Building a Phantom with One Hand

A Challenge Met

Assembling things that require "only basic hand tools" can end up being daunting tasks. Just ask the parent trying to assemble a bicycle or a dollhouse, or ask the first-time aircraft builder.

Now take away the use of one hand and see how hard the most rudimentary movements become. Buttoning a shirt, preparing a pot of coffee, or tightening a screw can turn into marathon situations. But it's "no big deal" for the person with an open mind and the will to do things differently.

"It was a challenge, to be honest with you," confesses George Haley. "I initially suffered from delusions of grandeur, and thought, Well it's going to be no big deal, I can do this." "This" was assembling a single-seat Phantom ultralight with the added challenge of having only one hand.

"For about 2 years I looked at different planes and settled on [the Phantom]," says Haley. "I wanted an ultralight with cross-country capability, yet I want to go low and slow if I wanted to. I wanted a company that had been in business for a while so if I needed some assistance or a part, it would be there. And I wanted a company where if I picked up the phone ­ as I did 100 times ­ they would not say, 'Oh, it's you again. What do you want'?"

"I purchased the Phantom at a fly-in and a couple of months later they delivered it. I leased a hangar, unpacked the boxes, laid everything out on the floor, and thought, What did I get myself into? My kids said, 'Oh Dad, you can't do this'. And of course I said, 'This is no big deal, this is easy stuff'."

The first thing Haley had to do was design some special tools. He purchased 15 different vice grips and modified them so they were offset so he could clamp each bolt. "Where it might take you a minute to put a bolt in, sometimes it took me 10 minutes," says Haley. "But through rigging and all types of weird ways, I did it. I can't think of anything on [the plane] that I actually couldn't do. Sometimes I would be in the hangar at 2 in the morning looking at the thing and wonder, How the heck am I going to do this? Sometimes it was like building a whole stack of stuff and putting weights in certain areas to hold things in place.

"Of course the 150-hour [assembly] time didn't apply to me. I started assembling [the Phantom] in March 2000 and I basically completed it around December 2001. I'm guessing that I put close to between 800 and 900 hours into this. And I had the advantage too that I could pick up the phone and call the company for technical advice. But the real challenge was devising ways of accomplishing what normally would have been a simple task. So that was the time-consuming aspect of it. Amazingly one went with 2 went with 3 went with 4. And before I knew it I had what looked like a frame to an airplane. And things kept getting attached to it and then there it was."

A state police officer in Colorado for a number of years, Haley lost his left hand when he was shot with a shotgun. "The amazing thing that came out of that whole incident was before I thought if you lost one of your hands, what would you do? The most fascinating thing to me was that I could do anything; I could do everything. I just have to do it differently. Like putting a nut on a bolt meant that I had to devise a way to clamp that bolt to whatever it was going to adhere itself to then put the nut on. Then maybe put a second clamp on the head of it so I could tighten it down so there were counter forces going both ways."

Then came the throttle. Haley laughs when he says he designed 600 different ones, but he had a problem: he couldn't pull the throttle back. "Normally a throttle moves forward and back," he explains. "Well I could move it forward but I couldn't pull it back. So I thought I would turn the throttle quadrant sideways then I could lift it up and down by sticking what's left of my arm in there and move it up and down. But the small, quite complex thing that I had to solve was how to bring that throttle cable in at a 90° angle. On a normal throttle it comes straight in but if you turn the throttle quadrant sideways then you have to bring that cable in at a 90° angle.

"I thought of everything from wearing a special jacket with a cable attached to the jacket to where I could just move my elbow back and it would retract it, to quite complex contraptions that I would go to a machine shop and ask them, 'How would you do this'? And they'd say, 'We can do it this way' and devise something, and then that wouldn't work.

"Then I went to the engineering department at Michigan State University and let the grad students dink around with the problem. They could come up with mechanisms, but they really couldn't be converted to my use."

Finally Haley devised a way to manipulate the throttle. "Picture a potato chip tube cut straight down the middle," says Haley. "I could lay my arm in it and it would be attached to the throttle handle and then I had stops at both ends of that tube so if I pushed my arm forward it moved it forward, and if I pulled it back my elbow pushed it back. That seemed to work the best."

Haley is updating that with ball-bearing rails "like a drawer that rides on a rail. I've already designed it and am in the process of building it."

No other modifications were needed for Haley to be able to fly his Phantom. "My other hand works good, my feet work good, that throttle was the only thing that I used my left hand for," Haley says.

At 53, Haley works out of the court system as an investigator in Ingham County, Michigan. Married "to a very supportive wife" and the father of three college-age children, Haley still finds time to help raise funds for his club's sponsored scholarships awarded each year at the local community college, and of course to fly. "I really enjoy the camaraderie of being around the different guys at Mason airport where I'm hangared," says Haley. "I have about 20 hours on the Phantom now.

"I wish I had done something extraordinary, but I did it under a different set of circumstances and did it a different way. I'd like to really emphasize that anything can be done. You may have to stand on your head to do it, but go stand on your head. And get it done. It was just a different way of going about doing something," Haley insists modestly.

­Sharon Wilcox