Rear Cockpit

Builder types II.


Last month we visited some of the typical builder personalities found hiding in hangars, but as is often the case, space constrained our creative energies. Therefore, we’re revisiting the theme again this month, mainly in the hope none of us recognize ourselves here or at least get a good laugh.

Pig Pens

The lowest hanging fruit in the pundit’s vineyard, messy people are just as easy to poke fun of at the airport as anywhere else. But, as it turns out, mess-making aircraft builders are pretty much lightweights. They’ll never have their own television show as do the general hoarders, and I’ve seen far worse automotive pig sties than rat-house hangars. By the time a person rises to the actuality of driving rivets or slopping epoxy, there simply has to be some semblance of order and a few shop rags handy if there is to be any hope of success.

That said, there are outliers. Some guys just can’t paint a fence without coloring themselves, the sidewalk, and a few passing birds, and should they turn their attention to aviation, you’re sure to find globs of PRC in the bathroom, on every screwdriver, and inside the coffee pot. Piggy builders are also messy eaters and don’t mind pizza boxes and soda cups lying around. Their plans look like place mats from Delta Tau Chi.

Dust is the messy builder’s calendar. The thicker the layer the longer it’s been there. Dust is free and self-deposits evenly without effort, so it conforms to the messy builder’s laissez-faire school of hangar management. So do the tools strewn to the visible portions of the hangar.

Of course, a true messy builder is right at home in his nest. He may open the UPS box near the hangar door because the light is better there, then drop the instruction and material sheets atop the tool box, and leave the new part itself in the belly of the fuselage after he’s done giving it that first hold-it-up-there-and-see-if-it-fits test, but he likely knows where the major pieces are. Specific tools might take a little longer to locate, and if it’s been awhile since he had need for the air hose, he might have to start at the air compressor to track it down, but he’ll eventually find it.

Pack Rat

Messy builders are often nascent hoarders, but those oversupplied with the acquiring gene do slip under the waves to become true pack rats. Aviation slows then stops altogether, and the hangar gets the full trip hazard treatment.

Pack-ratting is at least easy to identify. When the plane can’t get out of the hangar, it may be time to consider what’s (not) going on.

In its early stages pack ratting starts on the floor. Somehow, it’s easier to step over old parts hundreds of times than put them on a shelf once, and so core cylinders and broken vane vacuum pumps litter the deck, along with whatever else may have come in the door. Often a maladjusted time-vs-money algorithm tugs at the pack rat. Free but worn-out or barely broken equipment tantalizes with its promise of functionality after “a little cleaning up,” and so the pack rat hangar often stands as the airport repository. It’s a good place to go if you need a quick-and-dirty solution.

Another, more sobering, reality of pack ratting is it’s often a logical end-game tactic when age and medical matters make a hangar more productive as a warehouse than a builder’s haven.

Neat Freak

Naturally, for every few pig pens and rat’s nests, there’s an operating theatre with an airplane in it. We got close to this fellow last month when we introduced the perfectionist, but to split a rib stitch, a neat freak is not always a perfectionist builder. The only meaningful difference is a neat freak may not actually be building an airplane as he’s too busy detailing the wiring loom in his new hangar refrigerator (have seen it done).

Top this, neat freaks! Clearly a disciplined mind is at work here, but let’s remember that for every sanitized trophy hangar, there’s a working shop somewhere that keeps these machines running.

In fact, the full-blown neat freak is often so consumed with order and cleanliness that aircraft building or operation may elude him. Things are definitely orderly, but nothing gets done.

If you have trouble identifying a to-the-marrow neat freak, simply track down the highest-ranking retired military officer at the airport. There’s a special bonus for Air Force generals.


Like cowboys, engineers can only be engineers. You never heard of cowboys who started in retail, then tried accounting before moving to punching cattle. Neither have you heard of an engineer who switched majors from sociology or gave political science a shot before getting excited about a modulus of elasticity.

Building airplanes being something of an engineering exercise, it’s no wonder there are so many of them in the hangar rows. For sure they make up a disproportionately large share of the few young people getting aviation. After all, the normal kids are at home playing video games, and the young romantics are dreaming of an artificial intelligence utopia, neither of which is much in evidence at the airport outside of the instrument sim.

The budding winged engineers are thus what we see of youth. An earnest lot, they’re easily spotted by having hair (brown or blond, never gray) and their groom-like eagerness for anything, absolutely anything, going on at the airport. I once had an astronomy professor note the elementary school kids visiting his college planetarium had “open minds, like sewers. You can just pour anything into them.” It’s pretty much the same here.

As builders, engineers remain true to their species. Should an engineer build an RV-8, he’ll find somewhere on the plans where he can do VanGrunsven one better. Never mind the RV series is the most popular kit line ever and is a proven quantity, like, say, gravity. No matter. An ME can tell you why the angle of incidence should be different or show cause as to why the vertical stabilizer is better mounted on the belly. And often times the more ardent of them will actually effect such major changes, at much cost to their resale value.

More often, however, the engineering mind provides progress in the form of incremental improvements. A better oil door hinge here, a more elegant fuel vent there, a constructive use for the packing crate the engine came in, that sort of thing. And it’s this relentless drive to make things better that keeps experimental aviation the operative force in light aircraft today.


We’ll leave with a nod to the fellow who’s stripped away anything that doesn’t make his airplane fly. Too busy to be a neat freak, too organized for hoarding or mess making, definitely not timid, not quite fearless, and yet too free thinking to be a regular Joe, the pragmatist has jettisoned all the falderal. There are no model airplanes hanging from the overhead, no warbird calendars on the walls and maybe not even a toolbox because he keeps his wrenches in a tray.

Pragmatists don’t talk much—that wastes time—and won’t be found at the airport spaghetti dinner. Slab-sided fuselages and pulled rivets are perfectly fine with them, and if they had a dog, it would fetch dropped tools.

Tom Wilson
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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