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Hands, Mind, and Heart

What started as a handful of passionate enthusiasts has developed into a major force—and a significant component—of the aircraft industry.

Matching The Machine To The Man

By Budd Davisson (originally published in EAA AeroCrafter 6th Edition)

You are in deep trouble and don’t even know it. You are about to let those hormones pick a homebuilt design for you and, in so doing, create one of the longest lasting, most knuckle busting nightmares of your life. This would be a good time for a really cold shower. Or two!

Selecting a homebuilt to build is far more complicated than, say, picking someone to be your spouse. At least in that case hormones were supposed to be part of the equation. The only way to approach the problem of selecting a design is with cold rationalism. This ain’t easy. In fact, it can be darned hard, but by following some simple guidelines, it can be made easier and, when the decision is made, there is a better possibility of not only completing the airplane, but of having the machine match the man (or woman).

The "Which Plane" Decision

Undoubtedly the most common mistake is basing the decision entirely on the airplane and what it does. Little or no thought is given as the how that airplane fits into the realities represented by your own life. In fact, without giving it some thought, many of us don’t really know what the realities of our life are. That’s okay, since not knowing the realities is what keeps most of us from leaping off tall buildings. However, jam a project as big as building an airplane into the average life and suddenly the realities become very real. That’s why the man/machine match is so critical. We don’t want to put an aeronautical square peg into a hexagonal hole.

Most of making the man/machine match right the first time is carefully evaluating all those things which enter into the situation, as it actually exists. The decision has to be based on our real life aeronautical situation, not the life we see with our emotionally closed eyes.

Rule one, naturally, is don’t take your checkbook to a fly-in until you’ve gone through the complete evaluation cycle.

The evaluation process centers on four basic areas. The first is a self-evaluation in which you stand off and take a hard, objective look at yourself as a builder, pilot, family man and provider.

The other areas include evaluating your personal environment in terms of a place to build said airplane. Then, it’s necessary to look hard at the mission you have in mind for the airplane. Granted, we all want a 300 mph, fully aerobatic, four seat amphibian that burns 3.4 gph (of diesel) and builds in three months and can do everything. But, that isn’t the real world. We have to decide exactly what it is we’re going to do with this homegrown magic carpet so we can select the best compromise as represented by each design. Last... and nearly least...is the evaluation of the airplane possibilities themselves. By the time you’ve taken all the other steps, many of the contending designs will have been eliminated by the decision parameters developed. You’ll also have spent enough time thinking about it that most (not all) of your hormones will be under control.

When it comes to self-evaluation, some of the simplest questions we must ask ourselves are the hardest and often lead into entirely different subjects and directions. However, the questions we have to ask are fairly short and concise. It’s the answers that get long and drawn out. The questions are the following:

"Why do you want to build an airplane?"

If you answer the above question by saying "Because I want something to fly", then you are barking up the wrong wind tee. If your only reason for building is to fly, then chances are you’ll never finish the project because your urge to fly will overpower your urge to build. If, during the project, the builder is constantly looking down the road, visualizing himself wafting out over far horizons, he will become discouraged and quit. In a project where progress is measured in millimeters, the horizons never seem to get any closer.

There are thousands of flying machines out there that can get a pilot up and down without those thousands of hours of nitpicking labor which precede the launching of a homebuilt. They are airplanes a pilot buys to fly.

A homebuilt is an airplane in which the act of building is an end in itself. It is an unbelievably long, arduous task that will never be competed if it is looked at as a task or a stepping stone to someplace else.

Acceptable reasons for building an airplane are almost always a little hard to get a handle on and they vary from builder to builder. The combinations of reasons vary as much as the personalities of the builders, but they almost always include some form of the act of creating and the tremendous satisfaction which comes from creating something that lives and breathes, as an airplane does. Also, acting as glue which holds together all the other reasons is a stubborn streak of individualism, of wanting a machine that is strictly, unequivocally the way the builder wants it to be.

The most important reason for building should be that you just like to build things. Simple as that. What is being built is secondary.

The fact that many homebuilts offer performance not normally available elsewhere isn’t reason enough to jump into a home-built project. With a number of notable exceptions, performance that approximates a homebuilt design is available in ready-to-fly spam can form. For instance, if you just want to do aerobatics rather than putting 3,000 hours into building a Pitts, buy a used Pitts S-2A - the dollars work out the same. Rather than building a Glasair II or Long-EZ for the long range cross-country performance, put ferry tanks in the back of a late model Mooney or Bonanza. This kind of approach is for those who give "I want to fly" as their reason for building an airplane. This kind of approach isn’t even worth discussing for those who have the mechanical creative bug running through their veins and have to have something that’s as individual as their thumbprint.

"What kind of a builder are you?"

Evaluating yourself as a builder has absolutely nothing to do with what you have done or what you can do. Skill and experience aren’t part of the equation, although they do help. They aren’t important because there is not one skill involved in building any airplane that can’t be learned by the average guy at the airport who has the right attitude. And that is the magic ingredient...attitude.

The right attitude involves a willingness to do things "right" and learn what has to be learned. If this isn’t your attitude, if your frustration level is low and interest in learning is nil, don’t build. Don’t even think about building. Even those who build things around the house might not know what their actual builder attitude is because they’ve never thought about it or have never tackled a long term, detailed project. If that’s you, try the following as test case: Build a good sized, flying model airplane and judge your feelings and attitudes this brings out. To make the test case a little more concrete and a heck of a lot of fun, buy a Sig Manufacturing, Montezuma, IA, Chipmunk kit (CL-19) and a Fox .35 or .40 engine. This is a U-Control (wires running to a handle, with you attached in the middle of a circle) stunt ship with 53" wing span. By the time you are done building, 
finishing, flying (and repairing) one of these, you’ll have gone through a tiny microcosm of building a real airplane, including scrounging up all the requisite parts. You’ll be in and out of the project for about $100 and it will tell you a lot about yourself. If it shows you to have the wrong attitude, the C-note saved you thousands. If it turns you on, it showed you a new side of yourself and, at the very least, got you into a sport (U-C stunt) that’s a lot of fun in its own right.

One of the most important factors of the "builders attitude" involves "project orientation." This means the project at hand is the only project of immediate concern. In other words, the tiny piece you are grinding/sawing/bashing into the appropriate shape is the project. Granted, there are thousands of such projects under the umbrella of the larger one, but by concentrating on them one at a time, the job seems much shorter. Also, there’s a lot to be said for sitting down to build a widget and seeing it started and finished in one sitting. The satisfaction factor is much higher than judging success and progress only by looking at the whole. By building the airplane one little project at a time, when you run out of little projects you’ll look up and realize the airplane is finished.

Another factor in project orientation is planning. There is a certain logic to the way any project proceeds and that has to be mapped out in advance. That doesn’t mean setting strict time schedules (which are a sure way to disappoint yourself). That means certain parts and assemblies have to be done before others.

Some parts can be built totally independent of all the rest and that can be used to your psychological advantage. Plan two different lines of building - one will involve long term components and the other will involve those millions of little parts that can be built in less than an hour. This approach is more important than it appears. All of us run in cycles: one day we’ll be ready to sink our teeth into something really meaty and long term, Other days we want instant gratification, something that we can do right now. Also, some days we need work that is gross in nature (building work benches, sawing tubing, beating the dog) and others demand fine detail work (wiring, instrument plumbing, fitting clean-up, grooming the dog). If we recognize those cycles and work with them, then even on those days when we would usually not feel like working on the airplane, we can find something that fits our mood.

Discipline is probably one of the most important, and hard to control, parts of project orientation. The guys who finish airplanes don’t necessarily lock themselves in their shops for days on end, having their wife slip pizzas under the door. Most of them do, however, designate at least one small project a day to be finished. Many of them say all they ask of themselves is that they physically touch the project at least 4-5 times a week. That way they don’t drift away from it or let other things get in their way. They also know, once they’ve overcome the sand-in-the-butt inertia that overtakes us all right after supper by simply walking into the shop, they’ll wake up and work for whatever time is available to them.

Another form of discipline is actually using available time. There are lots of little tasks that can be done in just a few minutes...removing masking tape after painting, sweeping the shop, etc. These can be done while waiting for dinner or during a lull in family activities. For instance, I once timed myself and found it took 17 minutes to fit a diagonal piece of tubing and tack it, and 12 minutes for a vertical. So, when I found a spare 20 minutes I was out in the shop making headway.

Paying attention to detail is another of those attitudinal factors that isn’t innate with everybody, but with some personal head banging can be learned. Getting the details right is critical and it is absolutely essential the feeling of "good enough" isn’t tolerated. Down to the last detail, the builder must remember exactly what he is building and why every detail counts. An airplane is a machine that gets you just high enough to bust your tail and "good enough" doesn’t cut it. Every time you make a fitting and an edge has a tiny nick that needs to be cleaned out, one you know probably doesn’t make any difference, you have to think about being at 3,000 feet and wondering whether that nick really was inconsequential. There are no inconsequential parts of an airplane and strict attention to detail has to be part of the project, from beginning to end.

The builder attitude can be learned in its entirety, but sometimes it has to be worked at. An excellent way to practice it is in building your workshop. In later parts of this series, we get up to our necks in the question of workshops and, when we do, certain parts of it are made for attitude development. It’s also a great way to decide which are thumbs and which aren’t.

The materials used in constructing aircraft are also something an individual has to keep in mind when doing his builder evaluation. Folks are just naturally more comfortable with some materials than other, historically. However, that hasn’t made much difference in what airplane is built. All people bring a rudimentary knowledge of wood construction into aviation, but few build airplanes out of it. Since all the other materials require skills that aren’t commonplace, that in itself is a testimonial to the ease which new skills can be acquired.

"What does your life actually look like?"

Tossing an airplane building project into many households would be like throwing a skunk in a bathroom window unless some preparation is made and the right selection is made. The selection affects the family almost as much as it does the builder and its effects are in two areas - the first is while it is being built and the second is when it is finished and flying.

Let’s look at the flying side of your life first. Let’s say right now you had an airplane out at the airport, ready to go. How many times a week can you get out there and how much time can you dedicate each time you do? If you have a warp nine, cross continental runner, how often will you have several days to make use of its long legs?

Regardless of what we want in our airplanes, often our lifestyle dictates we opt for something else. If your weekends are filled up with soccer games, birthday parties and trips to the dentist, chances are the best you can do is a Sunday morning at the ‘drome. In that situation, as much as you want a Glasair III, a CUBy or Pitts actually makes more sense.

Also, is your family part of your aviation world? Do you actually need the second, third or fourth seat? If they travel with you, how big will the kids be two or three years from now. A couple of years growth will really screw up CG calculations and foot room disappears faster than last weeks sneakers.

And then there is the ugly question of money - how much will be left over after building to feed the new bird? Close to a couple bucks per gallon and it adds up, if long weekends in the Bahamas are part of your plans. It doesn’t even enter the picture if you’re putting an hour a week on your Pitts or Pietenpol.

The same factors have to be weighed when building the airplane as well as when flying. The average airplane consumes between 1,500-3,000 hours of free time that isn’t really free. It is stolen from someplace else in your life and it may have to come from your sleep time, if it’s not available anywhere else. That amount of time at two hours a day and seven days a week is 750 to 1,500 building days. In a best case scenario, that’s a full two to four years.

Can you actually get 14 hours a week for free? How much time can you steal from your family without it causing problems or building resentment toward the airplane project? What about your job? Does it take you away from home so family time is even more precious? What about your own interest level? Can you keep it up for 14 hours a week for three years?

In many cases, the only way it will work is by the nickel and dime time slots mentioned earlier and doing the 10 to midnight shift. It is critical the builder recognize the family’s rights and the demands of the rest of his life. If he shorts the family in the time department, he stands a good chance of building a wall of resentment that will be yet another obstacle he has to overcome to build the airplane.

Here comes the question of money again - it used to be, when the only investment to get started on an airplane was 30 bucks for a roll of plans, finances could always be worked out. The pieces were bought a bit at a time and the bite was small going in. Today, since the majority of folks are building kits, there is a pretty good hit right up front. The average bank won’t give you the time of day when it comes to a homebuilt, even though the same bank will loan money to rebuild an antique or classic. So, the builder has to figure out what he can afford and when.

You as a pilot

Pilot skill is the same as building skill. It isn’t important because it can be learned. Absolutely anybody reading this can be brought up to speed in any airplane in the world, given enough time. People who fly Pitts or Mustangs aren’t superman gifted with talents that are unobtainable. They have just spent the time and money to learn.

It comes back down to attitude, especially the attitude toward challenges versus enjoyment. It is important you poke around in the mustier corners of your mind to see if you would rather get up and down with a minimum of hassle or whether each flight is an experiment to accept the challenge to improve. This is probably the most important aspect of making the man/machine match the work. If you are a pilot who dearly loves the challenge of taming the airplane and making it do what you want, you may find yourself bored with a Pietenpol in a matter of seconds. To that kind of a driver, the challenge of making a no-hop landing in a Pitts is justification alone for building one. If, on the other hand, your kind of flying is gently floating up off the ground to groove on a lemon-colored sunset and arrival and departure are simply to be tolerated, don’t build a Pitts or other high demand airplane. Your mouth will be so dried out all the time you won’t be able to spit or whistle for weeks after each flight. Both approaches to flying are correct and one is no better than the other. But it is important the builder know his feeling about flight before he starts sawing foam/tubing/wood/aluminum.

This seemingly simple combination, matching the airplane to the pilot’s attitude, not skill, is one of the reasons there are so many homebuilts for sale with just 30-40 hours total time. They aren’t bad airplanes, they just don’t match the pilot’s attitude envelope.

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