Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The elephant man

There was a time in airplane homebuilding when the finished product had its share of warts and flaws that stood out like a sore thumb. The goal was the challenge of building an airplane that flew. I wish I'd built an airplane in those days because I'm not sure this one fits me. As N614EF nears completion, I'm embarrassed for other builders to see it.

This era is about building flawless airplanes worthy of Oshkosh; functionality is important, but the lovely finished product is a statement about the builder. Sure, there are dings here and there, but nothing serious and certainly nothing embarrassing.

N614EF's nickname is Auntie Marge, named after a wonderful relative of my wife's who was all about enjoying life. After this evening, I'm thinking of changing it to Elephant Man.

Years ago, when I was originally fitting the frame upon which the canopy would sit, I misdrilled a hole -- one stinking hole -- that allows one side of the canopy to sit slightly higher than the other.

Note, for example, the spot at which the canopy meets the front skin. The skin is sticking up about 1/4" and will, no doubt, act like an air scoop (click any of these pictures for the full monty).

Which creates this gap you can throw a cat through on the side...

Oh, it gets worse. This is a tip-up canopy and when it lifts up, the skin at the base of the canopy moves slightly forward and if a shim isn't put under the canopy frame to raise the skin slightly, it catches on the the skin in front of the canopy. Guess who forgot to put the shim in when riveting the canopy skin to the canopy frame?

So when the canopy lifted up, it caught on the front skin and cracked the fiberglass fairing. The only way to solve the problem is to file away the skin so that it doesn't catch. Doing that creates one heck of a gap. Keep in mind the company says the gap should be 3/32" inch here. This is about a half inch. Functional? Sure. Embarrassing? Yeah.

Normally, it should look something like this:

Another RV builder stopped by the hangar tonight. "I'd redo it," he said.

Allow me to translate that from the polite Midwestern lingo. "You suck at this."

Which, of course, I already knew, but it made clear that for as long as I hang around other people who build airplanes, I'll be apologizing for this one.

And, by the way, starting over would require a $1,200 canopy, and a few hundred dollars for a new canopy frame. I can't do it; I work for a living.

"Are you still thinking of selling this?" he said.

I am, but his message was clear; nobody will pay much to buy it.

All of this, of course, is -- in the lingo of Van's Aircraft, "gumption robbing."

Those thoughts I've had this week about flying N614EF to Oshkosh next year? Yeah, let's stop those.

Perhaps I should have built a time machine.


  1. Don't get yourself down - how many people can say they built a plane? I would get the plane airworthy and if the gap still bothers you, save up to fix it.

  2. Thanks so much for this post. I have been toying with the idea of a kit built and you have realized my worst fears. It is obvious the the "good from far" pics that you have built a magnificent machine. It is also obvious that you can follow instructions. However, it is also obvious from the "far fom good pics" that the instructions are not always clear enough. Whe you pay as much as you do for An RV(the best kit plane available), you deserve the best instructions. We don't pay that much for a kit to "learn from our mistakes.". Sure we're willing to put in the manhours, sweat, and heart. but after the money and everything mentioned, we want a product that at least rivals a manufactured product in appearance AND performance. Thanks for saving me a lot of money and heartache. Somebody has got to come up with a better mousetrap.......

  3. Sorry for the typos(I'm a doctor, not illiterate) but the iPad like to correct strange things that aren't broken....N3723W PA-32-260

  4. Jason: I don't think the instructions are that great. On the other hand, the mistakes I document are mistakes of execution.

    I always kid everyone who sees the plane by telling them -- accurately -- "I flunked shop" in high school. It's true. I really did. And the plane shows that.

    A trip through Oshkosh's RV corral will reveal hundreds and hundreds of beautifully built RVs. They used the same instructions I did.

  5. Bob, if you flunked shop in high school then you've more than made up for it with this project. So you made some mistakes. Everybody does. If it's something that needs to be rebuilt, you'll find the time and money to do it. Try to remember the things you've done right (and post about them too).

    I'd never fly in an airplane that I built. That kind of undertaking is one that I know in my heart of hearts I'd never ever finish. I envy you your ability to keep plugging away, even after the setbacks. My hat's off to you.

  6. Hey Bob, I'm sitting here typing this from OshKosh. And having recently finished building Aurora, I fully understand what you are I didn't fail shop....i meant about the flaws and workmanship. I have the skill and talent to build stuff, but My canopy does not fit like I want either. I built what I consider a very nice plane, then I came to OSH....mine won't even get honorable mention.

    there are some planes which look rough, but those pilots had same pride and smile I have. They flew THEIR plane to the greatest show on earth. Be proud of yourself and your achievement.

  7. Take a close look of mine and you will feel better.

  8. It's amazing what you won't notice (or won't let bother you) once you're flying. Keep going, and if it still bothers you, fix it later. I doubt many people build "show quality" RVs on their first try.

    Rob Kochman

  9. I saw an RV-8 today that was so perfectly done it will make you puke.

  10. I wouldn't worry about not having a Grand Master contending RV. I finished my RV over two years ago and now have over 400 hours on it. I don't have it judged as it has a few flaws -- the canopy fit isn't that great, there are a few dings from bucking bar slippage, the intersection fairings have some gaps, and I'm not good about keeping it spotless -- but it sure is fun to fly, and 99.5% of the people who look at it away from Oshkosh are amazed that the average person could build a plane like this. Even I look at it and am amazed how good it is. Oshkosh can be a little demoralizing because all the planes -- not just the RVs -- are so nice. But unless winning Grand Master is your objective, don't worry about a few things that are not perfect. You won't be thinking about those when you are having fun flying this fantastic airplane.

    Bill Cloughley

  11. My RV is beautiful (now), and yet I have all those same flaw pics as you from the construction phase. You'll find ways to fix or diminish flaws between now and the day you paint it. It's funny how the builder looks at the plane and sees his flaws first. Your plane looks well on its way to honoring Marge with it's beauty.

  12. Bob,

    Don't beat yourself up more than necessary. So what if some parts of your airplane aren't perfect? Rent a few Cessnas, take a look at how their cowlings fit, and you'll feel better.