Lifestyles of Troglodytes


There are two types of people in this world: those who look at technology as the solution and those who think of simplicity as the solution. In the mechanical world, we all know this debate degenerates rapidly to “Tech-Geeks vs. Grease Monkeys.”  What my Tech-Geek friends don’t know is that there is actually a lowerarchy (as opposed to a hierarchy) in the land of Grease Monkeys. There may very well be a system like this in Geekdom, but it’s probably expressed as an equation or as an analogy to electronics, and therefore understanding it is beyond my short monkey attention span. For my friends on the other side, I reveal the descending order of taste and sophistication in simple mechanical solutions:

(1) Old School, (2) Luddite, (3) Knuckle-dragger, (4) Neandertal, and finally, (5)Troglodyte.

Old School isn’t a bad term at all. Many people think of it as a compliment, an indication that the recipient knows how it was done with craftsmanship before people thought of throwing money at problems as an actual strategy. Even Luddite is worn as a badge of honor by some, especially when it is delivered as an intended insult by your opposite number from  the land of Geekdom. The bottom three are the turning point, headed down a slippery slope. Very few people are civil after being called a Knuckle-Dragger, and none are after being called a Neandertal. I wouldn’t be offended if one of my friends with a PhD called me either. This is because it would be an upgrade. Simply put, I am a mechanical Troglodyte.

First a confession: Until recently, I didn’t even know that Troglodyte was a Greek word for caveman. I always thought it was one of the creatures that swam around in the primordial ooze for 60 million years or so, trying to find a purpose in life. I had a perverse pride in being named after something that was around for a long time. Getting demoted from a big chunk of natural history to a footnote in Greek mythology is a tough break. It would probably hurt my self esteem, that is if I had any of it to be hurt…

Above: This is actually a Trilobite.  They have been extinct for half the time there has been life on Earth. For a long time, I thought that this is what a Troglodyte was. Getting this wrong for most of my life might be a good indication that I really am a troglodyte.

We live at an airpark full of incredibly mechanically inclined people. At most airports, there are one or two skilled welders. At our place, there are one or two people who don’t know how to weld. My neighbors made fun of me for months because I stupidly confessed to not knowing how to operate a road grader.  Here, little kids on BMX bikes will ride by and criticize the heat range of your plugs when you’re doing an annual.  In this setting, you might think the Troglodyte would be king, or at least respected. Sadly no. In Grease Monkeyville, the Old School debates with the Luddite the merits of the Duramax Diesel vs. the Powerstroke. They even make room in the conversation for the Knuckle-Dragger with the non-turbo ’80s Cummins 6B. But they all shun the Troglodyte as he looks at the 4-53t Detroit in the old loader and thinks about installing it in his rusty Chevy pickup.

I hold that my Troglodyte status is valuable in aviation, especially today when an ever greater number of people arriving in the ranks of aviation have been conditioned to think that technology is always the answer. You know, the people who think of a glass cockpit as a substitute for looking out the windows in the pattern. People who are slow to understand that having a system that will not break is superior to the most elaborate instrumentation that tells you when a complex system just broke. People who chat on their smart phones while preflighting and forget to untie the tail rope. I am going to teach these people the things my mentors taught me, that the pure joy of flying is found in the simplest of settings, that the more basic things are, the more reliable they are, that there is a real value to knowing how things really work and how to repair them. Yes, I am going to teach this to all the electronically addicted new arrivals from the land of consumerism, that is right after I solve the Riemann hypothesis and fix the Middle East peace crisis.

It’s really ok to be an adherent to any tribe, and I can get along with just about any person who likes planes. It is not a requirement that they spend an hour in the flymart with myself and friends looking at a pile of 145 Warner parts. We are not required to accompany them as they shop for a color coordinated pseudo flame retardant interior. People need only find the place that is right for them, and not worry about what other people are doing. To each his own ooze. Happiness is knowing where you belong, forgetting this is where the trouble starts.

I am kicking around the idea of making a new set of wings for our Tailwind project.  It has an original 1950s set that are as thin as potato chips and have all the area of two medium-size coffee tables.  Fine for Wittman, but the thought of a gross weight take off in summer makes me think about attacking the paper company trees off the end of the runway with a chain saw and blaming it on the very rare Florida beavers. More span and wing area is better than taking up logging. My composite Guru friends Scott Vanderveen and Arnold Holmes offered to help with a sophisticated set of tapered wings with a laminar flow section. At first this was very attractive, but in time I have reverted to my Troglodyte ways and picked the most Troglodyte of wings, a constant chord with a Clark Y airfoil. 

Today was the day I was going to cut the first pattern. I went out to the back porch where all the aviation engineering books from the 1930s are kept, and I was going to look up the ordinates, figure out if I needed to use a 48, 50 or 52″ chord to enclose a Piper spar, and use a calculator to get the points and plot them out with a ruler and bend a capstrip between the points and trace the line. As I was taking out a dusty NACA book,  I realized that I was doing this task like a Troglodyte. My Old School and Luddite friends were sure to catch me and make fun of me. This was going to be worse than the road grader. Dan would stop by and read aloud sections of my Conversion Manual where I wrote about experimental aviation being for people who “Want to learn new things.” My chance had arrived. I would show them. I would go online, find the data, email it to the print shop, and come back with a real CAD drawing. I would be at least upgraded to Neandertal if I did it all by myself. I turned on the computer, searched the Net and came up with 50 hits, led by a very sure set of data provided by a guy named  “Stealth Pilot.”

Stealth Pilot– 27 Mar 2008 14:04 GMT ……the clark Y aerofoil is 17% thick and has it’s ordinates set out from
the bottom surface. the NACA 4417 aerofoil is the clark Y with the ordinates set out from
the chord line. The 4418 (1% thicker) that should be close enough if you compare the 4415. The shape was an educated guess based on a number of previous good aerofoils. justinius clark had a reasonably good eye for these things.        Stealth Pilot

Stealth Pilot sounds good, but of course, just about everything he said was wrong, including the name of the designer. I should have known better than to read about a Troglodyte airfoil from a guy who named himself after a plane that had no airfoil. Moving on I read the next 15 hits… They had huge errors also. Then I saw it… A lot of the post 2009 hits actually referenced Stealth Pilot’s story, as if it was a footnote from Virginus Clark himself. Site after site repeated the data and the 17% thick claim. It was the National Enquirer referencing The Star as their reliable source.

After a few more posts like this, I turned off  the computer and went out to the shop with a copy of the ordinates, an ancient HP-48 calculator and a roll of brown paper. I dug a flexible 1/4″  x  1/4″ capstrip out to connect the dots, and went about making the drawing, happy in my Troglodyte ooze of simplicity.


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