The morning of the first flight, Jon Weiswasser feels over-the-top exhilarated, but he keeps it in check.
Ready to roll out of Hangar B8 at Leesburg Executive Airport is "the plane," his only name for the sleek, compact, RV-8 custom aircraft that he has been putting together piece by piece in his basement for three years. He completed it a couple of weeks ago. Now it's time to fly.
"Nervous," he says flatly, with no laugh to suggest otherwise.
When he left his Cleveland Park home at 6 a.m. Thursday, Weiswasser, 37, didn't tell his wife this was the day. "She thinks I came out to do some final preparations," he confesses.
Driving to the airport, he had reviewed what he would do in an emergency. "I've rehearsed in my mind all the scenarios," he says. "You know, engine failure, runway engine failure, 1,000-feet engine failure, electrical failure, fire in the cockpit. . . . I sat in the car and did with my hands what I would do."
Weiswasser's plan is to fly no more than a half-hour, staying close to the airport at an altitude of 1,000 feet.
Everybody knows what goes up must come down -- one way or the other. Weiswasser wants to come down one way only. He doesn't want to become the latest headline in the string of small-plane crashes around Leesburg airport over the past year or so.
Weiswasser is leaving nothing to chance. When you have a lovely wife and two young daughters, you don't. He has gone over the do-it-yourself plane repeatedly, obsessively. Three master mechanics combed it and found "nothing glaring." A Federal Aviation Administration inspector came out and found nothing.
He has faith -- but it is a test flight. And he's testing not only the airplane but also the orderliness of a universe that says if you follow instructions, this should work. He's testing himself.
Dressed in a navy blue flight suit, Weiswasser pulls the plane out of the hangar, the aluminum skin glistening in the morning sun. "So here we are!" he yells over the roar of a Learjet taking off. "Ready to go!"
At 8:24 a.m. he climbs into the cockpit and straps himself in. He pulls a headset on, studies a checklist, revs the engine, pulls the cockpit canopy closed and taxis to the runway.
With wing lights flashing, engine roaring, defying the same gravity the Wright brothers defied a century earlier, Weiswasser picks up speed and lifts off the ground.
When he started thinking about building an airplane, Weiswasser, a vascular surgeon at Veterans Medical Center in Northwest Washington, was already an experienced pilot. But all he'd ever put together was Ikea furniture. And that barely got off the ground.
He decided to convert the basement of his 101-year-old Cleveland Park home into an aeronautical workshop. That is where the project began three years ago.
One afternoon last March, he is there wearing jeans and a leather tool belt and looking as much like a surgeon as the cable guy. Helping him is Chuck Shuman, assistant chief of surgery at Veterans and Weiswasser's boss. He confirms that his colleague really does operate on aneurysms and isn't some nut case building a 1,000-pound airplane in his basement.
On the tool table are 200 pages of instructions and 60 pages of blueprints from the airplane manufacturer, Van's Aircraft. It's almost like paint-by-numbers, except when you're done you don't just hang it on your wall.
Weiswasser researched this home-built airplane as if it were a new surgical procedure. "There is no airplane you can buy, with the exception of certain World War II vintage planes, that have the same level of performance, design and safety," he says.
Propped against the wall are the wing sections, totaling 17 feet, and the tail sections. The vertical stabilizers and rudder are across the room. The fuselage is clamped upright in the middle of the basement where Weiswasser used to keep his drum set, and where his daughters once played. "My lease on this room is rapidly expiring," he quips.
The basement has been dedicated to the plane since four months after they moved here from Manhattan, where Weiswasser had attended New York University Medical School. That was September 2001. He was taking his oral boards in Baltimore when the terrorists attacked.
Maybe he decided life's too short, but as soon as he found out he passed his boards, he ordered the tail kit.
Van's RV-8 kit is designed so you build the least expensive and easiest part -- the tail -- first. "If you get by it," says Weiswasser, "you take some iota of confidence into buying and building the next part. If I can't pick up the skills to make the tail, you've only lost $1,500."
The plane's basic price is $16,000 -- not including the engine ($10,000 to $40,000) or the gauges and meters or the tools. Weiswasser is coy about the total cost. He hasn't spelled it out to his wife. Once the plane is flying, he says, "the market value will be roughly twice what I put into it, and it'll be worth about $140,000 to $150,000."
Anyone with the bucks, time and a few skills can build an airplane. No approval needed, he says. "You could buy a MiG tomorrow. There was a F-18 for sale on eBay. There's no law that say you couldn't buy that."
According to the Experimental Aircraft Association, the number of home-built airplanes is increasing by about 1,000 each year. Van's Aircraft is the largest manufacturer. It has sold 2,000 RV-8s in the seven years the kit has been in production; 500 of them are flying.
Tom Green, president of Van's Aircraft, estimates that 80 percent of the planes started are finished and take from 18 to 30 months of spare-time work. "It really isn't that hard," says Weiswasser, whose "total build time" clocked in at 2,188 hours over 580 days.
As a surgeon, he was worried about using power tools at first. He didn't want to injure his hands and, of course, he drilled through a finger early on. "You can't even see it anymore, but it went in here and out here," Weiswasser says, indicating the top of a finger. "That hurt."
Footsteps come down the stairs.
"Hi, sweetie!" Weiswasser calls out to his wife, Liz, who peeks at the progress.
They've been married 11 years. She's a lawyer and a partner in the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges. She wasn't all that enthusiastic when he announced before their wedding that he was going to take flying lessons. He has since earned a half-dozen pilot ratings -- including instructor, seaplane, acrobatics and commercial pilot -- and flown more than 1,000 hours. She was reluctant, too, when he decided to build his own airplane, but she knows he's not a pie-in-the-sky guy. "He does not have a bigger fan," she says. "He does stuff like this. He's a great surgeon, he plays all his piano music by ear, and he can build something like this."
That hasn't stopped her from setting rules: "I won't go on the plane. My girls and my dog don't go on the plane," she says, seriously.
Says Weiswasser just as seriously: "The number one necessity to build an airplane is to have a saint for a wife."
Weiswasser built a small workbench supplied with little tools so his daughters, Rachel, 6, and Sarah, 8, could hammer and saw. "They're just so proud of this," says Liz. "All the kids in their school know. Everyone knows he's building it. And they'll tell their teachers and their teachers think it is some little model airplane."
Rachel explains: "They said, 'I never saw an airplane in a basement!' But they never came down here."
Adds Sarah, "My friend's dad is building a model rocket."
Weiswasser says that from the time he was his daughters' age, he has dreamed of flying. He never glued together model airplanes because he wanted to make a real one. At 10, growing up in the District, he ordered brochures from private airplane companies and he'd mock up "flight simulators" and play pilot. When traveling by plane with his parents, he'd head to the cockpit for another airline wings pin.
Why didn't he become a pilot instead of a doctor? "Go ask my parents, I don't know," says Weiswasser, whose father, Stephen, is a D.C. lawyer, and mother, Sandra, is a Montgomery County teacher.
Laughing, Shuman says: "We're Jewish! You got to be a lawyer or doctor!"
So why not just fly? Why build a plane? "A big misperception people have when they hear that somebody is building an airplane is, 'How could you trust yourself to do something like this?' " he says. "But I've seen enough sloppy mechanical work to know I could do better. If I can fix an aneurysm, I should be able to pack my own parachute, and be my own quality control in flying."
After the initial rush of the takeoff and the first couple of laps, the flight looks monotonous from the ground. Weiswasser is flying above the airport in ever-widening circles at about 1,500 feet.
Practical, nothing fancy, this is a test.
But what strange things must fly through one's mind taking a homemade bucket of rivets and aluminum up 1,500 feet at almost 200 mph for the very first time.
At 9:26 a.m., about 50 minutes after takeoff, Weiswasser brings the plane in for a landing. Except for one bounce, it's smooth. He taxis back to the hangar and nearly leaps out of the cockpit.
"All right! That was great!" he says, ebullient. "It flies like a dream!"
He's like the poem about the kid who was so happy he had "to run backward to keep from flying." He can't stop with the exclamations: "Boy, what a treat! Boy, that was fun!"
And then he slows down as it sinks in.
"Ahhh, I'm glad that's over," he says with a sigh.
The test taken, the faith affirmed, the plane flew, the pilot survived. He'll be able to tell Liz and the girls that, after all of that, three years in the making, it worked. To tell them himself.
"I've never tested an airplane before," he says, finally admitting to himself how risky it was. "Maybe Chuck Yeager looks forward to that, but I don't."