Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When it comes to building your own airplane, it's always something

I love the airport where I'm building my RV-7A -- Fleming Field in South St. Paul. But, sadly, it doesn't love me, anymore.

Fleming (KSGS) is a small airport tucked into a dense, working-class neighborhood along the Mississippi River. There are at least four RV projects that I'm aware of on the field, but reality will soon drive most experimental projects away from Fleming, at least until after a project is completed somewhere else.

I've written about this before in columns about RV-10 builders David and Mary Maib. David is the former chief pilot for Target Corporation and a guy who went to work every day as an aviator since flying helicopters in Vietnam. Though there's an argument to be made that his airplane was better constructed and in better flying condition than many of the antique warbirds that fly out of Fleming, David and Mary had a difficult time getting permission to make their RV-10's first flight out of Fleming. Eventually, he did, but he wasn't able to come back; he had to go to Airlake in Farmington during the plane's test period.

The concern, naturally, was David's electronic ignition in his RV-10 was non-standard by today's aviation standards (think 1950), and the FAA is skittish about experimental airplanes making first flights in dense areas, especially skittish since an experimental crashed in Las Vegas a year or so ago.

Officially, as I understand it, the FAA has told DARs(designated airworthiness representatives) that it's up to them, but they discourage allowing a first flight at the field. The DARs, naturally, aren't about to put themselves in peril by saying "OK, go!" And who can blame them.

The problem, so far, is we haven't gotten an official, "absolutely, positively, no way you can make your first takeoff from Fleming Field, even if you're just going to ferry the plane to a more remote airport where you can undergo your 40 hours of test flying." But we're heading that way and it will be good to get an official decision. EAA, you could be helping us out here a bit more.

The issue came up again yesterday when Chris Knauf, who's building an RV-7, sent some notes around asking for tips on moving his project to a hangar as KSGS (just down from me, actually.)

That's when Doug Weiler, the head of the Minnesota Wing of Van's Air Force (which, now that I think of it, is being renamed The Twin Cities RV Builders Group), sent around this e-mail he got from Rich Marr, who I believe was the DAR for David Maib, and has since moved to the Atlanta area, if my information is correct (which it may not be, by the way).

Doug, you may wish to advise Mr. Knauf before he goes to all of the trouble of putting the aircraft together at SGS, that first flights of amateur built aircraft will not be authorized out of South St. Paul, especially if you do not have an approved engine prop combination. He should consider a Lake Elmo or Lakeville.

There are two problems here, primarily. One is nobody at Fleming Field is making this clear when people rent hangars there. And the alphabet groups aren't doing much to get it nailed down.

I heard about the problem from David when he was trying to get authorization, and figured that it would be a problem. In talking to Doug Weiler last year, when he told me "I'd find another airport," that was good enough for me. Doug knows what he's doing, he's test flown a number of RVs in the area, he may end up test-flying mine, he's got a bazillion hours of ATP time and if he's not comfortable with it, then neither am I.

Still, what a pain in the neck! I've been at KSGS for two years and moving out is an expensive -- if necessary -- proposition. It also grinds my building process to a halt. I'm ready to install a beautiful harness for the Tru Trak single-axis autopilot from the panel to the wings. But if I have to dismantle the wings to truck the project out of here, I'd have to cut that beautiful harness. Likely, I'll have to bring it back down to SteinAir for the fix. More money. Oh joy.

I also have 14' of strobe cable rolled up ready to string out to the tips. But, again, if I have to take the project apart, I'd have to cut the cable. Now, clearly, I can put connectors on the wing root for the strobe cable, but that's a concession to the unfriendliness of Fleming that might not be the best thing to do in terms of sound wiring -- introducing a point of failure.

But that's the way it is. Time and money is part of building an airplane. It would just be easier if someone in charge to say "you're not welcome here" before cashing the check.

It's another in a long line of expensive lessons for people who build airplanes. Before you move your project to the airport, make sure your airport loves your RV project.

Update - Doug has sent along an e-mail from DAR Tim Mahoney:

If ANYONE plans on test flying an amateur-built aircraft out of SGS, they will only be allowed to do so if the engine and prop combination are certified. This would involve a corridor over the river to the south out of the Class B area to their assigned test flight area. If the engine and prop are not certified as a unit, then they will get a ONE TIME out to the south via the river to the Airlake airport. They will then have to test fly the aircraft from there. When I state a certified engine, I mean an engine that has a certified fuel system and ignition systems as a part of the engine. (no electronic ignitions or experimental fuel systems) This is the policy as of now, but it would not suprise me if in the near future all test flights out of SGS were treated the same as MIC. (no test flights, period)


  1. Bob,

    I certainly feel your pain. The local FSDO, no longer allows any Phase I activities out of my local airport, KOSU. I had my Cherokee there for three years and it's just a few minutes from the house. In my case, I don't find it overly objectionable. In reality, there are no safe places to land other than the runway should an engine out happen. I am also fortunate that there are two other airports available to me within a 10-15 drive that are very experimental friendly (KMRT and KDLZ). I hope to be taking my RV-10 to one of them this year. Realistically, I probably won't relocate back to KOSU once Phase I is complete. I'll support the airports that support me.


  2. Bob,
    What a bummer. I know it's a hassle, but it sounds like one way or the other, you're going to have to move the airplane. Specifically, I was wondering if it would be less trouble to move it without removing the wings. I helped a friend move his RV-6A to our airport on a flatbed trailer that way. But the -6 has a shorter wingspan. Just trying to offer some help.

  3. Cutting the trutrak harness is no big deal. Just use mating D-Sub connectors under the seat. Not sure how to maintain the shielding on the strobe wire. I'd probably try some braided shield from Spruce to bridge the splice.

    Sorry the North Las Vegas guys put the spot light on us. We had another experimental engine out from there on the same day as the safety committe reported out on the prior accident(s). Landed on a street with no serious injuries thank God.