It’s a fair assumption most KITPLANES® readers were not big on essay writing in school, which at least left me with a job (I’m better at rearranging the dictionary than fabricating airplane parts). In any case, one tenet of essay writing, such as what goes on here monthly, is for the author to have answers to all the questions he or she might ask.
Unfortunately, this is really not one of those times.
My question is more a troubling observation. And that is, many secondary and tertiary owners of such straightforward Experimentals as RVs are asking “See Spot run!” questions, as another staffer recently put it. That is, there’s a growing number of Experimental owners out there who didn’t build their plane, they wrote a check for it, and as is the norm these days, they have a near-total lack of mechanical skills or understanding. Coupled to a shortage of A&Ps, especially those with a bent for homebuilts, there are occasional maintenance faux pas being committed in hangars these days.
What sort of carnage de wrench are we talking about? How about taking a main gear tire off the wheel without disassembling the wheel first? Your first thought is no doubt such an accomplishment denotes a conspicuous display of persistence, which, if it weren’t for such a profound state of ignorance, might prove admirable. Sort of like rooting for a prisoner who tunnels through a foot of concrete using plastic spoons.
Then you might consider how one retains such profundity of ignorance in the face of split-rim wheels. Similar to gaping at the bolts sticking out of Frankenstein’s monster’s neck, there are at least three nuts and bolts passing through the average light-airplane wheel. After wrestling manfully with a fully torqued 6.00-6 assembly for a few minutes, you’d think those nuts and bolts might spark an idea while one took a break to search for yet another screwdriver to hammer between tire and rim. We do hope they let the air out first.
But is it all that far-fetched if the only relationship you have with tires and wheels is the front counter of a Big O Tire store? Having never fixed a flat on a wheelbarrow or bicycle, our model modern has never been introduced to the concept of an inner tube. Let’s also assume our hero has never spent a summer in Texas drinking beer in a river while suspended in a retired Goodyear truck pneumatic or slid down a snowy hill in same.
Ultimately it’s all because no one works on their cars anymore. It used to be young folks got under the hood to either keep it running or make it faster, but the days of casual wrenching are long gone, so the average person has the same relationship with their car as a toaster. You can substitute tractor or boat or truck for car here and come to the same conclusion. Mechanical items today are built to near perfection in distant factories, and end users have no clue how they work. Urban living—and nearly everyone lives in the city or ’burbs today—gives little chance to play mechanically, especially at a fabrication level.
The fun begins when such folks buy an Experimental and figure they can work on it because, well, you know, like it says on the internet, everyone works on their Experimentals.
Another bit of collateral damage of mechanical ignorance is just how much work and effort goes into nice machinery. While COVID has challenged all of us at the end of the supply chain, many of our newbies are defiant and insistent when it comes to getting parts or blaming manufacturers for “parts failures” they themselves have caused with their hack job operation or maintenance. So we’re told by more than one parts manufacturer.
This, of course, is expensive for all of us. The smart parts makers don’t argue with the F students, as Burt Rutan labeled the unter-mediocre pestering him on the phone back in his RAF days. Instead, when someone calls upset about “your lousy parts,” the smart parts maker simply sends them a new part at no charge. That’s a bargain compared to fighting in court, or worse yet, defending one’s reputation on the endless internet. But bargain or not, it’s a cost and we all pay for it eventually.
In a way, we’re a victim of our own success. To pick on the runaway leader in Experimental aircraft builds, over 11,000 Van’s RVs have been squeezed together in the last 50 years. Inevitably a growing number of the original builder-owners have moved up or out of aviation, leaving their fine airplanes to secondary owners. And that’s just RVs; all sorts of other homebuilts have been sold to second owners in the last couple of decades.
For sure this secondary market of well-designed and assembled homebuilts is a wonderful thing. Those of us already at the airport but without the time to build can simply buy a reasonably built, generally high-performance little plane and join the fun. But this also allows skipping that all-important inculcation to aviation, especially the hands-on part. It’s easy for checkbook newbies to miss their immersion into the aviation, much less homebuilding, culture. If putting together even a fast-build kit takes a year, that’s a year spent handling airplane parts and putting them together in some semblance of an aviating device as confirmed by an inspector. It’s also a year thinking about airplanes and likely interacting with airplane people. It would be difficult to not at least get a whiff of homebuilding culture along the way. But not so if you just step into a ready-to-go airplane.
So now we reach the tough part: how to improve the situation. Perhaps the first thing to realize is things aren’t all that bad. For starters, today’s Experimentals are nearly universally very good airplanes tolerant of abuse. Again, all those RVs, besides being sporty, economical, well-supported, understood by the FAA and insurance world, good resale bets and all that, are forgiving airplanes. Forgiving both of modest flying technique and learner-level building skills. Heck, you could likely leave every other rivet out of most RVs and get by with it under good conditions. I exaggerate to make a point, but not much. Let’s also acknowledge the huge effort Van’s has put into all sorts of educational materials; they’ve really stepped up to their leadership role in the hobby.
The next bit of good news is, most secondary Experimental buyers have not missed homebuilding culture and as a consequence color between the lines. They may have owned other airplanes or come from an airplane family or picked up the lifestyle from friends at the airport.
Then there is EAA, which like Van’s, offers its own multitude of workshops, webinars, seminars, magazines and general omniscience over the homebuilt scene. They’re doing a great job for anyone paying attention. But that does leave the few who aren’t paying attention due to a general unconsciousness or willful hubris to carry on in Captain Solo tradition. Painfully, it’s the rest of us at the airport who have the only real contact with these people, and it might be fleeting at that. But if we do, and we see something stupid, we might want to say something—such as, “You need to find a good A&P.” It likely won’t do much good, but it might. The homebuilt you save could be the one you sold.