LONG WAY TO THE TOP: Richard Szlicht says building a plane has its rewards – but it’s not for the uncommitted. PHOTO GEORJA RYAN
LONG WAY TO THE TOP: Richard Szlicht says building a plane has its rewards – but it’s not for the uncommitted. PHOTO GEORJA RYAN

Richard got there on a wing and a spanner

37927: A compilation of numbers that to most means no more than exactly that.

But to Richard Szlicht, the numbers painted in yellow down the side of his aeroplane mean a whole lot more.

"It is Andy Dufresne's prison number (from The Shawshank Redemption)," Mr Szlicht said.

"To me it's a symbol to show that you can turn your life around."

And while Mr Szlicht has not been imprisoned for something he did not commit, nor are he and Morgan Freeman the best of mates, it's an attitude he takes with him through life.

What better way to spread the word than have it painted on the side of his aircraft - one that took three years and a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears to build.

As Andy Dufresne battled to get through nearly two decades in Shawshank State Prison, this Grafton plane-builder battled to get his VG Savannah STOL (short take off and landing) plane built without packing in his tools and giving up.

"When I first opened the kit, I couldn't believe I had done it to myself," he said.

"The instructions had a photo, a drawing and an explanation of each step, but each varied from the other. The plans kept drifting from bad English to Italian."

Mr Szlicht built three aircraft in the past 10 years, but it was Savannah that proved the biggest challenge. "Two or three times I seriously thought about giving up; but I didn't want to be one of those guys," he said.

Inside the 5-metre-long box were sheets of metal, 15,000 rivets and a whole lot of work ahead.

"Once I got over the daunting box, it was a series of little jobs," Mr Szlicht said.

"I would spend days up inside the plane; building compartments that I got to know people by their shoes because that's all I could see from in there."

Working full-time and trying to build a plane meant Mr Szlicht's days were jam-packed.

"I would do it on weekends, sometimes all day and at the end of the day I wouldn't have made two hours progress," he said.

While battling his own frustration, Mr Szlicht said it was the voices of others that were sometimes just as testing.

"Everyone tries to offer their advice and criticise what you're doing and then they go home and tell their wives they helped you build it!" Mr Szlicht said.

He said although he would not build another plane, the rewards from tackling such a task were one of a kind.

"You don't just commit yourself to flight; it's the whole process," he said.

"Anyone can do it, but be prepared that it can be overwhelming and incredibly time consuming.

"But sometimes, I will just sit in my hangar, having a sandwich or a coffee and I just look at my completed plane and it's a real thrill that comes with it - I built that for me.

"You almost have to stop your fingers fumbling because it's such a huge exhilaration knowing that the hard part is behind you.

If you're thinking of getting into the plane-building industry as an investment, Mr Szlicht said forget it.

"(Savannah) probably cost me $50,000 to build, but it wouldn't be worth two thirds of that to sell," he said.

So if planes are your thing and you'd like to build one of your own, brace yourself for a tough ride, but get ready for the benefits that will follow.

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