Hidden Truths

Rear cockpit.

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In this golden age of kit building we have a pretty easy time of it. Well-designed, complete kits are the expectation, and by and large they come with detailed instructions. Tools of every kind are plentiful, and the UPS truck rattles and bangs just about to the ends of the earth. As for information, the internet provides unparalleled access to specialist knowledge thanks to forums and the ability to search databases.

One of the things not normally taught but needed to learn in aviation is there is plenty of paper involved. Three-ring binders are one good way to keep it all in order, but plain old file folders take up less space.

And we should all praise the wide dissemination of such information. Everything from the aforementioned instruction manuals, how-to books and regional hands-on technical forums ensure everyone who’s really trying can take a stab at sticking welding rod to torch tips or make a goopy mess with resin and a length of recalcitrant carbon fiber weave. But for all the Google searching and tent revivals down Oshkosh way, there are still some things to learn in aviation that seemingly only come with experience. Here’s a very partial, completely random list:

Hidden Truth #1: You’ll seemingly spend half your time in aviation on paperwork. To start with a bit of contrast, my brother, a deck officer in the merchant marine (he had a semester-long course in college on tying knots) points out that people have been sailing boats since before recorded history, and the rules of maritime commerce evolved naturally in times when navies signaled with cannon shot across your bow and pirates took care of the slow learners. In contrast, aviation is a modern invention with rules derived by legions of lawyers and bureaucrats. Paper is their natural domain, and they revel in their ability to protectively cushion any fall from grace with bottomless layers of the stuff spread in great swaths across the land.

Thus, we amateur participants are mired in requirements designed to ensure no one can move, and thus get hurt. And so you’ll be documenting your build like an intern at the Canadian Film Board. Where once signing your name below a sentence saying, “Yeah, I built that” was sufficient, now one photographs and scribbles great tomes on safetying bolts and bending cotter keys in accordance with the scripture, i.e., AC 43.13-1B. Later come the compliance checks from the DAR and the giddiness of a Certificate of Airworthiness. Which don’t forget to display in the cockpit along with the other AROW napkins.

Once flying there are the encoder and transponder checks, the medicals and biannual, hangar lease forms and all that yearly falderal about your last 12 months, 90 days, time in type and other particulars beloved by the insurance industry. Change something on your “Experimental” and you might even consider STCs or 337s. Do something major and you could get a note sending you back to Phase 1 for another round of penalty-box flying. Yep, there’s more paper than in a parrot cage.

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Hidden Truth #2: No one can tell you what an engine weighs. This is an odd one, as you’d think Acme Motors could tell you their Model A engine weight to the ounce, but they can’t. Too many variations over the years, so they say. Additionally, Acme gives engine weight with a flywheel, but not the starter or alternator. Paramount posts weights taken with the starter but no alternator. Supreme does the opposite, and for reasons known only to duplicitous marketing types (sorry for the redundancy), everyone publishes engine weights without oil. What possible use is an engine without oil? About the only people who would care for that number are the engine manufacturer and his shipping company as they figure freight charges. So they leave it up to you to pencil in oil weight.

Then there are the airport experts who know—absolutely know—that a Lycoming narrow deck weighs substantially less than a wide deck. Only they don’t. Ask a big rebuild shop that’s overhauled thousands of engines and they tell you there is very little difference between such engines. Furthermore, they’ve seen supposedly identical engine cases that weighed 7 pounds differently than another.

Bottom line: The only way to know an engine’s weight is with a scale.

Hidden Truth #3: Someone to aviate with is important. Now, this gem doesn’t apply to everybody, as there are the stoic stalwarts sallying forth unimpeded by social entanglements. But dig deep enough and you’ll find even these Capitan Solos eventually unload their aviation epics on someone. For the rest of us, socialization helps.

Take building time. Sure it’s mainly nice to work alone at your own pace and with your own thoughts, but unless you’re truly done with humanity, it’s often satisfying to have a companion in the shop even if they’re quietly occupied elsewhere while you work. Plus, there are always points in any build where a second opinion, specialized knowledge or two or more people are for all practical purposes required. So, while given enough time and sawhorses Robinson Crusoe could have rigged a triplane, it would have been much quicker and pleasurable to have Friday’s help.

Once flying it’s also satisfying to do so alone, but many times it’s better with a friend. If you doubt that, try not telling your flying stories to your fellow pilots in the next hangar bull session. Another telltale is almost all of us enjoy having a buddy flying alongside in a similar aircraft, the better to explore the canyons with. There’s a vitality to looking out and seeing a friendly airplane nearby (and it doesn’t have to be that close by—we’re talking gaggle, not formation flying), plus the shared experience bit is impossible to beat.

Hidden Truth #4: There’s no such thing as too much light in the shop. Yes, this is a pet peeve in this column, but it’s true. It’s also a fact that hangars, with three sides closed and one side open, provide some of the harshest, most directional lighting going. Taking the time to move supplemental lighting around the hangar is worth the effort.

Hidden Truth #5: Kit building and recliners don’t mix. Married to the concept of comfort counts in the shop—avoiding frostbite or heat stroke is a must if you’re going to spend enough time in the shop to complete a job as large as putting an airplane together—is that a bit of realignment at home might also be necessary. You might miss a season of football on the tube or pass on a social outing (pre-COVID thinking here). Not to worry, the reward of building more than fills the void of passive spectating, and Aunt Mable’s green gelatin with walnut and mini marshmallows likely wasn’t a favorite anyway.

Hidden Truth #6: Be careful who you listen to. This really is an experience issue as only you can decide who’s speaking accurately, but the pitfall here is there’s plenty of hot air floating the windsock at the typical fly patch so you’ve got to keep things in context. It’s not that people are mean or jealously steering you wrong, far from it. What is in play behind so many opinions is one-trial learning and impossibly small sample sizes. Such information is good as far as it goes, but as we all know, the world is a hugely complex place and your situation is often sufficiently different from the others that your buddy’s adamant advice is very often on par with taking off downwind.

So, seek out professionals or established experts, then listen carefully. Again, they might not have seen everything, but chances are far better the pros will get you pointed in the right direction sooner than the guy in the hangar next door.

Hidden Truth #7: Learn to ask the right questions. Again, this is a subset of H.T. #6, but the answer you get is framed by the question you ask. Be sure you understand precisely what it is you are trying to know before asking the question. Great people have been driven out of the kit aircraft world by the persistently dull question askers; don’t be one of them.

Hidden Truth #8: Radios aren’t flying.

Hidden Truth #9: All that paper is apparently necessary. We’ll close by noting that contrary to the popularly spouted aphorism, flying is an inherently dangerous activity. Gravity is the only real issue, but it’s so doggone reliable it must be contended with, and expertly so. And thus we have all that paper as the system does what it can to protect us from those falls from grace. My advice is to put it all in notebooks.

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Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.

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