2017-08-04 / Up Close

Flying Solo

Local chiropractor John Corneal is a pilot whose passion led him to build his own one-man jet.
Hyun Soo Lee

In the hangar at University Park Airport, John Corneal’s personal plane sits, ready for takeoff. But this is no corporate jet or commuter plane. This jet is hand made. Corneal built it over a period of two years using a quick-build kit from Sonex, a Wisconsin-based aircraft manufacturer, and frequently takes it to fly over distances of up to 300 miles.

Corneal, a chiropractor and Petersburg resident, says his decision to build a jet came from his own passion for aviation, which he developed from an early age. “Since I was very young, I wanted to fly a jet,” he says. “Jets are very expensive, so I couldn’t afford to buy a jet, or at least a commercially built jet.” A few years ago, when the quick-build kit came along, Corneal decided this was the only kind of jet he could ever afford to own and fly. In early 2015, he set out to build and add on to the pre-built wings and fuselage that were supplied by Sonex.

The result is a red, white and blue single-piece jet called the SubSonex that moves at 275 miles an hour on a 40-gallon gas tank.

All in all, he says the jet took him about 1,600 hours to build, from the day the kit was delivered to the day he put on the finishing touches this April. Building a plane is no small task, he explains, since it requires some patience with the knowledge that it can never really be done quickly — you have to chip away at it little by little each day until it’s finished.

It was just a long process,” Corneal recalls. “I worked about 25 hours per week on this plane for two years. It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun.”

To prepare for his undertaking, he took classes on metal fabrication, learned how to wire the electronics and talked to several people who had also built planes themselves.

Over the past three months, he had to log 40 hours of flight time to have the jet approved by the Federal Aviation Administration so he could go to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, an annual aviation show held in Wisconsin each July. It is the largest gathering of its kind in the world, with hundreds of thousands of visitors dropping in every year. “There are actually people who fly from Europe and other places just to be there,” he says. “It is a big deal.”

Corneal inside the one-man jet.Corneal inside the one-man jet.

Born and raised in Harrisburg, Corneal developed an interest in airplanes at an early age, but didn’t learn to fly until he was in his 40s. “I started flying planes with propellers, wishing I could fly a jet,” he says.

He used to race cars, but dropped that hobby early on when he realized he couldn’t afford to keep up both at once.

With over two decades’ worth of piloting experience, Corneal says it is his goal to continue flying and building planes for as long as he can. He already has another plane under construction, one that he started even before the SubSonex.

“Most people who’ve flown jets have only flown jets because they’ve been in the military,” he says.

Corneal at the controls.Corneal at the controls.

“Because when you deal with even a small corporate jet, you’re talking about an acquisition cost of three or four million dollars. So, it’s expensive.”

What makes the SubSonex remarkable is its sleekness and efficiency, he says. Properly fueled, the jet weighs only 1,000 pounds with Corneal in it. The jet’s lone engine, which weighs only 44 pounds, produces 260 pounds of thrust, a tenth of what the smallest corporate jet would have on one engine.

In the same hangar as the SubSonex, Corneal also keeps a larger, four-seat aerobatic airplane called a Mooney Ovation, which he reserves for longer trips of up to 1,000 miles. “I’ve bought a lot of little planes along the way — the Mooney is the most capable,” he says.

To this day, Corneal doesn’t ascribe his passion to anything in particular — as far as he’s concerned, he’s always wanted to fly planes, and that’s what he plans to do in the coming years.

“There’s nothing better. You just strap yourself in, light up that jet engine and take off,” he says. “Going through the sky at 15,000 feet with the sun coming into the cockpit, looking out at the landscape rolling out — it’s unbelievable.” •SCM

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