The Dawn Patrol

Stuck on top dead center.


For one whole winter, the Taube stood covered with plastic in the back yard. This was not a good idea. Out of sight, out of mind keeps you from remembering that you have an airplane to build.

I recently got a call from an individual wanting to know how long it would take to build a plane. I told him it depended on many factors, and the biggest one was trying to avoid and fight builders burnout. That made me think back to when we were building some of the five planes that my wife, Sharon, and I and The Dawn Patrol have built together. Tom Glaeser and I built our two Nieuports from scratch in 16 months, and I know it would have taken much longer if wed each been working on our own.

I remember standing in the middle of the garage looking at the fuselage of the Taube. There was a lot to be done, but I just wasn’t in the mood to do it. With a frustrated sigh, I turned around and went back for another wasted evening mindlessly brooding in front of the boob tube.

Fits and Starts

Id been working on my German Taube bomber for more than three years and fluctuated between periods of intense activity with progress going forward at an astounding rate followed by days, weeks, months and even a whole winter with nothing going on. Burnout is common with Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft construction. I wonder if other builders have the same problem getting motivated to just go and do anything on the plane. Ya think?

Calling in the experts is always a good idea when you’re stuck. The author was having a heck of a time with the Taubes tailwheel steering until Dick Lemons (left), in only 5 minutes, came up with a much better idea.

Ive had times when I would be lying in bed at night, and suddenly the urge would hit and Id beat-feet it down to the garage, drilling, riveting and building til the wee hours of the morning. Then, a few days later, back to As the World Turns.

Id like to think that sometimes the reason nothing gets done on a project is due to the financial constraints encountered when a builder of modest means is constructing an aircraft. But in considering that, I realize that money isn’t the problem. In fact, Id bet that cash flow is far down the list of reasons that nothing gets done on homebuilt projects.

Nature Calls

The disastrous flood of 1993 trashed all four of The Dawn Patrols Nieuport 11s. They spent two weeks under 12 feet of muddy river water. When the water went down, the planes were filled with mud and fish and turtle byproducts. Anyone else would have probably just thrown in the towel, called the big-item trash pickup people to come get a pile of junk metal and never looked back.

Sharon, bless her heart, works on the rear cockpit coaming of the Taube during the repair after the cornfield incident.

In this case, having three of your best buddies in the same boat made all the difference. We decided to rebuild all the planes in Mark Pierces basement. That is what saved us. There was always a time when at least one of us wanted to get some work done. That would suck the rest of us back over for a night at the grindstone.

Having someone building along with you can help keep a project moving along. An interested wife is a bonus many guys don’t have. Im one of the lucky ones. Sweetie would rather be out in the garage putting pinked-edge tape on a trailing edge than shopping on the Plaza. But if you’re building on your own, with no friends or helping spouse, what can you do to keep the project going?

One veteran builder I know told me that no matter what, he tries to get in at least 15 minutes of work on his project every night. Usually, that 15 minutes stretches into a longer work session, and by golly things get done. In my case, because I designed the Taube all by myself, drawing for more than a year before I cut that first piece of metal, I was alone on the throne.

The Taube flew. Thats about all you could say about it. It was a lead sled, and the flight characteristics were so scary that the author wouldn’t let anyone else even think of flying it.

Later, when it was finished, its flight characteristics showed me that I didn’t know squat about designing a plane. The Taube flew…kinda like an anvil with wings. I crashed it in a cornfield, rebuilt it, put a new engine in it, modified the heck out of it, finally flew it in airshows for two years, decided that it was going to kill me sooner or later, bit the bullet and donated it to a museum. Only then did I regain my sanity and go about building a plane the right way. In other words, I built a kit from an established aircraft designer with a proven track record. In this case, it was an aircraft designed by Robert Baslee of Airdrome Aeroplanes.

One of the design flaws in the Taube was that when you needed to get to the pilots instrument panel, you had to take the front cockpits rear leather coaming off. Sharon never batted an eye as she jumped in and started to work.

Advice Column

Back to the train of thought that I jumped tracks on: How do you keep going on a project? There are some things you can do to keep moving forward.

1.Have a plan. Any plan. At least, have a vague idea of what you want to do. Even if its only to drill one stinking hole.

2.Have the required tools for the job. Before you even start on a stage of the project, have the tools you’ll need to use ready to go. Ive had times when I found that I needed a tool that I didn’t have, or worse, cant find the tool that I know I have. Then Id waste at least an hour or more going to Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart or Sears (There’s more for your life at Sears!) to get it. Sometimes Id have to order it from an aviation supply house, and that always brought things to a screeching halt for days. When I needed the tool that I knew I had but couldn’t find, I usually came back from Lowes with the new replacement tool and tripped over the missing one in the middle of the shop floor.

3.Try to have all the honey-dos done before you go out to work on the airplane. Nothing ruins the creative flow more than being told to take out the garbage or clean the cat box.

4.If at all possible, suck some other poor fool into the project with you. Make it a partnership, or even better, build two airplanes like Glaeser and I did when we built our Nieuports in 1986. That, more than anything else, will keep the project rolling along. Itll be a rare day when both of you are not in the mood to turn some expensive metal into worthless scrap.

A good circle of friends is a wonderful thing. The Dawn Patrol of Kansas City is a tight group of comrades that are always ready to help each other. From left to right: Tom Glaeser, Dick Lemons, Mark Pierce and the author.

5.Sometimes, just the time spent dreading the job takes up more time than the job actually takes. This has happened to me many times. Just jump in, start on the task, screw it up really bad, throw the mangled tubing in the trash, and then start again. Messing it up usually gives you an idea of how to do it right. Having a plan doesn’t mean you’re going to win the first time, but it sure as heck will show you what wont work, a valuable step in the right direction.

6.If you get stuck on a step and cant figure out what to do, swallow your pride and call in the experts-or at least someone whose opinion you trust. More than once, I called on the expertise of the rest of The Dawn Patrol to come over and help me with a repair on the Taube after the cornfield incident. In almost every case, the brainstorming resulted in a much easier, faster and better way to do the thing than my original plan.

There you have it. Trust me, if you’re standing there trying to figure out what to do next on your project, you’re not alone. Just about every builder of an aircraft from the Wright brothers on has stood in those shoes. So soldier on!

Sacrificial Ram

Oh yeah, one more important thing that I overlooked. Make sure you have your throwing tool handy when you’re working on your project. This is the tool that you’re not ever going to need to build an airplane. Have it in your pocket or close at hand so that when you really screw something up, you can throw this tool against the wall, on the floor or through the window. You don’t ever want to throw a good tool. You might never find it again.

The Taube is now safely hanging from the ceiling of the Combat Air Museum at Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka, Kansas. One of the stipulations was that the donation would never fly again. (To make sure of that, it was gutted before the donation.)

Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; You Want To Build And Fly A What? and Fokkers At Six Oclock!! He was the recipient of Flyings 2001 Bax Seat Award for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight. Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.

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Dick Starks
Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; “You Want To Build And Fly A What?” and “Fokkers At Six O’clock!!” He was the recipient of Flying’s 2001 Bax Seat Award “for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight.” Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.


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