“It’s an efficient way to get around - there’s no traffic, and the routes are so direct.”

The plans for the plane he’s building are in front of Steve Semenuk, and a piece of the plane is behind him.

Photo by Candace diCarlo


Senior budget analyst, Office of Budget and Management Analysis

Length of service:
3 years

Other stuff:
Likes running, hiking and other outdoor activities, but hasn’t had much time to do them lately, thanks to this project.

Tell Steve Semenuk that he has his head in the clouds, and he might agree with you.

Ever since he was a child, he has had an interest in flying, helped along in part by his aviator uncle, who often took him along on flights. A few years ago, he acted on that interest by getting his pilot’s license.

But he soon discovered that renting airplanes limited his ability to fly when and where he wanted, and buying a factory-built plane was out of the question because of the high cost. So about a year ago, he decided to join the small but growing ranks of amateur pilots who build their own planes.

Semenuk now spends his weekends in the basement of his Wilmington home, where his “experimental” two-seat plane, a Van’s Aircraft RV-6, is slowly taking shape from a kit supplied by the designer. We asked him about his plane and his passion for flying earlier in the summer.

Q. Why is this plane called “experimental”?

A. The term goes back to a point in time when the FAA was setting rules for manufacturers to do testing of avant-garde airplanes. But it also allowed people to build their own airplanes.
   As a combination of recession and litigation and insurance prices and demographics in the aircraft industry has kind of killed the light-airplane manufacturing industry in this country, the “experimental” category of licensing has become very important. They’ve never changed the name; they probably should. It’s just a relic of the regulations.

Q. In light of the news about John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death in a factory-built plane, I can’t help but ask: Are these kit-built planes safe?

A. Their safety record in practice is the same as for production aircraft. If you’ve read much about the Kennedy accident, you’ve probably reached the conclusion most people have reached, which is that the accident was not caused by the plane, but by pilot error.
    In an airplane, there’s much less room for error. It’s very tragic, especially when other people are involved. I know I’m going to go through all the inspections and certifications before I take anyone else up in it.

Q. Do you take anyone up with you when you fly?

A. Yeah, I take kids up quite a bit. Up to this time I’ve pretty much done it only on an informal basis, because it’s difficult for me to get a rental airplane when [the local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter is] having formal events to fly kids, but when I get this airplane built, I’ll be able to participate a lot more in the formal “Young Eagles” events [sponsored by the EAA] where we take kids for rides all day for free.

Q. What’s the furthest you’ve flown?

A. I’d say it’s about 400 miles. I’ve flown as far south as Kitty Hawk, N.C., and I’ve flown up the coast to Rhode Island, and this summer I’ll probably be taking a trip up to Maine.
    One of the things that’s always attracted me to flying is that, especially in the crowded East Coast, it’s an efficient way to get around — there’s no traffic, and the routes are so direct. For example, when we lived in Washington, we could fly to Kitty Hawk in two hours, and a typical car on a lucky traffic day would take seven to eight hours to do the same trip.

Q. I see some people have done amazing things with these planes, like the guy who flew his plane around the world twice. Do you have any ambitions along that line?

A. One of my big dreams is to circumnavigate the 48 states, just go around the perimeter of the country, take a week or two and kind of fly the coastline, as much as I can. There’s some military airspace in a couple of areas that prevents you from flying the coastline the whole way, but I think that would be a real spectacular way to kind of see the map from above.

Q. If you’re flying across the country and you land at a small airport overnight and you’re looking for a place to stay, is there usually something like a motel nearby?

A. Airports typically — it’s hard to believe in this day and age, but many of these little airports have free loaner cars...or even if they don’t have a loaner car, the person who operates the airport often will drive you into town and take you to a hotel or motel and tell you about all the great little restaurants, so there’s a real friendly camaraderie at a lot of these small airports.
    Many sites allow you to camp on the field. You just take your tent with you and camp out overnight, and one other thing that a lot of pilots do is get a folding bicycle, so if you land at a small airport you can ride a couple of miles in to whatever town you’re visiting. So it’s not usually an issue of being too far from some place to stay.

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Originally published on September 16, 1999