Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Faith rewarded

I don't care how cynical you are, if this isn't news to lift the spirit, then you don't have one to lift. Jack Beck and Marmy Clason of Germantown, Wisc., have flown their RV-9A for the first time, according to a post on Van's Air Force today.

I've written a lot of stories about RV building, but none was better than their life story. And it's not just about RV-building.

If I never spend another minute working on my own RV project, the opportunity to meet this family was well worth the cost of the project thus far.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tales from the Crimp: Troubleshooting

You know those late-night and magazine ads that shout, "If I can make a million dollars, you can too!"? I think if Van's Aircraft wants to mirror that, they should use me. "If I can (fill in any particular skill required to build your own airplane here), you can, too." Of course, the jury is still out on whether I can (fill in name of any particular skill required to build your own airplane here).

I've taken this week off from work, ostensibly to work on the RV-7A airplane project and burn up some vacation time (I've maxed out at 8 weeks), but for the most part I've been messing around with wires to make the wiring harness for the ICOM A210 radio and the PS Engineering PM1000II. So far, I think the electrons are disagreeing with each other.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the stupidest person ever to try to build an airplane, but I am sure if I can build one, anyone can. And so, for those people who will be reading this a year, 10 years, 20 years from now, I've made yet another video to let you know that, no, you're not the first person to feel like the only idiot who tried.

If you'd like to follow along, here's the PM1000II schematic. Here's the ICOM A210 manual.

Update 9:58 a.m. 11/25 - Upon further review, pins 25 & 24 are not showing continuity. The test leads were hitting the housing. Still troubleshooting.

Update 6:37 p.m. 11/25 - Update. Took the harness down to Steinair, where Mike Hilger performed his magic diagnosis and -- what? -- it appears to work normally. Yeah, we still had the "problem" with the "not quite green" light. But we attached an antenna and it transmitted and received normally.

Many thanks to Mike and also to Stein, who gave me a Christmas present -- some coax antenna cable.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Harnessing the power

I've been wondering if I'm up to electrical work on the airplane since way back in 2006, when I attended the SportAir electrical wiring workshop at Oshkosh (and then retook it in 2007). Since then, I've installed the Vertical Power system and got a few electrical components going, but the radio harness? That's pro material, right there.

But today I finished -- sort of -- the radio harness for the Icom A210 radio and the PS Engineering 1000II intercom. I still have to select a spot and install the headphone and microphone jacks for the pilot and passenger. And I still have to run push-to-talk wires to the stick grips on the control yoke for both pilot and passenger. And I have to read up more to figure out exactly HOW to wire the push-to-talk wires at the microphone jack. But other than that, I'm done!

I also have to figure out how to wire up a small switch, which allows you to hear the last transmission you received. The PS Engineering instructions SEEM to suggest this is a separate jack, but I'm sure I'm wrong. It would be stupid to take your headphones out of one jack, and plug them into another. Oh, and I have to wire up the music input. Sure, it's all mono, but floating along listening to the Ipod (which would mute if I get a transmission) is a nice idea.

My next step is to take out all the pins that I've inserted into the ICOM A210 end of the harness, so I can slip some "snakeskin" on there. I don't like having all these wires hanging out.

Will it work? I certainly hope so. I did test the auxiliary mic and headset on Friday. I got carrier on the scanner in the hangar, but I didn't hear any voice. But, then again, the wires were all over the place and no doubt grounding everywhere.

I've learned a lot about audio in the last few weeks thanks to the help of fellow RV builders like Kevin Faris and Ted Chang, but I could stand to spend some more time learning how electrons travel over this whole harness.

I'm taking this week off from work, so it might be a good time to select a location for the headsets, and get everything wired in.

But even then I won't be able to test much other than the intercom. I haven't purchased a communications antenna yet (any suggestions?) or bought the coax cable I'll need.

But things are getting there. If -- and I think it's a big if -- it works and there's no noise in the system when I flip on the strobes, I tend to think the worst part of my fairly-spartan panel and its wiring, will be behind me. I bought the autopilot harness and the transponder harness already made. I just have to get a cable of some sort to power the portable Garmin 296 GPS and then I think we can move on to getting the engine work started and completed.

Updated: I started the process of removing pins from the Molex connector for the ICOM A210. Here's what the pins look like. See the little barb on the top? That's what holds it in place in the connector when you push it in.

So, theoretically, I should be able to insert a small wire (like this DSub pin extractor from Vertical Power (I've never been able to get the pins out of the Vertical Power power connection!) which would force the barb down and allow me to remove the pin from the backside.

No dice. I've tried all morning. I did learn one thing, though. See that loose black wire below? ICOM has this schematic which tells you to jam two #18 wires into a single connector. This is a bad idea and I knew -- after the fact -- this was a bad idea because Stein Bruch said it was a bad idea. He suggested just a single wire from both of those pins and then, to serve as a jumper, solder one to the other "upstream."

So I knew -- because Stein said so -- that this connection would fail and one of the reasons I'm pulling all the pins is to change that set-up. As you can see, it did fail. It failed on the first tug while trying to remove the pin.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

EAA vid: Making a P-lead

It's hard to keep up with all the great homebuilder hints that the EAA has been providing; they're coming so fast. Here's one I'm paying particular attention to:

Let's just get it over with

Is it better to die a slow, painful death? Or get it over quickly? At this point, that's the only question left facing general aviation. The question of whether it will die has long been answered. It will, and fairly soon.

Out here in Flyover Country, they're locking down one of Minneapolis St. Paul's reliever airports -- Flying Cloud, where I fly out of when I rent the Piper Warrior I use until this RV project is completed.

According to the Eden Prairie News:

The wide open gates pictured here at Flying Cloud Airport will be a thing of the past. A new security system being put in place this week will mean that the gates will be closed , according to Airport Manager Jeff Nawrocki. Visitors to the airport will either have to have to key in a code or be buzzed in by one of the businesses.

How'd you like to be a barely-hanging-on flight school and have a chain link fence, barbed wire, and a sign that says "Keep Out. Authorized People Only" standing between you and your customer?

For the record, small airplanes have never -- not ever -- been used in a terrorist attack on the United States. A Ryder rental truck has. But go stop by the Ryder store on the way home today and see if there's a chain link fence, barbed wire, and a need to get 'buzzed in' procedure in your way.

Monday, November 16, 2009

RVator's Log is posted

The newest RVator's Log from the Minnesota Wing of Van's Air Force is now available here. Our leader, Doug Weiler, is a fabulous, fabulous writer and this month he pens an article on training issues.

Flash forward to 2009 and now we find private pilots faced with the same training issues. A few weeks ago, Jean and I borrowed Tom Berge’s RV-7A and flew to Vermillion, SD to visit #2 son and his girlfriend. The weather was 2500 overcast at Vermillion with unlimited visibility. We were IMC at 4000 feet and cleared for the GPS 32 approach, which required a procedure turn. Tom’s RV is circa 2003 with those funny round dials but a Garmin 530W and a Tru Trak autopilot doing most of the work. My problem is I know just enough about the 530W to be dangerous. No, I really had not sat down and truly learned this box like I should have and as a result every time I fly Tom’s airplane, I find myself not 100% confident in managing the “magic”.

"Managing the magic." What a great phrase.

There's also an article from Tom Berge on the things he finds when he inspects RVs for builders. If you missed it -- and even if you didn't -- here's the article/podcast with Tom I did earlier this year.

And be sure to catch Alex Peterson's article on bolts. Alex, by the way, is the "cover boy" this month on Van's calendar. I even got to ride in that plane with him a few weeks ago.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Solder Central

What used to be the den and computer room at Casa Collins is now the headquarters for the RV-7A project during the cold months. With an unheated hangar, working on the electrical system at the plane doesn't make much sense.

So I've hunkered down on the wiring harnesses for the PS Engineering 1000II and the ICOM A210 radio.

I guess in the big scheme of things, installing the power cables and applying some bench power and seeing things light up and not smoke is akin to crawling on the floor, but it still feels good anyway. And it's pretty.

I'm moving on now to wiring in the copilot and passenger headsets and microphones and learning a lot thanks to fellow RV builders and, in particularly, my RV friend, Kevin Faris, who has been nothing if not patient in answering many stupid questions.

Kevin even drew out the schematic of how the two are connected and has walked me through issues such as how to terminate shielded cable.

If the project is going to get on track for a 2011 first flight -- somewhere -- I'm going to need to make significant progress in finishing up the instrument panel while the snow is flying outside.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Grounding the Zodiac CH-601XL

The relationship between the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration has always been rocky. The NTSB staff thinks the FAA ignores their "suggestions."

Today, a news release practically says it out loud. Here's the release:

An experimental airplane of the same series that the National Transportation Safety Board urged the Federal Aviation Administration to ground seven months ago, until a
flight control problem could be corrected, was involved in another fatal accident last week.

On November 6, 2009, a Zodiac CH-601XL, an experimental amateur-built airplane, was destroyed as a result of an in-flight breakup near Agnos, Arkansas, killing the pilot who was the sole occupant. The debris field was scattered over an area more than 600 feet long. Both wings had separated from the fuselage in-flight.

In April 2009, the NTSB called on the FAA to ground the Zodiac CH-601XL after the Safety Board linked six accidents involving that aircraft model to aerodynamic flutter, a phenomenon in which the control surfaces and wings of the airplane can suddenly oscillate and lead to catastrophic structural failure. Those accidents killed a total of ten people. Preliminary investigation of the November 6 accident
in Arkansas reveals a failure mode similar to that seen in the earlier crashes.

The Safety Board's urgent recommendation to the FAA was to "prohibit further flight of the Zodiac CH-601XL, both special light sport aircraft and experimental, until such time that the FAA determines that the CH-601XL has adequate protection from flutter." The FAA replied in July that they lacked "adequate justification to take immediate certificate action to ground the entire fleet."

The Zodiac is available as a ready-to-purchase airplane (classified as a special light sport aircraft), which is manufactured by Aircraft Manufacturing and Design, LLC, and as an amateur-built plane from a kit (classified as an experimental aircraft) available from the designer, Zenith Aircraft Company.

On November 7, one day after the accident in Arkansas, the FAA issued a Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin strongly recommending that all owners and operators of Zodiac CH-601XL/CH650 airplanes comply with a Safety Alert/Safety Directive issued by the manufacturer, Aircraft Manufacturing and Design, LLC. The Safety Alert/Safety Directive requires all owners of special light sport aircraft models to make structural modifications to the airplane and add aileron couunter-balances before further flight. Since the directives of the manufacturers of special light sport aircraft must be complied with, those aircraft not in compliance are effectively prohibited from further flight.

The designer, Zenith Aircraft Company, has asked the owners of the kit-built experimental airplanes to make the same modifications, but there is no requirement that the modifications be completed before further flight is attempted.

"We are pleased that the FAA and the manufacturer have acted on the safety-of-flight issues that we identified with the Zodiac special light sport airplane. We are troubled, however, that the no modifications are required on the amateur-built planes," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. "We are very concerned that a lack of required compliance may lead to more accidents like the one in Arkansas, and others we've already seen," she said.

The Safety Board's investigation of the November 6 accident is on-going.

In the various conversations that took place surrounding my post about the inability to make a first flight out of South St. Paul Airport, most people -- and rightly so -- said it was a fair prohibition as a crash would negatively impact the perception of homebuilt airplanes.

For that reason, all homebuilders should be pressuring the FAA to act more forcefully in grounding the CH601XL.

How the FAA tracks unresponsive airplanes

The Federal Aviation Administration is holding a conference call at 9 a.m. (CT) today to discuss how it tracks airplanes that are not in contact with ground controllers. Presumably, this related to Northwest Airlines Flight 188, which I've covered extensively on my day job -- News Cut at Minnesota Public Radio.

From fairly early on, I called attention to the coordination -- or lack of coordination in this case -- between FAA and other elements of the air defense command. Here's the live blog:

Sunday, November 8, 2009

'A Miata with wings'

Interesting description of an RV-6 from an article in the paper today about a flying club that just keeps going and going and going... Read the whole story on

Member Gary Wiant got his wings from the Navy when he became a pilot. While serving with the Marines, he flew helicopters over Vietnam. After his military service, he didn't fly for years, but, since it "gets in your blood," he took flight again. Wiant takes up his two-seater RV-6A plane for recreational fun. "It's like a little Miata with wings," he says.

Wiant is one of the newer members of the club, having joined eight years ago. "It's a matter of aviation and fellowship," he says. Wiant enjoys being around other pilots, because they learn from each other's mistakes and can share their experiences.

Current president John E. Marino can rattle off instance after instance when one pilot has gone out of his way to help another.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What is your artificial horizon telling you?

From the New Scientist today:

The artificial horizon, the instrument that tells pilots how their aircraft is banking, is due for a rethink.

So says cockpit ergonomics researcher Donough Wilson of Coventry University in the UK, who points out that conventional displays can be fatally misread when pilots become disoriented in the murk of thunderstorms, torrential rain or heavy snow. Wilson has developed an alternative display which he presented at last week's European Air and Space Conference in Manchester, UK.

Read more here.

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)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Getting unstuck

Famed RV-6A builder/pilot Alex Peterson (you may have seen his aerobatic video here) is like Batman. I -- and I guess this makes me "the commissioner" -- put out the Bat Signal a week ago on Van's Air Force. I needed a motivation flight. Alex saw the signal and stopped by South St. Paul today.

I've been stuck on the project lately and when I went to putter around today, I just ended up sorting nuts and bolts and screws and such; not something that's going to get a plane built. But that's the way building an RV can be; sometimes you need a nudge.

So Alex dropped in and took me for a spin. Here's the takeoff out of South St. Paul. Note the glider in the grass we pass on the way out.

Alex let me fly a little bit and I was consciously trying not to exert any backpressure on the turns, but I increased altitude so I must have. It was weird to look over at the airspeed indicator and see 160. I'm used to plodding along at 90 in a Warrior.

We flew up the St. Croix River, looked for Doug Weiler's house in Hudson (Doug heads the Twin Cities RV builders' group) and then headed back -- a half hour of good flying in which -- for the record -- neither Alex nor I opened our laptops during the flight.

After he dropped me off, he advised, "just start on anything and plow forward," and he and his friend, Benny (who was visiting from Israel) headed north back to Anoka.

And I plowed into some firewall forward stuff.

Mission accomplished.
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