Painting has begun

Tail feathers in the paint booth
Tail feathers in the paint booth

“Make sure that you glue this down or it will not look right when you paint.”

“Cut that straight, or it won’t look right when you paint.”

“Don’t spill glue or you’ll see it when you paint.”

Yeah, yeah. I could hear Robby’s voice in my head these past months. I tried to make sure that I followed his example and his instructions. And I got pretty good at it. The tapes were all attached properly. I ironed down the edges to make sure they were flat. Well, lots of times I did. And overall the covering job looked pretty good. I’d even had some much more experienced builders look over my work and they said that it did indeed look pretty good.

Then I grabbed the paint gun that is apparently a mystical device of unspeakable power. It can reveal, with merely the faintest wisp of paint, every…single…mistake…you ever made.

The first pass, on the first tail feather, in the first two seconds, revealed mistakes from stem to stern. I know that tape was attached. Why is it sticking up. Didn’t I seal that edge? When did that thread stick up? I know I trimmed it clean.

After applying primer to two pieces, I went back and prepped all the other pieces with a newly calibrated eye. It took at least a full day to go over everything again, with lots of regluing, ironing, and fussy micro work. But the results were much better when the next application of primer was laid down.

As of today, we are several days into painting. We’ve been heating the barn as much as we can, bringing it up to about 70 degrees, which allows us to cure the paint properly and use the reducer that we have on hand. Most pieces have about 4 coats of primer, and all but the flaps have been sanded.

At this point, the idea is to give a light sanding to all the finished pieces and then set them aside. The flaps and the few remaining pieces that need another coat will get some sanding and another two coats of primer. Once those are done, the fuselage and the wings will be moved into the paint booth, one at a time. Those will take a good bit of time because they are so much bigger, and require taping off of protected areas. But once they are done, we’ll start spraying color onto the plane and finally reveal what this plane is going to look like.

So far, I’ve enjoyed painting the plane. The work had been enjoyable and the paint booth and paint gun are working as advertised. I hope the rest of the painting process is as enjoyable.

Here is the piece we’ve been searching for

When I was growing up, we used to get tractor trailer loads on square bale hay in each summer. Unloading hay out of a pig trailer (they hauled the hay down in pig trailers, and carried pigs back) and then into a barn loft, during the heat of the summer, was a decidedly unpleasant task. But one of the things that kept us going through the process was the eternal search for that one bale of hay.

Pouring sweat, “Have you seen it yet?”

“Nope”

Sticking your face out the small hole in the trailer for a quick breath of clean air, “Is this the bale we’re looking for that I’m standing on?”

“Nah, it is still under here somewhere.”

The bale, the one we always looked for, was the LAST bale. I don’t know why it was funny, but it kept us going during the process. And we always celebrated whoever was the person who grabbed the last bale and unloaded it off the trailer. We’d be drenched in sweat, coughing and hacking from breathing all the hay in a confined space, and covered in hay, but it would be all smiles when that bale came out.

Well, I found the piece of the airplane we’ve been looking for.

The last part of the airplane to get covered, the wing flap
The last part of the airplane to get covered, the wing flap

We finally started working on the last wing flap. By this point, I should know what I’m doing. Covering an entire airplane gives you an opportunity to learn all the skills needed, except rib stitching, which I’m happy to forgo with this project. Unfortunately we had a few issues holding us back.

First, we ran out of material. Now I don’t mean we came up slightly short. I mean we didn’t have close to enough material to cover these flaps. Did we do something wrong in the build? Did we get shorted on the original material? I don’t know. Probably the former. So I reached out to Billy Payne to order more material, which he promptly sent over to me.

When the material arrived, Spork and I got right to work on it, only to discover we weren’t smart enough to figure out how to use it. The material was 15′ long, and 6′ wide. Our flaps are 8′ 3″ long and they require about 3′ 3″ of width. I have to be missing something.

The material isn't quite long enough to wrap the flap
A test strip to make sure that the material isn’t quite long enough to wrap the flap

After talking to Billy (it will fit, you are just looking at it wrong) and then talking to Robby (you aren’t crazy, he probably thinks you have a Highlander which has a smaller flap) and then talking to Billy, (you aren’t crazy, I thought you had a Highlander), we figured out what to do. Billy said to just lay a 2″ strip of finish tape down on the top leading edge. Then pull the fabric to butt up to the tape, filling the gap. Once everything is taped, finished, and painted, it won’t be visible. And with a large leading edge finish tape providing the needed overlap for safety, it will never come off or fail so a good result.

It took some extra time to lay down the tapes and then match up the material so it butted up, but didn’t overlap. But with that done, the flaps could be covered and looked good.

Flap almost wrapped
Flap almost wrapped

I’m at the point of covering where it is fun to cover. I’m comfortable with the process, and more importantly comfortable covering up my mistakes.

Installing fabric rivets in the flap
Installing fabric rivets in the flap

As I said, no rib stitching on this project. The fabric rivets were a bit intimidating at first. Now I’m thankful for how easy they are to put in vs. stitching. Score one for the SuperSTOL.

Pulling fabric rivets
Pulling fabric rivets

Here I am pulling the last rivets. I’m sure we’ll have to put another rivet somewhere on the plane, but I don’t know where it is at this point. All the interior pieces have been test fitted and everything else is paint, assembly, fiberglass, or rigging at this point. Thank you Spork for getting a pic for the last official rivet pulls on this airplane.

With progress on the last flap, I took a day that Spork was in school and took a ride to Grantsboro. When I talked to Robby, he told me that he was selling his place in Grantsboro because he and Jenny were building a house at the Outer Banks. I knew this because when I took my demo ride (way back in the beginning of this) with Robby in his SuperSTOL, we flew over a piece of land that was to be his new home some day. Seems some day had arrived.

But with Grantsboro on the chopping block, I had a problem. In my never ending quest to stupidly always leave something at Robby’s place, I’d left all the seat cushions behind in his hanger. So with a relatively free day, I took the ride to Robby’s, 2 hours away, to pick up my cushions.

Robby's hanger in Grantsboro
Where it all started

This is where this whole project started. Robby’s hanger in Grantsboro is where I took the airplane after I picked it up from the factory. It is where Spork and I spent two weeks getting the first items checked off on the build under Robby’s supervision.  It is also where Spork and I lived in an Alaska style cabin, with no insulation, while it snowed in Greenville. 

There are fond memories of this place.

With my (hopefully) last parts retrieved from Robby’s we finally have everything we need to complete the build.

Myla helping with the final flap
Myla helping with the final flap

I was really happy that Myla decided to stop in the shop and help with the build at this moment. She’d helped a little bit in the past, but with this final part being worked on, I was thankful for her company and assistance as I wrapped this last piece.

The flap, as it sits right now, needs the leading and trailing edge tapes applied. That shouldn’t take long. An hour or so.

Then I have to finish two custom inspection rings and attach them to the fuselage. They are already cut out. They just need some TLC to dress up the rough edges. Then a quick scuff and some glue and tape and they are good to go.

Then it is time to paint! I’m terrified and excited all at the same time. I hope it is something I can do a good job on. Paint is what everyone sees, and it covers up, but also reveals, your mistakes. I won’t know which one will be more prevalent until I start laying it down. Hopefully it hides more than it reveals. I think we did a good job on the covering work we did, but you never know what it will look like till you see the final product. I’m looking forward to getting started.

Almost done covering

Fuselage with rudder hung temporarily, all covered

I keep walking into the shop and looking at the fuselage thinking, “What do I need to do to this today?”

The answer keeps surprising me.

Nothing.

We’ve spent the last few work days working on control surfaces and tail feathers. Spork has started, and finished, the left horizontal stabilizer. He tells me it is either good enough to last forever, or it will work for less than 40 hours, he’s not sure. So either it will fail on my during Phase 1 testing (when I’m the only one flying) or it will never fail (when he’s flying.)

Nice

One of the first things that I worked on, after finishing the fuselage, was redoing the rudder. We’d originally covered the rudder at Robby’s but once I hung it this time, I noted that the anti-chafe tapes on the plane were 1″, and the rudder was 2″. Of course, we’d covered it on its own back in March, and we’d then followed someone else’s instruction working on the fuselage meaning we’d used different tapes on different places.

It looked weird.

Spork had the idea to just strip off the tapes and redo them. That took about 2 minutes. I’d already spent 15 minutes puzzling over what to do so it was a very good solution.

Rudder being retaped and edge taped
Rudder being retaped and edge taped

With the tapes stripped off, I was able to retape them with 1″ in short order and then do the 2″ edge tapes and finish the rudder. It was put aside in the growing pile of completed parts.

Firehose material for rudder cable controls
Firehose material for rudder cable controls

Another off plan fix we needed to do was to cover the holes for the rudder cables on the back of the fuselage. I’d stupidly opened up holes for the cables in the wrong places when I was covering the fuselage so patches needed to be added. Then I decided that I’d dress up the patches a bit with a Cub style opening and cover. I could have used leather, but I had another material in mind.

I had a role of firehose from the fire department in the shop. A bit of hacking and arts and crafts, and I had a nice little piece made for each side.  I used a torch to sear the edges and lock the threads together just like when you cut a rope.

Rudder cable pass through cover
Rudder cable pass through cover

Unlike the leather pieces usually used, I used a piece of fabric to cover the firehose. The firehose gives wear abrasion and rigidity, the fabric gives better adhesion to the base fabric and will take paint much better. I think these will look good and wear very well. They maybe added an ounce to the airplane so maybe Robby won’t give me too hard of a time.

Rudder cable pass through with firehose
Another view
Working on the rudder pass throughs
Proof I’m actually there for the FAA. Working on the rudder cable pass throughs

This was a fun little project. It isn’t in the build spec or probably even a great idea, but it was a nice little customization that I added because I wanted to.

Spork with his horizontal stabilizer
Spork with his horizontal stabilizer

Spork covered 100% of this stabilizer with zero assistance. It looks perfect!

We’ve moved onto covering the elevator with the trim tab (the most complicated control surface) and the other horizontal stabilizer. When those are done, we have some ailerons to finish tape, and two flaps that are being covered from scratch. Once those are done, the paint booth is the next stop!

I’ve been nervous to start the painting as everything you do there is visible and I’m not really a painter, but now as we get closer I’m getting excited to start. Because once pieces are painted, they are assembled and rigged. Basically, we are getting close to attaching pieces (wings, firewall, landing gear) for the last time. That will be a big deal. I’m ready to have the fuselage on its own wheels and off the stand and sawhorse.

What is a relief tube?

When people ask me what I think of the King Air that I used to fly, what was my favorite thing about the airplane, I have an immediate and firm answer.
It has a pilot’s relief tube.
I was taking customers to KMLI in a Cessna 340.

Cessna 340
Cessna 340

This was back in the 1990s so we are talking steam gauges and Jeppesen binders. Cell phones were still a novelty. I had a co-pilot with me who’s day job was first officer for a major airline. Great guy. As I’m getting the plane ready, making sure snacks are on board, herding the cats which our customers generally were, I made a quick mental run through of all the items that I’d need to do before I left. This is something they don’t teach you in pilot training.

Track a VOR, yep.
Power off stalls? Right there on the syllabus.
Did you arrange the rental car at the destination? Uh yeah.
What about the customer who only drinks that one brand of bourbon. Did you get some mini bottles of that? Of course.
AND remember to bring them with you to the airport? Um..
And two carafes of coffee, right? Because that one guy last time wouldn’t drink caffeinated coffee.
Everything was ready to go, except I really should go pee before we hop in the airplane….
Nah, I’ll just go when we get to our fuel stop in KY. Loaded as heavy as we were, and with the head winds we were expecting, we had to stop for fuel and Bowling Green, KY looked about right and wasn’t so far away that I couldn’t make it.
So I closed the air stair door, sidled up front, and off we went.
Despite this being back in the stone age, we did have a GPS in the plane, state of the art with its green 2″ monochrome screen. It was really neat to be able to twist knobs and push buttons and calculate the actual winds aloft and our expected arrival time. Unfortunately I must not be very adept at using it, because instead of the 20 knot quartering headwind that was forecast, this stupid thing keeps saying I’ve got 45 knots on the nose. That can’t…be..right…
Ugh. This is going to be a long trip.
As we toodled along at our greatly diminished ground speed, my lack of hitting the facility before we left is becoming a problem. I try to think happy thoughts, talk to my co-pilot to keep my mind off of things, and generally be a professional and pretend there isn’t a problem. Instead I’m watching everyone guzzle coffee and I’m getting unwelcome mental images of Niagara Falls.
I’m furiously calculating and recalculating the winds aloft, trying to figure out a way to make our ground speed better. Maybe a bit higher? A bit lower? But hemmed in between the fuel range with NBAA reserves, the steady headwinds, and our planned fuel stop, I don’t have a lot of choices.
As we get closer to our fuel stop, I progress from uncomfortable annoyance to horrible pressure to I’m going to need a doctor if this goes on much longer. Finally we begin our descent into KBWG. I’d mentioned to my co-pilot, during our cruise portion, that I really needed to go to the bathroom.  He acknowledged and dismissed this bit of information with an easy indifference. Not my bladder, not my problem. But as we started down, I told him I may need his help on landing.
“Why?”
“Because the pain is so bad, I’m not sure I can use the rudder pedals.”
Now he looked invested in the conversation.
At this point, I know what you are saying to yourself. “Self, what kind of idiot gets himself into a situation like this? Why didn’t he just stop short and go to the bathroom?”
First, all options were considered and discarded. If we stopped short, with these headwinds, that would turn this flight into a two fuel stop trip instead of one. Something I’d have to explain to the boss, and to the customers. It would add time that we didn’t have, and cost that wasn’t needed for my personal comfort.
Tom Cruise as Maverick from Top Gun
My personal self image

Second, as the guy who supposedly knows what he is doing, being the one who didn’t go to the bathroom before we left is not something I wanted to admit. I’m not saying pilots are prideful, but…

Third, we’ll be there shortly. I can make it. (repeat quietly to yourself over and over)
I flex out a few tentative rudder pushes and I can make do. We’ll be on the ground soon so we’re good.
“N12345, turn left 20 degrees, this will be vectors for the localizer approach. Glide slope is out of service. “
What? No ILS? The minimum descent altitude (MDA) for the localizer will get us in, but just barely. Great.
We cruise along on vectors, and then after intercepting the localizer, we wait for clearance to actually start the approach and descend.
“Uh approach, N12345, can we start our descent?”
“Negative 345, traffic below, will be a few miles.”
We are getting closer and closer to the airport. With turbocharged piston engines, I can’t just yank the throttles and push the nose over. I have to worry about shock cooling. Finally when we are about to request we turn around and try again we blessedly get the approach clearance. I pull power as much as I can and nose over to get to MDA, tracking the localizer inbound.
Just as we get to MDA, we pop out of the clouds and there is KBWG bright and clear and beautiful.
And almost directly below us.
My copilot looks at me with pity in his eyes and says, “Sorry, no way you can make it from here. We’ll have to go around.”
My calm and professional response?
“Screw that.”
Using my recently tested skills of rudder mashing, I put in a heap of right rudder and drop the left wing. The 340 slips beautifully. If you haven’t tried it, have a go. I’m looking at the runway out of the side window, holding my slip to get down to a landing position. I glance over, now up in our slip, to my co-pilot. He’s as white as a sheet and not saying anything. The customers are still chatting away amiably in the back, oblivious.
A slip entry and exit are gentle and everything is shaping up nicely, even though this is the longest and steepest slip I’ve ever done. But all is well, why is he so upset? I query him quickly and he just shakes his head. No time to figure it out now.
I pop out of the slip, drop full flaps, and touch down without a problem, making  the last turn off with little braking. Before we are off the taxi way I’m already out of my seat belt, pushing through the customers, and at the air stair door ready to drop it the moment the co-pilot stops at the ramp.
Several minutes later, my co-pilot takes up station at a urinal beside me in the bathroom. I look over and ask him, “Hey, why’d you look so scared on the way in?
“You can’t slip a 340.”
“Yes you can, I just did. You can slip a Boeing, why wouldn’t you be able to slip a 340?”
“It is a prohibited maneuver. It is in the POH.”
“What?! I’ve never seen that. Why is it prohibited. It slips just fine.”
“It unports the fuel pickups. The engines will quit.”
After several seconds of bladder relieving thought, I replied. “We were already too high, I didn’t need engines anyway.” What else can you say at that point, we were down and safe.
After completing our trip and seeing our customers safely delivered to their destination, we pulled out the POH and did a thorough review of any and all limitations. My intrepid co-pilot, unfortunately, spent his time bouncing between airplanes and had mistaken the 400 series Cessna no slips limitation for an all encompassing twin Cessna limitation. 340s are indeed able to slip freely.
Today my daughter, whenever I mention the possibility of buying a new airplane, only asks one question.
“Does it have a potty?”
That’s my girl!

Update on covering

We’ve had about four or five days of work since the last update. Most of them have been with Spork studying for his Billy Mitchell test with Civil Air Patrol or trying to catch up on school work while I work on the plane.

I’m pleased to say that he did in fact pass his very last Mitchell test and Chief Senior Master Sergeant Moore (Super Chief!) is now 2nd. Lieutenant Moore, making him an officer in CAP. For those wondering, I’m 1st Lt. Moore, so he is catching me.

There is 2.5 years of work to get to this point and getting your Mitchell in CAP is the equivalent of an Eagle Scout for those familiar with the Boy Scouts of America. He’ll be getting his official promotion on December 11th during our end of year change of command ceremony so he’ll get it when all the brass is present. Should be fun.

But back to the airplane project.

Everyone asks, how is the project coming? The old quip of 90% complete, 90% to go is making more and more sense. When we started back working, we were “nearly ready for paint”. Only the anti-chafe tapes on the fuselage, one small fuselage panel to add, and then some tail feathers to cover, and then it is time for painting. Maybe a day or two of work?

Four or five days later, I think we still have four or five days to go. The tapes are progressing and Spork has one of the tail feathers nearly covered. But it is slow going.

The fuselage with some of the 1″ tapes installed, showing the overlap of the side panel on the bottom of the fuselage

We had the overall covering done on the fuselage, but we didn’t have any of the anti-chafe tapes installed. These are the ones that cover anywhere that tubing it touching the fabric. They are also wherever there is a seam between two pieces of fabric, reinforcing the seam. On the bottom of the fuselage you can see the fat green stripe running from the front of the plane to the back. This is where the piece of fabric on the side overlaps the piece on the bottom. That overlap is glued well and is very strong, but then adding a tape over it, with it’s pinked edges, makes for an overlap that is stronger than the material itself. 

The last major panel of fabric to be added to the fuselage

Before I could add the tape along the bottom, I had to install the last major panel of fabric. I’d left this panel off until now because it allowed me free access under the rudder panels and the kick pan. This let me continue to run wires, fuel lines, etc until the very last minute without having to remove anything. But with a final tidying up, the panel was glued in place.

Finish tape over the seams of all the panels

Now it was onto taping and patching areas of wear or weakness. Fabric is very forgiving and anything that tears or rips doesn’t really cause much problem in flight. It can be fixed on the ground relatively easily and inexpensively. The problem is, it messes up the paint job you worked so hard on. So great care is taken to keep the fabric whole and protected. It isn’t a safety thing as you’d expect. It is a lazy thing. I don’t want to have to patch it, and I don’t want to have to match the paint a year from now. 

Forward gear attach point patch

With this care in mind, I took some extra time to patch this area around the forward gear attach point. There was a lot going on in this area. Four panels (sides, bottom, and front) were coming together with seams running every which way. Then this big hole is right in a seam so the gear can get bolted on. After studying on it for a bit I went with the bigger is better method and pulled out a paint can for a circle template. With everything glued up I shrunk out the few wrinkles and everything flattened out and pulled taught. This went from a worrisome area to probably the strongest piece of fabric on the airplane. 

Tapes on the rear of the fuselage and the cover panel in place

I’ve had this cover panel on and off so many times at this point I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many times. Thank God I decided to drill out the metal tabs and ditch the course thread screws. I replaced them with rivnuts and machine screws which work much nicer. I didn’t realize at the time I’d be reinforcing this panel and mounting the VOR antennae to it but it ended up working nicely and it sure makes taking the panel on and off to fit all these tapes much easier. 

My new favorite glass

I couldn’t post an update without showing off my new favorite glass. I’m not sure if this is referencing this airplane I’m slaving away on or me. Probably both although the SuperSTOL is probably low speed, lots of drag. Of course this is referencing the “High Speed, Low Drag” saying for the fast movers of the world. For the rest of us, it is medium speed, low drag at best. 

This particular glass full was a present from a dear friend, the Goddess of Boo-Boos. I don’t know the test proof of this particular batch of egg nog, but if I filtered it and poured it into the fuel tank on the plane, I’m pretty sure it would fly. 

In case you are wondering, there isn’t any left. So don’t ask. 

We’re back!

Over the past two months, I’ve been working off and on on our avionics panel. I have everything pretty much mocked up and connected with only some config issues, cleaning up wiring, etc left to do. Everything either blinks, bonks, or chimes at this point. I just need to add circuit breakers, cut the actual panel instead of the mockup, etc. But during this time we’ve done exactly diddly to the airplane. We stopped when Hurricane Florence came ashore and just never really recovered. Spork had started school and the airplane fell to the back burner. But that all changed Sunday the 18th. Spork and I got up and fed like normal, but rather than rushing off to game night, chores, etc, we wandered back into the shop and actually went to work. It was kinda weird being back in there after two months. Where are my tools. What were we doing last? What is our next step.

Fortunately I knew our next step. We needed to get the wings back into the airplane shop and out of the car shop because for two months we couldn’t work on any vehicles.

Car shop without wings in the way
Finally, empty of airplane stuff

We had to clean out the paint booth, open up all the doors, CAREFULLY carry the wings from this shop over to the airplane shop, and set everything back up. Once the wings were safely tucked away, we went back to the airplane itself.

Spork got started on covering one of the tail feathers while I went about doing a final shrink on the fabric already in place and then installing the anti-chafe tapes. There was a lot of head scratching and trying to remember what we were doing but eventually we got back into the groove and made some progress. We already have more days on the schedule so hopefully we’ll be back moving forward again through the winter.

My favorite quotes

Since we don’t seem to be building any airplanes lately (that is soon to change) I thought I’d use this space to keep something else of mine I thought I’d lost.

Some years ago, back when I had zero kids and much more free time, I collected all my favorite quotes and put them on Facebook. Then sometime later, Facebook made one of it’s never ending series of changes and my quotes disappeared.

Today, while bumbling through Facebook looking for something completely different, I stumbled upon my list of quotes. I have no idea when or if they will disappear again, but since I HATE Facebook I’d rather have my quotes here anyway.

So without further ado, here are some of my favorite quotes, starting off with my very most favorite one right on top. This was said to me when I was 17 years old. I stood 6’5″ tall and weighed 210 pounds. I was bowing up to my father, who stood 5’7″ tall. In a fit of rage and stupidity, I told him that he couldn’t make me do something he wanted me to do. He, VERY calmly, looked me square in the eye and said:

“You’re right, I can’t ‘make you do it.’ But I can make you wish you had. ”
— My father

I’m still quivering when I think about that day. I’m not sure why he didn’t just go ahead and kill me then. It’s not like he didn’t already have a couple of sons. Fortunately I’m still around.

Now for the rest of my favorite quotes.

A man can get discouraged many times, but he is not a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” – John Burroughs

If your business depends on you, you don’t have a business. You have a job – and you are working for a lunatic.
– Michael E. Gerber

The final test of a gentleman is his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him.
William Lyon Phelps

Do not hurry, do not rest.
– Goethe

I spent 50% of my money on alcohol, women, and gambling. The rest I just wasted. – W.C. Fields

Talking about our problems is our greatest addiction. Break your habit. Talk about your joys. – Unknown

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to ones courage. – Anais Nin

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it is stupid. – Albert Einstein

Worrying is like paying on a debt that may never come due. – Will Rogers

An ordinary man can surround himself with two thousand books and thenceforward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.
Augustine Birrell

The price for being a sheep is boredom, the price for being a wolf is loneliness, choose one or the other with great care.

“What is your host’s purpose for the party? Surely not for you to enjoy yourself; if that were their sole purpose, they’d have sent champagne and women over to your place by taxi.” P.J. O’Rourke

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Mark Twain

History never looks like history when you are living through it.
John W. Gardner

I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.
Calvin Coolidge

Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.
Louis D. Brandeis

Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.
John Quincy Adams

There are no extraordinary men… just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.
William Halsey

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.
Mark Twain

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Action is the foundational key to all success.
Pablo Picasso

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.
Bill Cosby

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite time in the future.” General George S. Patton

“Show me a man who cannot bother to do the little things, and I’ll show you a man who cannot be trusted to do the big things.”
— Lawrence Bell, Bell Aircraft

“Be the man they’ll claim you were at your funeral.” me

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
— Robert A. Heinlein

“Aviation is not unsafe, but like the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect. C.R. Smith”

“The world is not interested in the storms you encounter but whether you bring in the ship.”
— Raul Armesto

“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort….”
— Herm Albright

“”Hope” is not a strategy.”
— Larry Barbour, President North State Bank

“The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”
— Theodore Hesburgh

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
— Groucho Marx

“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.”
— Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential)

“People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
— Abraham Lincoln

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.

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.