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EAA’s SportAir Workshops – No Airplane? No Problem.

By Sara Miller, EAA 1089750, Digital Managing Editor

Sara MillerJanuary 28, 2016 - Last weekend brought a lot of firsts for me at EAA, which is starting to become a normal, wonderful thing. When I sat down to begin the Fundamentals of Aircraft Building workshop, one of seven courses that were held throughout the weekend, I didn’t know what I’d exactly get out of it having never owned an airplane or assisted in a build.

I had the pleasure of spending a weekend with members and nonmembers, some pilots and some not, and the diversity of their reasons for attending instantly put me at ease. Two want to buy or build but want to know the different techniques to help figure out what aircraft to consider. One wants to work on an airplane he owns and another inherited an Avid kit plane and wants to work on it. One is researching building to see if he can do it and another, much like me, is a member who loves aviation and just wants to explore what homebuilding is all about. These workshops are truly for anyone, and you do not need to be a builder or have plans to buy in order to get something out of it. You can know very little about homebuilding and you will walk away with a greater sense of EAA’s foundational purpose, and maybe a lot more than you ever expected. And you’re likely not going to be alone because our membership runs the full spectrum of aviation knowledge.

I’m an EAA employee who is going on four years at EAA. Last fall I made a commitment to immerse myself in aviation and EAA more than I had in the past. Homebuilding had been a bit intimidating to me, but this important part of EAA is something I’ve really wanted to learn more about. It’s important to me that I learn about the things our membership is deeply passionate about, that I can help provide clarity about what EAA offers our audiences, and that I educate myself more about aviation and the details about aircraft. This weekend provided all of that and more. 

We started out in a classroom-style environment, and in the most amazing type of place to learn homebuilding: EAA Kermit Weeks Flight Operations Center. Being surrounded by our B-17 Aluminum Overcast, Ford Tri-Motor, B-25, and a few homebuilts energized us all. I thought the weekend would mainly consist of us listening to an expert talk about the various homebuilding methods, but little did I realize that we would get hands-on. And not just that, but I would end the weekend building something to take home using four of the most popular methods of homebuilt aircraft construction: wood, composite, fabric, and sheet metal.

These workshops really help you test the waters to see what type of construction and techniques you like most. It can be overwhelming to choose which type of aircraft to buy or build, and this is something that can really help you go down the right path for you. EAA has all the resources to help you along this journey, especially our technical counselors. While this is a program I’m well aware of at EAA, I wanted to be sure to mention it because it is something extremely valuable to helping you through your building challenges.

This course was the basic workshop that we offer at some locations, but the essence of it describes our other courses that dig deeper into the specific methods. In an effort to not be too fundamental, this is my summary of the class itself: 

  1. Having the right tools and space for your homebuilding project can make or break the experience or progress. Jigs will save your sanity, clecos are probably one of the coolest tools around, and a pneumatic riveter may save you from some serious hand cramps.
  2. Accuracy is very important, but perfection can be paralyzing (where it’s not required of course). It’s important to build parts as best you can, but you want to learn where good enough is enough so that you get to enjoy your airplane someday. And that can be hard because cutting wood, metal, fabric, or foam by eyeballing the shape does not come naturally for everyone. At least for me.
  3. I enjoyed learning the resin and hardening process because I have never worked with it before. There are a number of things to consider based on the interaction with the material, and the importance of filling foam cells and being aware of density was enlightening.
  4. Microspheres are magical. They change the density of the resin to help reduce airplane weight, which is a bit like magic isn’t it?
  5. Composite construction had my mind racing about how materials bonded and worked together to form sleek aircraft designs. While the composite project was the least pretty, I was fascinated by the materials used, how we molded the shape (our makeshift hot wire tool did freak me out a little!), how they are bonded together, and the incredible strength of the structure. I might have dropped my mouth when I saw what fiberglass was like in its original state and what it turned into by the end of the project. Foam was the core material, and resin bonded the fiberglass to it, making it extremely strong. Forming it without a mold took some talent.
  6. At the risk of being laughed at, prior to last weekend, I thought fabric was simply about covering airplane seats. I will now be on a mission to find more aircraft made from fabric to look at the details because, to me, that is pretty awesome! EAA is restoring our Wag-Aero CUBy in Weeks Hangar so it was fun to take a look at that progress and some of the techniques while going through this part of the workshop. I don’t think I could handle the desire to have a perfectly smooth surface using Poly-Fiber, but I very much respect those who build airplanes from that material. Shrinking the fabric to the surface using a clothes iron was pretty cool!
  7. I took to Sheet Metal the most. Maybe it’s because of my One Week Wonder rivet, or because the staff built a Zenith CH750, but shaping metal and riveting was motivating. Except when it came to stainless steel rivets, that was tough! Be prepared for the feeling of progress just to take a few steps back. Just when you assemble the pieces with clecos, you have to disassemble it all to deburr. All in the name of a very important step so that rivets don’t loosen over time.

I learned quickly that building an entire airplane can be overwhelming, so it’s important to compartmentalize the project to focus on small milestones. I didn’t have expectations to come out of this with a plan to build a plane, which I’m not sure will happen outside of helping someone or a team build, but I do feel I have a greater handle on the insides of an airplane, thus being closer to EAA. Beyond that, and this impacted me the most, I got to know some great EAA members, was able to hear their stories and passion, and have greater meaning to what is important to them. I don’t run into members a lot in my job, so when I meet ones that are passionate, friendly, and kind, that always re-energizes my work and passion for EAA.

To learn more about growing your homebuilding experience with EAA’s SportAir Workshops, please visit us online.

EAA’s SportAir Workshops – No Airplane? No Problem.

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