Rural Missouri Magazine

Weekend Wings
The world comes to Mexico, Mo.,
for kit airplanes at Zenith Aircraft

by Jeff Joiner

Sebastien Heintz offers advice for working metal to Winfred and Velma Myers of Garland, Texas, during a Zenith Aircraft workshopThe company sells home-built experimental aircraft kits to pilots around the world.

John MacIver leans over a set of drawings and examines them in deep concentration.

Covered with criss-crossing lines, arrows pointing here and there and exploded views of small details, it's a little hard to tell what he's looking at. But the plans are just the first steps in MacIver's quest to build his own airplane.

MacIver, from Stover, is participating in a workshop organized by Zenith Aircraft at the company's facilities at the Mexico, Mo., airport. Zenith manufactures experimental kit airplanes designed to be built by those with little or no experience.

The workshops give people hands-on instruction and build confidence. All the process requires is time, lots of time.

The company says its smallest plane takes just 500 hours to complete.

"The fellows I've talked to say you can probably double that," says MacIver. "I like to take my time. This is the kind of thing that if you're looking to get it done quickly you're going to have a hard time."

Zenith Aircraft, managed by brothers Sebastien and Nicholas Heintz, is a small and little-known company outside the close-knit world of home-built airplanes. But within that group of dedicated build-it-yourself pilots, the company is well-known for developing airplanes of the highest quality and reliability.

The company's planes are designed by Chris Heintz, father of the two brothers. Chris, a French aeronautical engineer, worked on the Concord supersonic jetliner for the company Aerospatiale. He also designed and built a small sport plane in the 1960s.

Zenith Aircraft Production Manager Nicholas Heintz inspects the company's model 701 two-seater before taking it up for a flight.

In 1973 Chris moved his family to Toronto, Canada, where he went to work for de Havilland Aeronautics. In the meantime his designs for the small sport plane he called the Zenith took off and a year later Chris started his own company to build and sell Zenith kits.

The company grew rapidly and in 1992 Chris licensed the kit manufacturing and marketing rights to his sons who moved manufacturing to Mexico, Mo. Zenith Aircraft's designs for simple, all-metal planes quickly became popular in the United States.

"I'm impressed with the solid feel of the airplane." says Kenneth Heide of Albany, Wisc., who attended the recent builders workshop and took a flight in the company's model 701 STOL, which stands for short takeoff and landing. "Little things like the handling characteristics, how quiet it is and how fundamentally solid it feels make all the difference."

Heide was so impressed with the plane that he bought a kit at the workshop and hauled it home to Wisconsin in a rented trailer.

The 701 is the company's most popular design. The plane is a small two-seater designed to take off and land in less than 300 feet of runway or grass field at speeds under 50 mph. In fact, the plane, and a slightly larger version which carries four people, is popular with farmers and others living in rural and particulary remote areas.

"If cows can graze on it you can land on it," says Sebastien.

"Low and slow" flying is what most of the company's designs are all about. "Flying for most people is a hobby. They just want to enjoy flying and see the country from the air," says Sebastien. "That's why we're seeing more interest in sport flying rather than in faster cross-country airplanes."

Paul Jenkins of Hoffman Estates, Ill., gets some encouragement from Melissa Young as he works on the tail section of a Zenith kit plane during a builder's workshop at the factory. The company offers workshops to people interested in learning to build their own airplane.

The planes sold by Zenith are far from ultralights and Sebastien chaffs a bit at the Federal Aviation Administration classification of home-builts as experimental. The Zenith 801 can carry 1,000 pounds and has a range of more than 600 miles with an additional fuel tank.

Sebastien says the only difference between a home-built and a factory production model is the need to build it.

Although home-builts are often considered an affordable way to get into flying, the investment is still steep. The two-seat Zenith 701 kit costs more than $12,000 while the 801 sells for nearly $21,000.

The kits include everything needed to assemble the plane except for the engine and instruments which the builder chooses on his own. A recommended engine for the 701 is the 100-horse Rotax 4 cycle, a custom aviation engine costing more than $10,000. A larger aviation engine for the 801 can cost as much as $20,000 and ready to fly, the planes cost more than $30,000.

Often builders buy the planes in sections, like the wings or tail, and spread the cost out over several years.

"It may take me 400 hours or it may take me 4,000 hours, but it's going to get built," says Heide.

The all-metal Zenith kit planes are relatively simple to construct with tools many people have in their workshop, says Sebastien. The only special tools needed are sheet metal snips and a sturdy rivet gun. The model 701 plane is held together by more than 7,000 rivets.

Vincil Butner (left) and his son Mark work on their second Zenith model 801 in Butner's garage at his home near Marshall.

"The average person with shop tools can put one of these planes together," says Sebastien. "It doesn't require any kind of special mechanical aptitude. That's what we're really all about is trying to keep it as simple as possible."

Vincil Butner is so impressed with the plane the retired auto mechanic is now nearing completion of his second Zenith model 801. Working daily in his garage at his home just outside of Marshall, Butner can finish a plane, with the help of his son, Mark, in about a year.

"I love to build," says Butner who began by putting together radio controlled airplanes. He says he naturally moved up to the real thing.

"You're most alive when you're on final." says Butner, referring to a pilot making his final approach to land. "Your feet are busy. Your hands are busy. You're just alive as you approach those numbers (on the runway)."

Word about Zenith kit airplanes has spread around the world and of the company's sales, half are overseas. The short takeoff and landing planes are ideal for use in the Third World and many are flown in places where airports are few and very far between, another testament to the planes' reliability.

In dealing with customers all over the United States. and the world, the Heintz brothers are often asked how they happened to locate in Missouri. For Sebastien the answer is easy. The brothers wanted a location in the center of the United States with a good airport. And for Sebastien the small-town setting and quality and cost of the local workforce didn't hurt any either.

"We looked at a lot of communities but we wanted a rural setting to avoid busy airports in metropolitan areas. And we like Mexico for its quality of life. I wanted to work where I'd be happy to live."

Donna Zimmerman puts the final screws into a box filled with an entire airplace at the Zenith factory. The box contains all the parts needed to build the model 801 except for the engine and instruments. On the floor waiting to be shipped are the parts for the smaller model 701. Customers can buy a complete kit or purchase just sections, like the wings, to spread the cost out over time.

With Zenith Aircraft shipping two to three airplane kits a week, the plant is close to its capacity and keeps 17 employees busy making more than 600 parts that go into the planes. And Sebastien and Nicholas are preparing for the flying season. The company flies their planes to air shows around the country including the granddaddy of them all in Oshkosh, Wisc., where Zenith organizes a gathering of its customers.

It's attention to its customers that makes Zenith popular. In fact, Kenneth Heide, preparing to take his kit home to Wisconsin, was at first interested in buying a used Zenith 701.

"I talked to a lot of people and I couldn't find anyone who was willing to part with their plane. To me that says a lot."

For information about Zenith Aircraft visit the company online at; or write Zenith Aircraft Company, P.O. Box 650, Mexico, MO 65265. For more information about experimental aircraft, visit the EAA website.


Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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