18,000 feet, it can fly up to 1630 km in one go. The maximum flight time is eight hours. It has avionics from Garmin and Garmin's own autopilot system. Ashok's G-Diya has a wingspan of 9.54 metres, length of 7.175 metres and height of 2.45 metres.