In a do-it-yourself project that is definitely not for the faint of heart, Russ Kotlarek of Saukville, who is so crazy about flying he’s been a pilot since his teenage years, is building the world’s fastest single-engine seaplane.
When he was 16, Russ Kotlarek went on his first flight, a reward from a family friend for getting all A’s on his report card.
By age 18, he had his pilot’s license.
Since then, Kotlarek, who lives in Saukville, has clocked more than 3,800 hours in the air. He’s flown aerobatic planes, seaplanes, float planes, snow ski planes, twin-engine and military-style aircraft and is part-owner of a single-engine seaplane.
He flew his children — Corvan, 12, and Robin, 10 — home from the hospital after their births.
Now, Kotlarek is building what’s billed as the fastest single-engine seaplane — the Seawind by Sea Air Composites, a fiberglass and carbon-fiber plane that can reach 200 mph.
The company is planning to put it into production, but until then, the only way to get one is to build it.
Kotlarek started the project 4-1/2 years ago in his garage. He moved the plane to the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) hanger at the West Bend Airport last summer to complete it.
The first flight is planned for spring 2011.
“I’m imagining it now,” Kotlarek said.
Even without its wings — which are in his garage — or the 330-horsepower rotary engine and propeller that will be mounted on the tail wing above the cockpit, the plane is beautiful and sleek, with a fighter plane-like canopy.
“I’ve had an amphibian seaplane for many years and absolutely love it, but like anything in aviation, you want to go faster,” Kotlarek said.
This is the first plane he’s built, although he put together many model airplanes when he was a boy.
“It’s not much different. Everything I do is based on the same procedure, just on a larger scale,” he said.
It’s a bit more complicated than that. The plane arrived in pieces that Kotlarek had to trim and adjust so they fit together tightly. He bonded pieces together with an adhesive and laid strips of fiberglass over the seams. Since the pieces have a gel coating, he had to sand off the gel when he wanted to bond pieces together.
“We did a lot of sanding,” Kotlarek said. His children helped with that and enjoyed breaking molds for pieces he fabricated.
Kotlarek fabricates pieces that either didn’t come with the plane or that he believes he can improve. He made brackets for the landing wheels that fold under the wings, a console between the pilot and copilot, control panels and an engine mount because he is using a different engine than the kit specifies.
“The engine has more horsepower, but is smaller and 250 pounds lighter,” Kotlarek said. “The plane weighs 2,600 pounds. When you save 250 pounds, that’s almost 10%. That’s big.
“What qualifies me to make that decision? Nothing. I’m just mechanically inclined. This isn’t a new engine. It’s just never been used on this plane before.”
Kotlarek, who started an information technology business in 1982, said he’s always been fascinated with planes and knew he would do something in aviation.
“We lived on the southwest side of Milwaukee. The planes flew over and I wished I could be up there,” Kotlarek said.
When Corvan was born, Kotlarek sewed sound-proofing shields into a baby cap with ear flaps to protect the infant’s tiny ears.
“The nurses thought I was crazy,” he said. “But we wanted him to have his first flight on the day he came home.”
Both children were born at Waukesha Memorial Hospital near the Waukesha County Airport. They lived on Pewaukee Lake.
The new family got into a seaplane at the airport, landed on the lake, then flew back to the airport and drove home. They didn’t take a boat to shore.
“Most people think I’m nuts, but it’s something unique the kids can tell their children,” Kotlarek said.
Robin wore similar ear protection when she had her first flight.
Kotlarek is divorced and has had full custody of his children for eight years.
“I completely changed my role with the kids. I used to be a workaholic,” he said. “If you’re a single parent, you have to change your life to give them what they need.”
Kotlarek said building the plane has been a good way for him to relax and do something for himself.
“The kids would go to bed and I would go to the garage with a baby monitor and work until midnight,” he said.
“It’s almost therapeutic for me. This doesn’t require enormous concentration. It’s like yoga — I get to go into my little zone.”
When the plane became too big for the garage, he moved it to the airport, where other EAA members were building planes.
“Coming out here, I got an enormous amount of help from the others,” Kotlarek said. “Over the past several weeks, they all finished and I watched them take off.”
On days the children don’t have after-school activities, Kotlarek takes them to the airport, where they do homework while he works on the plane.
“The EAA likes having the project here. They’re all for experimental planes,” he said. “They like to show people what’s happening out here.”
Kotlarek’s children often control the plane while they’re in the air and share his passion to a degree.
“There are dual controls, so there is no risk. They don’t land or take off, but they know how to control it,” Kotlarek said.
“We used to fly a lot, but it wasn’t special to them anymore. We’ve backed off a little and now they’re eager to go up. I’ve learned that if you have a passion and move your kids into it too quickly, they lose interest.
“If they decide to take up aviation or not, that’s their decision. I’m not pushing them.”
Corvan appears more interested in playing sports and Robin enjoys music. She sings with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. Both are in gifted-and-talented programs at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port Washington.
“Of all the things I’ve done in my life, raising these two has been the most rewarding,” Kotlarek said.
But the plane will probably be a close second, he said.
Russ Kotlarek, his daughter Robin, 10, and son Corvan, 12, held the propeller that will go on the tail wing of the seaplane Kotlarek is building. Photo by Sam Arendt