Saturday, May 31, 2008

Is the Hotline back?

I started writing an RV Builder's Hotline again, the weekly RV-building newsletter I used to produce. I got it done, and posted it at its old address, but unfortunately I found out the hard way that Rob Riggen's content management system is out of date and no longer functioning, so I can't e-mail the issue to the subscribers. Nor can I get the subscriber list out of Rob's system.

In the meantime, it's available online.

Update Sun. 6/1 - I've got a bulk mail program installed and I think the bugs are worked out of it. I'm sending it out via email over the course of the day (some folks may get more than one. Sorry.) and as "user not founds" come back, that'll allow me to update the subscriber database. Your patience is appreciated.

Friday, May 30, 2008


In the building of any airplane, the acquisition of an engine has to be among the most important moments. Today, I bought an engine.

The history -- if not the tradition -- of homebuilt airplanes is scrounging old barns in the country looking for dilapidated planes, finding an engine therein, and then through the guile and guts of the builder, figure out a way to make it work on the airplane being built.

Screw that!

I don't know anything about engines, frankly. If the car breaks down, the only thing I really know how to do is open up the hood and stare, occasionally fidgeting with stuff for no other reason than if I were to be kicked out of the American Society of Guys [tm], I'd have to start watching Ellen on a regular basis.

And screw that, too!

So I called Mahlon Russell at Teledyne Mattituck Services on Long Island.

I'd previously decided -- generally speaking -- on what sort of engine I needed, when I ordered the finishing kit from Van's Aircraft. I needed to have that decision made because a specific motor mount is required.

And so this is where we started today's conversation:

  • A 180 hp engine (360)
  • Fuel injected
  • Parallel valve
  • Vertical inductioin (Ah, you also have to have this decided when you order a finishing kit because it requires a little scoop on the engine cowling that comes with the finishing kit.

    Granted, I place myself at the mercy of a business when I say, "Hello, I'd like to buy your product and I don't know what the hell I'm doing!" But, Mahlon (that's him over there on the right with me at the RV Builders BBQ last year that I put on.) has a reputation for service and helpfulness (not to mention: honor), and as I've written before, I've generally placed myself in the hands of fellow RV builders whom I respect and followed many of their recommendations blindly.

    So here's what you need to do to buy an engine after you get to the part described above:

  • Constant speed or fixed pitch. For non-pilots, propellers can be made to change pitch in flight (constant speed) or made to be only of one pitch. The advantage of the former is more performance when taking off, the ability to slow down faster for landing, and the ability to set a more efficient setting in cruise. The down side is it's one more cable to install, it's much more weight to carry and, oh yeah, it costs a hell of a lot more.

    As I'm building what I call "a working man's airplane," and since I've never flown a constant speed prop, and I figure I can save fuel just buy keeping the plane light, and I fly out of nice long runways, I went with fixed pitch. However, I ordered an engine (after Mahlon described the options) for an engine that is set up to work with a constant speed prop with a number of tweaks, but comes ready for fixed pitch. My rationale: Even if I decide never to convert to a constant speed prop, the fact the engine CAN be converted gives it more resale value. The cost? $200. Deal.

  • Ignition system. Standard is magnetos. Again, for non-aviators, it's a time-honored system that doesn't require an electrical system to provide sparks to your spark plugs, which make the crankshaft turn, which turns the propeller, which keeps you in the air. But electronic ignition can be more efficient, though it does, then, require some dependability on the electric system in the aircraft.

    Other folks I know have gone with one mag and one Lightspeed electronic ignition system. There are other options out there including E-Mag (they're really good guys but the sense I have is that the product just isn't quite dependable enough for an idiot like me) and a full FADEC system, which costs about $8,000 and computerizes everything -- pretty much like your car.

    The cost alone eliminates the FADEC option, my stupidity eliminates the E-Mag, and those other RV builders that I mentioned early, made me lean toward a Lightspeed Plasma and one Slick Magneto approach.

    "What kind of flying are you going to do in this plane?" Mahlon asked.

    "I'm a go up and look down kind of pilot," I said. I fly pretty much around Minneapolis-St. Paul, underneath the Class B airspace and I plan to take an occasional cross country trip back East or Texas or Florida or the Bahamas or San Francisco.

    "So would you say for every cross country, you'd fly about 25 hours local?"


    "At what altitude?" he asked.

    "Probably an average of between 3,500 and 4,500 above sea level," I said.

    He then said that a Lightspeed doesn't give you a lot of efficiency at those altitudes and doesn't really give you anything until 6,7,8,000 feet, leaned out and then you can get 10 or 15% efficiency.

    But, again, there's no penalty -- except a little bit of weight -- for using the electronic ignition other than the $655 additional it costs, and I figure that's still a small price to pay for both the option of me doing a different kind of flying, and the resale value of the plane. Deal.

  • Roller tappets vs. standard tappets. OK, remember the part about me being stupid? Good. Just read that section again. Roller tappets (pdf)are a fairly recent attempt by Lycoming to addresssome problems with camshafts. They basically heat up and break -- see above about what a camshaft is connected to.

    The roller tappet eliminates the sliding motion between the cam and tappet,improving wear and allowing the introduction of more advanced materials. Adding to its durability, the tappet’s body and crankcase are designed to maintain proper alignment, ensuring the roller tappet cannot loosen or turn during engine use.

    OK, great, but we don't really know how great they work, the word "beta" was used, too. That one always scares me.

    Mahlon outlined some methods Teledyne Mattituck uses with sliding tappet system in which oil is squirted onto the cam, and the problem of "dry starts" (engine sits for awhile, then you start it, now you're grinding metal on metal because the oil has drained to the bottom somewhere) is reduced. There was consideration of a 3 year vs. a 2 year warranty (from first engine start) here but the added cost made a 2-year selection with standard tappet technology.

    The only other question was color. Huh? What do I care? It's under the cowling, and I'm parking on the other side of Oshkosh from the show champions section anyway. Burgundy or yellow/black? Well, I just got the maroon seats and seat belts so make it burgundy.

    So here, then, is the description of what I bought for a grand total of $23,855:

    Your standard tappet TMX IO-360 engine will include, propeller governor drive adapter , propeller governor drive gear, propeller governor plumbing and attaching hardware,( however you engine will be setup for fixed pitch use) New Titan Nickel Carbide cylinder assemblies, pressure camshaft lobe and tappet face lubrication, o-ringed thru studs; LSI crank sensor mounting holes, front crankshaft thrust lubrication, relieved cam bearing bores, 1 new Slick magneto, ignition harness and 4 AutoLite spark plugs, single Light Speed Engineering Plasma II Plus ignition system with 4 automotive style sparkplugs and ignition wires, 12V Sky Tec lightweight NL high torque starter, Precision Airmotive Silver Hawk fuel injection system, new fuel pump, inter-cylinder baffles, customizable dipstick tube and dipstick, easy access angled oil filter adapter and oil filter, new dynamically balanced VAR crankshaft, static bay balance to within 2 grams, vacuum pump drive adapter and drive, starter gear support and ring gear, engine logbook and operator’s manual.

    Your TMX engine will be covered by a comprehensive Parts and Labor warranty on the engine and accessories for 2 full years from first start up. It is the owner’s responsibility to maintain the engines preserved status after six months from delivery, if first start up should not occur within the six month initial engine preservation timeframe.

    Your engine will be painted dark grey metallic with burgundy accents.

    We look forward to receipt of your $1,000.00 deposit check.

    As Tim Taylor would say "aarg aarg aarg!"

    Oh, by the way, how am I financing this baby, you ask, knowing that I'm a pay as you go builder? Simple. I'm driving the cars longer. I had calculated when I started the project that if I simply skipped one "car buying" cycle (or two), I could afford to "home equity" the engine purchase and not increase the budget in the house. I rejiggered the home equity line of credit to 4.49% which changes the whole nature of things. Plus, I'm not going to be soaking money into the BBQ at Oshkosh this year, though it would help if you'd click on an ad on this page, I suppose.

    Carolie's final car payment on her Subaru was made two weeks ago and I paid cash for my low-rent Cavalier a couple of years ago and between the two cars, we should be able to go another 4 or 5 years without picking up a new car loan, still be able to put money away for their eventual replacement, and have a paid-for engine very close to the time the plane flies for the first time. This assumes, by the way, that you contribute and become a member of Minnesota Public Radio. Bobby's gotta eat!

    It's due to be delivered in the fall, which should give me plenty of all-winter-long-fun.
  • Tuesday, May 27, 2008

    Seats arrive

    It must be cool to be Abby at Flightline Interiors. You get to design upholstery for RV builders and then listen to them tell you how great you are. It's no fluke. She's great and she's another example of why I didn't bother checking around when it came to upholstering the very cool Oregon Aero seat foam. Enough RVers I respect said nothing but great things about Abby. That was -- and is -- good enough for me.

    As I understand it, Abby used to design interiors for yachts, and when she left the company, she had a non-compete clause. So she did some work for an RV airplane builder or two and it caught on and she started her own business.

    I picked out the fabric to be used and Abby came up with several designs. The interior of the RV is a Rustoleum hammered finished grey. There's a lot of grey. So I wanted the seats to introduce maroon into the scheme.

    Making them even better will be the solid maroon Hooker Harness 5-point seat belts (Yeah, I'm not really scrimping in these particular areas) with the black trim.

    Lots of cool things are showing up these days. If I could just get someone to take my money for a new engine now, we'll be in great shape.

    Saturday, May 24, 2008

    EAA articles online

    A lot of pilots and builders pick on the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), but not me. If there's one check I don't mind writing every year, it's the piddling amount EAA charges.

    And now -- and this will probably only be of value to builders -- the EAA has made an excellent decision. It's put its entire collection of articles from 53 years of publishing Sport Aviation online (although it is for members only).

    Of course, I needed access to it this morning and their server is down.

    Baby steps.

    ELT arrives

    I have mixed emotions about the arrival of the new Artex 406 MhZ ELT (emergency locator transmitter). What luxuries I'm putting into my plane, mostly involve safety. At $992, this is one of them, although if I ever need it, it pretty much means I've crashed the airplane. Still, Steve Fossett being "out there" somewhere is a sobering thought and I guess I wouldn't want my family wondering whatever happened to me.

    I could've, I guess, gotten a much cheaper ELT that broadcasts only on 121.5, but the monitoring of that frequency is being phased out, and it's not as good in pinpointing a location. Nor, I believe, does it broadcast aircraft identifying information as the new ones do.

    This will probably be one of the first pieces of electronics I'm going to install, and I'm coming up empty on where to put the antenna.

    Especially with the old 121.5 ELTs, a lot of RV builders put them on the aft side of the rollbar (See VAF thread), but that ignores the requirement that it be within 15 degrees of vertical. I've seen folks mount it horizontally along the spars in the horizontal stabilizer. And that, of course, also doesn't qualify. I've seen people stick it forward from the bulkhead in the baggage compartment and that just looks like a great way to start your trip with a poke in the eye while stuffing stuff in back there.

    Personally, I can't see a good reason not to stick it out in the breeze, on the top of the skin, perhaps just forward of the vertical stabilizer? I realize some people would be concerned about knocking 1 knot off their speed, or it might not look good, but why would you spend $1,000 on something, and then half-ass the installation with something that has a good chance of not working?

    That's not a rhetorical question, by the way. If there's an easier and effective way, I'm all ears.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008

    Just another pilot

    My buddy, Glenn Brasch, sends along a link to this video on Harrison Ford, who is -- of course -- getting a lot of attention right now with the release of the latest Indiana Jones movie. Ford, as you may know, is a pilot -- just another pilot, as it turns out.

    A few years ago, the former editor of EAA Sport Aviation, Scott Spangler, did a fabulous story on a group of pilots who went on a "backcountry safari" across the northwest. What made it great -- and why I respect Spangler's work so much -- is that he resisted the urge to identify one of the people as Harrison Ford.

    By contrast, Lane Wallace, who is an aviation writer that I also enjoy, was on the same trip and couldn't resist.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Garmin rules the world

    Avidyne has lost its biggest customer. Cirrus Design has decided to go with Garmin for its glass panel.

    You have to love Phillip Greenspun, though, for the way he gave a shot to Garmin:

    The one big thing that Garmin was missing was synthetic terrain, a feature offered by Microsoft Flight Simulator for $39, in experimental airplanes for $2,000, by Chelton as part of a $90,000 retrofit system and as of a few weeks ago by Garmin as a $10,000 option.

    Saturday, May 17, 2008

    Tribute to the dambusters

    They flew Lancaster bombers ... at night... 60 feet above the ground... into the teeth of enemy fire. Now, there's only one "dambuster" left.

    First steps

    There are a few "Wow, I'm actually building this!" moments during the construction of an RV airplane. Today was another one. The plane is now on its main gear, an end to the days of sawhorses that started a few years ago with the laying of the longerons. Back then, I remember saying, "man, this is flimsy stuff." No more.

    David and Mary Maib, who are building an RV-10 across the field, walked over to lift the fuselage enough for me to get the gear rods inserted. They are terrific people and if there's anyone working harder than these two on their project, I've never heard of them.

    Earlier, I stopped over to Wipaire for a couple of elbow fittings for the brakes (still no sign that Van's supplies these with the kit) and spent time talking to Linda, who runs the parts counter on weekends and then Mary stopped by for a part. We talked about Paul Story's situation, with his wife very sick and in need of treatment.

    Paul has to sell his RV-7A, which is on the field and within days of being able to fly, presumably to pay for the treatment.

    Meanwhile, a few miles down the road, the Minnesota Legislature and our governor -- the man who wants to be John McCain's vice president, are talking in the most abstract terms. Gov. Pawlenty keeps raiding the Health Care Access Fund, which funds our state subsidized health care program for working Minnesotans (it's not funded with general fund tax revenues and it runs a surplus, a fact which its detractors intentionally ignore). He uses the money to balance the budget so he can keep his no-new-taxes pledge in an election year.

    We can argue all day and night about big government-small government and never say anything new or productive. It's a philosophical conversation, usually pointless where politics is concerned because it is devoid of reality.

    Paul's and his wife's situation is repeated daily in thousands of homes around the country. It's what the ridiculous health care system in our country looks like on the ground and nobody in a country that can afford a $200 million a day war should have to tell a spouse they can't afford to treat a life-threatening illness. This state, this country can afford it; it simply chooses to spend its money on other things.

    And that is an American tragedy. Shame on the politicians and to the extremists on both sides of the aisle whose allegiance is only to their political parties. Personal responsibility? Yeah, I got your personal responsibility right here. That hackneyed, catch-all phrase is used to make people feel better about their occasional lack of decency.

    We're better than this.

    (BTW, don't even think about trying to determine my political affiliation from the above. You'll most likely be wrong. I'm one of those strange people who agrees with the right on some things and disagrees on others. I'm one of those strange people who agrees with the left on some things and disagrees on others. That puts me, I guess, squarely in the middle... a section of the population that used to matter.)

    To Osh? Or not?

    I've been seriously considering skipping Oshkosh this year. I've decided not to host the RV BBQ anymore because, well, you know. And a few close friends (defined as people I only get to see at Oshkosh) may not be attending this year and all of a sudden, the prospect of sitting at a campsite without people stopping by to visit seems rather depressing.

    As I typed this, a warbird just flew over the house on this gorgeous Saturday morning, and the sound of a radial engine filled the air.

    See you at Oshkosh!

    Friday, May 16, 2008


    Truth be told, I've never been a big fan of early spring flying in Minnesota. And given the sort of spring we've had, May 16 qualifies as early spring. And with the weather pattern ushering in some heat, and my flight time being late day, I knew I was in for a, ummm, ride.

    If you've ever boogeyboarded at the ocean, you know what flying in early spring heat is like. Hold altitude? Forget it. You're passing -- quickly -- from dense (cold) to thin (warm) air depending on whether you're flying over water or unplowed farm fields.

    I never did get throttle settings correct in the pattern. At one point, I pulled back to about 1500 RPM, and I was still climbing. Then the thermal would give out, and I'd drop 200 feet in a second and have to firewall the throttle. A few times the turbulence was so hard, it pushed my hand on the throttle. In other words, it wasn't the kind of day to take a passenger on a first flight, and so I flew alone.

    I took a bunch of pictures but they're all terrible. The above picture is about 6 miles northwest of Airlake (Lakeville, Minn.).

    I haven't flown in a couple of months so I stayed at Flying Cloud for three touch-and-gos of questionable pedigrees. The wind was pretty much right down the runway at Flying Cloud, but the winds were gusting to about 24 mph, which required me to carry extra speed on landing (12 knots) to guard against a sudden loss of airspeed. So I floated...and floated...and floated. But the goal is getting down in gusty conditions and that mission was accomplished.

    I then headed for Airlake where I knew the wind was about 30 degrees off runway heading, which would give me a little crosswind practice. The initial landing was OK -- not great -- but the second landing was a beauty, featuring the nice little "chirp.... chirp" of an upwind single wheel landing.

    Then it was back to Flying Cloud for a final landing (another questionable one). With gas being close to $4 a gallon, it really doesn't make much sense to drive all the way from Woodbury (on the eastern end of the Twin Cities) to Flying Cloud (on the western side) just to rent a plane. I should think about something closer to home.

    I was going to stop at Fleming Field in South St. Paul for a little practice at my home airport (it's where my RV-7A project is currently housed), but the runway configuration had a 90 degree gusty crosswind -- too much for me, at least today.

    Armed with inspiration, I stopped at Fleming on the drive back home, and worked on the RV project a little bit, drilling the hole in the axle for the cotter pin that holds the axle nut on. Lots of folks seem befuddled by this process, but it went flawlessly for me, which makes me think that I probably did something wrong.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008

    Financing an engine

    The time has come to purchase -- or at least order -- an engine for the RV-7A. I'm going with Mattituck, mostly on the strength of reputation for quality and customer service. I'll bet 90% of each decision I've made on the plane up until now has been on the basis of recommendations and experiences of other builders. Are you listening, U.S. businesses trying to compete: customer service and quality!

    That said, I thought I'd finance the engine -- up to now the project has been pay-as-you-go but buying a car for my youngest son years ago made writing a check for an engine unlikely -- through Airfleet Capital. Other builders have recommended it.

    But get these terms: For a loan over $25,000, they want 20% down and a 5-year term at a fixed 12% rate. For a loan under $25,000 they want 20% down and a 7-year term at a 10% fixed rate.

    Now, why would I want to do that?

    For the first scenario, that would require a monthly payment of $566 with a total financed of $33,367. The second scenario yields a $415 monthly payment for a total amount financed of $34,863. Better, but I'd still be paying a ton of interest.

    I've been reluctant to use a home equity loan but since the line of credit I now have on my home equity is down to a zero balance, I have to consider it. The last time I checked the interest rate on that was about 7.5% (and I'm sure I can get a lower rate if I call).

    Using the home equity, the first scenario would require $501 a month and the second $383. And, of course, I wouldn't be required to put money down. Plus, it might be possible to deduct the interest on my taxes (if I pretend the loan is going toward home improvement. At my current tax rate, I figure that lowers the actual monthly expense by about $30.