Photo by Randy Dufault
Jason Petroelje built his beautiful Macchi M.5 flying boat using
only his left hand - the one hand
he had to use after a stroke 10 years ago.
July 31, 2009 - Oshkosh, Wisconsin
Jason Petroelje suffered a stroke about 10
years ago, a life-altering event known to lay low many a strong
But while the stroke did interrupt a few
things in his life—like annual trips to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh—Petroelje
refused to let the problem impact his passion for building
“I built this thing after I had the stroke,”
Petroelje said about his three-quarter scale Macchi M.5 flying boat.
He added, “I built it with my left hand.”
Petroelje’s Macchi, a type used as a fighter
by the Italian forces in World War I, has the appearance of a fine,
classic watercraft with a natural Honduran mahogany skin and a solid
Brazilian rosewood instrument panel. The woods are both adorned with a
deep, high gloss marine finish.
The control stick has a hand-carved Madagascan
ebony handle, and thrust comes from a hand-laminated, hand carved
And remember: Petroelje did virtually all of
the work solely with his good left hand.
Obviously this was not Petrolje’s first
attempt at woodworking.
“When I grew up my father was a carpenter
and a contractor,” he said. “I built a lot of model airplanes—started
when I was about 10 years old.
“I was just crazy about airplanes.”
Petroelje went from model airplanes to boats;
by his estimation, building hundreds of them when he was in his 20s.
The airplane bug bit him not long after.
His first project, an Emeraude RG, was a 1979
Oshkosh award winner and a feature in the May 1980 EAA Sport Aviation
Other airplane projects included two World War
I reproductions for a museum.
“I was building a SPAD replica for them, and
they mentioned the Macchi,” Petroelje said. “I didn’t know anything
about the type, but when I looked into it I decided I really liked it.”
His little flying boat is three-quarter scale
for a good reason. The prototype airplane was not amphibious, and the
open-cockpit design obviously could not survive out in the elements.
“My plan was to bring it to the lake on a
trailer and go flying,” he said.
The wings of the plane fold back, a feature
certainly not part of the original. But at three-quarter scale, the
collapsed craft is only 8 feet wide, well within legal trailering limits.
No original drawings of the Macchi existed, so
Petroelje had to create his own designs from a set of dimensions and from
His experience with reproductions did lead him
to make some changes.
“This has a more modern airfoil, a 4412 like
on a Luscombe,” he said. “World War I airfoils were real thin, and
they were really wicked to handle.
“If you slowed down or stalled, they would
put you into a spin.”
Another variation drawn from experience was a
decision to scale the tail to 80 percent instead of 75 percent. Petroelje
said the 75-percent version was just too small.
The hull of the seaplane varies from the
original as well. Petroelje layered the bottom first with plywood, then
foam, and finished it off with fiberglass. The modern bottom is more
durable than the likely single-plywood layer of the original and should
better tolerate the rigors of normal water operations.
A modern air-cooled Lycoming powerplant
provides the motive force. The radiator on Petroelje’s plane, necessary
for the liquid-cooled powerplant on the original, is purely decorative.
As for the mahogany finish, no color photos
exist of the type, so that choice may well be artistic license on
Plans were to fly the Macchi here during EAA
AirVenture Oshkosh, but the craft has yet to completely fly off its
But Petroelje already has a sense of its
performance; it gets off the water well and climbs spectacularly, he said.
Cruise speed for the draggy craft is around 75
miles per hour.
Petroelje always considered airplane building
“I had some rough times,” he said. “Building
these airplanes has helped me through them all. It’s one of the best
things I did in my life.
“And I met a lot of nice people.”
Petroelje and his plane are at EAA AirVenture
Oshkosh all week. They can be seen in Row 57 just behind the VAA Red Barn.