We built a plane in our back garden: Most of us spent lockdown baking sourdough and watching box sets, but this Essex family had grander ambitions… Now – after 1,600 hours of work – their dream has taken flight
Over the two years of lockdowns, many of us tried our hand at DIY. Walls were painted, cupboards repaired and home offices created in dusty spare rooms.
Ashok Aliseril had loftier ambitions. He decided to build a plane in his back garden in Billericay, Essex.
Not a model plane or a Meccano construction but an airworthy, four-seater Sling TSi, painstakingly assembled over two years in what became a family affair, with his six-year-old daughter Tara sorting packaging and hammering in widgets, while wife Abi dealt with the fiendishly complicated paperwork.
To call it a labour of love would be rather an understatement. It has taken 1,600 hours of painstaking effort, not to mention the £160,000 outlay, funded from scrimping, savings and a hefty sum on credit cards.
But today, two years after the first flat-pack box arrived (even aeroplane parts have to be assembled IKEA-style), the Aliserils are the proud owners of G-DIYA, named after their youngest daughter, now three.
Over the two years of lockdowns, many of us tried our hand at DIY. Walls were painted, cupboards repaired and home offices created in dusty spare rooms. Ashok Aliseril had loftier ambitions. He decided to build a plane in his back garden in Billericay, Essex
Once Ashok, 38, has completed the necessary quota of test flights in his shiny new aircraft, a summer of adventure awaits. ‘Barcelona, La Rochelle, Malaga — we have all sorts of plans,’ says Abi.
The family are all smiles as they gather at Top Farm Airfield in Royston, Hertfordshire (where G-DIYA is stored in a roomy hangar) to see her for the first time in her fully assembled glory. She is certainly gorgeous-looking, a vision of glinting metallic maroon and silver paint.
‘Abi had very particular ideas about the paint,’ says Ashok.
Inside, the beautifully upholstered grey seats are finished with maroon piping.
Ashok is about to take a test flight with Tim Hardy, the UK distributor for Sling. While he has a full pilot’s licence, Ashok needs to complete five supervised hours at the controls and undertake 15 landings before he can take to the skies with his family.
Once Ashok, 38, has completed the necessary quota of test flights in his shiny new aircraft, a summer of adventure awaits. ‘Barcelona, La Rochelle, Malaga — we have all sorts of plans,’ says Abi
‘It will all be worth it the first time we fly off together,’ he says. ‘The freedom is just magical. A lot of people thought we were mad but now they are jostling to be among the first to get a ride.’
Neither of the Aliserils was born into a family who had anything to do with flying.
Both Ashok, an engineer for Ford, and data analyst Abi, 35, hail from India. They each came to the UK to study for a Masters degree, first met online, then married in 2011 before setting up home in Billericay.
With his engineering background, Ashok has always been practical-minded. He says his hobby was ‘taking things apart and putting them back together again’.
He worked on a few cars on the driveway, but found himself increasingly diverted by the light aircraft that zipped through the summer skies above him.
‘It looked so liberating,’ he says. ‘I’d always liked the idea of flying but never got round to it. There are quite a few airfields in the South East, so I realised that now might be the chance.’
The birth of daughter Tara and various house renovations put his plans on hold, though, so it was not until 2018 that he finally took off, when Abi bought him a 30-minute ‘flight experience’.
With his engineering background, Ashok has always been practical-minded. He says his hobby was ‘taking things apart and putting them back together again’. He worked on a few cars on the driveway, but found himself increasingly diverted by the light aircraft that zipped through the summer skies above him
‘I was excited, although I was actually worried beforehand how I would be about heights,’ he says with a laugh.
In the event, he loved it enough to book a series of lessons with a flying instructor.
‘For my first lesson we went to the Isle of Wight in a microlight,’ Ashok recalls. ‘I couldn’t get over the freedom of just taking off and landing somewhere else — that got me hooked.’
By July 2018 he had started to work towards obtaining his standard Europe-wide pilot’s licence, which involves a minimum of 45 hours’ flying time — in his case in a Cessna 172, one of the most common small aircraft — and nine exams.
But no sooner had he completed his training in September 2019 than he realised his hard-earned pilot’s wings were effectively clipped: ‘I looked at hiring an aircraft to take the family somewhere but the only ones available were two-seaters, which doesn’t really work when there’s four of you. They are also expensive, at £200 an hour.’
While there were some four-seater light aircraft on the market that could be bought outright, they were not particularly palatable options.
‘I could buy an older plane for £30,000 but it would have done hundreds of thousands of flying hours — and to be honest I didn’t trust them,’ he says. ‘The plane I learnt to fly in was built in 1972 and was starting to show its age.’
Another option was to take a share in a four-seater plane, which costs in the region of £100,000.
After finishing his 7am-3pm shift for Ford (working from home), Ashok would decamp to his home hangar to crack on with plane assembly for hours at a time
So as a last resort, he looked at the website of the Light Aircraft Association and came across the Sling TSi, a four-seater from South Africa which is made out of aluminium — more versatile than traditional fibreglass — and has impressive fuel efficiency.
Its two fuel tanks each hold 88 litres of the same unleaded petrol you’d use to fill up a car, and in flight it burns around 20 litres an hour — about half as much as other certified light aircraft. ‘When I started working on the costs, I became convinced this was the way forward, Ashok recalls. ‘I knew I was capable of doing it, we could spread the spend over a couple of years, then at the end we would have something pretty valuable.’
What did Abi make of it? She admits she was taken aback initially, but quickly became sold on the idea after Ashok went through the finances with her and explained the possibilities it might open up for them.
‘In the long term it made financial sense, as renting is just so expensive,’ she says. ‘And the idea that whenever it’s good weather we can just get out and go was amazing.’
In January 2020, Ashok flew to South Africa for a test flight at Sling’s headquarters in Johannesburg. On his return, he promptly ordered the plane’s £3,500 tail kit — and while he was waiting for it to arrive, set about another project: building an aircraft hangar in the back garden.
‘As we had a big garden, it made sense to use it because hangars can cost £400 a month during the build phase,’ he says.
So with the help of friends, he assembled a £700 hangar measuring five metres by three metres, in time for the arrival of the tail kit in mid March.
A week later, the nation was plunged into lockdown, scuppering his plans for colleagues to help out with the build. ‘Quite a few had said they would love to lend a hand but Covid put an end to that,’ he says.
Undeterred, Ashok set about phase one, aided by YouTube videos — not to mention Tara, who proved very useful in unwrapping endless layers of packaging and lining up parts when needed.
The wings arrived next, followed by the fuselage, although import delays caused by Covid meant that the deliveries were sometimes weeks late.
‘Although it could be frustrating, it also played into our hands as it gave us more time to save,’ says Abi.
‘We were saving a fortune by not paying nursery fees or the cost of commuting to work. We put all our grocery expenses on credit cards in order to conserve as much as we could from our salaries. Lockdown also meant we had nowhere else to be.’
Even so, it wasn’t always ideal: after finishing his 7am-3pm shift for Ford (working from home), Ashok would decamp to his home hangar to crack on with plane assembly for hours at a time.
‘Some of it is really tedious work — you have to spend hours preparing all the parts and there is a lot of repetition,’ he says. ‘I had a checklist that just got longer and longer — I think by the end it had a thousand items on it. And it’s stressful because there’s no second chances — you can’t really afford to make a mistake. So I did get tired.’
His wife, meanwhile, felt the strain of home schooling and homeworking in what, for several months, became a de facto aircraft parts storage facility.
‘Once the wings were assembled, they were in my kitchen diner for months,’ she says. ‘I had to swaddle them in duvets to make sure they didn’t get damaged by the kids, but there would be times when Ashok and I were both on work calls, Tara was home schooling on the laptop next to me and Diya was causing mayhem. There was an element of novelty at first but my patience did start to wear thin.’
The couple persevered, though, and by April last year the main bodywork had been completed and the plane was ready to have its wings, engine and avionics fixed in place.
These jobs were then done by certified experts at the airfield Sling uses as its UK distribution point.
‘It would have been wonderful to put the wings on at home but we couldn’t have got it down the side entrance,’ says Abi with a grin.
The wings were painted in May and in June, Ashok started the engine for the first time.
‘That was a special moment,’ he says. ‘I looked at it and thought, “I made this” — and it did feel good, although at the same time I kept thinking about stuff that could go wrong.’ The Light Aircraft Authority must not only sign off on overall safety but also make regular inspections.
Finally, at the end of November 2021, the freshly painted aircraft was signed off as airworthy, although it took a further two months for the paperwork to come through, so it was not until early February that Ashok could see the aircraft take to the skies, with Tim Hardy at the controls.
‘After all those months of hard work it felt amazing,’ he says. ‘It was everything we had worked towards.’
He needs to complete another four landings and a few hours with an instructor before he can take command himself, while Abi is also studying for her pilot’s licence so they can share the controls on those mini-breaks.
Which raises the question — where will they go first? At the moment they are aiming for Newquay over the Bank Holiday weekend, with some European adventures in summer.
As to the financial side, they want to get other pilots to buy shares in G-DIYA to spread the cost of future maintenance, while the ever-industrious Ashok is also looking at building a full-size hangar, closer to home.
‘Space is at a premium in the South-East of England, so I have applied to the council to lease a plot and build my own hangar,’ he says.
Abi rolls her eyes affectionately. She says she has nothing to complain about, even if there are some hefty credit card bills to pay off this year.
After all, she no longer has a plane in her house — and the sky is now literally the limit. ‘We definitely had a productive lockdown,’ she says with a smile.
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