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Works of art

Jim Clement’s lifetime as a Tailwind builder

By Jim Cunningham

“Too many!” That’s the answer Jim Clement gives when asked how many Wittman Tailwinds he’s built. The real answer is 12. And a hybrid Tailwind/Buttercup design he calls a Butterburger. And a Cassutt. And a Hyperbibe….

Photography by Jim Cunningham.
Photography by Jim Cunningham.

There is no official record of who the most prolific airplane homebuilder is, but Clement may be a candidate.

Clement grew up and lives in Baraboo, Wisconsin. If he wasn’t working on cars at his dad’s Plymouth dealership, he was building and flying model airplanes. “In my senior year of high school, I built a hot rod. I sold it for $400 and bought a Cub for $900.” His dad loaned him the balance. “I don’t think I ever paid it back, but it kept me out of trouble…well, sort of,” Clement said. He completed an A&P program but discovered that the automotive business was more practical for a career and opened his own body shop of which he was the sole employee.

Later Clement sold his Corvette to pay for plans and materials to build a Cassutt race airplane. He will never forget the date of the first flight—it’s also his daughter’s birthday. He went to the hospital after the flight. It wasn’t the last time that his wife Donna proved to be flexible with his flying activities, and he always credits her support in his achievements.

A meeting with legendary airplane designer Steve Wittman introduced Clement to Wittman’s homebuilt airplane design—the Tailwind. Clement bought a set of plans, and his life changed forever.

Building multiple Tailwinds wasn’t his plan, but after someone bought his first one for a price he couldn’t refuse, a second rolled out of his shop. Then another. And another. No two were alike; all had different airframe features and engines.

Clement’s fourth Tailwind went to the CAFÉ (Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency) Foundation for flight testing in 1994 and shocked everyone when it flew at 217 mph using only a 160-horsepower Lycoming O-320. “They thought I did something to the engine, but it was strictly stock.”

The results renewed interest in the Tailwind. The design is plans only, and not everyone has the skills to form a fiberglass cowling or weld up a fuselage. It wasn’t long before Clement was building and selling Tailwind components at work (fortunately he had a cooperative boss—himself).

After a while he decided to fix a couple of issues with cabin ergonomics. He modified the door and moved the overhead wing carry-through tube to keep occupants from denting their foreheads. He sought designer Steve Wittman’s blessing before publishing the modifications. Wittman, an extremist when it came to weight, stared at the plans, and finally said, “Well, it’ll make the airplane heavier.” Later Wittman admitted that the few extra pounds were worth it. The “Clement mods” are incorporated by most builders today.

“I always had to have a project, so I just kept building Tailwinds.” His latest—and he claims his last as he is now in his mid-80s—took to the air in 2019. Like his other creations, it is as much of a work of art as it is an airplane.

Jim Cunningham is a CFI and owner of a Piper Arrow.

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