DULUTH — Mike Shannon's float plane carries the nickname "Once in a Blue Moon."
It's an appropriate touch. After all, the 13-year process of building it in his garage is not one Shannon expects to repeat any time soon.
"Blue moons are rare," he explained. "And it's rare for me to get a chance to build an airplane like this."
A longtime pilot and aviation enthusiast, the semi-retired Fish Lake man knew he had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hand-assemble his own experimental aircraft. But even Shannon acknowledges that he may not have fully grasped the magnitude of his feat until recently.
Last month, Shannon flew the Rans S-7 to one of the world's largest airshows, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, where he took home top honors in the seaplane category. Shannon's plane beat out more than 100 fellow home-built aircraft to win the Wisconsin convention's prestigious Gold Lindy award, named in honor of Charles Lindbergh.
"I knew my plane was pretty good, and I thought I had a chance at winning a lesser award," he said. "I really didn't think I would win the Gold Lindy. To win that was quite an honor, especially in a venue like Oshkosh."
Friend Mark Marino, himself a former winner of the award, said Shannon is more than deserving of the recognition. He said Shannon's mechanical aptitude has always stood out among an active group of Northland aviators.
"He's on top of the heap," said Marino, who operates Hangar 10 Aero at Duluth's Sky Harbor Airport. "Everyone in the aviation community thinks very, very highly of Mike."
Aviation runs in Shannon's family. His dad flew, as did his uncles — one of whom piloted Sabre jets in Korea. Drawing on their fondness for flight, Shannon was compelled to get his pilot's license in 1982.
Shannon, 67, owned a few general aviation aircraft over the years, but for nearly as long as he's been flying, he said, he'd been interested in building his own plane.
"The kit industry started up and growing in the '80s, and that's when I really started looking at them," Shannon said. "It makes it more affordable. If you're the builder of the airplane, and you can also apply for a repairman certificate — which I did, so I can do all my own maintenance — that makes it very affordable."
An airplane kit is exactly what it sounds like — a large box full of raw materials. Shannon said he spent 10 years looking for the right one before he had an opportunity to test out the Rans S-7 in 2000.
"It flew like a plane should fly," he said. "I settled on that and put money down on it right then."
Shannon set up shop in his garage, tinkering on it in his spare time, particularly over the winter months. It wasn't until he retired as a DM&IR Railway maintenance supervisor in 2010 that Shannon was able to make it into a full-time project.
And yes, building an airplane is as difficult as it sounds. Shannon had to learn how to assemble every component, install fabric and paint, among other challenges.
"There are guys out there who can do an airplane like this in a year," he said. "That always amazes me."
Finally, after 13 years, Shannon was ready to take flight in 2013.
"It's definitely a labor of love," he said. "I didn't think it would take me as long as it did, but life kind of gets in the way."
Shannon estimated his total investment in the plane to be under $50,000. It's cheaper than buying a fully manufactured plane, he said, but the experience also provides some extra satisfaction.
"The build part of it certainly intrigued me," he said. "I've always been in the mechanical field my whole life and really enjoyed that. So I enjoyed the build as much as I am flying. It was a great experience that opened a lot of doors and I made a lot of friends through the building of this airplane."
The plane is versatile. While it currently has floats, those can be swapped out for wheels or skis in a matter of hours, allowing for all-terrain and all-season flying.
But there's something special about being able to take off and land on the abundant, pristine waters of the Northland — including Shannon's own backyard.
"It's like nothing else," he said. "Being on floats, look at the runways you have."
Shannon credits his success to a vibrant aviation community in the Northland.
He's an active member of the Duluth Aviation Institute, which was started by Marino's wife, Sandra Ettestad, to bring an aviation curriculum to public schools. The region also has Experimental Aircraft Association chapters in Two Harbors, Superior and Cloquet.
"I'm blessed to be in this area," he said.
Shannon formed close friendships through the building process, including with Marino, who he'd frequently call upon for advice. Likewise, he was able to lend a hand to Marino and Ettestad when they were building a replica of the Lark of Duluth biplane, which was one of the nation's first marine airplanes when it took flight in 1913.
"He was a great help," Marino said. "He's got a lot of talent. He knows engines and he's very mechanical."
Commenting on Shannon's Gold Lindy award, Marino said: "There's just no place to go higher than that."
"Looks are considered in award judging, but the quality of craftsmanship inherent in the aircraft is a crucial factor as well," reads a description of the award. "Careful construction and/or restoration, as well as tireless maintenance, is essential in winning a Lindy."
Shannon himself isn't sure how he'll top that.
"I certainly enjoyed it," he said. "I learned a lot of skills. The problem with learning them is you want to use them again."