MONNETT SONERAI I – N11ME (N5795)
The Sonerai (Son-er-ai) is a name meant to be unusual. It came from playing with words like sun-ray and sonic-ray and was also meant to convey the meaning of something fast. The plane was designed to meet specific requirements. First, it had to meet all P.R.P.A. regulations for Formula Vee racers; second, it had to have metal wings and a tube fuselage; third, it had to use simplified techniques in construction and fourth, it had to have folding wings and a simple, inexpensive way of transporting it on the highway. This was John Monnett’s formula for a formula Vee racer.
The aircraft in the AirVenture Museum is the prototype Sonerai. It was first registered as N5795 in the 1970s. This particular racer was originally built for a different kind of race, a mythical race to get to “Oshkosh ’71.” Was the race won? Read further to find out.
John had just attended Oshkosh ’70 with his first homebuilt, the “Mini #@!!%” that he was none too happy with. He realized the potential use of the VW engine in airplane application and was intrigued with the wide-open field of the Formula Vee class racer after hearing Steve Wittman speak at a forum in 1968.
By the time he returned home to IL after Oshkosh ’70, the new airplane was beginning to take form in his mind. He knew he wanted to build it right away, wanted it finished by the 1971 Oshkosh fly-in. With the previously mentioned four points in mind, John began sketching the new aircraft. The final description of the Sonerai reads: a midwing, sport plane, racer designed to meet all P.R.P.A. Formula Vee racing requirements for 1600 cc. Volkswagen powered airplanes. It uses a minimum of different sizes of easily obtainable materials to reduce the cost without hampering the integrity of the design. The wing is all aluminum and is composed of two panels that fold alongside the fuselage enabling the Sonerai to be towed tail first on its own gear. The fuselage and tail surfaces are of standard chrome-moly tubing construction using primarily two sizes of tubing. All aluminum sheet used is .025 Alclad except for the spar webs. The cowling is all fiberglass and the fuselage and tail surfaces are fabric covered. The landing gear is a modified truck spring with five-inch go-cart wheels.
John’s friend Dwight Dende became interested in the concept and he and John decided they could build two planes faster and cheaper together than each one separately. So, they agreed to build two racers and split the cost. By the end of December they had the fuselage trusses and tail surfaces built and had started the spars. Time was really flying by. Imagine, they actually thought they could design, build, and fly two complete airplanes in eight months time!
Progress moved right along and soon they had purchased the canopies and landing gear legs. The spars and wing folding parts were completed, the rib blanks were cut out and they began forming the ribs. Next came assembling the four wing panels, fitting the skins and then riveting the skins on.
In April, John and his wife Betty added to their family with the birth of their son Little John. Progress on the airplanes was halted by baby’s needs, but soon John and Dwight were back in the shop with only four months left until Oshkosh.
In May came the engines and the simple prop extensions. The engine mounts, canopy frame, instrument panel, fuel tank, control links, and front end metal all followed in quick order. Then it was June and they realized there was no way they were going to complete both airplanes. The decision was made to finish John’s plane first. First came the precover inspection, and then the aircraft was covered in a week. After that, the engine was installed and they tried to start it, a simple procedure that only took – 45 days! For some reason they just couldn’t get that engine to stay fired up. So they went ahead with finishing the cowl and doing the final paint job. John would say they now had the world’s fastest static display. By mid-July they had finally licked the problems with the engine.
On July 20, 1971, just eight months after they started, John flew the Sonerai. The first flight went well except for a very sensitive elevator which was easily corrected. On July 29th, two days before Oshkosh, while flying the aircraft, John lost power on take off. He was able to land the plane without incident, but they towed the aircraft to Oshkosh and put it on static display. So, the mythical race to Oshkosh was won, in a manner of speaking. With the help of some airplane folks at Oshkosh, they were able to fly the plane during the convention and won awards for “Best Formula Vee” and “Most Outstanding Contribution to Low Cost Flying.” What a race, what a week. For more information on the Sonerai, see SPORT AVIATION, March 1972 and July 1973.
John Monnett donated the Sonerai to EAA in 1980.
Monnett Sonerai II Monnett Sonerai II