We’ve all heard that Aussie men love their sheds, but can we ever fully appreciate the diversity of projects undertaken in all those thousands of man caves, or the determination of their inhabitants?
Take, for example, Lennox Head resident Elio Zambelli, who believed that his shed was the obvious place to build a plane. That’s right, Elio took possession of his light plane—a Van Aircraft RV 12—in a box; a kit that he purchased from the US. Then during 2012 he put it together piece by piece right here in Lennox Head, all by himself, with the help of wife Coralie, who made herself available to lift and tilt pieces when necessary.
Even though the Zambelli’s garage was big enough to house three cars, the RV 12 eventually outgrew its first home, and the body and wings were shipped separately to Elio’s hangar in Lismore.
Most of the hard work had been done, although Elio admitted that this job had been a lot bigger than the last one (that’s right this was not his first!). In fact the task of inserting 12,500 pop rivets and 2,500 solid rivets was so demanding that he ended up with a painful case of RSI.
But let’s back track a bit to the 70s—to Elio’s young working life as a Lismore motor mechanic specialising in large machinery, tractors and trucks, servicing the equipment of landholders and farmers in the district and beyond.
Business is growing and Elio is finding that he is getting a lot of new customers out west, hundreds of kilometres away. On some days he is required to travel up to 4 hours to a property, spend one or two hours fixing the vehicle, and then travel another 4 hours home again. It isn’t making business sense for him or his employees, so he comes up with an answer: to get his pilot’s license and get a plane.
Elio became a sort of flying doctor service for large farm machinery, flying as far afield as Gundawindi, Narrabri, Lightning Ridge, Moree, and even Wagga Wagga.
‘I bought a Piper Arrow plane and ended up owning it for 30 years,’ he says. ‘It made good business sense, but it was also good for the family.’
‘We ended up taking the family on all sorts of holidays in that plane—we’d put the two kids in the back. We travelled all around Australia, to Ayers Rock, Darwin, Broome, all over the country.’
Says Coralie, ‘I remember when we went to Ayers Rock, in those days the airstrip was right alongside the rock and we just landed right there, got out and climbed up.’
Elio bought the plane brand new in 1977 for $66,000 and sold it for double that amount in 2004. ‘It was a sad day,’ he admits.
‘We’d had great times and bad times, plenty of scary weather and uncertain landings,’ says Coralie, ‘but mentally I had signed off.’
She was done with light planes.
Which is a bit of a pity. Because Elio wasn’t quite done.
In fact, after selling the Piper Arrow, he started thinking about building a plane, as a way of keeping his brain active. So in 2006 he bought a Savannah—an Italian kit plane—which he assembled, flew for 4 years, and then sold.
But he had already ordered the next kit, an RV 12 which would take 12 months and 400 hours to build. Facts well documented by Elio who is meticulous in everything he does.
But the RV 12 has not yet taken off. It has been assessed and passed—is airworthy— but Elio is still waiting for the certificate of registration which will allow him to actually fly it. After that, he says, there will be no more building planes.