Thursday, May 28, 2009

The wall

First year NBA players hit it. Marathoners hit it. Why can't RV airplane builders hit "the wall"?

I think I did this week and you'd think I'd know for sure by now because in my eight-year construction project, I think I've hit it about a half-dozen times. Hitting the "wall" is when you want to move forward, but you can't.

When I hit "the wall" this week, it surprised me a bit because I've been making reasonably steady progress in recent months, even slipping out to the hangar in the middle of the day to do a little work. I've cut out the instrument panel -- by hand -- without having it look completely stupid, I've bought a lot of the hoses and thingamajigs I need for the engine installation, so there's really no good reason for me to suddenly be shy about heading to the hangar.

But here I sat at the end of another workday this week, debating whether I should stop at the hangar on the way home for a little "me time" with my pal.

Tom Berge, bless his heart, stopped by for a tech counselor visit a few weeks ago and that gave me a few things to do, but nothing major. My Oshkosh camping pal, John Porter had a layover in St. Paul last week (he flies for Delta which has put Northwest Airlines asunder) and reminded me that "it won't be long" and that I'm "making good progress," things that should make me enthusiastic. And for the most, do. They're words of encouragement.

But I've also started writing a weekly "to do" list on a whiteboard at the hangar and at the same time updating my Kitlog Pro builder's log. Last night it revealed that I have put in 1,890 hours on the project so far. And the "to do" list tells me that while I'm making good progress, I still have a lot to do. And Dan Baier, who runs the RV Builder's Group on Yahoo, looked at my post on Tom's visit the other day and noticed this picture...

... and was good enough to let me know that the aluminum fittings I'm using -- as instructed by Van's -- are probably going to leak and should be swapped out for steel fittings. He's right, I'm sure. He's flying. But it just another addition to the "to do" list, and if you want to make your project feel endless, just start redoing stuff you've already done.

But I'm also at the part of the project that's like driving in traffic. Start and stop. I needed to drill the holes for the instrument panel the other night and couldn't find that jig I bought from Avery Tools for $39.95 a few weeks ago. "Great," I thought, "that's money I didn't need to lose." Of course, I knew it would turn up when I was looking for something else, but that was plan for the "to do" right then. And it didn't work out.

When I found the jig the next night, I was ready to go, until I realized I didn't know what hardware to use. I'm at the stage of the project where hardware doesn't come with anything, so it takes time to research and figure out what screw holds the altimeter in, and then figure out where to get it.

Time wasted is time wasted, and it made me feel exhausted and a bit hopeless.

Just about that time, Paul Story took off in his new RV-8. I watched for a few minutes as he disappeared into a speck, and then I got back to work, while thinking, "man, I could do this all night."

Friday, May 22, 2009

The story behind the picture

I try not to repeat my "day job" posts, but this one is about an aviator killed in the first Gulf War, the son of another aviator. And I think it's appropriate for this weekend.

This is a two-part post. The first part below was written on Friday afternoon. I asked people on Twitter and Facebook to help me track down the family below. Within an hour, I found information I've been searching for for several years. That story is the second part of the post.


This picture of the family of one of the first soldiers killed in the first Gulf War is tattered because it's been folded up and put in and taken out of my wallet occasionally for the last 18 years.

I cut it out of a Newsweek magazine in 1991 for personal and professional reasons. At the time, the news media described the cost of the war as "light." Few soldiers were killed. I cut it out to remind me -- as a writer of news -- that there's no such thing as "light casualties" when it comes to reporting on war.

I also kept it in case my then-young children ever expressed a cavalier attitude toward war. They never did.

The problem is I don't know who these people are. I didn't cut out the accompanying caption. The photographer, John Ficara, didn't remember taking the picture when I contacted him a couple of years ago, and every now and then, he drops me an email to see if I've made any progress. I haven't.

Every few months, someone writing a paper for school stumbles across a post I made on my personal blog two years ago and also asks if I've been successful in locating the family, to find out whatever happened to them? I tell them I'm still looking.

One of these days, what with Twitter and Facebook and the viral nature of the Internet, I'm hoping someone will recognize them. It's impossible to look at their faces on this day, and not hope for the best.

Update - Thanks to the power of Twitter and Jodie Gustafson (via comment below) we've found the name -- Gayle Edwards and her sons, at the funeral for Marine Capt. Jonathan 'Jack' Edwards. Armed with that, I've been able to find that he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on February 15, 1991. They were from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was killed Feb. 2 when his AH-1 Cobra helicopter crashed in the desert near the Saudi border with Kuwait as it escorted another helicopter with injured. He was the first Marine killed in the war. His mother is Sally Marsh Edwards of Williamstown, KY.


When Sally Marsh Edwards said "freedom is not free" to me when I talked to her on the phone this evening, it didn't sound like a bumper sticker slogan. It sounded like the truth; it cost her her son, Captain Jonathan "Jack" Edwards, the first Marine killed in the Gulf War of 1991.

Once I found out the name of the family in the photo above, some minor investigating found the name of Capt. Edwards' mother, and some campaign contribution records revealed her address and city. The phone book did the rest.

"Jack is our hero," she told me when I called. He graduated from high school as a junior. He did so well on his ACTs that "the principal called and said 'please let me graduate him now.' He did and not longer thereafter, Jack walked into her house with a uniform on. He'd enlisted.

He'd actually left active duty when the Gulf war known as "Desert Storm" -- more recently referred to by some as "the good war " -- broke out, but was recalled to fly helicopters.

On the day he was buried (above) at Arlington National Cemetery, the wind chill was 16 below zero. "Gayle has a flag on her lap (in the photo) and the general gave me one and I remember that his tears were frozen on his cheeks," she said.

"I got my miracle that day," she said. As befits the military, graves are dug in proper order. One area fills up, they move on to the next area. As she paused at her son's grave that day, however, she realized he had been buried -- apparently by chance -- head to toe to her own aunt, a secretary during World War II to Dwight Eisenhower, and Generals Bradley and Marshall. "There shouldn't have been an open space available" there, she said. But there was.

The picture above, she says, "was on the cover of every newspaper in the country" the next day. She and her husband, who was severely handicapped by Multiple Sclerosis, were driving home and stopped at a rest area restaurant on the way home to Cincinnati. "I screamed when I saw it," she said.

She's not in the picture. She was in a van nearby with her husband. But another grandchild -- a girl -- is being held on the lap of her sister in the second row.

The youngest son, Ben, is wearing his father's jacket. He spent some time in college after receiving a full scholarship to study art, and now owns a tattoo parlor in Virginia Beach. Older brother, Spencer, is in the sales business.

"Cincinnati was very good to us," she said. The community raised money for Captain Edwards children.

He was the first killed in Kuwait. But someone had to be the last. "I wrote to the family of a soldier who died on the last day of the war," she told me. "And we became the best of friends."

Her husband died in 2000. He, too, was an historic figure in the battles of the Mideast. He was a pilot for Pan Am Airlines. In September 1970, he piloted Pan Am Flight 93, hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Three other planes were hijacked that day, with intentions to fly them to an airstrip in Jordan. But the 747 was too big to land there, so it flew to Cairo, where it was emptied, and then blown up.

Mrs. Edwards is 75 now, and still working as a lawyer. She helps disabled people get the Social Security benefits to which they're entitled. Many are disabled veterans.

She visited her son's grave early this year. Out of the glare of the media that consumed her family's privacy in 1991, a ceremony each year remembers those who died in the Gulf war. It's mostly underwritten by the government of Kuwait.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My old man in maintenance

I think life would be pretty fun doing up a few videos for Southwest Airlines.

Like this, for example:

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Playing with the panel

Yeah, I know, most folks would have the panel done by now. What's it been? A couple of months? You know, the lawn was looking at me funny. The deck still needs some work, the fence needed painting. The garage needed cleaning. And I was born with the ability to feel guilt.

Out at the hangar, the grill needs to come home and the bench -- the one I sit on and think deep thoughts during the summer -- needed sanding and staining. So that was my plan today. One piece of non-airplane work and then one piece of airplane work. I don't know why I feel like I need to "earn" the time I work on the airplane. But I do.

I finished up the instrument panel cutout for the ICOM A-210 the other day. So today I put it the PS Engineering intercom. Originally I was going to put this on the other side of the rib. But, you know? There's a good chunk of room underneath the transponder. Now, someday I may want to put a full audio panel there. So I can just cut it out. But for today, perfect.

Then I needed to figure out where to cut the subpanel to allow the radio tray to come through. I fired up my dad's old Dremel tool and, voila!

I'm not exactly sure what needs to happen on the forward side of the subpanel. I assume some angle needs to strengthen it and be used to screw down the tray. The holes for the screws in the tray, though, are pretty far -- farther than 3/4 angle -- forward of the subpanel. And should I reinforce angle on the bottom and top?

Meanwhile, my building friend, Brad, stopped in to check Tom Berge's recommendation that the wires from the strobe/nav light in the tail come through the center of the vertical stabliler. The more we thought about it, though, the more we decided since we've already gone through on the side (without cutting through the vertical stabilizer spar, we best leave it there.

Then he mentioned he had a power supply and a harness for the Dynon 100. So I borrowed it to be sure that when the Dynon went black when I was playing with it a few weeks ago, it was because the backup battery was dead. It was.

I played with it for awhile. It's pretty cool and will be just fine for me, the VFR pilot. I did find its altimeter to be more accurate than the Falcon gauge I bought from Van's as a backup altimeter. I set it for the field barometer and elevation and the Falcon gauge is off by about 80 feet. Not good. No instructions came with it so I don't know if there's a way to calibrate it or what.

Anyway, I left it on for a couple of hours and removed the power supply and, nope, the Dynon didn't come back to life. I don't know how long the battery needs to be charged but it's not doing its job right now.

I've got to get me one of these power units, though.

So the only holes left to make in the panel -- at least until I win the lottery -- or for switches. Master, start, flaps, electronic ignition. I haven't figured out what I need for that yet, though. All in good time. One of the good things about spending a pile of money, is it gives you time to work on stuff without spending any more.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Team RV

Do the blues and RV airplanes mix? That's the experiment I wanted to conduct in this week's RV Builder's Hotline with some fabulous pictures that photographer Don Neuberg provided to me. Don is an RV fan and often sends some "builder motivation" material to me.

I have no clue how many people actually read the Hotline, but I know my wife breezes through it and declared an RV "sexy." So the slideshow must've worked. Here is it is (or you can go to this page).

Friday, May 15, 2009

RV Builder's Hotline posted

You can find the latest issue here.

Too little, too late

The New York Mills airport in Minnesota -- a turf strip -- is going to close. The City Council there voted this week to close it down. Lots of pilots went to the council meeting to plead their case over the importance of the airport.

It's the same lesson as always that pilots consistently ignore. The time to talk about the value of your airport, is before someone comes up with the idea to close it.

Plus, if the best argument you have for your airport is that it can be used in the event of a large-scale evacuation, you've got a problem.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who's killing general aviation?

Apparently there was a godawful story on KTLA in Los Angeles the other day about a plane crash. It seems experimental airplanes were described as "death planes," and the reporter was sitting in an RV. Nice.

I have nothing but contempt for lousy reporting such as that turned in by Jaime Chambers and the editors and producers at KTLA. But I reserve some residual bile for people who then jump on bulletin boards, like Van's Air Force, and make unfounded assertions because of the one story:

"This is what worries me about the media is this is how they report on all issues not just Aviation."


"The majority of the general aviation news stories that are reported that I have seen are just plain wrong. Facts and terms used to be checked by reporters. Now it just seems that they read from a teleprompter and spew whatever is in front of them or copy things from a computer and it's fact. And stock photo's of an airplane are good enough."

.. and ...

"I have yet to see a single report on general aircraft and especially homebuilts that are reported with no significant errors and/or obvious bias."

Not one? Here's one. Here's another. Here's another. And another. And another (from way back).

As a matter of fact, just tonight I was reading this story, about how students are overcoming disabilities to become pilots. Yet not a single member of a single aviation bulletin board posted a single mention of that story or any of the others. Why? Because there's an old joke in the newsroom, "Don't check your facts, you'll ruin a good story."

Here's my post this evening on Van's Air Force. I realize it's a waste of time.

I don't defend my profession because it's my profession. I defend -- in this case -- my profession because in my profession I have a naked hatred for inaccuracy and overgeneralization.

You're mad at the KTLA story. I get that. So am I. But phrases like "every GA story is written with inaccuracies or a bias" are simply ignorant and, of course, inaccurate.

The idea that reporters are "out" to get general aviation or that journalists are just so stupid that it's a good day when they remember to zip their pants are insulting.

Here's a story I read just tonight. Students are overcoming disabilities through aviation. But you know what? I looked all over Van's Air Force tonight for someone posting this story, and maybe a comment that this reporter did a good job of portraying general aviation in a good light.

At least four or five times a month, I stick general aviation stories in the Hotline that I think are well done, and I rarely find them by reading VAF, or any other aviation bulletin board for that matter.

When we've already reached a conclusion, we tend to be only interested in data that supports it while ignoring data that might -- if considered -- lead us to question our own conclusions. We don't do that in our country anymore and we're the more ignorant because we don't.

Look, I get the extent to which reporting can stink. Believe me, it can. But I also know there's darned good reporting being done and -- more important -- more positive GA stories than negative GA stories being done. (Matthew Wald of the New York Times is not ignorant on the subject of aviation and neither is James Fallows of The Atlantic)

I realize I'm beating a dead horse here and even with my long-standing passion to try to get many of you involved with the media in your community, I have to admit it's a lost cause. People get their heels dug in against the media, and it makes it tougher for people like me to feel welcomed at the local airport.

So who else besides bad reporters are actively participating in the death of general aviation in this country? General aviators.

General aviation right now is the long goodbye.

Predictably, and understandably I guess, the thread (which I've rewritten slightly) got closed after I posted that. It's not really a productive conversation. People are going to believe what they want to believe.

If we truly value the freedom to fly, approaching our relationships with the media shouldn't be such a chore.

Feel free to discuss this below.

The cloud bank

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I inadvertently entered a cloud while flying around flyover country. Here's a great video on what that looks like:

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Lane makes my day

I don't think I've ever made much of a secret of my admiration for Lane Wallace, the editor/columnist for Flying Magazine, who inherited the honor of being the average flyer's favorite aviation columnist from Gordon Baxter some years ago.

She recently founded No Map, No Guide, No Limits, a terrific Web site that broadens the subject areas for her fine writing.

And now she's added a new line -- online columnist for The Atlantic.

Today she dropped me a note to give me a "heads up" that her column today refers substantially to an article I wrote for my day job, as part of a rout of college campuses I made last winter. It's basically a "dear graduates" letter, a few months early.

Flying is a great thrill and building an airplane is a lot of fun, but getting quoted by one of your favorite writers can make a guy's day.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Working man panel

If I were a typical RV builder these days, I'd be plotting out how to space out my two $10,000 Chelton flight instruments, and then sending the panel out to a special place to have it perfectly cut. Or I'd just give Stein Bruch $100,000 (as, believe me, some people have) to build the perfect panel.

But, alas, like my father before me, I have to go to work each day to earn a living and so I'm building a "blue-collar" panel. I'm cutting each hole myself, and then filing it down to the right size. By hand.

I'll know every inch of this panel, because I will have measured, cut, and touched every inch of this panel.

There are days when I read Van's Air Force and see the amazing equipment people are bringing to their project and the amount of money they bring to bear upon it, and think I'm not really much of a builder. Then there are days when I realize I'm doing all of this plane by hand, by myself, while juggling real life for a working person and I think that puts me in the company of the real homebuilders of years gone by like Tony Bingelis, who figured out how to do all of this without writing a big check.

So here's what I've got so far (left to right): Backup altimeter and airspeed indicator on the left, a Dynon D100 EFIS over a Grand Rapids EIS 4000 engine monitor, the Vertical Power VP-50 over the TruTrak single-axis wing leveler, an Air Gizmo dock for a Garmin 296 (without the adaptor to angle it toward me which turned out to be a waste of my $25), over an Icom A210 radio.

And that's where I am. So here's my question. Underneath the A210, will be the Garmin 327 transponder. How big of a gap (for cooling) should I account for when figuring out the height of the cut below the A210 radio? And I assume I'm not leaving a small piece of metal between the two, right?

Also, would it make sense to cut out a "blank" for another radio (you'll note I have no VOR capability) in the event I decide to add one and then put some sort of cover over it?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It was 48 years ago today

It was 48 years ago today that Alan Shepard -- a good son of New England -- climbed into Freedom 7 and took the first suborbital flight in space.

Freedom 7 - May 5, 1961 from Mark Gray on Vimeo.

It's interesting to me that his instrument panel appears to be nowhere close to what now populates most RVs.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The tech counselor visit

Tom Berge, as good an RV builder who has ever walked Planet RV, stopped by today for a tech counselor visit. Next week, Tom is doing an engine-mounting forum at Lake Elmo and I'll be interviewing him afterward for the next edition of the RV Builder's Hotline. But here are a couple of quick notes from his visit as scrawled on one of my workbenches (click for a larger view but I doubt you'll be able to read my writing):

Here's the quick-and-dirty version.

1. Mount headset jacks in the upper canopy channel. This is the piece that goes from the rollbar back to bulkhead 706. If you mount the headset jacks in the panel or nearby, you've got wires in the way. Also run a power cable to the location in the event I want to acquire some ANR headsets.

2. Turn the bolts holding the vertical spar around. I followed Van's plans here which call for the bolt head to be forward. But doing so allows the rudder to bang on the end of the bolts.

3. "There's a lot of threads showing on these bolts for the horizontal stabilizer, are you sure you didn't run out of threads when torquing the nuts?" Well, no, actually. But I checked these and I did find that I used a thin 910-L washer on one of them. So I changed that. The others seem to be OK.

4. Run the tail strobe/nav light wires through the middle of the VS spar and bulkhead, not off to the side as I have it. I'm still noodling on this. It's a good idea. The problem in the 7A is there's a tie-down bracket in that location. Tom also showed me where to cut a slit in the front of the rudder fairing, and to put a plug connection there for easy removal.

5. Put enough washers in the bolts connecting the elevator control horns. I don't have both of the elevators installed yet so this connection hasn't been made yet.

6. Don't torque castlelated nuts. I don't know what I was thinking. Castle nuts and cotter pins are used because the bolt is an axle. Torque the nuts down and it can't work correctly. This was a problem in the top of the flap motor connection...

As well as most of the connections I had at the brake/rudder pedals.

Tom also noticed that I hadn't put cotter pins in the rudder cable connection to the pedals. I'm sure this is one of those times when I said, "I'll just stick the bolt on there and finish it up later while I jump in and play with the pedals and make airplane noises," but I completely forgot about doing this and while a final inspection likely would've caught this, this practice is dumb on my part, especially at my age and ability to forget things.

7. Pull out the canopy release mechanism and throw it away. Just use bolts in that location. This is one thing I intended to do. There's a fair amount of weight in that system and it doesn't work, because I didn't cut the top skin to allow a quick release of the canopy in flight and even if I did, I don't wear a parachute. What am I supposed to do without a canopy? And as far as I know, nobody has ever jettisoned a canopy on an RV-7 in flight.

8. Make false floors for the forward fuselage. I have to read up a little more on how to do this and I'm interested in hearing how other people have handled this. But the noise and vibration is considerable in this location. So the goal is to use the soundproofing foam here, and then place a "floor" over it. As I envision it, it involves pieces of angle on pieces of aluminum which are then connected to the angles that run from the F-704 bulkhead to the firewall, though it's unclear at the moment how this connection would take place. But this will also considerably lessen the noise and add comfort.

9. You should've split the Delrin blocks that hold the rudder pedals in place. Van's doesn't tell you to do this (although we do split the center block). But once you install the pedals without splitting the end blocks, and then add all the other junk, you're not going to be able to get the pedals out if you had too. Of course, I never thought of that but if you're building and haven't gotten to this part yet, that's a good tip.

10. Weather-proofing the tip-up canopy. Tom uses the soundproofing foam and attaches it on the aft side of the subpanel, below that strip of aluminum we put on there for a rubber channel. It's width is equal to the height of the canopy frame. When it closes, it compresses the foam and makes a much better barrier to incoming water than the rubber guard. He's also installed some deflection channels near the canopy hinges to direct any water that comes in there (you can't put foam in that locations) away from the avionics. He acknowledges it runs, instead, onto his wife's legs and I won't say that he claimed that's better than running into the avionics. You can judge that for yourself.

11. The nose gear issue. So I showed him my nose gear and how difficult it is to move the wheel given the torque value called out and we discussed Alex Peterson's excellent analysis of the nose gear "problem," which may or may not be contributing to a high number of nose-overs and flips in the RV tri-gears. I thought I had a link on the Hotline somewhere to Alex's work but I can't find it at the moment and I don't want to incorrectly repeat what Tom relayed to me but one problem appears to be the two "pucks" in the design where the bolt passes through. Tom says there is a company out there -- somewhere -- that manufacturers a different system and I'm trying to locate that as well as Alex's analysis.

12. Your tires might last through the first flight. Tom says the tires supplied with the kit aren't very good. He's using retreads on his RV-7.

13. Tie wraps - Don't use the cheap plastic ones you get at Home Depot (guilty). Get ones with a metal insert from McMaster Car. Also, I have long stretches of conduit that are probably going to chaffe on the fuselage floor. I need to secure those somehow. I've used the adhesive tabs that you attach the tie wrap to, but those don't work very well, Tom says. Searching.

14. Reinforce the rear cover flange on the flap motor housing. Do you put weight on the crossbar behind the seats when getting in and our of your RV? Yeah, me too. Bad thing. The weight is being supported almost exclusively by that rear piece and eventually it will bend. The best advice is don't put your weight on that crosspiece and even so, I'm going to put some angle on the flange to strengthen the cover channel a bit.

15. Add altitude hold to the autopilot system. I only have the one-axis wing leveler from TruTrak but if I'm going to do any cross country at all -- and I am -- I need to add the second servo. "RVs are sport airplanes but they don't stay where you put them," Tom said. I have to investigate how to implement this. I just bought a wiring harness for the single axis TruTrak from SteinAir and I have to figure out how expensive this change is going to be.

That's one of the things with a technical inspection. It refocused me on how much I still need to do and how much I still need to spend on the RV project. "One thing at a time" is still the RV builder's mantra, but there's no way -- and no reason, I guess -- to avoid the "let's stop and reassess where we are" fallout.

The other thing we talked about is the airport at which I've chosen to complete the RV. South St. Paul is a one-strip airport with houses everywhere. The FAA doesn't want any more first flights off of it, so I'll likely have to truck the plane to Lake Elmo or Airlake and find another hangar as some point.

Big deal? Well, yeah, it is. It means that I have to cut the wires for the various harnesses and lights in order to remove the wings. Yes, I can put connectors for the strobe wires but that risks adding noise into the system. And what do you do about the drain wire when you use plugs or connectors at the wing root anyway?

That was a nice, and expensive, harness I bought from Stein. It's not installed yet and I can't install it if I'm going to need to move the plane. So I can't finish the wiring phase of the project either.

It means that I'm really NOT assembling some of these parts for the final time, and injects a lot of uncertainty into what I should do next.

But Tom's advice was very helpful as was the final "you're doing a good job."

Friday, May 1, 2009

RV Builder's Hotline for 5/2/09 is posted

The latest issue of the RV Builder's Hotline has been posted. The issue features a conversation with Rick Gray, who won the Grand Champion trophy at Sun 'n Fun. To view it, go here.

For those of you who subscribe, I'll start the mailing tonight. A lot of Yahoo customers are finding theirs bounce back. I can't explain Yahoo's decision but they think it's spam and not enough people are complaining. There's little I can do about it.
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