Need to Get Away? Why Not Build An Airplane

Photo: Mark Reed via KPLU.
Photo: Mark Reed via KPLU.

Most of us are firming up our summer plans right about now. For one Seattle family, that means getting their home-built plane ready for their annual trip to the most isolated parts of Alaska.

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For about 11 months of the year, Mark Reed and his wife Chris Buchanan live in Ballard. They recently moved into a fixer-upper.

“The house is still a work in progress,” Buchanan jokes.

The other month of the year, they spend in Alaska. Their home there is a tent they pitch wherever they’re able to land their plane. They drink water filtered from a stream. They eat fish they catch themselves. They’ve been hooked on that wide open space ever since their first trip up in 2008.

“We were traveling over terrain pretty soon into our trip where we couldn’t see a town or settlement or even a road outside of any of the windows.”

They let the weather dictate their way – if it’s clear, they can make it to places few humans get a chance to go – the northernmost reaches of Alaska – Prudhoe Bay, the Brooks Range, the Colville River. Their means of transportation is kept in a hanger at Paine Field.

“And this is the machine,” Reed says.

It’s a single-engine prop plane, canary yellow, a bit longer than a Subaru Outback.

“And the wings are riveted aluminum here. There’s thousands of rivets in there. Lots and lots of hours of riveting,” Reed says. He did all the riveting himself.

Reed built it from a kit but added lots of customization – mostly to make the plane safer. He has three GPS’s and two electrical systems.

When asked what it was like to take the plane up for the first time, Reed said it was a hoot.

“There’s a certain amount of trepidation. I’d spent almost 3,000 hours building it. I didn’t have too many doubts about it. But you are a test pilot and that first flight is always an exciting one. It’s always something to celebrate when it’s done.”

Reed has always loved making things – especially things that go up in the sky. In college, he taught himself how to make technical, high-end kites – you know, the kind that do flips in the air. He turned that into a business called Prism Designs. About a decade ago, he reached a point where things were going well, but he felt a little bored.

“When that happens for me it’s always been helpful to think about what would you be doing if you could be doing anything at all and time and money was no object and one day that idea popped into mind, and the idea was to build an airplane and fly it to the northernmost point in Alaska and fly it to the southernmost point in South America.”

Buchanan adds, “There’s an assumption that this is a mad idea that my husband had that I somehow had to be convinced to go along with and my friends who know me are just as likely to think the idea came from me.”

They share an adventurous spirit. Reed already had his pilot’s license, and Buchanan got hers too. After their first trip, they decided they wanted to go to Alaska every year and they ditched the South America idea.

“We really had our minds blown by the experience of being in that landscape,” Reed says.

Two years after that trip, their daughter was born.

I asked if things changed when Rachel arrived. “Did you guys have to have a conversation about oh are we going to keep doing this?”

“No, that was not a conversation for us,” Reed says.

They just installed an Evenflo kids’ car seat in the back of the plane. They rejiggered what they take to accommodate kid gear. Some necessities these days include Dum Dum lollipops and a few stuffed animals. The trips are special for Rachel, too.

Picking blueberries, she says, is her favorite thing about Alaska.

I’m fascinated by that. I have kids, and sometimes I feel almost paralyzed by fear about the dangers that exist. When they climb too high in a tree, I get freaked out. It’s hard to imagine taking them to isolated parts of Alaska in a small plane. But I admire it. It’s all about teaching kids to jump into life with both feet.

Buchanan and Reed want their daughter to experience how amazing our planet is.

“There’s something to be said for appreciating the scale of the world that you live in and it shouldn’t be scary,” Buchanan says.

Making good judgments is another thing they want to teach Rachel. They plan extensively before each flight. That is how they handle the risks of flying in Alaska – the massive mountains, the unforgiving weather.

“You spend a lot of time looking pretty far ahead of the airplane trying to think about what could happen next, what you may be headed toward next and what you’re going to do about it,” Reed says.

That means not just having a plan B — but plans C, D, E and F. Still, flying’s not the only risk, there’s also wildlife. They’ve seen plenty of bears. But animal encounters can also be magical. Once, a curious caribou spent a long time watching them fly a kite and then slowly moved toward them.

“That caribou just decided it was time to come check it out and see what was going on with this colorful thing in the air and these strange bipeds on the ground,” Buchanan remembers.

It sounds amazing.

“I’m going to have you put this on. This is a life vest,” Reed says.

And that’s why, when Reed asks me if I want to go up with him in his plane, I agree. I’m a little nervous. And I’m kicking myself for not buying life insurance like I’ve been meaning to. But if it’s safe enough for them to take their kid in the plane, I decide to chill out.

“It’s the survival gear that we typically like to travel with,” he says.

“Do I need to know how to use this?”

“Rudimentary stuff.”

We climb into the plane. It’s not roomy.

“Clear!” Reed says.

It feels teensy compared to the giant Boeing triple seven rolling down the runway before us. I’m feeling pretty calm, I know Reed is a careful guy. But then I see a sign on the dashboard.

“I just noticed this passenger warning,” I tell him. “This aircraft is amateur built and does not comply with federal safety regulations for standard aircraft.”

Reed says, relax. He says the plane actually exceeds a lot of those regulations. We get the go-ahead from the control tower and take off.

Sinatra is playing in the background…. “come fly with me… let’s fly, let’s fly.”

If you’re used to flying in a jet, being in a small plane feels almost like you’re hardly moving. Reed says we’re flying 140 miles per hour. It doesn’t feel like it. It’s mesmerizing to see Seattle landmarks from above – there’s Husky Stadium, there’s Gas Works Park. I can see every color of Lake Union in a way that you can’t from a boat. Then Reed says, do you want to take the controls? I don’t want to be a chicken, but I’m anxious. I lightly push the stick forward and the nose dips. I bank the plane slightly to the right and slightly to the left and after 30 seconds, I tell him I’ve had enough.

Back on the ground, Reed loads up for a weekend trip. They don’t just take their plane to Alaska, they often head to the San Juan Islands. This is a familiar routine. City life is what can feel hard now and then.

“Sometimes birthday parties are a little challenging,” Buchanan jokes.

Come July, they won’t have to worry about a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Instead, they’ll be monitoring the weather in Alaska and figuring out good places to land their plane, and keeping an eye out for bears.