An RAFE Christmas Story
Updated: Dec 25, 2020
I’d like to share with you a story that’s perfect for the Christmas Spirit. Brian Mckinney thought he was just buying a Varieze, but in the process he discovered the true meaning of how a a Rutan design brings joy to a persons life..
My Story of N40LC by Brian McKinney
“Hello Brian? This is Lynn Coltharp”. This is what I heard in an elderly and very faint voice when I answered my phone in November of 2019…
I started a search for a Rutan canard in August 2019 just after EAA Oshkosh had ended. I've been attending Oshkosh for 20 years, and always admired the VariEze and Long-Ez designs. Being a veteran of attempting to build two homebuilt kits (both still unfinished), I knew I could never build a plane from scratch in a timely manner. A Rutan project was not in my future.
Lynn Coltharp and the Varieze he built.
I'd read and watched many of Burt Rutans publications and knew what a genius he is . In 2019, Burt returned to Oshkosh after a 4-year hiatus and I strolled into his first event of the week during his live-recorded Hal Bryant interview for Sport Aviation. Burt mentioned several of his upcoming forums and talks for the week. I attended at least 5 of them.
I had never considered buying someone else’s homebuilt. I felt uncomfortable not knowing exactly how it was built, therefore I avoided even investigating existing Rutan designs. Something in me snapped after listening to Burt and digging more into the design of the Ez’s while at Oshkosh. As I walked through the rows of various Rutan designs, all with considerable hours, I changed my mind.
I joined the canard forums, Facebook pages, and many other sources of information. I purchased the VariEze/Long-Ez plans on CD and downloaded other available documentation to study the design. Then I started the search. At first, I only considered the Long-Ez since it was the “latest” design, and there being some negative reports on some VariEze issues. However, the more I researched, I learned that the VariEze is a great design if it fits your needs, and the negatives were not all that concerning if you found a well-maintained plane.
I only have 350 hours of flying experience and 95% of my flights are solo usually for a few hours or less. I am a clear-skies pilot and fly entirely for fun. I rarely use my plane for a specific mission. The VariEze seemed a perfect fit for me.
In my 3 months of searching I narrowed down to a few that I traveled to inspect. N40LC was located in Chicago and had recently been repainted and had a new interior. It had not flown for 15 years. I spent a few hours inspecting it and could tell it was built with care and well maintained. All the concerning areas (wing attach plates, landing gear brackets, etc.) were checked and in good order. I was able to go through all the logs, build pictures, and receipts for every part.
I wanted to learn everything about N40LC. It had three previous owners but was last flown by the original builder in 2004. It changed hands from the builder to the second owner and to the third owner in only the prior 18 months. I found mailing addresses on the FAA website for the original owner and the second owner and sent letters asking for information.
The second owner called and indicated he bought the VariEze from the builder only to remove the engine and sell or scrap the airframe. He instead decided to sell the entire plane. I asked about the original builder and he indicated that he had an illness and may have passed away. He could not provide me any details of the build process or flying qualities of N40LC. He had no interest in ever flying it, as he had just wanted the engine. I became skeptical at this point as I would likely have to start over with unknowns.
I was considering a different VariEze. It was a flying airplane and had recently been given a thorough condition inspection at the JetGuys shop in Covington, TN. It had good reviews and being a current flying plane provided a sense of security. I was within a day of making an offer on this VariEze.
My phone rang. I did not recognize the area code, but I answered. “Hello Brian? This is Lynn Coltharp”. The voice was very faint and hard to understand. “I built the VariEze”. I spoke to Sherrod Lynn Coltharp for an hour. He answered every question I had and shared his entire experience of the building process and his flying adventures in the Coltharp SL VariEze (N40LC, serial number 1020). The rest of this story is as follows: Lynn was 79 years old when I spoke with him. He finished the VariEze in 1980 and accumulated 570 hours on it. The VariEze was his favorite plane he had owned, having traveled all over the US with it and several trips to Oshkosh. In 2004, Lynn decided to step back in performance and fly his Rans S-6S homebuilt. He maintained the VariEze throughout all the years, keeping it in running condition.
Lynn had developed an illness, and it was progressing in his later years. He shared with me that he “wasn’t supposed to be alive anymore”, with a slight laugh. Two years prior to our conversation, he had been given only 6 months to live. Lynn did not want to burden his family with selling off his aviation items, so he quickly setup the sale of his VariEze, Rans, and other aviation belongings. The VariEze was purchased and trailered from his airpark home. Lynn told me it could have been flown at that time, but he didn’t want an unexperienced pilot to fly it off his 2500’ strip.
Lynn told me all about the modifications he had made, the story of his accidental gear-up landing, and many other intricate details. Lynn was an engineer, and his attention to quality and detail was evident. The build pictures and logs clearly indicated a carefully built VariEze. I was convinced. We ended the conversation after an hour, and I thanked him for his time. I called and made the offer for Lynns’s Varieze that day. I made plans to pick it up and trailer it from Chicago and by the end of the week N40LC in my hangar. I was eager to get it back into flying condition.
THE 2ND CALL
A week after bringing N40LC back to Minnesota, the phone rang. “Hello Brian? This is Christy, my Dad was the VariEze owner”. She apologized and said she found my letter at her parent’s house, but her Dad (Lynn) was very ill and would likely not be able to call me. He had not spoken to many people via phone for quite some time due to the difficulties of his illness. She could not offer much information to me other than saying he “loved that plane like a child”. I responded.; “I spoke to him two weeks ago, for an hour. And I just brought his VariEze to Minnesota”. Christy was silent, somewhat shocked in disbelief. I shared the conversation, his detailed memory of the building process, his flying time in the plane, etc. She then went on to tell me about how he had not been communicating lately as his illness progressed, but she was overjoyed to hear that he called me. We spoke for a few more minutes, and I let her know I would keep Lynn up to date with my progress in getting N40LC back in the air.
I sent a few emails over the next few months as I went through his VariEze. I scanned one of the log pictures from his build process showing him glassing the wing back in 1977. She replied by email saying that Lynn, now in a assisted-living home, became quite emotional when he saw it and then smiled. Christy indicated she rarely recalled her father ever showing emotions like that. “He loved that plane!” she indicated.
By the end of April 2020, I had completed a majority of the work with the engine, electric rewiring, and other upgrades. The VariEze was ready to be transported to Covington, TN for a JetGuys condition inspection, test flight, and my first flights in N40LC. The COVID pandemic was delaying the process, but my hopes were to get it back in the air ASAP. I had wanted to get it flying, then try to arrange a flight to Oklahoma to let Lynn see his plane again. On May 2nd, 2020, I received an email from Christy, Lynn’s daughter. It read:
“My Dad passed away on Monday. Thank you for reaching out to my Dad last November. Your letter meant the world to my Dad and he was so pleased that his baby, I mean plane, landed in the hands of someone who really cared about it. Thank you for helping to make the last 6 months of his life meaningful!”
It was a difficult email to read. I only spoke with Lynn for an hour on the phone, but for the past 4 months I learned about every inch of his plane and realized how lucky I was to find his VariEze with his excellent workmanship. I responded to Christy, sending condolences. She asked for my address and sent me a box full of his remaining aviation items. She sent me his RAF practice composite bookend, an old prop spinner, various brochures and magazine articles on the VariEze, and all of his pilot log books. I am thankful to have so many valuable items related to N40LC and Sherrod Lynn Coltharp. It is a rare find.
It is November of 2020. Early last month I trailered N40LC to the JetGuys in Covington, TN. We completed some upgrades, the condition inspection, and I received transition training in the Speed Canard from Ryszard Zadow with the Rutan Aircraft Flying Experience (RAFE). Weather and schedules delayed the first flights of N40LC at that time.
I headed back down on November 4th, and Ryszard took N40LC back into the air for its first flight in 16 years. It was a great sight to see. I sent the video to Lynn’s daughter, and she was overjoyed in seeing it back in the air. She sent the video to all of her family members and Lynn’s friends. I brushed up my landings for few hours with Ryszard in the Speed Canard, and on the morning of November 5th, I soloed N40LC. It was a great day! My return trip home to Minnesota was spectacular. It was my longest cross-country flight ever, but in a VariEze with a nice tailwind, it was over before I knew it. I’m disappointed that I wasn’t be able to show N40LC to Lynn as I had hoped, but knowing that he trusted me to take care of “his baby", Brian flying the RAFE Speed Canard helps every time I open the door
and see it there waiting for me.