Baron' Era In
BY KEN LITTLE
Dillon Hopson is one 19-year-old who can really fly.
That's not in reference to rounding the bases. Hopson, of Midway, is a licensed pilot with more than 200 flying hours to his credit.
The 2012 Greeneville High School graduate describes himself as "mechanically inclined," and recently finished building a biplane. He restored a four-seat Cessna aircraft before that.
Hopson works as a lineman at Greeneville Aviation Services and keeps both airplanes in a hangar at the airport.
On a clear day, he can sometimes be seen flying the dual-wing "Fisher Youngster" V model over Greene County.
The distinctive airplane resembles a World War I pursuit plane of the type that ruled the skies almost 100 years ago.
Some of the technology is updated, but to the eye, the airplane would be right at home in 1917. It's built on about two-thirds scale, and painted by Hopson to resemble a WWI British-made Sopwith biplane.
The Fisher Aircraft biplane is based on a 1930s German trainer design.
'LITTLE BITTY PIECES'
Hopson bought the aircraft kit for $4,500 from a man in Georgia who started assembling it but lost interest.
"It was never really finished. It was in 13 major pieces and a lot of little bitty pieces," he said.
One painstaking task involved stitching a polyfiber fabric cover on the aircraft's wood frame and wings.
"The fabric is actually stitched inside the wood in the airplane," he said.
Hopson used a 10-inch metal needle for the exacting task, which took more than 450 hand-sewn stitches.
"It's easy, but it takes a long time, and there's literally a few drops of blood," he said, holding up the long needle.
It took four months of steady work for Hopson to assemble the biplane, mount the engine, install its wing struts and controls, and get it ready for takeoff.
On May 20, Hopson donned a pair of aviator goggles, climbed into the cramped cockpit and took to the air for the first time.
"When you're out there, the wind is in your face. It doesn't get any better as far as flying goes," he said.
Like a World War I aircraft flown by the Allies, the biplane is painted a drab olive-green, with a white underside. Exterior latex was used for the paint job.
"It looks antique, and it's painted to imitate a Sopwith plane from World War I that the Allies flew," Hopson said.
Red, white and blue horizontal stripes are on the rudder. The unmistakable image affixed to the tail is "Peanuts" comic strip character Snoopy, sitting on top of his doghouse and ready to do battle with the Red Baron. The Snoopy tail art was contributed by Bob Sykes.
"It's sort of fun to think about it in World War I (terms). It was the same thing with machine guns on it and (pilots) shooting at each other."
The biplane is classified as an experimental aircraft. Many of its hoses, gauges and engine parts could be used in a car. That's not permitted on a standard airplane.
"It's light, it's simple, it's cheap and it's reliable," Hopson said. "These experimental airplanes are just as safe or more safe than a Cessna."
There are many safety features on the biplane, which incorporates dual fuel pumps and ignition systems.
It has an 18-foot wing span. Including Hopson and a full fuel tank, the airplane weighs 670 pounds.
He flies the aircraft barefoot "so you can work the pedals and the brakes," he said.
"It's very easy to fly, and it's very easy to take off and land for a tail-wheel airplane," Hopson said.
The plane "likes grass" instead of a concrete runway, Hopson said. It cruises at about 70 mph.
"It flies low and slow," Hopson said with a smile.
With its converted Volkswagen bus air-cooled engine, the airplane has a unique sound.
For someone his age, Hopson has a unique take on life. He doesn't enjoy spending time on a computer or cell phone and prefers to work with his hands.
Hopson has wanted to fly since he was a small boy. With the help of his mother, Blinda Douthat, and others, Hopson soloed at age 16 and obtained his pilot's license in January 2012.
Hopson was in the Air Force ROTC program at Greeneville High School for four years, and that "really helped" his flight aspirations, he said.
Near the biplane in a hangar at the Greeneville Municipal Airport is a 1957-model Cessna 172. The aircraft was in need of a complete restoration when Hopson received it as a gift from his grandmother, Jo Ann Douthat.
He did most of the work himself, and today the refurbished Cessna carries the name "Jo Ann" on its side.
Hopson likes to give back and interest others in flying.
"I give people rides in it," he said, motioning to the Cessna.
Hopson has provided 32 free rides in the airplane since he received his pilot's license, all to people who had never flown.
"They loved it," he said. "Everyone's really enjoyed it, to be able to see things from that perspective."
Hopson would like more people to take advantage of the services available at the Greeneville Municipal Airport, on Airport Road.
"This is the cheapest place to learn how to fly," he said. "I'd like to see a lot of people in and out of the airport again and using it and just enjoying the privilege of flying. It's very special."