When I was a kid, way back in the 1960s, one of the toughest decisions I had to make was whether to buy a five-cent candy bar or spring for the larger 10-center when I had been given my weekly allowance of half a buck. My friends and I would walk the direct path through the old farm fields that were slowly being turned into suburban homes to the neighborhood drug store and figure out how we were going to spend the summer day. Yeah, it was a little Rockwellian, a much more innocent time. But that decision on whether or not to spend the extra nickel—that was a big deal! It became no easier when we’d get to the store and right next to the candy aisle, I’d find the little balsa airplanes packaged in cellophane.
They had the pure glider model for a quarter, and the kind with the rubber band and landing gear right next to those for probably 50 cents. Now here was a dilemma—buy the candy bar or save for a new airplane? I’d have to mentally catalog the status of the airplanes I already had to figure if I had enough parts between those with broken wings and those with stripped off landing gear to make a flying example—and weigh that against the desire for that Butterfinger. It was a tough choice.
Sometimes I’d go through the packages carefully to see if any of them had a double set of wings—the packaging process sometime let two sets of the thin balsa sheets stick together, and you could get spare parts without having to pay for them! Maybe one in a hundred was like this—but I’d check, and if I found a bonus pack, that settled it: The airplane was mine!
This philosophy comes from growing up with depression-era parents of course—we were always thinking about how to best spend money, even though we were a comfortable middle-class family. It was ingrained, and early learning stays with you. So, even today, I find myself thinking about how to best spend dollars, even when I am spending them in the wildly expensive aviation marketplace of aircraft tools.
However, just because early learning is persistent that doesn’t always make it “right.” Sometimes we have to learn new perspectives and ways of looking at things. Now, since we’re all homebuilders here, we should be able to take as given that tools are important. There’s no questioning that the guy with the most tools wins! But, still, that early learning sits on our shoulder, reminding us that we shouldn’t be extravagant. Yet this can often lead to a “penny wise, pound foolish” attitude that can generate real problems.
Take, for example, a dilemma I had a few years ago while upgrading to electronic ignition. This required removing the magnetos entirely and replacing them with electronic mags, neither of which needed an impulse coupler. This meant that the impulse coupler adapter could come off the left side mag hole and, because of this, the studs were now almost an inch too long. So the studs had to be replaced. Getting those studs out with the engine on the airplane was not an easy task—after all, they’d been on there for 1600 hours of heat and cold. Even double-nutting them was not working. You could see the dang things trying to twist and, frankly, there were engine-mount tubes in the way of the wrenches so that you just couldn’t get a good angle on them.
What I needed was a really good, high-quality stud puller. Snap-On made one but it cost over a hundred bucks! Wow—that’s a lot for a tool that you’re only going to use once in a while and it was a struggle to come to grips with the need. Then I got to thinking what it would cost if I messed up the accessory case by breaking off a stud. Not only would it cost money in machining, it would take a huge amount of time to pull the engine, find the necessary engine stand to do the work, etc., etc. A hundred bucks for a tool didn’t seem so bad when stacked up against hundreds of dollars of potential additional costs if I screwed the thing up.
The clincher came when I found that a friend had the tool in a city a couple of hundred miles away—I hopped in an airplane, flew up there, bought him lunch, borrowed the tool and did the job right. It took just a minute or two to get the stud off and I returned the tool when the airplane was flying again a few days later. Yeah, I probably spent as much in avgas as I would have if I’d bought the tool outright—and, eventually, I did buy the right tool so that I could be the one loaning it out next time. But the lesson of using the right tool for the job was learned.
Still Valid Today
Fast forward to a recent job we’ve got going, building up an AeroVee engine for our motorglider project. The flywheel attaches to the back of the crankshaft on this VW-based motor with a gland nut that has to be torqued to 225 foot-pounds. Yeah, that’s a good-sized guy hanging from a good-sized wrench! My stash of torque wrenches would get me to 80 foot-pounds. A neighbor had one that would go to 150. I briefly thought about the fact that a German motor could probably be built using the “German torque” method known as “gutentight,” then thought about that flywheel coming loose in flight. That would not be a pleasant day, even in a motorglider! I figured that since no one else in the airpark had a torque wrench that went up that high, why not be the go-to guy in the future? It cost me $110 for the wrench but it came in a nice storage box where it will stay until called upon for some future task.
Penny wise and pound foolish. A lot of us were brought up that way. But when we get into aviation, we learn that the risks are greater than we find in automotive work or homeowner projects. Sometimes you just have to spend the money to do the job right—if you don’t have the money, you have to wait until you do. After all, airplanes fly due to proper funding—and while in today’s world you might be choosing between a 50-cent cup of coffee from the office machine versus a $5 Starbucks, its not really that different from those five-cent candy bars. Keep your eye on the prize—a safe airplane—and save those pennies for what really matters.