A lifelong plane hobby

Dennis Harbin’s interest in airplanes began with building model airplanes with his father in their hometown of Flint, Michigan. Their focus then grew toward larger projects after the two of them joined the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1963.

They decided to build their own plane and purchased a set of plans for a Fly Baby, a single pilot aircraft designed by Peter Bowers in 1962. 

“It was like building a big balsa model airplane, which we knew quite well,” Harbin said.

The Harbins began construction on their plane in January of 1964, building the fuselage in their basement. The plans they’d ordered came with step-by-step instructions to allow them to easily follow along.

“You’re making one part at a time, so the thing you had to figure out is how to make that next little part, as opposed to how to really build an airplane,” Harbin said. “Building an airplane is just a matter of building all the parts and putting all the parts together.”

Whenever designing or making a part stumped them, the Harbins turned to their fellow EAA members for help. The plane came together over the next two-and-a-half years and was completed in June of 1966. All told, the Harbins put in 1,700 hours of work and spent $1,750 on the project.

The Fly Baby’s first outing after being finished was at the Rockford Fly-In in Rockford, Michigan. Neither Dennis or his father had their pilot lisence at the time, so they couldn’t fly the plane at the show, but Bowers, the original designer of the Fly Baby, was there with his plane and agreed to take their plane for a test flight. 

Harbin, who now lives at Blue Ridge Shores, still owns the Fly Baby and keeps it in a hanger at the Gordonsville, airport. It’s undergone several changes over the years, but is still in flying condition.

Probably the most noticeable change to the plane since it was first built is the wings. In 1976, Ernie built a set of biplane wings for the Fly Baby, adapting it from the original monoplane design. 

“My dad likes the look of the biplane, which I’ll admit is kind of cool, but when you’re flying, [the top wing] blocks your view,” Harbin said.

Harbin recently finished performing a series of repairs on the Fly Baby, making sure everything is in good condition. The biplane design inspired Harbin to repaint the plane to resemble those flown by the 103rd Aero Squadron, an American pursuit squadron based in France during World War I.

Keeping with WWI tradition, Harbin named the plane Ernie II, after his father. Ernie hasn’t seen the completed design yet, and plans to take it to Wisconsin for the annual air show in Osh Kosh, Wisconsin for him to do so fell through, but Harbin hopes to make it out there next year.

In addition to the Fly Baby, Harbin is working to rebuild two other airplanes: A 1947 Cessna 140 and a 1926 Waco Nine. As with the Fly Baby, Harbin makes the parts for both as he’s building them. The process for both is going slowly, but Harbin doesn’t mind.

“I like working on them,” he said. “I like the challenge of figuring out how to do these things and trying to learn how to do it so that it’s done well.”

Which isn’t to say that Harbin doesn’t get some enjoyment out of flying. In total, he’s logged 850 flight hours.

“I like looking at the world [from up there],” he said. “If you go over in the valley on a calm evening, flying along a mountain ridge, about 200 feet off of the ridge with the ridge even with you, you see things no one else gets to see.”

To help fund the repairs on his three projects, Harbin makes and sells parts for planes to other people who are building their own aircraft. He takes pride in making them as close to the original design as possible. 

“I try to do everything where I have documentation or original parts that I can work from, so I can figure out how to make parts for people,” he said.

Making and selling the parts provides the income for Harbin’s airplane projects, but a lack of funds and the resulting increase of time hasn’t taken any enjoyment out of the process for Harbin.

“I get a lot of satisfaction out of it,” Harbin said. “I think it’s like someone who does carpentry or...people who sit and knit all day and stuff like that. I think there’s a lot of fun in actually making the stuff.” 

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