High achiever: Retired engineer Roger Frankish with the kit plane he is building.
At 2am on a weekday in June, the lights of an Eltham back room were still ablaze. Inside, Roger Frankish was busy crafting a fibreglass detail for the windscreen of his ultralight aircraft. Despite the chill from the door being ajar, the 69-year-old kept going until it was complete.
“I planned to finish it during the day, but I went out,” he says. “When I returned, I thought if I don’t get it done before I go to bed, I wouldn’t be able to continue tomorrow because it won’t be set.”
For the past 13 months, Frankish has been constructing a Quad City Challenger II. He bought the $13,000 recreational aircraft kit from its Illinois manufacturer and spent a further $7000 on the motor and propeller – smaller amounts have since been outlaid on sandpaper and paint.
To house the tandem-seat plane, the retired mechanical engineer built a 2.4-metre x 7-metre aluminum trailer, which is parked at the rear of his townhouse. Inside it, a circular rotating frame supports the Challenger’s body, while details such as its panel of instruments, which will command it to a maximum speed of 156km/h, are added. Once the aircraft is finished, its wings will be fastened to the trailer’s inside walls and the caravan-like structure (complete with lights) will become its mobile hangar.
Despite his seemingly unusual hobby, Frankish insists he is not unique. He says he knows of many others building their own planes.
“I could take you to two other planes being built at home,” he says, “both within 10 minutes of here. It’s a growing hobby, particularly Stateside, where an American company boasts that a completed kit plane is airborne every day. But it’s not that big in Australia, yet.
“Aside from the challenge, one of the most endearing aspects of building a plane is the outlet for craftsmanship. On top of that, it evokes the anticipation of adventure and a nostalgia for barnstorming aviation.”
Frankish’s love for flying began in 1946, where at Northolt Airport, 11 kilometres from his home in Ruislip, England, he hung on the fence and watched Lancaster bombers and Spitfires taxi. For a small boy, the din of acceleration was exhilarating.
His father, Francis, was also a flying fanatic and built Roger a plane; its fuselage was a barrel and it had wooden wings and a tail.
“I spent a lot of time in it,” he says. “It had two Bakelite switches; they were the only controls. They made ‘click, click’ sounds when you moved them, but I had no idea what a real plane had in it anyway.”
Following the Battle of Britain in 1940, Francis Frankish was keen to join the air force. His skills in optics were valued over his manpower, and so he was granted a reserved occupation. Soon, he became attached to the Royal Air Force at Northolt, where he processed air-gun film and repaired cameras. But before he was demobilised in late 1946, he had an interlude with royalty.
“One day King George VI arrived unannounced,” recalls Roger. “He was a photographic enthusiast and wanted to see the camera facilities. Dad was on duty and they had a chat. Dad reckoned it was his 15 minutes of fame.”
After the war Francis became a “Ten-Pound Pom”, packing up his wife, two children and four suitcases, and departing for Australia in May, 1949. The family initially settled in Thornbury.
While Australia spelled a new life for Frankish, the roar of Northolt Airport’s bombers was firmly imprinted and he dreamed of becoming an air-force pilot. At 14 he joined the Air Training Corps in Preston, from which cadets could enlist in the Royal Australian Air Force. Such was Frankish’s excellence he was awarded a scholarship, but the basic private pilot training it promised (which included flying in a Tiger Moth) could not be realised after a medical revealed a vision problem in his right eye.
Frustrated by the setback, he studied engineering at Footscray Institute of Technology (now Victoria University). Two subjects short of qualifying, in 1969 he was offered a job in Sydney, where he worked for 10 years. When he finally returned to Melbourne, he repeated the final year of his course.
“After my final exam, I drove from Footscray to Whittlesea Flying School and took my first flying lesson,” he says. “It was a complete adrenalin rush, and exceeded my imagination. I got my private pilot’s licence in 1974 for a single-engine aeroplane, and for 10 years just flew for fun.”
By the time Frankish retired in 2008, he had been awarded two worldwide patents for furniture-related designs. He had also enjoyed 10 years of recreational hang gliding and had accrued more than 156 hours of recorded flying time. Once office life ended, the notion of building and flying his own plane became possible; he now had both the time and money.
Parallel to his own passion for aviation, in 2003 Frankish built a miniature Spitfire Grey Nurse for his then 3½-year-old grandson, Daniel. Designed in the computer program AutoCAD, he made the mould and cast it in fibreglass. It took 2½ years to build, and in 2006 he made another, for his six-year-old grandson, Mitchell. Operated by foot pedals and powered by a battery, the original was painted in the Grey Nurse livery of Darwin fighter ace Bobby Gibbs.
On Anzac Day, Mitchell powered it in the Montmorency-Eltham RSL parade to commemorate his family’s record of service: his (maternal) great-grandfather had been a wireless air gunner in Darwin. Mitchell also wore his relative’s medals.
As of June, Frankish deems himself three months behind schedule – the death of his wife in May last year overrode the project, and a new relationship has meant time away from the garage.
In September, Frankish will travel to Canada, where he will record flying time in a Challenger. On his return, he plans to re-activate his private pilot’s licence and he hopes to have his clipped-wing craft finished by the year’s end. Once that is accomplished, a technical counsellor from the Sport Aircraft Association of Australia (to which he belongs) will inspect it for a restricted certificate of airworthiness. The assessment will dictate the flying hours required to prove the airplane before he can take passengers.
But Frankish hopes to become more than just a pilot. “I’d like to do aerobatics,” he says. “I can do the most basic stunts like chandelles, but I have never rolled a plane over. I believe that being able to do aerobatics could only make me a safer pilot.”
Undeterred by recent small-plane crashes, he views flying as safer than driving, saying the aerial hobby tends to be “98 per cent boredom, 2 per cent sheer terror”. For Frankish, being airborne is freedom.
“Only God and other flyers can experience the view from up there,” he says. “I have soared thousands of feet up and been three metres away from an eagle.
“For some people it’s too much adrenalin to look at an aeroplane and imagine what it’s going to be like, but for me, flying at the level I do, it’s just the right amount.”