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Project Paralysis

By Earl Downs, for Experimenter

Most of us at one time or another have been stricken with a case of project paralysis. No one is immune; there is no vaccine. But there are some steps that can be taken to guard against the affliction. Earl Downs, a regular contributor to EAA publications, offers these tips to help you stay the course, to see your project through to completion while avoiding project paralysis.

Two kids come running into a house asking, “Is it soup yet?” The TV mom replies, “No, not yet.” The children pace anxiously. A few moments later the mom announces, “It’s ready!” and the children rush to the table for a sip of hot, delicious soup.

This late 1960s TV ad was selling the idea that if it takes a little longer to make the soup, it’s okay because it’s a much better product than the soup you simply pour from a can. When I’ve finished an evening of working on my airplane project I get the same tongue-in-cheek question from my wife, “Is it soup yet?” And my answer is, “No, not yet.” One of these days I’ll be able to announce that the soup is ready. But lately I found myself wondering if I’ll starve to death before my metaphorical soup is off the burner.

My “fast-build” kit, planned for two years of construction, is going slowly and has even been parked a few times. Well into the fifth year now, I’m considering claiming that my slow progress is actually part of my plan to set the record for the slowest built, fast-build kit plane.

Over the years, I’ve read hundreds of stories in the pages of Sport Aviation about builders’ successes as well as the countless challenges associated with a successful project completion. Project paralysis can occur with about any homebuilt aircraft project regardless of the builder’s background or mechanical qualifications. Every now and again I read a zip-zap project story, but these are few and far between.

As I progressed with my project (yes, I have progressed) I began to realize that much of what I experience in airplane building is similar to what I’ve seen in my 49 years as an active flight instructor. Most flight students will run into stumbling blocks during their training and can overcome them. When a student quits training, it’s usually because he didn’t understand the full scope of becoming a pilot before he embarked on a training program. The trainee hadn’t considered the big picture and therefore hadn’t considered the process from start to finish, including the tough parts.

For the aircraft homebuilder, terminal project paralysis is more likely to occur when a builder realizes he has unintentionally selected the wrong aircraft to build or when the apprehension of taking on a daunting task exceeds the desire to complete the project. These problems are more often the result of starting the project for the wrong reasons rather than an issue of building skills. A catchy sales slogan like “Anyone can build this kit!” can provide great kickoff incentive, but it won’t necessarily prevent project paralysis if the big picture isn’t understood and kept in mind from start to finish.



Sometimes a guy just needs a place to sit and think. Earl found this small room to be the perfect place to contemplate his project challenges and maintain temperature control while he completed some fiberglass work on his cowl.
(Note: Never turn your wife loose unsupervised with a camera.)

To help keep my airplane building project in focus, I look to my EAA chapter friends. (After all, if these guys can build planes, why can’t I?) Even though I live 65 miles away from where our chapter headquarters is based, the drive to visit is well worth it. They remind me that stumbling blocks can occur on any aircraft homebuilding project; it’s one of the pieces of the overall project. The trick is to look at these bumps in the project completion road as “unresolved opportunities.”

When I began writing this article, I decided to confer with several members of Ponca City, Oklahoma – EAA Chapter 1046 who have built or restored multiple airplanes. I called an impromptu chapter meeting for the purpose of discussing the issue of project paralysis. Joining me were Merle Helt, Steve McGuire, Dean Henson, and Wayne Whittington.

I began the meeting with a question: “Have you ever completely quit or gotten paralyzed on a project?” Dean replied, “I started my EAA biplane project in 1966 and finished it in 2006. Does that count as project paralysis?” Dean is the perfect example of life getting in the way of finishing the project. He started it in Ponca City and dragged it all over the country. Retiring to Ponca City, he linked up with our EAA chapter and finally completed the project. Dean said, “I never would have finished the EAA biplane without the help of Ponca City EAA guys.”

Merle has been around mechanical things a long time. He’s an expert at resolving building and mechanical issues, but on his project he backed down from completion for a different reason. It was his intent to finish building a partially built VP-1 Volksplane. After getting it up on its landing gear, he sat in the cockpit and didn’t like the fit. That was enough for him. Merle certainly had the skills to finish the VP-1, but he lost the desire and motivation to complete it. The moral of this story: Make sure you want what you’re building.

Steve hasn’t quit on a project, but he has used every bit of help he can get to learn skills and stay motivated. He said, “The group of guys in our EAA chapter get together regularly, share a common interest, and talk about what we are doing and the problems we’ve got. We mutually solve each other’s problems. This circle of friends keeps me interested, provides help in areas of expertise I don’t have, and are willing to teach me things.”

Steve also commented on the EAA workshops he has attended. He said, “The EAA welding and fabric covering workshops I took were invaluable. It was more than just a learning experience. I watched other people learning the same thing, and the instructors were very much “you can do this” people. I went home believing I could do it. You can’t get that out of training videos or books.”

Speaking of books, both Merle and I are fans of the Tony Bingelis series. The Bingelis books go back to the early days of homebuilding and provide a foundation that still applies today. I also use the FAA Advisory Circular 43.13-2B and the A&P study books I used when I got my A&P certificate. We all agreed that the Hints for Homebuilders videos found on the EAA website provide a lot of good information and motivation.

Merle has built and restored dozens of planes and believes that some people enter into a project without the tools or skills to do the job. Once again, your EAA chapter is a good place to get advice while depleting the world’s supply of coffee, but don’t forget about professional help. It isn’t against the rules to pay a qualified mechanic to give you help and guidance. It is against the rules to hand your project over to someone else for building and then claim you built it yourself; this is a no-no.

Merle, however, has hit a stumbling block with his current project. After receiving a medical procedure that requires him to hold a special issuance medical certificate, he decided to go the sport pilot route. The problem is, his current build project is a bit too heavy to meet the definition of a light-sport aircraft (LSA).

Merle’s situation is a good example of an external force not related to the project causing paralysis to set in. However, Merle looked at it as a challenge to save his project. Even though his plane is 90 percent complete, he figured by making a series of modifications and changes, he can get the weight down to LSA requirements. It’s going to be a lot of work, but a big reason he loves building and restoring airplanes is the challenges involved.

Wayne and I have a unique challenge with our projects. I’m building a Zenith 601 XL, and Wayne has about 25 hours of flying time on his 601 XL. Not long ago, we were sitting in the middle of a situation requiring structural changes to these airplanes. I must admit, I spent several days in a state of project paralysis depression when I saw the extent of the modifications required. My plane was about 75 percent complete, and I knew the changes would mean a lot of extra work. So I slowed down on the airframe and channeled my energy into the firewall-forward area to buy time while waiting for the solution to the issues. By moving to another part of my project, I avoided hours of crying into my half-cooked soup. This worked for me, as not too long after the issue arose, the manufacturer offered a solution and the parts to make it happen.



Left: Merle Helt with the paint gun and other Chapter 1046 members that were on hand to help. Right: Earl Downs in paint gear and Steve McGuire giving the flap a last touch with the tack cloth before Earl hit it. Location: Chapter 1046 workshop in Ponca City. Earl painted his plane there because of the help and because the workshop worked well as a paint booth. Some of the smaller parts were painted outside, since the freshly coated fuselage was inside, in order to avoid getting overspray on the fresh work.

Then I got a call from Wayne that gave me encouragement. He offered to use his heated hangar for the rework on both our planes; the modification of our planes would become a team effort. Better still, our EAA chapter friends offered to join in the work. It meant that I had to make a 130-mile round-trip drive, but it was worth it for the shared project with Wayne and the help of my EAA chapter friends. Steve even offered to put me up overnight so I could make a long weekend out of it when needed.
The bottom line is that aircraft building is a significant and rewarding endeavor, and it’s bound to involve challenges. Attitude is the key factor to overcoming the challenges, and maintaining a positive attitude is as important as attaining the needed building skills. I’ve had my ups and downs building my airplane, but the soup is on the stove. One of these days I’ll be able to exclaim, “Soup’s ready!” And won’t that be deliciously rewarding for everyone that’s contributed an ingredient to its success.

My project paralysis antivirus:

  • Ask for help if you’re stuck.
  • Work on another part of the project until you get the needed help.
  • Use FAA technical books and publications.
  • Read the Tony Bingelis books.
  • Join an EAA chapter.
  • Read the EAA publications.
  • Use the EAA Hints for Homebuilders website.
  • Join chat groups that can provide advice for your project.
  • Don’t be shy about asking for information from the kit manufacturer.
  • Get help from a pro when you need it.
  • Use the EAA Technical Counselor program.
  • Create a to-do list, but keep the items small and manageable.
  • Don’t make a to-do item overly general, such as, “Build the wing.” Make parts of the wing separate list items.
  • Listen to the soundtrack from the movie One Six Right when working on your project.
  • Accept the challenges as productive parts of the project.

Earl Downs specializes in flight training for homebuilt and classic airplane pilots. He previously built an award winning KitFox Light, and his Zenith Zodiac is nearing its first flight. He has written numerous articles for EAA publications regarding light sport aviation and is also the coauthor of the book "The Complete Idiots Guide to Sport Flying," available through Amazon- hard copy and Kindle.


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