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Wed, Oct. 23

Retired rocket scientist now builds lightweight planes for the fun of it

Ralph Slavik, a retired rocket scientist who worked for NASA, still works on aircraft – only now he does it in the "living room" of the former Stuckey's Restaurant where he now lives.

Slavik, who also worked for the Federal Aviation Administration before his stint as an aerospace engineer at the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, now builds lightweight planes in his spare time.

The Kolb Aircraft "Firefly" model he is presently working on doesn't have wings yet, but Slavik is confident that this ultralight plane will fly, unlike the previous one he built.

"I designed the other plane myself," Slavik said.

"I don't know if that was a good thing."

Slavik started his former project from scratch in 1997, and although it passed the "taxi" test the small plane never made it off the ground.

"I have worked in research and development all my life," he said.

"The research shows you the design can work, but the real work is in the development."

He continued revising the plane, including the nose wheel, shock absorbers and landing gear, but finally abandoned the project in 2000.

"This plane is a kit, so I know it will fly, but my heart is not into it like the other," he said of the ultralight he started last year.

Slavik works on the plane in the former Stuckey's building he shares with his wife, Evelyn.

The couple met at a TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) meeting after Slavic moved to Kingman in the early 1980s.

They married and moved to the building in 1983.

"We still run into kids who say they used to work here when it was a Stuckey's.

It was a restaurant, gift shop and gas station.

The restaurant was one of many Stuckey's chain of restaurants around the country.

Their trademark was a pecan log."

He said the restaurant closed in 1979 when Interstate 40 opened, taking the traffic away from Route 66.

But the large, open building gave Slavic the perfect opportunity to begin building ultralight planes.

He started with a two-seater he built with someone in 1993, and then took a computer-assisted design class at Mohave Community College.

The planes are of lightweight material, and a pilot's license is not required if the maximum speed of the vehicle is 62 mph or less and the plane weighs no more than 254 pounds empty.

Slavik, who has had four bypass surgeries, said he has a pilot's license and would like to build a larger plane, but rigid FAA medical standards have prevented him from getting the medical certificate to legally fly larger planes.

However, that may change soon.

After years of lobbying, Slavik and other pilots of lightweight planes may soon be able to apply for a sport pilot license, which would allow them to fly planes that are heavier than ultralights and carry a passenger.

The requirements for a sport pilot license are less stringent and include self-certification and a vehicle driver's license, Slavic said.

"I climbed the Grand Canyon from the north to the south rim," he said.

"Yet they told me I couldn't fly.

The medical certificate has grounded a lot of good pilots."

Slavic said the sport pilot license may be available as early as January.

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