Building an aircraft; when you've never built (anything) before.
Part 1 - The decision
It took just one sip of my Iced Almond Milk Coffee at my favourite cafe near the airport to work out what the title for this piece was going to be. I needed something that explained clearly and succinctly what my experience levels were when I took on this life-changing (some would say, impossible-for-me) project, and then I'd let the reader decide if this was enough to spur on an interest after that.
I'm going to let you know from the outset that I've decided to a) write this in multiple bits, partly because it will be way too long for just one bit, and partly because at the time of writing, the project was still being completed. And b) make it a little less about the purely technical stuff, and much more about the human experience. So if you're an aircraft building geek and want to know how I dealt with the bending of the longerons (or other such things), there's going to be plenty of that sort of content, but more about me and my journey.
I'm about 50% through the project, with (as 'they' keep reminding me) still around 80% to go. In layperson's terms, that's around 600 hours of work in the garage and hangar (I don't see the point of accurately counting), and three of the six subkits almost completed (tailplane, fuselage and wings, in that order). In dollar terms, I'm perpetually broke. But happily, emotionally and mentally I'm doing great. There's always a tradeoff. But more on this in a lot more detail, later in the series.
For those who want to be reminded or those that don't yet know, aircraft builders are a group of enthusiasts who love all the things that building an aircraft personally provides them (and we'll explore this minefield as we go on in the series), and most (though not all) happen to also love aviation and/or flying just as much as they do building. We'll also talk about this in later parts. Some are ex-airline pilots and others have served in the airforce or other military areas. Yet more are trades and craftspeople, engineers, or perhaps people who have done well for themselves, and rightly have a lot of time on their hands; but chasing a white ball around a field is just too boring, after having achieved so much before.
The point here, of course, is that aircraft builders are a varied bunch who know more than me about making an airplane fly safely. And I'm a pilot, learning slowly about their craft through experience. I have a respect for them, just like I do those of any discipline that can bring to me something that I cannot, on my own, bring. And in aviation, it's the person who takes on any alternative view to this that is more likely to pay dearly. For, wise pilots know that aviation is a far less forgiving pastime if you have a bad attitude.
In late 2015, I had been back in Australia for 3 years, after having spent 8 years living in Ireland. I had a reasonable job with a well-known UK company that makes Vacuum cleaners and I was house-sitting at mum's while she was overseas. I had some time to reflect.
Hopefully, this sets the scene. You see, my life was quite good. But, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, it was just quite good. I was searching for something to help build depth, colour and texture, and add to the meaning of it all; to inspire me, if you will. You should know the drill by now. I think anyone above 28 can easily relate provided that they haven't been living in a protected bubble for too long.
I did what anyone who doesn't know the answer to a question does, so Google became my starting point and I read an article by FlyingMag.com called 'So, you want to build an airplane'. It started by explaining the drawbacks; loneliness, mistakes, financial challenges and the distinct possibility that I'll start, but never actually finish. Then it said that, on the flip side, the process would probably be the highlight of my life once it's complete. I naturally focussed on the last bit, and redirected my google search to other search terms like 'cheapest light aircraft to build' and then the CASA website, where I learned things like the difference between 'Amateur built' and 'Factory built' and the role that CASA has in governing the activities of the 9000+ aircraft registered as Sport Aircraft in Australia.
Just for those that don't know, CASA has finally taken a more practical approach. It's not that they fully endorse the Sport Aircraft sector unconditionally, it's that they now rightly accept that they have better things to do with their time and resources (like deal with the commercial aviation sector). They seem to have taken the position that they prefer to set some ground rules, allow the sector to self-regulate (to some extent) and keep a watchful eye on it to make sure we can still maintain 'safe skies for all' across the board.
Once I established that I needed to have built 51% of the aircraft to qualify for it to be Amateur Built (and therefore that I could maintain it myself), I was more happy with my decision to build. The maintenance costs of my own Amateur Built aircraft were going to be so much lower (in theory) than purchasing an older aircraft and so any doubts in my mind that this was the way to go, were slowly being squashed.
The biggest decision now standing in the way was, WHICH aircraft to build. I was inexperienced and while lego was admittedly something I enjoyed as a child, Meccano was out of my technical range of capabilities - and I hadn't built anything else since then (I'm doubtful that we can legitimately count Ikea bedside tables). It needed to be relatively straightforward and proven, with clear, step-by-step instructions in a 'language' that I understood, with all the bits inside the pack. A bit like Ikea shelves.
The idea of 'subkits' was good too. From a financial standpoint, it's so much more achievable when you have 6-8 kits that spread the financial load and break the task down into bite-sized chunks.
I'd seen a few 'RV' aircraft flying around the field at Tyabb, in Melbourne's South East, and they looked fun, but the majority I thought were taildraggers and I really wanted 'conventional' tricycle gear (I can hear half the readers screaming at the page, but it's personal choice, so cool your jets, angry taildragger people!)
I looked at Sonex and Zeneth too; they are both fabulous companies offering aircraft at an excellent price point and great support around the world. But, until I became comfortable at building, I felt that I needed something that was just a bit more 'mainstream' for my first project.
The Vans Aircraft website is a typically 'US industrial heartland-style' site. Functional, but not flashy in the slightest. It says what they do, tells you why you should be part of it, tells you the price and pretty much leaves the rest to you. No fancy Flash animations, no Photoshopped photography. Just 'does-what-it-says-on-the-tin' style information. This is typically Vans and the website translates through to their kits. It's not fancy, but you get everything you need in the quantities that you need them, with the information that you need and the support when you need it. To top off your experience online, they make a statement that they're the best at what they do 'in the world'; a big call that can be easily backed up according to Vans and their enthusiasts around the globe.
It's a sort of kick in the face to those used to being wined, dined and romanced into one of the biggest purchases in their life. The sparkling Perrier and Croissants at the Mercedes dealership. The Photoshopped image of the SLK streaking through empty city roads at dusk emblazoned on the crystal clear glass showroom frontage. Another image of 'you' and your 'gorgeous partner', in your shiny AMG leaving a romantic dinner on the way to meet friends at the Premiere of the latest Bond movie. Nope. It wasn't there.
To me, the message was, 'Hey, we're the experienced mob from Vans Aircraft. Richard VanGrunsven has spend decades designing great airplanes and now he flies them for fun along with literally thousands of other happy customers. If you want the best kit and a surefire way of getting to the end happy, we can get you one. Otherwise maybe think of going with second best. You'll compromise lots of things if you go down that route, but that's up to you. Let us know when you want to order. Have a great day, now!'
I thought about it, and then called Vans the next day.
(Part 2) to come soon...
Photos courtesy of Sonex Aircraft & Vans Aircraft websites