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Marion man finishes airplane build started 15 years ago

A reignited passion now spans 3 generations

Marion man finishes airplane build started 15 years ago
Marion man finishes airplane build started 15 years ago
Marion man finishes airplane build started 15 years ago
Denny Hodge, Jonah Hodge, and Rodney Ocenosak reinstall seats in their Van’s RV-7A at the Marion Airport in Marion, Iowa on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Aircraft blueprints and diagrams in Rodney Ocenosak and Denny Hodge’s hangar at the Marion Airport in Marion, Iowa on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Denny Hodge sits in his airplane at the Marion Airport in Marion, Iowa on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

MARION — When Denny Hodge’s second child graduated from college, his wife gave him a gift certificate for the Marion Airport.

“My wife said, ‘You’re spending too much time at home, you need to find something else to do,’” Hodge said.

He first started flying as a licensed pilot in college, around 1976. With a family to raise after college, flying had become a hobby that was too costly. But with his wife’s gift in 2001, he got current on his pilot’s license.

Rodney Ocenosak and Denny Hodge
Rodney Ocenosak and Denny Hodge sit for a portrait in their Van’s Aircraft RV-7A at the Marion Airport on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. The pair have spent 15 years building the airplane and are in the process of completing FAA certifications and inspections before they can fly. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Then, he realized he wanted to own a plane. Flying airplanes isn’t cheap and building them isn’t, either — but he could build one he liked for about half the price of buying one.

In 2007, he and his friend Rodney Ocenosak chose a model to build their first airplane together: a Vans RV-7A with capacity for two, side-by side. The decision on that model had one driving factor.

“We didn’t think our wives would like sitting behind us,” Hodge said. “So we started down this road together, him teaching me everything I needed to know.”

Denny Hodge opens a hangar
Denny Hodge opens a hangar door at the Marion Airport in Marion on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Alongside the experienced auto mechanic, Hodge started the project they anticipated to take about four or five years. Now with approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the project will finally be getting off the ground — 15 years later.

“There are times (we) walk in the hangar and say, ‘How did we get here?’” Hodge said with a fully built plane in front of him. “I’ve never built anything, other than plastic models and rockets. To learn how to do this with a really good teacher was really extraordinary.”

From a glance: aircraft tech specs

Make: Vans

Model: RV-7A

Capacity: Two people

Span: 25 feet

Length: 20 feet, 4 inches

Height: 5 feet, 7.5 inches

Wing area: 120 square feet

Engine: 200 horsepower with electronic aviation and electronic fuel injection.

Gross weight: 1,800 pounds

Empty weight: 1,114 pounds

Top speed: 217 mph

Rate of climb: 2,550 feet per minute

Cost to build: about $100,000

Cost to purchase already built: about $200,000

“Life” was the pesky factor that made a four-year task a 15-year journey, but they weren’t going to rush it for anything.

The build typically takes about 2,000 hours. They spent close to 4,000 with some hard lessons learned along the way on what not to do.

Jonah (right) and Denny Hodge
Jonah (right) and Denny Hodge remove a cover from their Van’s Aircraft RV-7A at the Marion Airport in Marion on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

As a business continuity manager for Transamerica, Hodge has to make sure things run smoothly in times of trouble. With two major floods, fires and a derecho, the last 15 years “have been a target rich environment” for his work.

“From the beginning we were like we’ll finish it, no matter what it takes,” Ocenosak said.

In the time since they started, Hodge has seen two children get married and three grandchildren born. His son Jonah was 5 when they started. Now a sophomore at Iowa State University, he grew up helping his dad build the plane that influenced his choice to major in aerospace engineering.

Rodney Ocenosak looks over a
Rodney Ocenosak looks over a Van’s RV-7A he built with Denny Hodge in their hangar at the Marion Airport in Marion on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Building a plane and learning where the radiator should not be placed has turned the project into a sort of internship, too.

“Just from this project alone and being within the environment of the airport, the love of aviation started young,” said Jonah, 20. “I was just always intrigued with how stuff made of metal could fly.”

When the Vans RV-7A takes flight next year, the sophisticated craft of aluminum and fiberglass will be the vehicle that reconnected two generations and spanned to the next one.

Jonah (left) and Denny Hodge
Jonah (left) and Denny Hodge sit for a portrait in their Van’s Aircraft RV-7A at the Marion Airport in Marion on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

The son of a Rockwell Collins engineer, Denny has been an aviation buff since he was a child, too. Growing up, he watched his father learn how to fly.

“We’ve just always been around airplanes forever. It just seemed like a natural progression,” said Denny, 64. “Once the bug bites, it never goes away.”

Reconnecting with that passion through this airplane meant being able to pass it on to his children, too. And unlike his other hobbies, building a plane landed a rare sense of accomplishment that’s helped take flight with the next generation.

Jonah Hodge, Denny Hodge, and
Jonah Hodge, Denny Hodge, and Rodney Ocenosak stand next to their Van’s RV-7A at the Marion Airport in Marion, Iowa on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. Denny and Rodney have spent 15 years building the airplane and are in the process of completing FAA certifications and inspections before they can fly it. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Next spring, they’ll undergo transitional flight training. But with all the time they’ve put into it, they’re confident they’ll ace the next hurdles to get it off the runway.

“I think it takes less confidence to fly something I built than to fly something that you have no idea what the guy putting the rivet in did the night before,” Hodge said.

Comments: (319) 398-8340; elijah.decious@thegazette.com

The exposed engine of Rodney
The exposed engine of Rodney Ocenosak and Denny Hodge’s Van’s RV-7A at their hangar at the Marion Airport in Marion, Iowa on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)