It was a smooth day until that one big bounce

After 8 days on the ground working on behalf of a national non-profit emergency services group running one of their Points of Distribution sites in Wilmington, NC, I was ready for some air time. Lucky for me, one of the final air missions of Hurricane Florence was on the books for the following day and they were in need of a mission pilot (MP), with the mission observer (MO) and airborne photographer (AP) slots already filled. I was excited to get an air mission as this meant I’d have both ground and air missions in the books for one event. Had I taken that staff job they offered me, I’d have had the hat trick. But flying was what I really wanted to do so off to the airport I went.

I’d never flown an AP mission before, nor had I taken the AP class to be a photographer, something my mentor in this organization had pointedly reminded me of upon my arrival at the airport. It is not required for the pilot to also be an AP, but suggested. So after promising I’d take his AP class at some unspecified time in the future, we proceeded to get ready for the mission. This consisted mainly of looking at the weather and wondering when it would get better. At 200 overcast and 1 mile visibility, things were not looking promising for what is a VFR mission. The weather was forecast to improve by mid-morning, up to marginal VFR. I thought that would be fine as we really didn’t need much in the way of ceilings since our mission is a low and slow one anyway, and the visibility was forecast to be much better as soon as the morning fog burned off.

Our MO, with whom I’d never flown or even met, expressed some hesitation about “scud running” and I took his comments seriously. I don’t like people who are part of my crew to feel uncomfortable with what we are doing so I took a moment to pull him aside and quietly ask him what specifically made him uncomfortable. After a bit of conversation, he discovered that I was a current and qualified instrument pilot. I discovered from our conversation that maybe I should have actually given him a bit of info about myself before I asked him to put his life in my hands. With the knowledge that we’d simply climb above any issues, call ATC, and get a pop up clearance to get home, he felt much better about the mission.

The weather didn’t really cooperate and our 10am weather window became noon. Mission base was getting antsy as the customer actually wanted us over target at high tide, about 9:45am. If we waited too long, the entire mission would be scrubbed and I’d not get my chance to log an air mission to compliment my ground mission. Normally I’m a very conservative flier, but I have to admit that I was ready to go just to get this mission underway. Knowing I was abnormally ready to go (a different form of get-home-itis but just as bad) I made sure to involve the full crew in the decision to stay or go. We decided that the weather was better over our target than where we were so we’d launch IFR and then we’d cancel enroute as we got to the reported better weather. The weather was forecast to improve at our base so when we returned, we’d be returning to VFR conditions. With solid outs in case of an emergency we were all comfortable with our plan, and our flight release officer concurred. We were a go.

Preflight having long since been completed, we hopped in and taxied out. Run up, clearance, and departure were in quick and well practiced succession. Even though some of us had never flown together before, our organizations required crew training paid off as we each knew our roles. We popped into the clouds at 1000 feet, and out at 2000 feet. Just a thin layer at this point and much improved over what we’d had all morning. ATC wanted bases and tops reports from us and we were happy to oblige, updating the weather forecast with our better than called for reality. Finally into the sunshine we settled in for the trip down to the target area, with only one instance of popping back into the clouds to mar the otherwise blue sky trip towards Wilmington.

Arriving at our first target, the undercast was breaking up as forecast, and we notified ATC of our intentions, cancelled IFR, and asked to stay with them VFR for an extra set of eyes. Up to this point I had been the aircraft commander. My MO, via talking to mission base on our proprietary radios, was routinely relaying information and was therefore sometimes the one taking control via his messages. Now that we were over the target, control of the mission transferred to the back seater who was holding the camera. It was an interesting transfer of control back and forth, requiring clear and concise communication amongst the crew, which sounds easy but isn’t in actual practice. When I’m on Com 1 talking to ATC, Com 2 is on 121.5 (Guard! Or Chewbacca noises at random intervals) the MO is on Com 3 (yes we have three COMs) back to mission base, and a disembodied voice is in my head from the backseat giving directions via the intercom, communications can get a bit hectic. Add in the fact that I liberally use the pilot isolate button on the G1000 panel so I could clearly hear ATC, and then sometimes forgot to turn it off so that my intercom conversations were a solo act, and you have a situation where communications can get missed.

As we descended into the target at about 1000 feet msl, avoiding clouds and towers, and looking not only at the target but surrounding areas for damage and washed out roads and dams (we saw both) we switched over to our back seat driver.

“Give me 20 degrees left”

“20 left, Roger”

“Keep the turn coming left. Keep coming. Stop turn. Pick up the wing to give me a shot.”

“Make the next pass a bit wider than the last one. 1/2 mile wider, same track.”

“Ok, give me a slip so I can get a clear shot.”

At every target we had towers that were at least tall enough to be interesting and usually we had some higher than our altitude and within a few miles of our location. When you are making loops around a target, always looking back towards the target, it is easy to miss the 2000’ tower that is the other direction from where you are looking. I tasked the MO to keep a constant eye on any tower we identified as a possible conflict and to annoy me by constantly updating me on its location regardless of whether I wanted him to or not. That sounds silly, but you’d be surprised how people will withhold information just because it seems like you might be busy. “Keep talking till I’m annoyed with you, then talk some more”, is an oddly effective order.

The flying was fun. More enjoyable than I thought it would be. It was the normal turns around a point we all learned as private pilots, with random slips in the middle of the turn, and random 270 degree turns thrown in to reverse the angle for a different shot. All the while trying to hold airspeed and altitude to FAA test standards. Why to test standards? Many reasons but first, two other qualified people are in the cockpit with you and being off altitude or airspeed will come up in the debrief. All I want to hear in the debrief is, “Nice job.” Plus we all know the pilot’s prayer, “Please God, don’t let me screw this up.”

We worked our first two targets and then proceeded about 50 miles to our third and last target, a power plant surrounded by lots of water.

Sutton power plan surrounded by water
Not the actual power plant I am referring to. Those pics are confidential. 

It looked to be in good shape with no dam breaks or washed out roads on the immediate site. There was a washed out dam just a mile away but there was already heavy equipment onsite repairing the blow out. Things looked pretty benign so we proceeded with our mission. Again we verbally switched command to the back seat and I flew dutifully as directed.

“Make this next pass a bit closer. The last was too far away.”

“Keep the turn coming. Further. Stop turn!”

“For this next pass, make the pass straight, then make a turn over those (exhaust) stacks then make a left turn.”

As I proceeded to fly as directed, I took us right over the short stacks right on airspeed and altitude. I was feeling pretty good about myself and really enjoying the flying. We were almost three hours into the mission and we had about two more passes and we’d be done then head home. Assuming I didn’t bounce the landing, I could add a challenging but successful air mission to my logbook. I was feeling good.

Suddenly the plane slammed upwards and the right wing shot up in the air putting us into about a 25-30 degree bank. The nose pitched up as well, maybe 10 degrees up. It felt like the biggest summer thermal I’d ever ridden, probably about +2.5 Gs. I exclaimed the famous last words most pilots say. “Oh S…” I didn’t enter any control corrections as I didn’t know why we were heading upwards and I’ve yet to hear of an airplane crashing earthward by going up. No sense in adding additional airframe stress by trying to fight whatever it was.

We were heading upwards and the plane was banked and pitched but not banking further, a relatively stable situation. I had time to look around, look back inside and quickly scan the instruments, and then look around outside again. Then as suddenly as we’d entered the thermal, we were out of it. I leveled the plane and came back down to altitude, only then realizing what had happened.

The power plant, despite all the water, was quite functional. The bank of short exhaust stacks we’d used as a visual reference point were happily pumping out heated, and very clear, air. This heated air was shooting as a hot stream straight up to my unsuspecting airplane roughly 1000 feet above, giving us a free ride up to a new altitude.

Now back in the smooth air away from the plant, I mentioned, with some black humor to the crew, that we would not be taking that particular route around this plant again. Everyone agreed and we made a few more passes, with a wary eye on towers and now exhaust stacks. My right seater, a sail plane pilot told stories of how back in the day they used to ride thermals over power plants to get free lift. But since 9/11 that it was most decidedly frowned upon. I reflected that riding that thermal would be a good source of lift, and if I’d done it on purpose it wouldn’t have even been that big of a deal. But coming on a completely calm day, out of the blue, it wasn’t something I’d want to repeat.

We returned uneventfully to base and I did manage to get us on the ground with a squeaker. We chalked the mission up as a success, each departing for our normal lives but eager for another mission on another day.

Airplanes and School

Like most things in life, the skills learned while building an airplane can help other things in life. Recently, the airplane build helped me with math. The assignment was to write a logic chain about anything that the writer could think of. Although this has nothing to do with building a plane, I thought it was funny so I decided to share it with y’all.

If Carter is interested in flying, then he will want to build an airplane. If Carter wants to build an airplane, then he will go to a class to learn different building methods. If Carter goes to a class, then he will find out that he likes fabric airplanes more than metal airplanes. If Carter likes fabric airplanes more than metal airplanes, then he will build a fabric airplane. If Carter builds a fabric airplane, then he will get glue on his clothes. If Carter gets glue on his clothes, then he won’t be fancy. If Carter isn’t fancy, then he won’t get a date. If Carter doesn’t get a date, then his only love will be flying. If Carter’s only love is flying, then he will become a pilot.

 

Success! And failure

Dad, Spork, and Cody with the wrapped fuselage
Last hour of the last day of the full team

We went till the very last minute with the full team before we got this picture. Cody spent the summer with us, partially working on the farm, and partially working on the airplane. Most days that meant the three of us working together, usually the two boys on one project, with me trying to figure something out or complete some random task. Our goal was to get the fuselage wrapped before Cody left and as you can see in the pic, we did so, with minutes to spare. We still need to apply the tapes and finish up the wrap but the hard part is done.

With Cody leaving, and Spork now starting school, we enter the more sedate phase of our build. Maybe working 1-2 days per week on the plane instead of 4-6. I will be working on it some during the off days, doing things like building out the avionics, figuring out the engine plumbing, things like that. Basically the head scratching or tedious parts. Then when Spork is available we’ll tackle things like finishing these needed tapes, painting the airplane, etc.

The paint booth, under construction
The paint booth, under construction

Speaking of painting, it is time to work on that. We started building the paint booth where the wings were previously being worked on. They were moved temporarily next door and covered with a tarp while the paint booth is under construction, which should be finished today. It is a basic PVC structure with plastic sheeting attached. It is tied to the wood structure of the barn to make it rigid but otherwise is just uncut PVC friction fit together. The idea is we will return all the undamaged PVC when we finish and we’ll end up with a very low cost paint booth.

We are building and installing a ventilation system which consists of some fans and house filters and a couple of wooden frames. But other than that it’ll be paint masks and Tyvek suits for painting. Simple.

But before we could do all this paint booth business, we had to get the wings out of there.

We were all feeling really good about our accomplishments. The fuselage was covered. The wings were done. It was time to build a paint booth. I got up the next morning after the group picture above and headed over to the shop by myself. I wanted to get prepped for building the paint booth.

When I looked at the completed wings, I noted that we had a couple of tapes that hadn’t been finished. Just little tag ends of the finish tapes as they terminate at the wingtip and root. Should take about 10 minutes to trim them and glue them down. It isn’t even critical because both will be hidden when the plane is assembled and the could have just been trimmed but I wanted it done right.

So rather than work on other stuff, I plopped down and started working on these last details. This involved moving the wing around a bit, something we normally have plenty of hands for. But this morning I was by myself. Without going into details of the actual stupidity, I managed to knock the wing off of the sawhorse one end was sitting on and barely catch it from the other end before it fell, trailing edge first, onto the concrete floor. Now I was in the shop, alone, with a wing that has several hundred hours of work in it and is 5 minutes from being complete, barely held up by an unstable sawhorse and my struggling mightily from the other end.

Eventually, after several intense minutes, I got the wing back stable and went ahead and had the heart attack that had been waiting to start.

Once my heart attack was over, I leaned over to inspect the bottom side of the wing. There was a huge gash in the fabric where the saw horse has punched through. It was inline with the direction of flight, in the last wing panel, and 12″ long.

At that point I just sat down in a chair and stared at the wing for about 10 minutes. No point doing anything rash and making things worse. I then did the following steps.

  1. Berate myself for being stupid
  2. Wonder how I was going to explain to Spork I’d messed up the wing that basically he and Cody had covered
  3. Get out the Superflite manual and review the steps for repairing fabric
  4. Watch about 3 videos from EAA on repairing fabric
  5. Look up and read the FAA Advisory Circular on fabric repairs
  6. Go visit my A&P to discuss the repair
  7. Berate myself for being so stupid.
  8. Suck it up and repair the darned thing

I did consider recovering the entire wing. Strongly. We’d probably have enough fabric, and if not I can order some more. The cost wasn’t really my concern. But the reason they used fabric on planes in WWII is because of how easily and effectively it can be repaired. That’s what I kept hearing in my head as I stared at the wing.

Plus the purpose of building this plane was to learn and have fun with my son. I’m not trying to win an award at Oshkosh. That doesn’t mean we aren’t building an awesome and correct in every way airplane but at the end of the day, this was cosmetic damage, not structural or even important. There wasn’t any actual aircraft damage, just a rip in some fabric that isn’t even painted yet. So with knowledge in hand, I set about repairing the fabric.

The completed repair in the left wing
The completed repair in the left wing

I got out the glue, a 6″ tape from what we’d used to cover the leading edge, glued the fabric around the tear very well, applied the tape, then once the glue had cured fully, I shrunk the tape. The loose fabric immediately taughtened and once again looked perfect. I then applied 2″ tapes on both sides of the 6″ tape.

The FAA rules say if the rip is 16″ or longer, I need to do some further repairs. This one was 12″ so this type of repair is correct.

The rules say if my Vne is above 150mph I need to do some further repairs. My Vne is nowhere close. I’m not sure a SuperSTOL could do 150 in a dive.

The rules say I’m supposed to have a 2″ overlap of the tear. I have 3″, along with 2″ of extra tape.

The repair is inline with the existing tapes and unless you compare it with the other wing, you don’t even see it. Once it is painted, you’ll never know it was there. And like most repairs, it is actually stronger now than the original fabric.

Despite all that, I’m still sick about the whole thing. But in the end, I learned that repairs in fabric really are easy. That gives me some confidence going forward that I know how to do more than just apply fabric. I can fix it too.

That doesn’t mean I’m looking to do any more repairs though.

Autopilot servo woes

The past several days have been slow going. We’ve had about 5 days of working on the airplane, but only 1/2 days or so so the equivalent of 2 1/2 days of work.

We covered the left wing, with plans to move onto the fuselage as quickly as possible. However we ran into some snags with the fuselage that held us up quite a bit. We eventually got it all handled, but not until a 3am work session finally got us over the hump.

But to get started, we had to get the left wing covered.

Covering the left wing, the beginning
Covering the left wing, the beginning

It was enjoyable to cover the left wing. Having already covered the right wing, I felt like we were getting the hang of things and we’d be able to make quick progress on this wing. Unfortunately we ended up with some wrinkles that I couldn’t get out of the wing. We had the choice of pulling off the covering and redoing it, or trying to make the best of what we had. The issues were 100% cosmetic so after much deliberation, we decided to forge ahead. Now that the wing is covered, I’m glad we stuck with it. The wrinkles won’t be noticed as they are very small, on top of the wing, and behind the slats. If you are looking that closely then I’m probably going to chase you with a broom anyway.

There aren’t any more pics of covering the left wing. It was just like the right wing. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Autopilot pitch servo temporarily placed in position
Autopilot pitch servo temporarily placed in position

Before we could cover the fuselage, we had to install the autopilot pitch servo and a VOR antennae. There were several trips to HRJ to get parts ordered from Scott, and pick up doo dads he had there in the shop. I’d originally thought I’d place the pitch servo under the pilots seat, and the roll servo under the co-pilots seat. However a post by my friends Ed and Michael showed where they had put their pitch servo and I liked it much better. Since imitation is the best form of flattery, I flattered their butts off but stealing their entire design. I even snuck over to their house to not only pilfer their design but to borrow some glue and tape. Am I a good friend or what?

In order to get the pitch servo located in its final position, I needed a push tube and some new hardware to connect it.

Welding up a push tube for the autopilot servo
Welding up a push tube for the autopilot servo

It was a real pleasure to have something to weld finally. I enjoy welding and I’ve barely done any so far on this airplane build.

Pitch servo in its almost final position
Pitch servo in its almost final position

With the push tube welded, I sand blasted the tube as well as the bracket for the pitch servo. I then shot a coat of epoxy primer on both. They looked really good and matched the existing frame very well. I was quite pleased with myself until I checked the range of motion. The pitch servo was traveling WAY too far. I checked what my friends had done and their looked exactly like mine. Why is mine traveling so far and their only far enough that it works correctly? No idea.

After some head scratching, I decided to fab up a solution that would move the attach point closer to the pivot point on the bell crank. Some aluminum, some sander time, and a few clamps and the servo was mounted perfectly.

Pitch servo in its final location
Pitch servo in its final location

A few checks of range of motion and everything looked perfect. Hopefully the servo will have enough torque to control the pitch with this short arm.

Fixing the battery from the Citabria
Fixing the battery from the Citabria

On one of my trips to the airport, I found out the battery had died on our Citabria. The battery was 5 years old so it is due for replacement anyway but leaving the master on accidentally had hastened its demise.  It was about $320 for a new battery, plus we had to put it in. However I had a new battery charger I’d purchased at a recommendation from EAA magazine. The writer said he was very impressed with the battery charger and that it had brought a dead battery back to life using its recondition mode. This sounded like a perfect opportunity to try it out.

Over time I was able to coax the battery slowly back to life. It took multiple cycles (like 5-6) of two different chargers to go from 0 volts and “bad battery” on the display until it finally started taking a charge. Once it would take a charge, I put it in recondition mode and was able to restore the battery to 13.2 volts. We installed it back into the Citabria and it worked like it had when we bought the airplane. Maybe not brand new, but certainly good enough for us to use. That 30 dollar battery charger saved us $300. I’m more than pleased. I asked Scott for a battery in even worse condition. I’m currently working on that one and have it back to about 12.5 volts.

VOR antennae installed in the airplane
VOR antennae installed in the airplane

I had to remake the tombstone panel in .040 aluminum. I then made stiffeners out of the old panel and riveted them in place. I then epoxied two bolts into the antennae so it could be tightened from the outside. It fit very well and looks perfect

Sugru on the battery box
Sugru on the battery box

With the autopilot servo in place, and the antennae mounted and wired, it was time to tidy up and get ready to cover. One big step was to check for any wires that might chafe. Above you can see little blogs of red clay. What this is is actually Sugru that we purchased from Amazon. This is my new favorite stuff. Moldable, hardenable, and easy to use. This stuff solved all my chafe issues.

Sugru protects the VOR antennae cable
Sugru protects the VOR antennae cable

With everything tidied up, it was time to start covering. 

We only got started on the covering as I had to go pick up a cow at the processor. However tomorrow we hope to make good progress on the covering of one side, and hopefully start on the other side of the fuselage. Then tapes and finish work and it is time to start painting! Cody leaves Sunday morning so hopefully we’ll have pics of a fuselage covered before he leaves.

The end of summer and covering the fuselage

This post marks the end of our summer build. Spork and I have worked pretty much every day we could, from the last day of May till yesterday. I’d say we averaged about 5.5 days per week working on the airplane. Usually from about 7am till about 5pm, with a break for lunch, a trip to Lowes, a trip to the airport, etc thrown in there. We missed a few weeks here and there, for a trip to Grenada, the kids going to the beach with mom, summer camp, and things like that. All in we got about 6.5 weeks of work this summer. We also had cousin Cody over for a couple of weeks this summer.

If I add up all the hours we’ve spent this summer, it comes up to over 700 hours of time spent. Since we already had a few hundred hours under our belt from our time at Robby’s, we should be just about done with the airplane. Maybe 100 hours to go towards our 1000 hour build time. Apparently we are slow because we still have some covering left to do. Paint. Wiring. Hang the engine. Avionics. Rigging. I’d say we have 500 hours left but maybe it’ll go faster than I think.

Today, school starts. We will be dropping back from 5.5 days per week, 10-12 hours per day, to 2-3 days per week, 4 hours per day. If we can maintain the new pace and not hit any snags, we should be finishing up the airplane by late fall. That would suit me perfectly as it would give nice fall weather for test flights and all winter to work out the bugs before trying to make our planned trip to Sun N Fun 2019 in April. We’ll see. For now, what have we gotten done?

Spork cleaning the fuselage
Spork cleaning the fuselage

Step one was to prep the fuselage for covering. We aren’t done with the left wing yet, but until the new magnetometer showed up, we couldn’t do any more work on the wing. All the work on this airplane has been done in our barn. We’ve worked hard to keep things clean and less barny but no matter what we do, we still have to deal with flies getting in on occasion. Both Spork and I are kinda crazy about stopping and killing any fly that we see, and the picture above is why. The flies land on the fuselage, and then poop. They leave little black dots everywhere. We spent a solid hour just wiping the fuselage down with acetone, cleaning everything off. That was a good time to inspect every last little corner as well since after this part was done, the fuselage would be no longer accessible. We found a few places that needed to be repaired, mostly on the tail but one on in the cockpit as well.

Rusting area in cockpit, etched and sanded and ready for paint
Rusting area in cockpit, etched and sanded and ready for paint

This place was on the co-pilot side of the airplane, at the rear of the cockpit. Somewhere along the way the powder coat had been scratched and rust was starting to appear. Spork caught this one and I sat about getting it ready to repair.

Prepped for paint in the cockpit
Prepped for paint in the cockpit

There is a lot of masking off just to paint a little spot.

I mixed up some epoxy based primer, the same stuff I used on the spoilers when I painted them. It is grey, but not the same grey as the fuselage. It should be close enough though since it will all be covered anyway.

Baggage door, ready for primer
Baggage door, ready for primer

Since we were painting anyway, it was time to primer the baggage door. It is just raw aluminum stock so it can use all the help it can get. Again it was a large masking job for a small amount of painting.

The final bit of painting was to paint the bottom of the tail. This is where the plane has been either sitting on the trailer or attached to the tail stand. There were numerous small places that needed to be sanded, etched, and painted. Now all the fuselage was covered in either grey powder coat or grey epoxy primer. Nowhere for rust to get started on this thing.

Tidying up the fuel line with Sugru
Tidying up the fuel line with Sugru

There was a tip in this past month’s EAA magazine for a product called Sugru. It is a moldable putty like Play-Do but after setting it overnight, it turns into a glue/silicon thing. Soft but solid, heat and cold resistant. It is really a household repair thing but according to the EAA author it works excellent for airplanes. I already had an area in mind that needed some attention and that was the fuel line coming from the fuel selector and towards the firewall. There is a bend as the rubber hose makes the transition and I could see where over time it compresses the bend and kinks at some point, which is bad. With Sugru I was able to attach the line to the frame and hold it in position so it won’t kink, without having to use a zip tie which has its own issues. Pretty good stuff.

Beginning the covering of the fuselage
Beginning the covering of the fuselage

If I thought the wings were a big covering job, the fuselage is a whole new level. Several feet longer, with lots of places to cut around, get fitted, etc. There is a lot less glue to spread so that parts goes quicker. We had an issue with some big wrinkles on the left wing so we took extra time getting this fabric on just right before starting any attachments or cutting. Once everything was looking good, we trimmed off the excess and did an initial shrink to tighten the fabric. It came out perfectly!

Fuselage with first piece of covering done
Fuselage with first piece of covering done

It is exciting to see the covering going onto the airplane. To the layman, the airplane looks exactly like it did when we picked it up. A grey structure of tubes.

Rick helping on the build
Just starting on the fuselage, it pretty much looks the same then as it does above

They don’t see all the work of all the fiddly bits that we’ve installed over these hundreds of hours. But when the fabric goes on, it suddenly starts to look like an airplane. Plus when the covering is complete, that will mean that paint is next and then it will really start to look like an airplane. I’m excited for that part to be done.

26" Alaska Bushwheels
Man sized tires for this little airplane

I think the part I’m most excited for is having the airplane on its landing gear finally. The stands are awesome for working, but until the fuselage is rolling around on its own tires it just doesn’t seem like a real airplane. Plus a fellow EAA member had some extra tires he gave me a deal on (Hi Brian!) so once initial testing is over, I can take off my normal airplane tires and install these 26″ Alaska Bushwheels. Then the plane will look like a proper plane.

Finished with the right wing, again. And starting on the left

So Spork is at the beach having fun while I’m here slaving away. Since I’d finished the right wing covering, I texted SWMBO to tell him I’d gotten it done. That way he’d know he didn’t have it waiting on him when he got back and to also let him know I was busy working while he was having fun. It was also to brag a little bit that I’d gotten everything done. The immediate reply?

Did you get the fuel tank installed?

Well, no. I’d gone to the house and had dinner instead. So much for bragging.

To install the fuel tank involves a bit of scary work. The tank slips inside a spot made just for it easy enough. But then you have to drill through the end rib of the airplane with three different holes. These holes are somewhat blind as the bottom side of the tank, where two of the holes are to be located, isn’t really accessible. And each hole has to line up perfectly with the corresponding place on the tank where different fittings are screwed in. The instructions, such as helpful instructions are, said “Measure and drill holes. Install fittings.” Um, ok. Thanks for the detailed explanation. Heck, it didn’t even say which fittings to install. Luckily I already knew but I verified with Robby just to make sure.

Before I could drill these holes for the fittings, I had to make sure the tank was installed and wouldn’t move. No sense making the holes align perfectly, only to find the tank had slipped while I was working. Scott had already coached me that rivnuts would be a better solution than rivets and had ordered some in for me to try. I’d never installed a rivnut but it seemed simple enough. Drill a hole, insert a rivnut, squeeze it with Scott’s special tool I had to borrow, then wash, rinse, repeat 15 more times.

Rivnut installed in fuel tank compression tube
Rivnut installed in fuel tank compression tube
Bag for the rivnuts, with part number from Aircraft Spruce
Bag for the rivnuts, with part number from Aircraft Spruce

After working with rivnuts for about 5 minutes, I decided they were the best thing ever. Very simple to install, and now the tank is held down by 8-32 screws instead of rivets that would have to be drilled out to remove the tank.

Tank with rivnuts installed, view through end rib
Tank with rivnuts installed, view through end rib

Here you can see the rivnuts holding the tank in place. This made it very easy to align the tank, and to install and remove it as I worked with the various fittings, tapping, cleaning out chips, etc. Definitely the way to go.

Top view of tank with rivnuts holding it in place
Top view of tank with rivnuts holding it in place

The plans only called for two rivets per side on the tank. I installed four rivnuts per side instead. I don’t think it will be going anywhere.

Now it was time to drill the holes in the end rib. Since I can measure three times and get six different measurements, I wasn’t too keen on measuring to match up these drilled holes as the plans suggest. Instead I grabbed a really small drill bit and guessed about where to drill. I closed my eyes and drilled the first hole through the rib. When I peeked through the hole in the rib, I was about 1/8″ off. Pull back, drill the hole in the new spot. Perfect! With the hole in the rib in the right spot, I simply pressed forward and pecked the boss in the fuel tank making a little dimple to mark where the fitting will be drilled and tapped once the tank is pulled.

I then swapped to a step drill and drilled out the final hole in the rib. In enlarging the hole, I took out the original wrong drill hole so no problem there as my mistake hole ended up on the ground as just some more chips.

Lower sight gauge fitting installed in right fuel tank
Lower sight gauge fitting installed in right fuel tank. It is the brass hose barn thingy towards the back of the wing. 

I did the process times three. Two holes for the sight gauges, and one for the fuel pickup line.

I then pulled the fuel tank and drilled out the holes I’d marked to the correct size for a 1/8-27 NPT fitting, then tapped them. Then it was a simple process of flushing all the chips out of the tank and then putting the tank back in place.

Right fuel tank, fully installed with all fittings
Right fuel tank, fully installed with all fittings

Here the sight gauges are in place, as well as the fuel pickup. The front port was plugged, per the manual since I’m using a Rotax engine. I guess a Lycoming must have a fuel return line that would go there.

Right wing covered, left wing ready to start work
Right wing covered, left wing ready to start work

With the fuel tank installed, I moved the right wing up against the wall as close as I could, and then covered it in a tarp to protect it from dirt and the fabric from sunlight. I then dragged the left wing over to the center of the bay and say down on a chair and stared at it a while. We’d spent weeks on the right wing. Would it take weeks to work on the left wing as well? Hopefully we’d be faster now that everything was basically the same.

I started by removing the left wing slats from when we’d mated the wings to the fuselage. That took a bit of doing as a bolt had jammed behind some sheet metal and damaged the sheet metal. There was nothing to do but to cut it out and move forward, which is what I did. It isn’t a critical area and it will be behind the slats so not really visible. With the slats removed, I could either start prepping for covering, or I could work on the fuel tank. Since I had all the parts laying right there, I decided to work on the fuel tank. It took about 2.5 days to get the compression tubes installed and shimmed, the tank installed, the fittings installed, etc on the right wing. Plus I had Spork and Cody here to help me. Now I was by myself. I flipped the wing over, started on the compression tubes, and before I knew it was at this point.

Left wing tank fully installed
Left wing tank fully installed

It took me about four hours from drag the wing out to done. 1/2 day vs 2.5 days, and that 2.5 doesn’t include the trips to the airport to ask Scott questions or borrow tools, or texts to Robby, or trips to the store. That 2.5 days actually took about a week. Yeah, maybe this wing will go a bit faster.

So this is where we are today. I can only cover one side of the wing. The magnetometer from GRT was DOA when it arrived so I need a new one before I can close the wing up. I lost most of last week because GRT shut down for Oshkosh. Today is Tuesday and I don’t have high hopes I’ll get a call back today from GRT despite my email and phone messages asking for help. (Can you tell I’m getting pissed?) Today I’m doing some farming stuff, then working on the plane this afternoon. I have some new zip ties coming from Amazon today which I want to use to secure all the runs in the fuselage instead of the plain plastic ties I used already. So when they show, I’ll cut off the old and install the new. Once that is done, I have the choice of starting to cover the fuselage, or starting to work on the panel. I’ll be stopping by Hudson’s today to grab some lexan to start on the panel anyway and panel work is a lot of head scratching so I’m leaning towards that. Once GRT calls me, I’m going to get them to quick ship the parts I need and then hopefully I’ll have the boys here to start working on covering the wing.

Once the left wing is covered, we can start on the paint booth and covering the fuselage. Then it is on to painting. After painting, the gear goes on and it is time to make airplane noises. Vroom vroom!

It is done! Well, one wing anyway

 

Wing with leading edge final tape nearly installed
Wing with leading edge final tape nearly installed

We’ve not had a lot of updates to the blog lately. There are a few reasons for that. One, we are covering the wing.

And covering the wing.

And covering the wing.

There is only so much to say about that.

I was told that after we’d covered one wing, we’d have the hang of it. I was doubtful but I have to say after covering one wing, I think I may have the hang of it. We made a few little mistakes here and there, but overall the wing came out better than I would have expected. More importantly, I’m at the point where I feel like I can make a mistake and fix it. Not as in strip off all the fabric and start over from scratch fix it, but just fix the wrinkle, bubble, etc, and move on like it was never there. What is that saying? A professional knows how to hide his mistakes? Something like that.

We had a brief interlude in the airplane build this month. The Spohns and our family both took a vacation along with Grandma, who was the ring leader, to Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It was an epic week and a chance for me to sail the Southern windward islands, which I’ve never done. We had a great crew and everyone had a large time.

After being gone for a week, it was tough to get back in the groove. Between all the to dos waiting when you get home and being out of the habit of working on the boat (and working period) it took most of the next week to finally get back in the shop.

While I was gone, the avionics from GRT Avionics showed up. Dustin grabbed them for me and put them in the shop. I eagerly opened the box of goodies to see what had shown up. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed. The EFIS looks perfect. But the engine monitor was for a Lycoming, not a Rotax, which is what I ordered. Also the autopilot servos showed up, but no mounting kits or hardware. Apparently I was supposed to know I had to order them separately. The last straw was when I went to install the magnetometer. This needs to be installed in the wing so we can cover the left wing next week. I noticed a rattle coming from inside. I opened to case to find that two of the elements of the circuit board were never attached to the board. They are wired, but not physically attached and secured making the magnetometer useless as it will break probably by the second flight. I emailed and called GRT, with no response and no way to get a person on the phone. Eventually I did receive a call back from a very nice guy who informed me that my magnetometer would need to come back to them and that they shut the company down for the week, for Oshkosh. So next week, sometime, I should be able to get it handled. Argh!! I have a wing I need to cover and I’m losing two weeks, plus shipping, for one stupid magnetometer.

Who shuts down an entire company and doesn’t put a notice on the website or on the answering machine? I was very excited to use GRT. So far, I’m less than impressed.

Magnetometer mounting plate installed in wing
Magnetometer mounting plate installed in wing

Before I knew the magnetometer was bad, I made up an install plate for it out of .020 aluminum. I needed to span the lightening holes in the rib. I also planned on putting the magnetometer inboard on the wing rather than on the wingtip as recommended. The strobes are going to be installed out on the wingtip and I was worried about the pulses of electricity messing with the very sensitive magnetometer. By installing it in this location, I was able to run the wires back to the fuselage tied to the pitot tube which was already carefully run through grommets with some extra room.

Magnetometer temporarily installed in wing
Magnetometer temporarily installed in wing, with service loop.

By this point I knew the unit was bad, but I got it installed anyway as I was stuck on anything else to do.

Patch in brand new wing covering
Patch in brand new wing covering

While I was sorting out electronics and warranty returns, Spork was steadily working on the wing. During out work, we noticed a small blemish in the fabric on the top of the wing. We’ve been very careful around the wing so I can only assume this was a factory defect that appeared when we tightened the fabric. Regardless, it needed a patch as the entire wing was covered at this point. I researched in the SuperFlite manual, and online, and couldn’t find any decent information on making a patch. I knew it was basically a doily like we would use on the inspection rings, but what I couldn’t find was if I should shrink the fabric after installing it. The purpose of the patch is to cover a hole. But the base fabric is already shrunk. So do I attach this patch, then shrink it too? Would that cause a pucker in the base fabric? If I don’t shrink it, then the patch isn’t really taking any load.

Finally I reached out to Scott who assured me, yes, shrink the patch but only to the first temp (250 degrees). Patch installed we went back to work.

Doilie over lone rivet on outboard edge of wing
Doily over lone rivet on outboard edge of wing

Spork is very meticulous when he works on the covering, which I appreciate. While he was working, he noted that one rivet was not covered by any of our finish tapes. Something we’d all missed up to this point. With our patching experience firmly in hand, Spork cut out a quick doily and made a one piece finishing tape for this lone rivet. This one did not need to be shrunk like the patch job required.

Header tank plumbed and installed
Header tank plumbed and installed

While Spork was working on the wing, I set about working on the fuel system. I’d had Scott order some hose for fuel lines prior to ordering the firewall forward kit. I didn’t even think about the kit having its own fuel lines, but of course it did.

Regardless, I’d already run the Aircraft Spruce supplied fuel line through the fuselage so I just stuck with that one. Except when it came time to install everything, I couldn’t get the fuel line to go onto the barbed fittings. It was REALLY tight. I looked at the ID of the lines, and the one I was using actually looked a bit bigger than the kit supplied fuel line so it should work. I tried again. I cursed, I went to EAA tech tips, I went to YouTube. Finally I called Scott and asked him why I couldn’t get the fuel line on He couldn’t answer, but he said he’d drive up during his lunch hour and look for me. I was floored. I didn’t expect a house call from an A&P. I’m always surprised that he even answers my phone calls. But during the conversation with him, it occurred to me that maybe I should try the kit supplied fuel line, even though it appears smaller.

Turns out, the fuel line that comes with the kit is a much more supple line, with less reinforcing. It slipped on like butter. I’d spent the morning nearly breaking things trying to force the wrong line onto the fittings. Once the new line was installed, it took about 10 minutes to do the entire job. Duh.

Fuel lines and their final routing under the fuselage
Fuel lines and their final routing under the fuselage

With the header tank plumbed, I went back and with a combination of Adel clamps and zip ties, secured the fuel line and the return line in place. The lines are just hanging off the front at the firewall waiting for the engine install.

FedEx freight truck
Presents, for me?!

Before I left for Grenada, I ordered the Rotax 912 engine that we are going to be using. It will most likely sit in the crate for several months, but at least it will be on hand and ready to install should we make progress on the build.

Shiny and new Rotax
Shiny and new Rotax

One of my original goals with this airplane was that it would be powered by a Rotax. I wanted to fly behind a modern aircraft engine, with proper ignition, no mixture, and the ability to operate off of automobile gasoline, or MOGAS as it is called in aviation. This lets me get gas from my normal source and keep it here at the farm vs having to find 100LL aviation fuel and get it here for twice the price.

The last piece of the puzzle, besides the many hours of labor it will take to build this airplane, is the propeller. I have one coming from Robby as well that will surely be hanging on the wall well into this winter. But when that arrives, all the major pieces of the puzzle are on site. Now it is just up to Spork and I to assemble everything.

Beginning the installation of the inspection rings
Beginning the installation of the inspection rings

While I was working on all the bits and bobs, Spork had been making progress on the wing. I came back over to go over the last bit of finish taping and helped him finish. Then it was time to move onto the inspection rings. As with most elements of this build, there was some trepidation over doing this for the first time. What if I put them in the wrong place? What if they don’t stick? As usual, reality turned out to be far less scary than imagination. We had the other wing sitting directly beside this one, completely uncovered. Spork and I spent some time making sure all the rings were in the correct spots, then we marked them and started cutting out doilies.

Eventually Spork took off to the beach for the last summer vacation before school starts and Crystal and I worked on the inspection rings. Scuff the rings, glue the base of the fabric, glue the rings, wet the base glue, stick the ring in place, then cover with a doily. Move onto the next ring. It took about two hours to install them all.

Right wing, covering finished!
Right wing, covering finished!

The tapes are all in place. The trim work is done, all the little bubbles and wrinkles have been addressed, and the inspection rings are installed. This wing is covered!

Today I’ll install the fuel tank, then move this wing over to the side and carefully cover it to protect it from light and from getting damaged. Hopefully the left wing will go much faster since we now have some experience doing this. We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves, because I have to wait till the magnetometer shows up to cover the left wing. But I can at least cover one side of it. Plus there is a ton of prep that has to be done to the wing itself. Scotch brite, cleaning, etc. Luckily Spork and Cody will be here soon so they can get to work on that portion while I go to work on the panel and the autopilot servo install.

Once the left wing is covered, it will be time to build the paint booth. While that is being build, we should be covering the fuselage. Once it is covered, it will be time for paint. Once paint is done, we can mount the fuselage on the landing gear and finally have a rolling chassis which means sitting in the seats and making airplane noises!

 

Airplanes and Poetry

I have been recently been informed that one way to write a speech is to think of a couple adjectives that describe a subject and write about them. Personally, that sounds like poetry but I’ll give it a shot. When I think of covering the first two adjectives I think of are fabric, and toxic. Lets see what I can do with them.

The fist adjective is fabric. One of the most prominent aspects of fabric is that it is final. By final I mean it is the outermost surface besides paint. Whenever I worked on metalwork on or in the body of the plane, it was ok if part A is slightly longer then part B.  Now, if the fabric has a wrinkle in it, it is going to be visible from the outside. At the same time, it feels nice to almost be doing something that is final because it means that I’m not going to have to take it off seven times before it is finally on to stay.

Last and least is toxic. I think of the word toxic when I think of the glue that is used to stick the fabric on the metal pieces of whatever piece you are covering because it smells bad and it messes with my head. I don’t know why but smelling the glue actually makes it harder for me to think. Readers might be wondering why I keep bringing glue up. Someday, somebody will run the numbers to find out the exact fabric to glue ratio, but I am certain that I have used more glue, in my life, than I have duct tape. I’m a farm boy! I use duct tape like it grows on trees! I should not have used that much glue just covering a wing and some tail feathers!

I know I have said this before but I am going to say it again. Building an airplane is loads of fun and a great learning experience. Now I am going to attempt a Diamante poem about glue. “Thick, Thin” ,describes the different amounts of Acitone you add to the glue depending on what you plan on doing with the glue.

 

Glue

Sticky, Green

 Evaporating, Running, Withering

Tacky, Tremendous, Thick, Thin

Drip, Blop, Plop

Choking, Wheezing

Death

The wing is coming along nicely

Cody gluing up the tapes on the wing
Cody gluing up the tapes on the wing

We have a stomach bug going around the house. It started with Cody, then progressed to The Princess, and then today it hit Spork who was down for the count for the day, never getting out of bed or very far away from a throw up container. Poor guy.

The weather was epic so we enjoyed a cool day in the shop with a nice breeze provided by the fans. The fabric was already on, but the tapes needed to be done. But before that, the tail wheel shock needed to be finished, which meant fitting the access panel we made to the shock dimensions. Cody knocked that out in no time and we moved onto taping.

As we progress to each portion of the build, I always worry what the next part will be like. Will taping be really hard? What about hanging the engine? What if I mess that up? Or the wiring for the avionics? What if I let the smoke out and ruin the avionics. There is always a little trepidation at each new step that I will come up short on knowledge or talent. Taping was, oddly, one that I was worried about. But with Cody’s help, we got started and found that it was, as promised, decidedly easy. It is tedious, but really it is just an arts and craft project. Lay out some lines, spread some glue, lay out the tape, spread some thinner glue, move on to the next part. It is actually quite enjoyable and begins to make the wing look like an airplane wing.

Of course, the next step is inspection rings. And I’m already worried about them. Even though I’ve already done one once before at an EAA workshop. It has been several years. Plus, what if I put them in the wrong place?!

We’ll get there, and get it done somehow.

Wednesday is our next work day. Hopefully we’ll have everyone healthy and be able to work. We need to flip the wing and tape the other side. Then we’ll tape the edges and the wing will be covered! Then we’ll use the uncovered wing to locate where our inspection holes should be and cut in the holes (scary!) Once the inspection holes are in, we’ll move this wing to another shop bay and start on the next wing. Hopefully we can get this wing done in a much shorter time frame since we now have some experience. I’d like to at least get it wrapped by Friday if possible, maybe even a tape or two in place.

Once the second wing is done, which will probably take about a week, we can move onto covering the fuselage. We are doing that last because I am waiting on avionics to show up and I need to install autopilot servos before covering. There is no provision for an autopilot in the SuperSTOL build so we’ll have to make it up as we go. Should be interesting.

Huge multi day update

Based on the blog, you’d think we haven’t been working on the plane. Quite the opposite is true. We’ve been working nearly every day, with little time left over for documenting the build. When we last left off, Spork had completed the battery box and installed it.

Battery box with cables installed
Battery box with cables installed

We added a simple 24 gauge cable to provide for a battery condition monitor LED, a feature of the EarthX battery. The problem was we didn’t have the correct connector, despite ordering an entire set of connectors for airplane builders. We had every connector in the world, except the one we needed. Luckily Scott bailed us out, again, and got us the connector we needed. Here you see the cable, with a service loop installed.

ELT cable installed, and labeled
ELT cable installed, and labeled

Since we had the correct connectors, and we had our new label maker, we also ran the ELT cable for the cockpit remote switch. We labeled the cable so that when the time comes,  we won’t be wondering which white cable this is.

right wing, ready to break down and start covering
right wing, ready to break down and start covering

We had a lot of false starts on covering our first wing. We had to install the compression tubes for the fuel tank, we had to paint the spoilers three our four times, I lost count, and we had a number of parts we had to go get or special order in. We lost several days due to these issues.

Spoilers sandblasted and prepped for paint
Spoilers sandblasted and prepped for paint

I fretted over whether to sandblast the spoilers for a few days. Luckily I decided to do so because we ended up sand blasting off our paint several times and starting over. We started with an automotive style rattle can primer and paint. When that proved to be too fragile we went to an epoxy based primer, PPG brand from Single Source here in town. While I was at it, I painted the locking collars from the tailwheel, the little circles you see beside the spoilers.

We also used the belt sander to break the corners of the spoilers and the edges. Corners and edges are the first places to loose paint and these things will be sticking up into the wind quite a bit so I wanted to make sure the paint stayed in place. Rounded edges will help quite a bit.

Missing hardware for the flap system
Missing hardware for the flap system

With the compression tubes nearly installed, we came across a problem. We didn’t have a simple little bracket that is installed on the hardware for the fuel tank and holds the flap return spring. We also didn’t have the bolts that held the bracket. I called Amy at Just Aircraft and she had the needed hardware going out the same day, along with a firewall forward kit I’d ordered a few days before from Billy at Plane Fun Aircraft. Everything showed up literally minutes before we ran out of parts and had to stop work. With hardware in hand, we were able to install the flap return spring, the compression tubes, and temporarily mount the fuel tank. Everything went in just like it should, at least after we thinned out some of the shim washers for the fuel tank.

Rivets won't work for the fuel tank
Rivets won’t work for the fuel tank

Once the compression tubes were in the wings I checked with Robby to see how he mounts them. “Some people use screws but I just rivet them in place. They are easy to drill out.”

I liked the idea of riveting them, but looking at the needed dimensions I saw that the CCP-44 rivets were not going to work. In desperation, I went to visit Scott to see what he thought I should do. “Rivnuts” was his answer. We ordered some, along with screws, to be delivered this coming week. With rivnuts in hand, we’ll install them and then install the tanks. These are an even better solution than rivets as we will have simple screws to remove the tank should we need to at some point in the future.

Spork sandblasting the spoilers, again
Spork sandblasting the spoilers, again

As I said, we had several in and outs with the spoilers but it was ok. I needed some practice painting and the spoilers were a good item to practice on. A small mistake could be sand blasted off in a few minutes and the could be repainted with a small amount of materials.

Right wing with covering beginning to be applied
Right wing with covering beginning to be applied

With the several setbacks behind us, we finally started covering the wing. About this time, we had a stomach bug start working its way through the house putting both Cody and Spork on their butts. I spent an entire day working by myself on Saturday and made good progress on the wing.

Spork gluing up the fabric to prep for cutting out the spoiler slots
Spork gluing up the fabric to prep for cutting out the spoiler slots
Taught fabric and holes burned through for rivets
Taught fabric and holes burned through for rivets

When the fabric is installed, we burn holes through the ribs in spots pre-drilled. These allow us to install large headed rivets for holding the fabric in place. This is fun because it is so easy, and terrifying because one wrong move and you burn a hole through your fabric. Scary!

The paint shows up, Superflite's system
The paint shows up, Superflite’s system

While we were doing all this work, our paint showed up for the airplane. These few cans of paint is what $3000 worth of paint looks like. Good thing I’m a master painter and won’t make any mistakes. Yeah right.

To do list from the past two days
To do list from the past two days

This is a bit of a disjointed update. Lots was done but it was all given short shrift in this multi day post. We’ve been going from can to can’t these past few weeks, trying to get as much done on the plane as possible, while still maintaining a farm, having two renters move out the same month, and still doing work at the Civil Air Patrol. It has been fun. Our status today is the right wing is covered, minus the final heat shrink and tapes. Once those tapes are done, we’ll move the wing to the next bay over and cover it to protect it from the sun. Then we’ll start on the left wing and wash, rinse, repeat. Once the left wing is done, hopefully this week, we’ll move that wing out and we’ll have room for the paint booth to be built while we start covering the fuselage. When everything is covered, it will be time to paint, sand, paint, sand, etc.

Once the painting is over, we’ll bring all the pieces together and remount the wings and take the fuselage off the stands for good, putting the plane on its gear. With wings and gear, we’ll hang the engine which should be here by then, and then it is time for the avionics.

Then it is time for final assembly! That will probably take two months but whatever, it is something to dream about.

Our shop pet, a little frog
Our shop pet, a little frog

Hopefully our perennial pet, Mr. Frog, will still be around by then so he can see our creation come to life.