No doubt you’ve heard the phrase, “another set of eyes.” Not like your mom had, in the back of her head, and not like a quick, subjective second opinion, as in, “Do these pants make my butt look big?” No, I’m thinking of something really meaningful for builders of homebuilt aircraft: the cautious, aware individual with eyeballs attached to a brain who can help you complete the annual condition inspection.
While I have availed myself of outside help inspecting my own aircraft-both out of necessity with the Bonanza and by choice with the Sportsman-this time I was able to return a favor of sorts. You see, my dear friend Larry Simpson, whose RV-7A was on the cover of this magazine in May 2009, was in something of a spot. After 16 years of living and working in Tampa, he and his wife, Gene, found an amazing house in Ellijay, Georgia, and were in the planning stages of moving. A pilot’s life is more than cars and furniture, of course, so the plan had to include getting the RV from Florida to Georgia. Sounds simple. Airplanes fly, right?
One problem: The RV was more than a year out of annual. This admission needs a tiny bit of explaining. After getting the Subaru-powered RV-7A reasonably sorted and reliable, Simpson began to feel less than sanguine about the long-term prospects ahead of the firewall. As other owners with Eggenfellner’s Generation 3 gearbox began to have problems and as Simpson realized that despite Herculean efforts to improve the six-cylinder Subaru’s cooling, the package would never tolerate a full-power climb to altitude, his confidence waned. “I got to the point I just didn’t trust it,” he said.
So it sat. From our conversations, I knew that Larry was at a crossroads. He’d made the decision to remove the Subaru and, in time, replace it with a Lycoming (or something like it). But to ground the airplane in Florida, partially disassemble it and then truck it to Georgia was just another complication in an already complex situation. The clock was ticking. Flying looked, increasingly, like the best option.
So over the Memorial Day weekend we slogged through the inspection at his hangar on the Tampa Executive (formerly Vandenberg) Airport. Larry, ever cautious, wanted to schedule a week, in part because his previous solo annuals had taken multiple weeks each. I knew we could do it faster, but still set aside five full working days, which would become four working days when I had to delay my departure a day. Funny how I could plan his annual so well but have my own projects blow up at the last minute.
You know how sometimes you recognize a problem but can’t seem to take even the first steps toward a solution? It’s like you’re in an unfamiliar room, totally in the dark, afraid to take the first step. Almost immediately, I recognized that look on Larry’s normally calm visage. It was too much-the move, the lack of confidence in the powerplant, the need to get it legally ready but also the desire to be sure the trip was actually safe. Something clicked, and I realized right there that my job would be to keep Larry on track and to help him knock down each of the obstacles, one at a time. Eating the elephant.
What Have You Done?
While Larry took the first couple of hours to complete his biennial flight review across the airport, I grabbed a screwdriver and started in. When he returned, all of the access panels were off, the top cowling removed, wheelpants stacked in the corner-everything but the lower cowling (which seemed to be unlike other RV cowls I’ve worked with), and the interior had been liberated.
I could tell that he was a bit shocked upon returning to the hangar, but then I saw his eyes narrow as he recognized the first hint of a string to pull on. From there, it was a smooth, coordinated effort. I worked first from a mental checklist that stepped through the plane system-by-system and then, later, while the RV was still open, from a written annual list to be sure we hadn’t missed anything. My goal was to keep his next task in mind, help him maintain focus. I had a private chuckle thinking of Seth and Brandon doing the same to me when I built my Sportsman as the prototype for the Two Weeks to Taxi program in early 2006. Then, I was a voice-activated robot, moving from task to task by verbal commands from these two…kids! Now you know how it felt, Larry.
An inquisitive mind brings many benefits. Throughout the inspection process, I peppered Larry with questions. Why did you do this? How is this supposed to look? Where does this tube go? Some of that was annoying, I’m sure, but it also got him thinking about components as part of a whole, nut just a B-nut fitting or a row of rivets. What can happen here? Where are the loads in the airframe going? What happens if that hard line leaks or falls off? Is that #0 wire hot all the time? In fact, the only serious gotcha we found was a wire from one of the batteries that had moved over to just graze the elevator pushrod beneath the baggage compartment. The all-electric Subaru engine requires an uninterrupted power supply, so Larry’s RV has a complicated dual-bus, dual-battery system, one of the many ways it departs the RV norm, and one of the many areas where you lose the benefit of orthodoxy.
What surprised me most was an unfamiliar sense of utter calm. Why? First, it wasn’t my airplane; no emotional attachment, no worry about paying for a big fix or beating myself up for not seeing a malady sooner. Second, we had plenty of time. By the end of the first day, I could see that we’d have the airplane fully open by noon the next day, airframe and systems inspected and serviced by the end of the second day, and then the remainder of the time for a detailed firewall-forward service and inspection. Third, I had nothing else to do. This may be the brightest revelation for me, and something I hadn’t really stopped to consider before. For my other annuals, ones I’d performed on my own airplanes, time was always a factor. If I get this done by 3 p.m., I can get home and watch my daughter’s softball game. You apply your own pressure and make yourself nuts. You rush and make mistakes.
It helps that Larry has precisely the right mindset. I have a phobia of wires and hoses touching in the engine compartment, and he allowed me a quarter-tube of RTV and a few tie-wraps to tidy up, even though he knew the airplane would only have to do 4 or 5 more hours before an FWF upgrade. The first of those occurred on the afternoon of the third day with another, longer flight the morning of the fourth before a line of thunderstorms blew through. By then, the airplane was back in annual and as good as it was going to get for the trip to Georgia, which Larry completed successfully a few days later. That, and an incredible dinner at Tampa’s famous Bern’s restaurant, was exactly what I needed to kick off my summer.
Photos: Kevin Wing, Larry Simpson.