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Poplar Bluff man builds own planes
POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Richard Bowie isn't exactly one of the Wright brothers, but he does build his own airplanes.
He may not go down in history like Amelia Earhart, either, but he has gotten lost in the sky before.
Bowie is a local legend because he has a 2,000-foot landing strip in his yard on U.S. 60 between Poplar Bluff and Dexter, Mo.
He got his license to fly almost 25 years ago and built his first aircraft in 1996.
Having a need for speed, Bowie, also a motorcycle enthusiast, said he was born with a sense of adventure.
For 24 years he was in a railroad bridge gang that traveled to different states and built trestles.
Tired of driving all the time, it occurred to him one day, as his crew was stationed outside of an airport in Sparta, Ill., to take up flying lessons.
Fast-forwarding to last decade, Bowie delved deeply into research and purchased his first airplane construction kit.
A few years of assemblage and the Volkswagen motor was in place on the entry-level pylon racer and the foldable fiberglass wings were ready for lift.
"Back in the day you had to put together every piece," Bowie said. "Today you can get some of the components such as the wings already assembled."
Bowie's pilot friend J.D. Lawson offered some confirmation. "Richard turned every bolt and nut in them."
The two aviators were standing next to three kit-built aircraft outside of Bowie's hanger at the Poplar Bluff Municipal Airport on a recent windy day.
For Bowie and Lawson, there seemed to be myriad memories fused inside the composite material of each plane, the way they admired the contraptions. The first aircraft they discussed was called a Comp-Air 8.
They put 4,500 hours of labor in it and in return have gotten to fly as far as Salt Lake City, they said.
They reminisced about the time they were coming back from Key West, Fla., 60 feet over water, while the moon was coming up behind them and the sun set before them.
They couldn't describe it in words, but their eyes glistened as they stood before a six-seater with a 660-horsepower turbine engine capable of a 225-mile per hour cruise rate.
It cost about a quarter-million dollars to build, they estimated.
When they were ready to move on to the next aircraft, deciding to keep the rest of the stories between them and the heavens above, Bowie took position in front of another plane, the red Sonerai 2, which is only his weekend knockabout, he said.
It seats two, reaches a stabilized speed of 130 miles per hour and was designed for loops, rolls, hammerheads and other aerobatics. It was built without a global positioning system.
"You need to use a map, compass and a watch to travel in it," Bowie said.
The pilot paused and looked inside. "I've had quite a few adventures," he said.
Drifting off course
Flying by compass doesn't factor in wind shifts, he continued, which makes it easy to throw a pilot off course.
When the visibility is bad, Bowie was taught to make out a ground reference, such as a body of water or a large manmade structure.
"The main thing I was always told is to just fly by the nearest water tower to learn the name of a city," Bowie said. "The first time I tried that the tower read, 'Water District 13.'"
Technology has since superseded the original aircraft, but it's the only one Bowie keeps concealed in his private hanger at home.
His latest project, the RV-10, has a state-of-the-art GPS designed to gauge a multitude of conditions, he said.
The satellite captures approach, weather, wind speed, altitude, terrain and climb rate. When on autopilot it can practically fly itself, he said.
"Its voice animates and gets pretty radical when ignored," said Bowie, who smiled toward the newly built aircraft as if it were an old friend. "These homebuilt aircrafts nowadays have better avionics than jets."
Before he started building airplanes for a hobby, he bought a small aircraft already manufactured that he later crashed. It's the plane that can be seen fastened atop Bullwinkles lodge on Route T.
"It's a constant reminder for me," he said.
He recalled he couldn't clear a patch of treetops and dropped 40 feet to the ground after running out of gas in midflight.
"That's the short story," he said, and didn't say anything more about it except that he walked away without injury.
He said there isn't a need to parachute from a homebuilt aircraft if the engines give because it can be slowed down to about 50 miles per hour.
With a look of assurance, Bowie gazed at the horizon.
Bowie's second home will forever remain above the clouds, along with the souls of famous aviators who paved the way by inventing a means of travel minus the pavement.