On a Sunday afternoon in July, Bill Cumberland eased into the cockpit of the new Skybolt biplane and strapped himself in. In a few moments, he would taxi on to the runway at Westminster Airport, rev up the engine and hurl down the tarmac. It would be the aircraft's first flight.
Was he nervous?
Not that the former airplane racer and 30-year licensed pilot had any serious qualms about the safety of the recently completed, high-performance aerobatic airplane.
But five years had passed since he and his four sons, aged 24 to 34 and each a licensed pilot, began a family project that would end with this flight: the construction of the classically styled, two-seat aircraft in the garage of his Woodbine home.
And now, with the plane finished, only one question remained to be answered: Would it fly?
"I was nervous until I pushed the throttle in for takeoff," recalls a smiling Mr. Cumberland, 64. "But it took off and flew hands-off, no problem."
The 20-minute test flight was flawless.
But the family's efforts weren't quite over. In the next few weeks, Mr. Cumberland and his sons Ted, Kelly, Curtis and Cary flew intensively as they logged 25 hours of flight time in the new plane.
Only then were they sure the aircraft was ready for its next, and ultimate, test: an 800-mile flight to Oshkosh, Wis., where the family would enter the Skybolt in competition at the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual Fly-In Convention -- the world's largest air show.
"We're very competitive and worked hard toward the goal of winning an award at Oshkosh," explains Mr. Cumberland, a longtime EAA member who has attended the convention more than a dozen times over the last 20 years. "It's the ultimate test for a home-built plane." The four sons drew straws to see who would have the honor of flying the sleek new plane to Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, which for seven days each summer is the busiest airport in the world. Cary and Curtis won the draw and flew the Skybolt to the show, while Bill and his wife, Charlene, drove to Wisconsin. Ted and Kelly, meanwhile, teamed up and flew a factory-built Piper to the convention.
The result? The plane, distinctive with its gleaming maroon and white paint job featuring sunburst designs on the wings and lightning bolts on the sides, was a showstopper.
It also earned a top honor at the convention -- the 1992 Spirit of EAA Award.
Five years of hard work -- encompassing almost every Thursday evening and a lot of weekends -- had paid off. The major award signifies the Skybolt's overall excellence in construction and the Cumberland family's "can do" attitude.
"The Spirit of EAA Award is an all-around award that recognizes the major time and financial commitment made by the Cumberlands to construct the plane," explains EAA President Tom Poberezny. "It was a unique family project, because Bill and all his sons are pilots. Plus, they flew the plane out to the show and back. It epitomizes what the EAA is all about."
The aim of the 130,000-member, 700-chapter international organization is to make aviation more accessible to the public. To meet that goal, the EAA focuses on areas of interest such as designing, building, restoring, maintaining or simply enjoying airplanes.
This year's convention, held July 31 to Aug. 6, was the largest in the EAA's 40-year history, drawing 830,000 visitors from 75 countries and 12,000 airplanes of all types. The Cumberlands competed against more than 700 home-built planes to win the award. Aircraft are judged for workmanship and quality of construction.
"Our plane really was a crowd pleaser," reports Cary Cumberland, 24. "We had to cordon it off to keep people from accidentally damaging the fabric-covered wings. People were gathered around the plane all day."
It's no surprise the compact and solidly built biplane was a hit at the huge air show: You don't have to be an airplane buff to appreciate its fine detailing and high level of craftsmanship.
"The Cumberlands' plane is a quality piece," Mr. Poberezny says. "It's the craftsmanship -- the superb paint job, the pride shown in its assembly and the little details that go beyond what the naked eye can see. Those are the things that represent the time and pride put into the construction of the airplane."
Back in Maryland and parked in front of its hangar at Westminster Airport, the Skybolt stands out from the four-seat, single-wing Cessnas and Pipers that crowd the end of a nearby runway: Only 20-feet long and with a 22-foot wingspan, the small plane looks like a meticulously-assembled model of a World War I-style biplane that's been enlarged to three-quarters size.
But don't be fooled by its modest dimensions and flawless finish. Although the Skybolt was hand built from "scratch" by the four Cumberland sons with supervision from their father, this high-performance aircraft is no toy.
A peek inside the two narrow cockpits reveals instruments such as air speed, altitude, rate of climb, and turn-and-bank indicators. Additional high-tech features include a Loran long-range navigation system and a radio receiver and transponder -- all the avionics an airplane needs to fly in controlled airspace.
Furthermore, with its 180 horsepower engine and light yet strong steel-alloy frame, the Skybolt cruises at 140 mph The aircraft is also designed and built to withstand the stresses of complex aerobatic maneuvers such as loops, rolls, spins, inverted flight and turns.
"Structurally, it's three times stronger than a normal plane," points out Cary. "There are a lot of similar, factory-built planes, but this one is built from plans -- not a kit of pre-assembled parts. We think it will stand up to any production airplane."
The Skybolt is also an aircraft with appeal to skilled pilots who put a premium on high performance. "It's agile in the air, and you have to keep it under control," notes Kelly Cumberland, 29. "The Skybolt is a little trickier to fly and land vs., say, a Cessna with tricycle landing gear. Taxiing this plane is like trying to ride a three-wheeled bicycle backward."
It's also faster than other home-built Skybolts, thanks to a few custom modifications suggested by Mr. Cumberland, who has built other high-performance airplanes. Additions such as landing-gear fairings, speed baffling around the motor, and a smooth, polished paint job boost the plane's speed by about 15 mph, Mr. Cumberland says.
Don't think, however, that a home-built, high-performance airplane such as the Skybolt comes cheap. Mr. Cumberland, a retired plumbing contractor, estimates he and his sons spent 4,500 hours and $25,000 in materials during the five years they worked on the plane.
The project also played havoc with his Woodbine home.
"We had virtually everything in the living room as we finished each part before the final assembly," he recalls, laughing. "Which made it very hard on my wife. But she enjoyed having her sons around on Thursday nights for dinner."
Asked why he committed so much time, effort and money to the project, Mr. Cumberland offers a simple answer. "I enjoy building airplanes," he replies, shrugging. "It beats wasting time in front of the TV. And it was a good family project for my sons."
For Cary, Mr. Cumberland's youngest son, constructing the airplane from plans was a good learning experience. "I helped build it because you learn so much," he says. "Now I feel I could build anything."
Building an airplane that you plan to fly yourself is the ultimate test, adds Curtis. "When you build something that you risk your life in, you don't take shortcuts," he points out. "So you do it to the best of your ability. Plus, there's the end result.
"It's just neat."
Whether you're a dedicated pilot who owns a plane or just crazy about airplanes, the Experimental Aircraft Association /^ offers a wide range of activities for aircraft enthusiasts throughout the mid-Atlantic.
The big upcoming event is the 1992 EAA East Coast Fall Festiva of Flight on Sept. 26-27 at New Castle County Airport in Wilmington, Del. The Fly-In will host 800 aircraft, more than 2,000 pilots, 50 exhibitors and expects to draw 18,000 visitors. This year's theme, "Milestones of Aviation," will feature a rare aircraft Display and individual representatives from 10 eras in the history of U.S. aviation.
For more information on this year's East Coast Fly-In, call (301 942-3309 or write: EAA East Coast Fly-In Corp., 2602 Elnora St., Wheaton, Md. 20902-2706.
Other air events include:
* World of Aviation -- Sept. 19-20 at Altoona, Pa.; (412) 846-9922.
* Third annual "Just Plane Fun" Fly-In -- Sept. 26-27, Shannon
Airport, Fredericksburg, Va.; (703) 373-4431.