When aviation comes to you

Over the course of my career, I’ve had countless people in aviation help me. From a loaned part when I was AOG at a remote location to three separate A&Ps who, despite my offers to pay, helped my during the build of my SuperSTOL.

Just Aircraft SuperSTOL taxing out at W03
A rare photo on pavement. Grass is her natural environment. Photo courtesy of Liz Dunster

I have a lot of built up karma that I needed to pay forward. So when I received a call from my neighbor saying, “Hey, did you know there is a helicopter in your front yard?”

Wait, what? A helicopter? In my yard? I was confused, but also primed and ready to return the favor when I figured out somebody had made an emergency landing at my farm.

Living in North Carolina, there is a lot of military activity in the airspace around me. AH-64s, CH-47s, V-22s, F-15s. They are all normal sites in and around the farm where I fly out of and live but they usually sail right on past. So my answer to my neighbor was, “Huh? No. No idea what is going on. What kind of helicopter?”

My neighbor, who is in the special forces at Ft Bragg said, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen one like it. Some big military thing.” His job in the Army is not in aviation, but he doesn’t have any idea what a big military thing is?! I asked for a picture.

Some big military thing indeed

I was about two hours away so I told him to give my number to the crew. A few minutes later I received a call from the crew chief who explained they had made an emergency landing and just needed to make some repairs. They were so sorry to just drop into our property and the message was clear, “Please don’t shoot us. We won’t bother you.” My answer?

“At the barn there is a white truck. The keys are in it. Go into town to get what you need. In the barn there is a full machine shop with all the tooling and supplies. The shop is open, go get what tools you need. I’ll be there in two hours.”

The crew chief was a bit taken aback I just gave him the run of my place. But people in aviation have always been kind and generous, and it was time to return the favor.

When I returned to the farm, I found the crew hard at work removing a hydraulic oil cooler, the offending component that had caused the precautionary landing. I found the pilot and we chatted about what was going on. I explained that he’d landed at the single best place to put down he could have. That I was a pilot and this random cow pasture he was in was actually my runway. He seemed pretty non-plussed till I explained that the pasture where he was sitting had power lines running through it till about a year before when I’d moved them to make the runway. And that all the other areas along his route of flight were either swamp or trees or houses. He turned a touch green when he realized what I was saying. He was in the only safe place he could put down.

An MI-24, flying in America?

When I asked what this helicopter was, they explained it was a MI-24. The export version of another common helicopter in the Soviet Union. These guys were all former military and they were doing some sort of REDACTED for REDACTED. It was all very hush hush. My son wants to fly helicopters in the Army and has been working towards that end for several years now so of course I had him with me to talk to these guys. Just when we were ready to leave and let them work, they explained that the parts they needed were being brought in.

“Driving from where?” It was getting close to dark after all.

“Oh no, they are flying in.”

At this point, my little farm had turned into a major airport. I called my friends who had small kids interested in aviation and we settled down for our May evening airshow. It didn’t disappoint.

With the parts courier having departed, along with the pilots of our stricken aircraft, we were left with the enlisted crew who would be working on the MI-24 to get it ready to depart in the morning. I put them in my truck and took them to the grocery store to get food and drinks for the night. This was after offering them accommodations that they refused. I dropped them off at their bird with a bottle of NC whiskey from my stash because they were visiting from out of state, so welcome to North Carolina! About 10pm I heard a long ground run which signaled they had things back together and in the morning , after exchanging pleasantries and a few gifts back and forth, my son settled in to watch them leave wondering if he’d be doing the same in a few years. In the video below, you can just see him in the grass below the helicopter as it pulls into a hover.

I still receive a lot of kindness of strangers in the world of aviation. And I still read the stories when people’s planes break far from home. But I am pleased to have been the random person in someone else’s story for once.

Finally, out of the barn and back into the air

The plane came home from JNX in early September 2019. After one landing at the farm, I folded the wings, drug the plane in the barn into the bay where I’d originally built it, and shut the door. In November 2019 I changed oil so that there would be fresh oil for the winter.

And

That

Was

It

I didn’t really touch the plane all winter. Oh I took a panel off here, decided I’d fix a wire there. But the reality is that the plane say forlorn and unused from September 2019 till April of 2020 when a little known bug going around called COVID-19 cancelled all of my (and the rest of the worlds) plans.

I didn’t exactly have extra time because the farm was running at 500% and there was a lot to do to try to get food in the store. But knowing I had events cancelled, and the weather was turning nice, I knew that if I didn’t get the plane out and ready to fly, I’d miss the entire year.

So I went to Polymershapes in Raleigh and picked up a sheet of Lexan to replace the one we used on the doors of the airplane. In our haste to make the doors, we messed up a number of things, mainly fit and finish stuff. We also didn’t make the windows I had planned on having so the doors went back to the drawing board. After several days of welding, cutting, painting, drilling, etc, we had much better doors than the first time.

After several weeks of on again, off again work on the airplane, Carter, Cody, and I pulled the plane outside for the first time since September and unfolded the wings. Then Myla and I wheeled the plane over to the other side of the barn to wash it down and convert it from dust brown to Tranmogriflier orange.

Myla washing the plane
Myla washing the plane

Once we had the plane clean, we moved some cows and took the plane out to the pasture to its new, temporary, outdoor home. I used our air show tie down kit and our new airplane cover to park it outside since the weather was going to be good. Tomorrow I’d have to do something new. Take off from the farm.

On paper, this was a no brainer. The plane will take off in only a few hundred feet and we had 600 to work with. Plus a few hundred feet of overrun.

I did some test runs with Myla zooming around the pasture with the doors open flinging cow poop all over the place. That was fun till I realized I’d flung cow poop all over the inside of my newly skinned doors. Oops.

With the poop cleaned off, the next day was the big day. I took off just like the book said I would. A few hundred feet and zoom, I was gone. A quick trip to HRJ to get some fuel and see my friends and then it was time to come back to the farm. Landing was just as hard as i remembered from September. Harder because I was out of practice in this plane but some test landings at HRJ combined with its awesome performance made things work out just fine.

Airplane in a cow pasture
In the field bedded down for the day

A few days later is was time to go flying again. This time to JNX to get some paperwork. I took off again and again it was no problem. Landing back at the farm again showed just how awesome the landing gear is on the SuperSTOL. I could probably get a Highlander in and out of here, but I couldn’t drop it in and slam it down like I do the SuperSTOL. The landing gear on this airplane just eats up bumps and hard landings like they aren’t even there. And dropping it in is what I’ve been doing. The approach to get in is over super tall trees and some power lines. By the time I get over the power lines, it is time to drop seemingly straight down till I pass the fence and plant the plane down in the pasture. The gear soaks up this abuse so well that you wouldn’t even spill your drink.

There may be faster airplanes, but I don’t think I’d want another plane to get into our place.

I would take another 20-30 horsepower for getting out though. SuperSTOL with Gator

First flight

With the inspection done, and a work session till around 11pm that night to get the last minute fixes and tweaks done, I met the factory pilot, Harrison Smith, at HRJ the next day. Harrison flew up in Just Aircraft’s owner’s airplane, a SuperSTOL XL. But the plan was to fly in my aircraft for the two hour insurance sign off. However, there was a hiccup. We have a ground adjustable propeller and the book setting was much too course for our little Rotax engine. When we went to make our first takeoff, the engine wasn’t making enough RPM and we had to abort. After a quick discussion, we switched to Troy’s airplane.

I was a bit hesitant to fly Troy’s airplane, because it is bigger and has the bigger engine. What if I liked his better than mine? After two very fun hours of air work and touch and goes, I was signed off and ready to fly my airplane. I pulled mine in the shop and reset the propeller pitch to get at least enough RPM to be safe. Once that was done, and everything was checked over one more time, I pulled our airplane back outside, fired it up, and headed to the grass to see if it was ready to fly.

I’d like to tell you I was nervous. Or that I was scared. But the reality is, I knew every bolt on this airplane. It had been gone over by myself, Spork, three A&Ps on the field, and two A&Ps for the inspection. Then finally the factory pilot had crawled all over it before he got in it. If something findable was wrong, I’d have been amazed.

I’d just spent two hours flying basically the same airplane. If flew GREAT! Very docile, very easy to fly. With all the hours and days behind me, and all the 40 hours of flight time in a short time in front of me, then a trip to Oshkosh across the country, I didn’t really have time to be nervous.

I pulled the airplane out, ran it up, taxied out, did a quick rolling RPM check, and then advanced the power to take off. I wasn’t trying to do anything dramatic, just a nice slow takeoff in the grass.

The entire thing would have been lost to memory had Craig from our airport not come out, twice, to film my first flight and landing. The flight was pretty much perfect. The airplane flew hands off from the beginning, not even needing elevator trim. It was neutral in all axis and flew just like the factory airplane, just like Harrison said it would. We had some avionics stuff to fix, and the RPM still needed some tweaks, but overall it flew as good as could be hoped for.

So now, all I had to do was fly my airplane for 40 hours, pack, plan, and depart for Oshkosh in a week. Can it be done?

The dreaded inspection

When I tell people that I’m building an airplane, the answers generally go like this.

“What, like a real plane?”

“Wow, that’s amazing. I could never do that.”

“Who is going to fly it the first time?”

But eventually, no matter what their first reaction is, they get around to carefully asking, “Um, so does someone inspect it or something.”

What they are politely saying is, “I’ve known you for years, and while you are a nice guy and all. And reasonably competent when it comes to things that aren’t really that dangerous like tic tac toe, or maybe marbles, but please, PLEASE tell me that someone that actually knows something about airplanes is going to look at your work, fix all the stuff you screwed up, and then, after MUCH oversight, will let you go fly this contraption you’ve stupidly put together.”

Or at least that is how it sounds in my head.

And I always answer that, yes indeed there is an inspection process. The FAA comes and inspects my work and then signs off on it before any flight takes place. Knowing the big bad government is going to protect me from myself, they always visibly relax and we move on to other topics.

What I don’t tell them is, the FAA isn’t the one that will inspect my airplane. I’ve heard stories of FAA inspectors not even looking at the airplane, or giving it a cursory inspection (read: quick glance out the window). I didn’t want that. I wanted a full physical inspection, because I love my life and my family and getting killed in a contraption I made does not sound like a good plan to me. Plus most importantly, getting killed in my own airplane would hurt my pride. I’m not saying pilots are prideful, but…

So I contacted Lisa Burwell, the FAA’s Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR). Lisa and her husband, both long time airplane mechanics came out to do my inspection on July 14th. They both crawled all over the airplane. The entire process took about three hours and at least two of those three hours were the physical inspection process, times two people, so four hours of intense inspection. Then, and only then, did we do the paperwork.

They did find a few things that needed to be tweaked, including one missing bushing that I’m very glad they found. Not because of safety, but because it saved from needless repairs several years from now.

So after fixing a few things as they inspected, and noting a few things that needed to be fixed after the inspection, we completed the paperwork and BAM! I no longer had a box of parts that might some day be an airplane. We had an actual airplane, ready for test flight.

After inspection for SuperSTOL with Lisa Burwell, FAA DAR
Lisa, Carter, and I after inspection and when N41RW became an airplane

Carter and I after the inspection on N41RW
The build process ends. Test flying begins

Now, all we had to do was to fly 40 hours, fix everything that went wrong during that time, change the oil, and fly to Oshkosh. In a week. Sure, no problem. I’m already working 80 hour weeks anyway, so nothing is different. I was losing Carter to another commitment he had so this would all be solo. But flying is solo anyway so no big deal. I hope.

A month of craziness

I’m writing this post in arrears. As I sit here typing, the story has effectively ended. But no sense telling the end here at this stage.

When we last left off, if was early June, and we were making progress on the airplane. I had a cute little list of things to get done, and it looked possible to make our goal of finishing, flying off our 40 hours, and making it Oshkosh. Oh how young and naive I was back then.

From June till July 14th, we worked on the airplane literally every day. I think I gave Carter 2 days off in there somewhere. He is only 15 and he had some other stuff to do. I had zero days off, and on days where he couldn’t work, I pulled 20 hour days to try to make up some time.

We normally started at the crack of dawn, and finished somewhere after dinner. Effectively, we averaged 80 hours per week, every week, from June till July, except for the week of vacation we had, thanks to Grandma, where I spent the week going over the paperwork to get ready for our inspection.

That tells the story of how the month went, and explains why there were no updates on the build log during that time. We were only home to eat and sleep, and eating didn’t really happen all that often. In fact, I lost 5 pounds during the last week, simply from skipping meals trying to get the airplane ready. I also didn’t take a lot of pictures, or keep much in the way of notes, since I was too busy just getting the work done. But over a month you do get a few pics so here is what I have.

Aircraft panel, just installed
The panel, version 3.0, on its initial install

SuperSTOL Aircraft panel with avionics
The same panel, but now with the avionics installed

SuperSTOL Panel with most stuff installed
With starter button and some labeling done. We still had to add a number of items after this.

Engine page on EFIS after installation
Engine page on EFIS

Mocking up the cowlings
Mocking up and fitting the cowlings. This was not the funnest part of the build. I was covered in itchy fiberglass for 3 days.

Text for tail number from EAA manual
We stopped by the sign shop and had our graphics ordered, including the tail number.

We used EAA’s how to register your aircraft packet that they sell. Actually its called “Step by step certification kit.” Whatever, it was invaluable and anyone registering a new homebuilt should absolutely buy it. The lettering for the N number is very specific. Having the page pictured above took all the guess work out of it.

Installing the trim panels in the wing
Installing the trim panels in the wing. We just added rivnuts around each panel, after making sure that everything was secured with the proper hardware of course.

Flap tracks on superstol
We worked on the flap tracks quite a bit. Polishing, greasing, adjusting. Nothing annoying, just time spent smoothing things out.

Dan and Carter in the Citabria flying to the Outer Banks
Trip to the Outer Banks of NC to visit Robby to look at his airplane

We knew we’d need to go to the Outer Banks to look at Robby’s plane one last time. This allowed us to see the final product in person again, answering questions we still had. We knew we’d need to go at some point, but we were pushing so hard to be ready for Oshkosh we could never find a day. Finally it was going to be 100 degrees one day so I figured that would be the day to go. When we left it was severe clear. Except there was a thunderstorm sitting over the airport at Manteo. But in the hour plusĀ  it would take in the Citabria to get there, that storm would have moved off.

Except when we arrived the cell was still sitting over the airport. We diverted to Kitty Hawk but as we passed Manteo I could see the airport through the clouds. I called back to Spork to see if he was ok sneaking into Manteo through the break and the gusty winds.

Spork asleep in the Citabria
My copilot, hard at work

The boy will have to be a pilot. He never sleeps anywhere as soundly as he does in an airplane. In his defense, I’m a terrible Captain as I pretty much fly the entire time so there isn’t really anything for him to do.

We visited Robby and Jenny, took 100 more pictures of his airplane, grabbed some lunch, and headed back home. We had to divert around thunderstorms again. Plus there was some huge fire that had the entire area covered in smoke. Plus our Stratus was accidentally left on so we were running of battery for the ADS-B. It was a bit intense.

Spork asleep in the Citabria
Spork asleep on the way home

Not so intense for the co-pilot. He was asleep before Manteo was out of sight.

Our working list for O flights at JNX
Our working list for O flights at JNX

During the craziness of the final push, we had to stop and have O flights for our Civil Air Patrol squadron. It was a crazy busy day, and we were short one aircraft of the 5 we needed. But considering we had literally every airplane in the wing that was flyable, plus the Wing Chief of Staff onsite flying for us, it was definitely a maximum effort.

Kids tour at the airport
Kids tour at the airport

It was really fun being at the airport full-time. It was the first time in my career that I was able to really plug into the airport scene. I was able to get to know everyone and spend time with them. We also became part of the tour whenever there was someone visiting. Either from the airport board, or from a local school. It was fun.

TF-51 at HRJ
TF-51 at HRJ

We also were on hand whenever something cool landed at the airport. Most of the time it is a boring Cessna or Piper, but often it was something cool to break up the traffic. It was fun to go out and meet the crews/pilots and talk airplanes. Often they were more excited about our SuperSTOL build than they were about their own awesome airplanes.

These are just some of the cool aircraft we saw. These are all from just one week.

Stearman at HRJ
Stearman at HRJ

Blackhawk at HRJ
Blackhawk at HRJ

Apache practicing at HRJ
Apache practicing at HRJ

Russian helicopter at HRJ
Russian helicopter at HRJ

V-22 Osprey practicing at HRJ
V-22 Osprey practicing at HRJ

Sean safety wiring the oil drain plug
We had friends stop and help when they could. Here Sean is safety wiring our drain plug on the oil tank while Carter works on something or other.

With all the required items checked off the list, and our inspection scheduled and approaching, we got out of complete it mode and settled into get it ready for inspection mode. The difference is cleaning up instead of making messes.

Aircraft ready for inspection, with cowling off.
Aircraft ready for inspection, with cowling off.

Hobbes in the pilots seat, ready for inspection
Hobbes in the pilot’s seat, ready for inspection

Hobbes has been part of the build since day one and has been in and around the airplane every step of the way. Here he sits, ready to fly, waiting on inspection. Oshkosh 2017 wind sock in place, and Oshkosh 2019 NOTAM on the seat, ready to go. The inspection was the next day, but that is another post.

Much progress with no pictures

Since moving to the airport, it has been a mad rush of activity. I’d love to say that I have lots of pictures of the progress, but the reality is I’ve taken exactly zero pictures of our work so far. Partly because the things we are doing aren’t really photo worthy, and partly because I have my phone now attached to the speaker to play our music. So what we have instead of pictures, is our list of things that we’ve done and we are doing. Our daily to do list.

Oh wait. No that is the wrong list. That’s my daily list for before I leave the house.

This is my list for the airplane for this week.

Airplane to do

Electrical master and starter hookup Dan – 3 hours – Almost done
Avionics install Dan – 1 day
New panel cut and installed – Dan 3 hours – Done!
Fuel flow test Both. 20 mins
Fuel tanks – calibrate Spork – 2 hours
Engine oil Service Bulletin – both – 30 mins – almost finished
Carb hookup Dan – 30 mins
Choke hookup Both – 2 hours
Fuel transducer Spork – 4 hours – Started already
Engine probes installed Dan – 8 hours
Oil engine – both 30 mins, just needs topping off after service bulletin completion
Coolant engine – Spork – 30 mins – Done!

We’d already hooked up the fuel, the oil lines, the coolant lines, and the throttle cables. We’d installed and rigged the rudder, the ailerons, the flaps, the brake lines and many other things I can’t even recall at this point. None of them look like big progress in pictures so I’ve been slack and just not taken pictures of them.

We made our instrument panel from the material provided with the kit. It was easy since I’d already made a panel from Lexan previously to get everything arranged just how I wanted it. With about three hours of work, I had a shiny new panel made and temporarily installed. I then decided to make sure that the avionics fit, one last time.

They didn’t.

So off to the metal supply store to get more metal. With our new purchase, we cut out and made a new panel, this time bigger and with the instruments not centered but instead biased towards the pilots side (if you are counting, this is panel #3). This allowed the SL30 Nav/Com to be able to clear the support bracing. Everything else is very small and fits pretty much wherever. I primered and painted the panel and got it, and it’s support brackets installed, last night. So it is ready for avionics installation today.

I also (I’m saying “I” instead of “we” because Spork had some other stuff to get done at home so I had a rare solo work day at the airport) installed the battery master solenoid and its control wire, and installed the starter solenoid and its power wire. We just need to install the starter control wires, the master and avionics switches, and some associated wiring and the electrical side, at least to the engine, will be hooked up.

Then we’ll be onto installing the avionics, which I’m sure will eat up way too much time. We have to install all the engine sensors and hookups so we have oil pressure, RPM, EGT, that kind of stuff. That is going to require a good bit of book work and probably a call to the manufacturer somewhere in there but if we can get all that hooked up correctly, it is only simple steps remaining to be able to start the engine for the first time! I’d dearly love to get the engine running by Saturday. Friday would be even better. Then we’ll take a break from actual work and move onto paperwork.

Moving to the airport

At some point, it is time for the baby bird to leave the nest. For the past year(ish) we’ve been working on our airplane in our barn. We’ve done good work in this space and it has been awesome to just walk next door and be able to go to work. It has also been easy for someone to walk in and ask questions, stop by to visit, need me “for just a minute” or any other way of saying stop the forward progress on the plane.

But, it was very easy to run upstairs and run payroll, or eat dinner with the family, or weld/machine/sand pieces with all the machining equipment I have in my shop. So I put a lot of thought into when do I move from my comfy shop to the airport? I boiled down to when the jobs are easier to do there with an A&P (airplane mechanic) next door than to do at home where I have to figure everything out myself. We figured that we needed to get the windshield on, the doors welded, and a few other small jobs and then it would be time to move.

One of the first jobs was to add the glass to the airplane. We needed to install the windshield, the cheek pieces, and the turtle deck (rear window). The cheek pieces were first because they were the easiest and I wasn’t that familiar with working with Lexan.

The Lexan cheek pieces are not part of the normal factory build. Normally this portion of the airplane is covered with fabric, but Robby recommended to me that glass made visibility much better on landing so I decided early on that we’d do these out of glass. They went on very easy with just a bit of trim.

Adding the glass to the cheeks of the airplane
Adding the glass to the cheeks of the airplane

Then we started on the windshield. The kit comes with two sheets of Lexan. One for the windshield and one for the doors. The turtle deck is supposed to be metal, but I was doing mine of out Lexan. Plus I was adding the cheek pieces. That meant we’d need a new sheet of Lexan beyond our two. Oh well, let’s get done what we have first.

Spork working on the windshield
Spork working on the windshield

The instructions were not really clear on how to bend the windshield to fit. We cut out the template I’d made in the Lexan and then tried to bend it to fit the fuselage. We couldn’t make the thing fit so I decided to use some heat to make the bends.

So apparently, you can’t use heat to bend Lexan. That is acrylic. Oops. We had it fitting nicely, but the glass was distorted and bubbled. So we pulled the second sheet of Lexan and started making the windshield again. At least this time we had a fit windshield to work off of.

This one went MUCH easier. It was a piece of cake. “I wonder why we had so much trouble the first time?”

Spork working on clecoing the windshield in place

Windshield #2 in place with cowlings temporarily fit
Windshield #2 in place with cowlings temporarily fit

The cowlings fit, the windshield is in place. Easy!

Then I started cleaning up. I grabbed one piece of scrap Lexan, then another. That was when I noticed that they were different thicknesses. Oh no. Of course they are different, I knew that! The thicker piece is for the windshield, the thinner piece is for the doors. Oh crap. Now we’ve blown through both pieces of Lexan and still don’t have a windshield!

After some phone calls, I found a place in Raleigh that sells all kinds of materials and they sold me two sheets of Lexan for half what I could order them online, making this whole thing a non-event.

We took our now perfect template from windshield #2, and used it to make windshield #3. We found that the problems of bending the windshield were indeed still there with the thicker glass so despite warnings from the factory, we pulled out the heat gun again and I did some small bends just to make the edges fold over a bit more. That coupled with clamps and cursing allowed us to rivet the piece in place and call the windshield finally done! It only took four days. Sigh.

With the windshield in place, it was time to start on the doors. I’ve known since the beginning that I would weld a custom door for this build. I wanted a window and a door, not just a door. They make a factory version but I wanted to weld something on this build and the doors were it.

Pilots door taped in place
Pilots door taped in place

Spork and I cut and bodged the doors together in relatively short order. It was a pleasure to just make something for the airplane without having to read the manual and decipher what they meant, or what they simply left out of the instructions. With the doors put together, it was time to weld. I took the first door upstairs to the TIG welding bench and set about laying the first welds down. About two welds in, the welder quit working. I’ve had this welder for years, although I’ve rarely used it. Now I had a real TIG welding project and the thing has broken? Argh!! Plus it was the weekend, plus the move to the airport is waiting on my to finish welding and fitting the doors. Insert panic attack.

My friend Josh came through for me though. First he said he’d weld the doors for me, but when I arrived, he simply handed me his TIG welder and said go forth and weld. What a life saver!

Borrowed welder in place
Borrowed welder in place

With the doors done enough, and the windshield in place, all we had left to do was tidy up, and load the airplane. That is when I spied the propeller we’d ordered forever ago. I’d never even taken it out of the box.

Spork "installing" the propeller
Spork “installing” the propeller

The whole thing is carbon fiber and super light. Spork obviously liked the nose cone and wore it the entire time, until I took it from him and put it on the airplane. It was just as easy to hang the propeller as it was to cart it down in the box so we hung it temporarily and prepped to load the airplane on the trailer.

Getting the plane ready to load
Getting the plane ready to load

We wheeled the airplane out of the barn and Miguel brought the tractor over to use as a brake (we hadn’t installed the brakes yet in the plane). We parked the trailer down the hill to take some of the uphill push off of loading onto the trailer.

Loading the airplane
Loading the airplane

You can see the trailer down the hill sticking up in the air. We don’t have any pics of the actual loading as it was all hands on deck, but we rolled the plane up the trailer and flattened out the deck so it was easy to put into its final position. Then we used literally every strap on the farm to tie things down.

Spork rode on the trailer till we got off the farm, making sure no low branches hit the plane, then it was the moment of truth. I’d moved exactly one airplane on a trailer in my life, counting this one. A year of work and now we are hauling this thing down the road. What if we get in an accident? What if there is a low power line? What if a strap comes loose and a wing pops out and tears itself off? I was a bit nervous to say the least.

Airplane on a trailer at HRJ
Arrival at HRJ

After a stop at the sign shop to get some measurements for graphics we are ordering, we arrived at HRJ, our planes new temporary home. The plane was none the worse for wear. Both Scott Tanner and Wayne Millbauer came out to help, as did the airport employees who offered their assistance as well. It took longer to get all the straps off than it did to actually unload the plane with everyone’s help.

The SuperSTOL in it's new home, with friends
The SuperSTOL in it’s new home, with friends

That is my friend Josh’s airplane on the left with someone’s RV between us. We have our own little corner of a very nice hanger to work in. We moved our gear in like the Beverly Hillbillies, setting up shop to finish the plane.

Since arrival we’d began cutting a new panel, installed the brake lines, installed one slat, installed the flaps and ailerons and rigged them, and I’m sure a number of other things. With Spork out of school, we are at the airport nearly every day. The first week was days in the upper 90s but this last week has been in the lower 80s which has been awesome.

Beautiful sunrise, bad picture
The picture doesn’t do the sunrise justice

Now our days consist of driving 30 minutes to HRJ, then working all day, sometimes till after dinner. Then driving 30 minutes home tired, sweaty, and ready for bed. Only to do it again the next day. We are slowly making progress and we are trying very hard to make Oshkosh in July. Only time will tell.

A lot of small successes and one major milestone

Despite finally having Spork available to work, it has only been for a few hours here, a couple of hours there. We are still only getting about 8 hours a week at up to this moment so progress is happening, but it is slow. We do have work on the schedule, but it seems we are always starting an hour late, or finishing early for some other commitment.

My haul of clothes from the Airman's Attic at Seymour Johnson AFB
My haul of clothes from the Airman’s Attic at Seymour Johnson AFB

One thing that keeps us hopping is our Civil Air Patrol commitments. For instance, I needed to go to Goldsboro to pick up some product for our farm store, and since I was already there, lets stop by the Airman’s Attic and visit our friend Kelly to see if we can get some uniforms for our cadets.

What you see here is all clothes! We were nearly out of uniforms for cadets. Now we have a supply for us and other squadrons as well!

Spork uncrating the engine
Spork uncrating the engine

A few weeks ago, we posted this photo of us uncrating the engine for the first time.

Spork drilling holes in the firewall
Spork drilling holes in the firewall

Now we have test mounted the engine, removed it, remounted it, then removed it, and finally mounted it for the final time. With that done, it was time to start installing accessories like cooling, oil lines, coolers, throttle cables, etc.

Installing the baggage door
Installing the baggage door

When Spork wasn’t available, I tried to do things that required a lot of single person time. Things like reading the manual, figuring out how something was routed, etc. I really puzzled over this door because it was a major milestone to be installing the door. But I had to locate all the holes we’d predrilled for the rivets and it took a lot of sleuthing to find the holes with a probe, then burn them out with a hot iron so they were ready for rivets. I installed the drip guard, but left the actual door install for when Spork was available. Plus we need to make a door latch for this thing and I want him part of that.

Ugh, the dreaded throttle cable
Ugh, the dreaded throttle cable

I thought installing the throttle cable would be easy enough. The instructions seemed daunting so I spent a good bit of time just reading through them and trying to figure out what they meant. I literally spent a good hour just figuring out which was the throttle and which was the choke. I read all the firewall forward instructions (no help), checked all the pictures (nope), and even pulled out the Rotax manual (all 400 pages) and started reading through it page by page. I finally found a note in the Rotax manual which clued me in. Now it didn’t actually say “This is the choke, or this is the throttle” but it had a reference on a picture which I was able to figure out. It really shouldn’t be this hard.

Once I knew which was the throttle, I set about cutting the cable to length, the shielding to length, etc. Then it was time to drill the hole in the panel where the throttle would go. That required sitting in the airplane and testing the fit for where it should be. I was sitting there when Spork crawled in with me to look. That is when I realized this was the first time we’d both been in the cockpit, and we could make airplane noises. We spent a few very happy minutes doing that, and then I pulled the throttle too far out and all the fiddly bits came spurting out. There were about 4 warnings on the throttle not to unscrew the section that had just come exploding out. I must have missed the part where even screwed in, it could happen. Ugh.

AircractSpruce.com, part number entry, correct cable length (dig cut off pieces out of trash to measure original length), click, $257.00 plus shipping. Ugh! What a way to end a day.

So I spent 4 hours installing a single throttle cable, didn’t finish, and ruined the cable. A few days later, the new throttle cable shows up.

I opened the package, spread out the parts, cut the cable to length, installed the cable, finished the install, including the parts I didn’t do the first time. Total time = 15 minutes. That story right there tells you what it is like to build an airplane. 4 hours the first time, 15 minutes the second time.

Flying with Wendy from Raleigh squadron
Flying with Wendy from Raleigh squadron

I had to take a break from building to fly for CAP and for the Army. We have a series of training missions (for them, not us) that we fly routinely in CAP. I ended up responding to a call from Wendy for a right seater to fly out of Raleigh. I’ve never flown out of Raleigh before in their CAP plane, so that was a treat. I ended up flying two days that week, farmed the third day, and did office work, work in our real estate business, etc the other days. That was a slow build week.

Spork working on the engine
Spork working on the engine

But we did get some work done. Systems continued to progress on the engine. I also tidied up the avionics, then broke them apart so I could insert the panel in the airplane temporarily.

CAP with the Air Force Thunderbirds
CAP with the Air Force Thunderbirds

We took a break from building for the kids to work the Wings over Wayne airshow. CAP provided security to the masses (over 230,000 people!) who were arriving, making sure they didn’t have contraband and making sure they knew where to go. They also were able to camp there on the base and see the airshow. It was more work than play but they did have fun.

First torque sealed nut on the final install
First torque sealed nut on the final install

But with WoW over, we were back to work. I broke out the torque seal since we were doing final assembly. It was starting to dry up since I hadn’t used it since prior to starting covering. But with a paper clip and some pressure it was flowing again, and it has been getting quite a bit of use ever since. Pictured above was the first nut that was torque sealed during the final assembly, one of the engine mounts four bolts. After installing and removing parts so many times, putting that torque seal on is a really nice step. That is like putting a big check mark on the to do list.

Cutting out the access hole in the tail for the tail feathers
Cutting out the access hole in the tail for the tail feathers

Spork spent a lot of time reinstalling the tail feathers on the plane. They were labeled and prerigged so all we needed to do was remember exactly how everything had been done a year ago and repeat it, exactly. Yeah, that took a bit of time as our memories were pretty fuzzy. But we installed and rigged the tail feathers and cut open the first access panel, the one where the elevators pass through and bolt to the push rod for the control stick. This access panel will be covered after final assembly by a custom panel painted to match.

Wings installed for the final time
Wings installed for the final time

With all the small stuff progressing, Spork and I solicited help from Myla and installed the wings for the final time. This is a MAJOR milestone. They will still fold but the rear bolt and lift strut bolt won’t be removed again unless there is some major maintenance. It took a bit of fussing to get it all back in place but it was way easier than the test fitting last year because with the engine installed, the airplane didn’t want to tip over with one wing extended.

The wing install crew making airplane noises
The wing install crew making airplane noises

The wings folded and the plane pushed back into the shop
The wings folded and the plane pushed back into the shop

It was night time by the time we finished installing the wings. We folded the wings and pushed the plane into the shop, now in its new configuration. No more wings on stands in the floor, no more airplane and wings, and other bits all stacked everywhere. Now the main assembly is the airplane, and just small parts are here and there to be installed. The shop looks much cleaner and the airplane is starting to look like an airplane. We still have plenty to do, but we are closer than we’ve ever been.

 

Progress is being made

I haven’t posted much about the airplane progress but some small steps are being made. One limitation is that I can only do so much when Spork isn’t available to work because this is an “us” project and not a “me” project, as it should be. Since he’s about to turn 15, we had to stop for this.

Spork ready for his first day of drivers ed
Spork ready for his first day of drivers ed

He passed, and didn’t crash or kill anyone, so that is progress. But that took most of a week.

This week he is doing government studies with a group called Teen Pact. I’m not sure exactly what they do, but he was elected as a Senator based on his oratory skills and he seems to be having fun, so I think it is all good. While he’s been having adventures, I’ve snuck in a few work sessions on the plane.

All the orange parts of the plane painted
Everything that is orange

Mostly that has meant painting. I finally convinced his mother, the arbiter of The Schedule, that painting was something that I needed to do myself and not with him, since painting gives you cancer and makes you grow extra appendages. Once I explained all the health concerns, she was fine to let me go do it and keep him at home. I was at once relieved and offended. I guess I’ve lived long enough at this point.

But with that freedom, I’ve pulled everything into the paint booth that needed to be orange, which is nearly all of the airplane, and have it panted. Wings, flaps, ailerons, tail feathers, etc. You’ll note the cowling is grey at the bottom of the picture. It, and several other pieces, are to be black. That color was finally opened up this week and the lift struts (thingies that hold the wings in place) were painted black.

With everything orange, and the lift struts black, it is officially time for final assembly. The key word there isn’t “final”, it is “assembly.” Now we do the part that actually looks and feels like building an airplane. Install the wings, hang the flaps, install the windshield, install the avionics, install the engine. All these items are things that we have sorta done before, but now they go on for good. And that means taking our time, torquing nuts on, installing torque seal, grease, or safety wire, whatever that particular joint needs. Then there is the installation of control cables, throttle cables, fuel lines, all that stuff. I’m sure we’ll get lost in the details and spend way too much time.

And then this showed up. 90 days to go till Oshkosh

Ahh!! 90 days to go?! I need about 6 more months!

According to SWMBO, I will start having the boy to work consistently starting next week. The push will officially be on.

It is finally a rolling project

airplane partially on the landing gear
Partially on the gear

Spork and I have officially finished painting the fuselage. Not all the airplane, mind you. But at least the fuselage. That is a big deal because everything at this point attaches to the fuselage so by getting it out of the paint booth, we are able to paint a piece, then bring it out and install it. Or if we are waiting on something to finish drying, we can work on other things like avionics, windshield, engine install, whatever.

Step one was to get the airplane sitting on the gear. With it on the gear, we could more easily move it around the shop and more importantly, we could crawl inside and sit and make airplane noises!

Spork standing beside the airplane as it sits on the gear. He is 6'1" tall
Spork standing beside the airplane as it sits on the gear. He is 6’1″ tall

Once we have all the gear installed, I stood there and tried to remember why I thought an airplane that was so blasted tall was a good idea. Was it really this far up in the air when I first looked at these things? You sit basically at the elbow of his left arm. You have to climb into the airplane using the gear as a ladder, back yourself in butt first, and swing your legs over. Grandma isn’t going to be flying a SuperSTOL anytime soon.

Spork uncrating the engine
Spork uncrating the engine

With the gear on, it was time to temporarily install the Rotax 912 ULS we are using for this airplane. I bought it shiny new and it has been sitting in its shipping box the last several months. But now it was time to break everything out, figure out how to lift it, and install it on the motor mount.

Engine installed, almost time for airplane noises!
Engine installed, almost time for airplane noises!

The firewall needs to come back off, and the engine along with it. But now the airplane is stable enough we can work on it without worry of it tipping over. I did a few pull ups on the motor mount testing its strength and the airplane doesn’t even budge.

Now that we’ve made it this far, the next step is to install the windshield so we can fit the boot cowl to it. Once the boot cowl is fitted, we fit the firewall to the boot cowl and reinstall the engine, for the last time. Then it is time for avionics, throttle, battery hookups, fuel lines. All that stuff. Actual assembly.

On days when Spork is still busy with school, I’ll work on painting the remaining bits. If we knew what we were doing, we could be done in a few weeks. As it is, we are hoping to make Oshkosh in July.