Nestled away in his Kawkawlin Township workshop, Jon Staudacher labors tirelessly on his newest experiments. An open cockpit plane, striped in red, white, and black, hangs from the ceiling, ready to be tested in the open skies. Another steel airplane frame sits on the floor, awaiting its fiberglass wrap and its own future test flight. In a distant corner of the shop, equipment grinds and squeals with exertion. In yet another area, a bright red Ford tractor waits to be assembled and brought back to its 1939 glory, with some improvements, of course.
Staudacher, 72, has worked countless hours in his current shop since 1966, creating some of the most innovative airplanes, race cars, boats, and homes in the world. His work has been featured on “NOVA” and “Extreme Homes,” and he flew with the United States Aerobatic Team, yet many are unaware that such an inventive mind lives in their midst.
Staudacher’s serious experimentation and building began at the age of 12 when his father built him his own shop at home. Having grown out of simple Erector sets, Staudacher’s father knew Jon was ready for something more. It was there that, for three years, Staudacher began fostering a passion that would turn into a lifetime’s work. “By the time I was 15, I built my first national championship winning boat in the garage my dad had built me.”
Current experiments inside the workshop include an airplane powered by a motorcycle engine.Staudacher’s early success was not an anomaly, and while innovative design became a staple of his career, his projects of choice have gone through a progression over the past six decades. He attended Michigan State University and graduated with a degree in Industrial Administration, though he admits, “I have yet to earn a penny from what I learned in college. I wish I had it to do over again because I could have studied something that I absolutely loved, but I didn’t know at the time.”
Instead, his “accidental” career developed out of passion, natural talent, and the creative support of his father. “By the time I got out of college I had a race boat business going. I concentrated on race boats until I was 40. At that particular time aerobatic airplanes had become a hobby. I did some work based on my boat experience for the United States Aerobatic Team. Through my association with these pilots and planes … I built two as a hobby and learned myself, with no intent to do it professionally. Finally, I decided to try to do it professionally. So, I let the race boat business die and picked up on the airplanes.”
Trophies, plaques, and photos of Staudacher's work fill a wall of the workshop.Staudacher has built 39 airplanes and conducted his own test flights on at least 30 of those, a process that comes with inherent risk. Staudacher is no stranger to the dangers of aerobatic flight. While he worked with the United States Aerobatic Team, two team members were killed. “I probably know 40 to 50 people who have been killed in airplanes,” he adds.
Staudacher’s passion for planes began to decrease as the deaths of those close to him mounted. He says, “When it becomes your really, really good friends … when the phone rings you worry about ‘What’s this news going to be?’ because it was happening three or four times a year. That’s hard to get through.”
A few years ago, Staudacher changed his focus from airplanes to homes. His wife, Kathy Staudacher, designs homes. Together, the pair built a home that was featured on the television show 'Extreme Homes.'This immense sense of loss signaled a shift in Staudacher’s career at age 49.
“At that point I took a couple years off and built a house, it was my third house, and it has been featured on “Extreme Homes.” It has a lot of steel and fiberglass; it was a crazy house. We still own it. My wife (Kathy Staudacher) designs houses, and it was the second design she did for us.”
Upon finishing the house, Staudacher decided to dabble in race cars, a lifelong interest of his. He bought two race cars and began to experiment and learn more about their inner workings. Designing his own was the obvious next step.
“I did really, really well racing cars, so I did the race car thing while doing an occasional boat or airplane. But in 2004, my focus became 100% race cars. I designed them, built them, and drove them. That’s probably the thing I take the most pride in, my race car involvement. I competed nationally and I did very, very well.”
Staudacher’s racing success is quickly apparent to anyone who visits the workshop. An impressive wall of plaques and trophies fill up the left wall of the shop, a collection that continued to grow until two or three years ago when Stadacher again decided to make a shift in his project focus.
“It just got to be a little bit of a burden, and I had reached the top and was on my way down. I wasn’t really willing to devote the time and the travel. I hate being away from home and the car racing kept me away.”
So now, Staudacher has turned the shop into a self-proclaimed science project, which allows him to pursue whatever piques his interest at moment.
At 72, Staudacher shows no signs of slowing. He calls his Kawkawlin-area workshop a place for science experiments.“This airplane hanging from the ceiling has a motorcycle engine in it, and my race cars were all powered by motorcycle engines. So I decided to put one in an airplane and we’ll see how that works,” The plane will be ready to test this year, a prospect that Staudacher still looks forward to. “It’s built with crashworthiness in mind. It’s not a safe thing to be doing, but it’s interesting. The interest overwhelms everything else.”
In all, Staudacher has built 39 airplanes. He personally conducted test flights on at least 30 of those.The science projects are numerous, and aside from the aforementioned tractor and steel frame that will eventually become a stubby wing airplane with a 1930s look, Stadaucher plans to modify a trimaran and a monohull boat on the property.
He's been building and innovating since he was 12 years old and his dad built him his first home workshop. He built his first national award-winning boat at age 15.Staudacher has no plans to stop building, though he recognizes his own limits. “I will keep messing around with stuff as long as I can. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have something on my mind to build. It’s all I do, thinking about building or designing. I like designing more than building. It’s a lot of work to build all this and you get to the point where lifting is an issue. Twenty years ago, I laid the cement blocks for our house. I could do it at 50, but not now.”
Staudacher adds, “My dad always told me you needed to do something you would do for free if you could, and that’s how I always went about it. The things is, if you are devoted to it, you become good enough that it becomes profitable on its own.”