Friday, October 30, 2009

Upside down

If I had to do it all over again -- and I'm kind of thinking I will some day -- I'd probably build an RV-9. The "9" didn't exist when I ordered the "7," which is aerobatic capable and all that. Great, but I'm unlikely to do much aerobatics, what with the possibility of aggravating the Meniere's Disease, which makes you dizzy.

Heck, just watching this video of Twin Citian Alex Peterson makes me all nauseous.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Bob Show

The problem I was having figuring out how to get to nuts on the exhaust system on the RV-7A project was easy to solve. I used an old method; I asked someone smarter than me, which would be, ummm, everybody.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pitfalls of exhaust installation 101

I need to plow ahead with engine installation on ye olde RV-7A. George Orndorff's advice, of course, is get the exhaust system and anything else that can't be moved installed before you start running cables and lines and doing baffling work etc.

Fair enough, but here's the problem I'm having in installing the Vetterman system (which is great, by the way) on my Mattituck-built IO-360.

Update 4:21 p.m. 10/20/09 - By way of Rivetbangers and the other usual spots, Mike Bullock has offered this solution:

So I've picked up a 1/2" 1/4"-drive swivel and a 1/4-to-3/8 adaptor (I already had an extension) and I'll try that this evening. Look for another video soon. They're kind of fun to make.

New Vertical Power features

Vertical Power announced a software upgrade today that introduces new features. For the VP-50, which I have, the highlights are, according to the company:

· Variable speed pitch trim
· Landing light wig-wag
· External switches can turn devices on and off
· Switches 7 & 8 can be used to turn devices on an off
· Current fault alarms (open circuit detection)
· Display of aux battery voltage
· Intermediate flap stops (VP-100 only)

I'm getting two new switches on my panel for the price of... zero! Let's see you switch and fuse people do that! (g)

The light wing-wag has given me a new project for the the winter -- put a second landing/taxi light in the other wing.

I don't have an auxiliary battery so that feature doesn't concern me, and I have manual trim so that does nothing for me either.

Of course my next task is going to be putting the cable together that allows me to download the software update into my lonely Vertical Power control panel.

Here are the particulars.

From the flight deck

I'm still waiting for my first ride in a Cessna Citation jet. My son isn't, however. The lucky kid -- he's a paramedic -- made his first patient transfer in a Cessna Citation this week.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't that pilot appear to be either asleep or working on his laptop? (joke)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Another one for the good guys

I had to check VAF before posting this tonight to make sure nobody had posted a "Gosh, look at the great job the media did extolling the world of experimental aircraft." No surprise. They didn't. So here you go.

This is the story of a group of EAAers out in French Valley California who are building a Pietenpol, but one of them built an RV-9 first. (More)

CaptainMorgan Air

I stole this off Facebook. Stein Bruch (of SteinAir fame) as Captain Morgan.

In other Monday news, don't miss Dave Gamble's excellent writeup of his weekend flying on PapaGolf Chronicles.

Look at those fall colors!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How to be the person the media turns to for general aviation expertise

Today I've been working the story of Northwest Airlines Flight 188, which overshot its intended destination by, oh, 150 miles or so. It seems the pilots were so busy arguing they lost "situational awareness." (Here's my blog post).

Since I was one of the people who jumped on the story first, and thanks to the power of Twitter, I've fielded various calls tonight from news organizations that are looking for some expertise on the subject of the incident and also flying in particular. I'm on tomorrow, for example, in New York.

But it was a phone call from a local TV station that reminded me to remind you about how easy it is to influence the stories about aviation. The producer was calling because she'd read my blog and knows that I have expertise on aviation "and also we hear you're a pilot." She wanted to interview someone.

Now, I know how the game works and when you're really desperate and can't find anyone to talk to you, you talk to a reporter. If they're calling the competition, they must have been really desperate.

I said I'd be glad to help in any way I can and she would check and call back. When she called back "to thank me for being willing to talk to them," I knew what was coming next. They'd decided not to talk to me. I presume someone in the newsroom determined that they hadn't reached that level of desperation yet.

But it was what she said at the end of the conversation that is significant. "If you don't mind, I'm going to go ahead and put your name and number in our list of experts we can call on," she said.

Forehead slap.

Of course. Every newsroom has "the Golden Rolodex," people to talk to in a pinch about the news. You know how you usually see the same people interviewed over and over again? That's the Golden Rolodex and it also reveals how thin that list can be.

Get in the Golden Rolodex under "aviation."

It's not hard to do. At the very least -- and do this right now -- go to the Web site of your favorite local news (or even your least favorite) organizations and find the e-mail address for the newsroom. Then drop them a line and introduce yourself. "I know from time to time you're looking for people with expertise on aviation and I am writing to provide you with information on how you can reach me," might be a good place to start. Provide home and cellphone numbers, addresses, and e-mail, and include a synopsis of your expertise, making sure to note that you'd be deleted to talk to them in advance of breaking news stories about aviation so that they can be comfortable with the level of expertise.

Have a plane? Offer them a ride. Give them a tour of the airport. Let them know a few things about aviation in your community that they didn't know. (Note: Ignore the usual AOPA nonsense about how your local airport generates economic activity. Nobody cares about that and few people believe it). Let them know that you know officials that can help them with their stories, too.

Follow up with a phone call (Don't cold call them with this stuff. They're too busy and newsrooms automatically assume people calling them are crackpots).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Installing the Whelen NAV/Strobe light in the tail

Yes, I know sticking one of the Whelen combination nav/strobe lights in the fiberglass fairing of an RV airplane is not a difficult task. Why has it taken me three years to get it done? It's a long story but the Cliff Note version is it didn't make sense to do it until the electrical system was installed and the fairings finished and expertly crafted. That's my story and, for now, I'm sticking with it.

But there are some lessons to be learned that can save you some time on this task that I'm happy to pass along. For one thing -- and this has more to do with an overall approach to building an RV airplane, it's possible to overthink yourself into mistakes. To be too careful, one might say. (Read more)

The simplicty of the Vertical Power 50

The more work I do on the electrical system of my RV-7A, the more impressed I am with the Vertical Power 50 system I've installed. I'll write more later about this week's exploits on installing the Whelen NAV and strobe light in the tail, but it highlighted the ease with which the VP-50 makes electrical work.

I had to restring the wires to the tail -- for reasons I'll get into later -- and last night all I had to do was add connectors to the wires back at the tail, then splice into a single wire on the VP-50 harness that goes into the power connector.

Then I just flip on the master switch, which fires up the VP-50 (and warns me of a low voltage condition)

Put the VP-50 in configuration mode:

Flip to adding a "device":

And configure the device:

In this case, I'm configuring the wire that is connected to the #4 pin (it's the Whelen strobe power unit power wire), I've set a 10 amp "fuse" and chosen switch #6 on the VP-50 unit to turn it on and off. I hit save and voila!

What's not to love about this?

The VP-50 also monitors the health of the electrical system. In this case it shows the battery at 12.4 volts and the draw of 2.7 amps.

Firesleeve installation

My winter is pretty well planned out for the RV-7A project. Enter the hangar, quickly do some work on the engine installation, run back to the car and warm up.

One of these days, I'll need to install some firesleeve on that installation so in the comfort of my heated living room, I'm watching this:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Crossing the Sierras

Since I currently rent an airplane whenever I want to fly, I'm pretty spoiled. I don't go far from the home airport and even if I do, hey, it's Minnesota. It's mostly flat with lots of green fields to land in should things go south.

At some point -- maybe -- this RV is going to be finished and I'm going to want to fly cross country, across some terrible terrain. Like this:

I'm still working on the engine installation (and probably will be for most of the next year). This is good motivation to take my time and get it right.

The Washington Post pot meets the kettle

I was surprised to see Miles O'Brien, an otherwise reasonable supporter of general aviation, give some Twitter promotion to this article in the Washington Post today on ABC's plan to use skywriters to promote its "V" remake.

Inherent in the article is that planes in the sky are a bad thing:

All told, we're conservatively talking here about around 400 gallons of fuel containing maybe 800 grams of lead -- aviation fuel is exempt from the EPA's ban on lead -- and around three tons of CO2, among other pollutants, if each "V" outing took about one hour of flying time. This is according to various aviation pundits contacted by The TV Column.

My guess is 15 small planes have less of an environmental footprint than, say, hundreds of newspaper delivery trucks delivering tons of paper which will be thrown in the trash after a few hours.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why do we do such stupid things when we fly?

The NTSB is out with its report on the tragic crash of a medical flight near Milwaukee and it's a familiar pattern. If a pilot flies the airplane, everyone lives.


National Transportation Safety Board

Washington, DC 20594







Washington, D.C. - The National Transportation Safety Board

today determined that the probable cause of an aircraft that

lost control and impacted water was the pilots'

mismanagement of an abnormal flight control situation

through improper actions, including lack of crew

coordination, and failing to control airspeed and to

prioritize control of the airplane.

On June 4, 2007, about 4:00pm CST, a Cessna Citation 550,

N550BP, impacted Lake Michigan shortly after departure from

General Mitchell International Airport, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

(MKE). The two pilots and four passengers were killed, and

the airplane was destroyed. The airplane was being operated

by Marlin Air under the provisions of Part 135. The aircraft

was carrying a human organ for a transplant operation in

Michigan. At the time of the accident, marginal visual

meteorological conditions prevailed at the surface, and

instrument meteorological conditions prevailed aloft; the

flight operated on an instrument flight rules flight plan.

Due to the lack of a data recording system, the Board could

not determine the exact nature of the initiating event of

the accident. However, the evidence indicated that the two

most likely scenarios were a runaway trim or the inadvertent

engagement of the autopilot, rather than the yaw damper, at


The Board further noted that the event was controllable if

the captain had not allowed the airspeed and resulting

control forces to increase while he tried to troubleshoot

the problem. By allowing the airplane's airspeed to

increase while engaging in poorly coordinated

troubleshooting efforts, the pilots allowed an abnormal

situation to escalate to an emergency.

Therefore, the NTSB concluded that if the pilots had simply

maintained a reduced airspeed while they responded to the

situation, the aerodynamic forces on the airplane would not

have increased significantly. At reduced airspeeds, the

pilots should have been able to maintain control of the

airplane long enough to either successfully troubleshoot and

resolve the problem or return safely to the airport.

Contributing to the accident were Marlin Air's operational

safety deficiencies, including the inadequate checkrides

administered by Marlin Air's chief pilot/check airman, and

the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) failure to

detect and correct those deficiencies, which placed a pilot

who inadequately emphasized safety in the position of

company chief pilot and designated check airman and placed

an ill-prepared pilot in the first officer's seat.

Results from the Board's investigation indicated that the

captain did not adhere to procedures or comply with

regulations, and that he routinely abbreviated checklists.

Subsequently, the NTSB concluded that the pilots' lack of

discipline, lack of in-depth systems knowledge, and failure

to adhere to procedures contributed to their inability to

cope with anomalies experienced during the accident flight.

Thus, the Board also concluded that Marlin Air's selection

of a chief pilot/check airman who failed to comply with

procedures and regulations contributed to a culture that

allowed an ill-prepared first officer to fly in Part 135


The report adopted today by the Board, points out that FAA

guidance regarding appointment of check airmen requires

Principal Operations Inspectors (POI) to verify the check

airman candidate's "certificates and background."

Additionally, all required training must be completed, and

the airman's training records must show satisfactory

completion of initial, transition, or upgrade training, as

applicable. The guidance does not specifically address POI

actions when the background evaluation discloses negative

information. This lack of guidance can result in the

appointment of check airmen who do not adhere to standards

and who possibly jeopardize flight safety.

As a result of this accident investigation, the Safety Board

issued recommendations to the FAA, and the American Hospital

Association regarding airplane and system deficiencies, FAA

oversight, and the safety ramifications of an operator's

financial health.


A summary of the findings of the Board's report is available

on the NTSB's website at:


An archive of press releases is available at

Monday, October 12, 2009

For Don Thurston

Sunday October 11, 2009
Delivered by Bob Collins

I am deeply honored to be asked by the family to speak to you this afternoon about Don Thurston. I've been known to put a couple of words together from time to time, but there's nothing in my experience that has given me the ability to put Don's life -- as I've known it -- into words.

In 1976, I got a letter which said:

"Dear Bob: Thank you for your interest in WMNB. Unfortunately, we have no present positions. We will keep your resume on file. Sincerely, Don Thurston."

I wish I'd saved that letter. But I had so many of them.

Three or four years later, I met his daughter when we worked down at WBEC in Pittsfield, and I didn't care for her that much, and she didn't much care for me. So, naturally, we were married about three years later and I became Don Thurston's favorite son-in-law.

Years later, when I went to work for him, I asked him where he kept that resume and he acknowledged that he didn't.

Life is funny. And life is to be marveled, even when it ends.

A guy grows up in Gloucester of modest means, goes to school to be an electrical engineer, goes to Vermont to work in radio; even does a morning show from a barn -- with a dog -- then strikes out on his own and works his way up to owning a radio station in North Adams, and he put an FM station on the air -- WMNB, which he used to stood for "We May Never Broadcast." And from his home base, he became one of the most influential people in his field in America.

Radio was the medium that united America's communities, and it selected Don Thurston as its leader. He knew mayors, and governors, and presidents, and people who wanted to be president and they knew him by his first name. He could spend a day listening to Yo Yo Ma down at Tanglewood, and another in Nashville swapping tales with Dolly Parton.

But up on the hill here, at the highest point beyond the hairpin turn, there's a red light on top of a tower that flashes: on…and…off. All night. Every night. We refer to it as "Papa's Light." They were going to shut it off a few years ago because it's not required anymore. But pilots over at the airport -- bless their hearts -- asked that it be kept on because when you're flying around in the dark over horrible terrain, it's the beacon that says, "This is where home is. Right over here." So, Don and Cory kept it on.

Like Papa's Light, Don reminded us through his actions and words, that no matter where you are, no matter the route of your life, no matter the terrain you encounter, this is where home is. Right over here.

Lesser men have left the Berkshires and never looked back.

Others have seen success as something you find somewhere else.

Where others saw danger, he saw potential, which is the number one reason why Don saw so much success himself. He saw in us things that we didn't even see in us. Nobody loved our success more than Don. He was loyal to the people who worked for him at those radio stations and they were loyal to him, and to these communities, and that did not happen by accident.

Don Thurston was living proof of what can be accomplished with a bucket-load of optimism and a woman named Oralie.

If you were a contemporary of Don's -- and especially if you were an in-law -- your God-given survival instinct compelled you to a life with a singular purpose: Not to disappoint Don Thurston, a man with that voice that would make you sit up straight.

I say that not to imply that there was a price to be paid from Don for disappointing him; there was a price to be paid from you and your mirror. That's what a role model does. He provides the big shoes. The rest is up to us.

He made us want to be better.

Don was brilliant. He made us want to be brilliant, too.

He was a man of more integrity than any person I've ever met. And he made us want to act with more integrity, too.

Don felt an abiding sense of service to his community, whether it was his church, his city, his county, his college, or his country, and he made us want to serve our communities, too.

Whoever you are and whatever life you've lived, when Don Thurston talked to you, your life was the most interesting in the world -- not because it was some technique of a guy who knew how to close a deal, but because Don found the same wonder in our lives as we found in his. If at times we thought we didn't measure up to our role model, the cure was merely to spend a few minutes with him.

Nobody deserved a happy and healthy retirement more than Don Thurston. But I'm not going to lie to you; he didn't get it. The last few years were a struggle. The last few months were the very definition of "unfair."

They required us then -- and require us now -- to make a withdrawal from a bank account into which Don made a regular deposit of wisdom.

There is a well-embellished parable that says that one day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah, his most trusted minister. He said to him, "Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. It has special powers. If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy."

Benaiah searched for the ring, and finally passed a merchant in Jerusalem, and said, "Have you by any chance heard of a special ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy, and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?"

The elderly man took a plain gold ring from his display and engraved something on it.

Benaiah took the ring back to Solomon, who read the inscription that made his smile disappear. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band -- Gimel, Zayin, and Yud -- which begin the words "Gam zeh ya'avor." This, too, shall pass.

These words were Don's mantra, and as we reflect on our sorrow today, they can make a sad person happy. For we know that Don was right. This grief will pass.

For now, however, I share it with Oralie. And Allen. And Carolie. And Cory. And Marie.

The largest part of Don Thurston's loving heart was reserved exclusively for his grandchildren.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Sarah, in whom Don's optimism, smile, and wisdom lives.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Tom, in whom Don's dignity, love of family, sense of responsibility, and curiosity lives.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Sean, in whom Don's brilliance, and standard of fairness and justice lives. If your grandfather ever rooted for the Yankees (and I'm not saying he did), then it was only because you did.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Ross, in whom Don's love of music, resilience, and ability to accomplish great things without forgetting his roots lives.

  • If you didn't know Don Thurston, then meet Patrick, in whom Don's ease around people of all stripes, high expectations, joy, and determination to serve others lives.

    If you did know Don Thurston, then today we share a common sense that we have been the luckiest people in the world.

    In this hour… at this moment… this family… this community… this world … has never needed the likes of Don Thurston more.

    He has given us the example of a life well-lived, in service to us.

    Let us vow not to disappoint him.
  • Tuesday, October 6, 2009

    Don Thurston flies west

    Of all the articles I've written over the years, I don't think any elicited as much response -- at least good response -- as this one. It was a short piece about some minor RV construction my father in law did a few years ago, made poignant because of his struggle with Parkinson's disease.

    Don died this morning after a brutal last few months. Here's a tribute.

    Friday, October 2, 2009

    End of the fiberglass season

    The morning temperatures sank in the 30s in flyover country this week, so I declared an official end to the Minnesota fiberglass season.

    In the nick of time, then, I finished the last fiberglass tip in the tail section, the tip on the top of the rudder. I have to admit, there were some minor surface imperfections, but it's way up high there where nobody can get too close to inspect. Since I've spent all summer on fiberglass projects -- it seems -- you'll just have to excuse me for being tired of doing any more.

    So tonight, I mounted the rudder.

    This will allow me to get the tail light put on, set the rudder stops, and generally close things up.

    I still have some concerns about bringing the tail light wires from the vertical stabilizer and into the rudder. Because I have a tie down bracket in the middle of the most-rear bulkhead, I had to come out of the vertical stabilizer down in a corner, and into the rudder fairing. You can't see it here, but the wires are covered with plastic tubing for extra support.

    I don't know how much full deflection an RV requires from its rudder, but my concern is at full left deflection, the wires are "crunched" a little. I don't have any idea how that could be avoided other than enlarging the hole in the fairing and just let the wires sort of flop around there.

    So what happens now? I've got the exhaust system put on the engine although I can't seem to get a socket set on a few bolts to torque them down. But I think I'll fit the cowling next, and also continue to work on wiring.

    I've decided that I will have disconnects on all the wires to the wing to allow me to take the wings off without cutting wires. That gorgeous TruTrak harness that SteinAir made for me is going to have to go back for alterations.

    The Dan Lloyd report

    The NTSB has now finalized its report into the November 2007 crash of Dan Lloyd's RV-10.

    A posting on the RV-10 list just after it happened, and a prelimianry report from the NTSB, had tongues wagging that Dan took too many shortcuts in the construction of the RV-10.

    The final report, however, was much less accusatory, though it did blame the crash on a $1.50 part:

    Prior to a planned trip in the homebuilt airplane, the pilot/builder flew the airplane to assure that it was functioning properly. The airplane was observed to fly north on the east side of a state highway, and to make a circle to the left, approximately 500 feet above ground level (agl). The airplane then flew in a westerly direction, flew across the highway, then turned to the left while losing altitude. When it reached approximately 50 feet agl, while heading east, the airplane rolled wings level, impacted a cornfield, and a postimpact fire ensued.

    Examination of the wreckage revealed that the engine was not producing power at impact. Both the non-certificated 220 horsepower engine, and the propeller, required a source of electricity to operate. On the night before the accident, the pilot moved the airplane's batteries from behind the baggage compartment to the forward cabin to change the center of gravity and re-wired the batteries into the electrical system. Examination of the electrical system revealed that a cable had become disconnected from an improperly crimped terminal.

    There are so many lessons here, one of which is obvious. There shouldn't be a single point of failure that will render your plane useless. Have a backup electrical system, or -- in my case -- have one magneto with a Lightspeed ignition.
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