Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
During the Vietnam War, Lee Otto flew scout helicopters in search of the enemy.
“The way you find the enemy is that they shoot at you,” Otto said.
That was a long time ago. Now 78, Otto devotes much of his time to flying airplanes he builds himself. Seems as if he never got over living dangerously.
Have a plan
Founded in 1953, the Experimental Aircraft Association is an international organization of aviation enthusiasts, many of whom build the planes they fly.
Otto is among the 100 people who are members of Albuquerque Chapter 179 of EAA. He says flying planes you put together in your garage or in the hangar of a small airport is not as dangerous as taking fire from people determined to knock you out of the sky.
“I plan for what I am going to do if I have a problem in the first 100 feet, the first 500 feet,” he said of taking off in self-built planes. “And I let the people in the (airport) tower know what those plans are.”
For example, on Sept. 6, when Otto lifted off from Albuquerque’s Double Eagle II Airport for the inaugural flight of a Van’s RV-12, a small kit plane he and fellow EAA chapter members spent 27 months building, he had clearance to put down on another landing strip if necessary.
“In a minute, I was up to 1,000 feet and then I could glide to a landing on three different places on the airport if I needed to,” he said. He didn’t need to.
“It felt terrific,” he said of that first flight in the RV-12, which came off without a hitch.
On a weekday afternoon, Otto and other EAA Chapter 179 members are in a hangar at Double Eagle II, working on the engine of the shiny RV-12. Their pride in the aircraft hovers about them like an aura.
The plane is a two-seater with a wing span of 26 feet, 9¼ inches. It has a 100-horsepower engine and can attain speeds of more than 115 mph and a ceiling of about 14,000 feet, although cruising altitudes of 8,000 to 9,000 feet are the norm.
During ground tests following the initial flight, an ignition problem was detected in the RV-12. Albuquerque EAA members are determined to get that corrected so the plane can be part of the chapter’s Land of Enchantment Fly-In and Airport Open House on Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Double Eagle II.
Early arrivals at the event will get the chance to see a variety of aircraft, some of which will be judged in different categories, fly into the airport.
A hundred or more planes are likely to be on display. Otto has no doubt the RV-12, its ignition glitch corrected by then, will be among them.
“Because we have so many talented people in our chapter – engineers and scientists,” he said. “And I know how to use a file and how to use a grinder – sophisticated tools like that.”
Otto is originally from Rochester, New York, but he moved with his family to the San Francisco Bay area of California when he was 8.
The Army introduced him to flight when it taught him to fly helicopters in 1966. He said he is not sure what talents the Army saw in him that made his superiors believe he would make a good flying target.
Otto took heat from enemy fire while flying copters in Vietnam, but he was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he received on the ground during a mortar attack.
“I got shrapnel in the right arm and face,” he said. “I took a big chunk in the shoulder. If it had hit me five inches higher, in the head, I would not be here now.”
After his service in Vietnam, he learned to fly fixed-wing aircraft, including gliders.
“Basically, I flew anything anybody would let me,” he said.
Otto and another helicopter pilot ran a helicopter services business for a while, and then he had a company that did embroidery, logos, insignia etc., for businesses. Flying and planes, however, have remained an integral part of his life.
More than six years ago, he and his wife moved to Albuquerque.
“My wife is a photographer,” he said. “She fell in love with the landscape photography here. And I like the 300 days a year you can fly.”
Otto has taken part in the building of five aircraft, two from scratch, including a Van’s RV-10, which is his personal aircraft.
“I joined EAA in the 1980s because I was fascinated with people’s ability to do this, build these planes,” he said. “There are maybe 30 (self-built) aircraft at Double Eagle II. Maybe 40.”