By Mark Pensenstadler, EAA 9030636
This piece originally ran in the November 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
I started my initial flight training while still in high school. On the day I left for basic training in the U.S. Air Force, I bought my first issue of Kitplanes magazine, and I was hooked. The dream of building my own airplane had to wait a few years, as it wasn’t until I’d left the Air Force and landed a job as a first officer at a regional airline that I decided to make it happen.
I built a RANS S-10, then a RANS S-6S, started an RV-7 project, and then sold that and bought a Cherokee 160 so I had something to fly. The Cherokee was nice, but it just didn’t compare to flying an aircraft that I built with my own two hands. So the search for another kit began.
Based on my experience with the RV, I knew I wanted aluminum construction. I also wanted a high wing and two side-by-side seats, and I thought at some point I might want to mount it on a set of floats. Those requirements led me to the Zenith Aircraft Co. factory in Mexico, Missouri, to pick up my new CH 750 Cruzer kit.
Construction of the Zenith started in my unheated two-car garage in the middle of winter in Michigan. I spent many cold days and nights building. Compared to the RV, the Cruzer was an easy kit to assemble. I’m a big fan of the pulled rivets because they are simple, quick, and quiet and can be pulled by one person with a manual or pneumatic squeezer. There’s no need to wait for a busy friend to make time to come over and help rivet.
I had the tail pieces, wings, and part of the fuselage built when I bought a house at an airpark with a large hangar. So the whole project was loaded on a trailer and moved to my new workshop and home. The first thing I did was install radiant heat in the hangar to make a comfortable work environment.
The Cruzer was an absolute joy to build. There were challenges and frustrations of course, but anytime I had questions or an issue with a part, I called Roger Dubbert (Zenith’s chief pilot and all around go-to guy) and he solved the problem. The factory support from Zenith is outstanding, which is a huge benefit to new builders as well as experienced ones.
I don’t think anyone builds a Zenith airplane because they want the fastest airplane in the world, but I still wanted to get the most speed out of the given airframe as possible. This meant aerodynamically cleaning up certain areas of the airframe with custom-made fiberglass fairings. I may not have gained any speed advantage from the fairings, but they sure clean up the airplane aesthetically, and they were a great learning experience to craft them.
People always ask me why, after spending 20 years in the Air Force, I gave my airplane a Navy scheme. When the Blues performed at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2017, I was so impressed with their precision and professionalism that I became an instant fan. So I thought what better way to honor the men and women of the Blue Angels who serve this country and to motivate current and future service members than to build a tribute airplane? Specifically, my airplane is dedicated to the memory of No. 6 solo pilot Capt. Jeff Kuss.
Before the first flight, I bought and followed the EAA Flight Test Manual and Flight Test Cards. The airplane performed nicely on the first flight, and I found the handling light on the controls like most light-sport airplanes. The visibility in all directions out of the Zenith Cruzer is simply amazing. I noticed no tendency for it to drop a wing as I slowed and approached airspeeds near stall. The cruise speed was a little slower than I expected, but fine-tuning the Whirlwind ground-adjustable prop over a few test flights dialed in the perfect setting. I’m now seeing cruise speeds of 120 mph true airspeed at 2800 rpm. Climb rates are still around 1,000 fpm at 65 mph. This airplane is powered by a 130 hp ULPower 350iS engine that runs smooth and strong.
Building this airplane was an immensely enjoyable process. There are challenges along the way, but the real rewards are overcoming those challenges with creative solutions. I enjoyed building this kit so much that I now have a CH 750 Super Duty kit on order, and I will continue to share my experiences on my “Kitplane Enthusiast” YouTube channel. Making videos is my way of motivating potential builders and showing ordinary people that it’s absolutely possible to build an airplane.