Homebuilt Airplane, a Trip to the Past for Jet Aviation Tech Tom Braun

 - April 5, 2014, 3:10 AM
Homebuilder Tom Braun estimates that his Steen Skybolt is nearly identical to the one his grandfather built in the early 1980s. The aircraft is more than 75 percent complete and moving toward a first flight next year.

The NTSB report of the 1985 accident is sparse, noting only that the aerobatic airplane lost altitude and crashed after entering a roll approximately 100 above the ground. Then-11-year-old Tom Braun, who was a passenger, doesn’t remember much about the impact that claimed his father’s life and destroyed the scratch-built Steen Skybolt. A third-generation pilot, Braun today works as a sheet-metal technician at Jet Aviation’s St. Louis MRO and completions facility. His grandfather, who served as a B-26 pilot during World War II, spent years building the Skybolt from plans in his Swansee, Ill. garage. Braun is nearing completion of his own near-identical Skybolt in the very same garage, drawing on his 20 years of experience in the aircraft maintenance industry.

On that fateful May day, Braun recalls watching other family members getting a ride in the approximately one-year-old biplane, which he had ridden in previously, with his father performing aerobatic maneuvers at the controls. When he asked his grandfather for his turn, his grandfather told Braun’s father to take him up. The NTSB lists the probable cause of the crash as simply “Clearance…misjudged…pilot-in-command.” Braun described himself as being “knocked silly, but not knocked out,” and suffered a compound fracture in his arm as well as lacerations and scrapes to his legs that required plastic surgery to repair, and a two-week hospital stay.

Yet he flew again. “The first time I went up after the wreck I was scared, but after the first handful of times it receded and then went away,” he told AIN. Braun eventually earned his own pilot’s license.

He found the original plans for the Skybolt and decided to re-create it because of the happy memories he had of his father and grandfather and the airplane his grandfather built. “Like any hobby, you start with one piece, it keeps getting bigger and you just want to finish it,” said Braun, who started working on the Skybolt several years after the accident. Over the years he’s lost count of how many hours he has spent on its construction, stating that he puts in a couple of hours a during the week, and more on weekends, when life doesn’t get in the way.

He estimates the aircraft is now more than 75 percent complete. The only components he bought are the engine, propeller, landing gear and canopy. By the end of the year, Braun hopes to complete the wiring and plumbing and fire up the engine. Next year he plans to build and attach the upper wing. While his anticipated completion deadline has come and gone several times, he expects to have the aircraft ready to make its first flight next year, 30 years after the crash. As he sits on the taxiway, visions of his grandfather’s airplane are sure to appear. “I can’t imagine what I’ll be thinking or feeling,” said Braun. “I’ll probably just be overwhelmed and start having tears of joy in my eyes.”