B.H. Pietenpol, Patron Saint of Homebuilding

(WARNING: This took so long to write that I started it by drinking a pot of coffee when the sun was still up and finished it with a few beers through the night to 5 a.m. Nothing created under such conditions is ever going to be described as “even-tempered.” Read it when you have some time to consider its basic truth. Rushing through things is the most common way we have of cheating ourselves out of the value of nearly every experience. Watch 10 minutes less TV today, and read this with your full attention.)

If you don’t yet know it, you should understand that Bernard Pietenpol is The Patron Saint of homebuilding. This isn’t because he was the first guy to fly a Corvair. Just the reverse is true; it was almost inevitable that he was going to be the first guy to jump on flying a Corvair, because first and foremost, he was the champion of the common man having access to flying his own plane. He may not have been the first guy who understood that aviation wasn’t a spectator sport, but developing the Aircamper and the Ford Model A conversion in the late 1920s put him on the map as the guy who was doing something about it.

He understood that it was against the grain of Americans who worked for a living to resign themselves to watching the rich and privileged have all the fun of flying. Bernard probably had no issue with Howard Hughes getting to join the mile high club with Jean Harlow, but Bernard didn’t think the rest of us should satisfy ourselves with being anyone’s line boy. He put a lot of effort into seeing that the rest of us could build a plane, convert an engine, and fly, where and when we wanted to. This was a new concept. Go back and read The Great Gatsby for a reminder of how the haves thought the have-nots should behave in the 1920s. Henry Ford gave some passing attention to the concept of the Ford Fliver, but trust me, wealthy people weren’t stumbling over themselves to find a way for the common guy to have a path to flying. All of those guys knew that you weren’t going to stay wealthy or get wealthier on the dreams of common Joes. No, this mission had to be done as an inside job, it could only be done by a guy who understood the economic challenges of being a working man. This man lived about as far as you could get, geographically and mentally from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s America. He lived in Cherry Grove, Minnesota, and his name was B.H. Pietenpol.

Ten or twelve years ago, I pointed out that most people mistakenly think that if you cut the cost of the most basic homebuilt project in half, that twice as many people would be able to get in the game. Although this sounds reasonable, it isn’t actually true, and here’s why: Near the economically challenged end of aviation, the cost versus action curve doesn’t graph as a line at a 45 degree angle. In plain English, there are a lot of people who are just outside the budget window of aircraft building. Make it a little cheaper, and a whole lot of new people can get in. The reality that I showed people is that if you cut the cost in half, you might have ten times as many people building. If you are interested in the future of aviation, lowering the cost is the single most important goal.  Developing inexpensive and accessible solutions to homebuilding questions is a lot more difficult than developing expensive products for wealthy people, but it must be done if flight is to remain accessible. I am not willing to throw in the towel on this just because we live in an era where the top 1/2% of the population (the people the light jets and turbo props are for) is getting richer by the month while middle class Americans are on ever tighter budgets.  My understanding of being an American will not allow me to accept being consigned to spectator status.

Today, a lot of people complain about things in aviation, and how the EAA has evolved, etc. Most of them are lashing out at something they sense is wrong, but they are not always very articulate about it. There is a lot of discussion about it, but it isn’t focused on any central issue. A lot of people are looking back to the EAA of the 1960s with a certain nostalgia, even if they only know that era through reading old issues of Sport Aviation. Because I have been in the EAA since 1989, I am a working class guy, I have read countless works on the topic, I have made pilgrimages to Cherry Grove, and I have two decades into teaching people how to build affordable aircraft, let me step forward and suggest that I know the central character of all of the issues that rank and file guys have.

Whether they are articulate about it or not, working class guys know that the pendulum has been swinging the wrong way for at least 20 years. It is actually getting harder for common Joes to build and fly their own aircraft.  This is exactly what Pietenpol struck his blow against. The momentum of this carried into the 1950s with the establishment of the EAA. The far end of the pendulum’s path may have been in the late 1960s, maybe in the affordable days of composites in the 1970s, or even in the ultralight craze of the early 1980s. But since then it has been moving in the wrong direction, and deep down, working guys know this.

Just because the net flow is in the wrong direction doesn’t mean that there have not been valiant attempts to keep things within reach. There are examples of this. Many people point to the Sport Pilot rule. But it is just as easy for me to point out that our industry is so focused on the desires of the wealthy, that the Sport Pilot rule gets distorted into the Sebring airshow, an event devoted to celebrating the $129K “affordable” plane and the Chinese built Cessna 162. Our entire industry has been focused on serving expensive products to the most wealthy 10% of aviators. Many of the journalists who are allegedly looking out for our future have been mesmerized or bought off  with simple flattery, a chance to fly expensive stuff, or an evening at Bean Snappers strip club just north of Oshkosh. In the past six months, many of the old guard of EAA publications have been replaced by an influx of former employees of Flying. I hold little hope that these refugees from the wine and cheese end of aviation are here to reverse the pendulum’s swing. One doesn’t spend 20 years reviewing planes that a modern version of Jay Gatsby would be in the market for and suddenly develop a true love for Aircampers, VP-2s and Flybabies.

Before I go any further, let me come out and say that I have nothing against rich guys in aviation. Hell, that’s why we had Flying and Plane and Pilot. I know a number of wealthy guys in aviation who are very deeply concerned about keeping aviation affordable. At Sun N Fun I had a builder who happens to be very successful offer to fund an expensive piece of R&D under the sole condition that no one know that he made this contribution to the movement. Things like this are something that restores one’s faith in concepts like “the brotherhood of aviation.”

This said, it is plain that our industry has long accepted that the role of working guys is “spectator.” Get this: If we reversed this, and had an industry that championed every entrepeneur who made affordable things, and it got to the point where we were in 1969 where the majority of the planes in Sport Aviation could be built by the majority of the members, I contend that this would have no serious detrimental effect on the choices available to wealthy members. However, from our current situation, we know the reverse is not true.

The working class guys have the same dreams as everyone else, and in some cases they actually have stronger motivation because they understand that there is nothing fair, just or right about them getting sidelined by excessive cost. Follow this closely: aircraft cost money, and no matter how cheap they get, there will always be some people who cannot afford them. But, if our industry is lazy and doesn’t take the challenge to make affordable things, and our journalists are entranced into focusing on the expensive and flashy, there will be less and less entrepeneurs willing to take a good shot at making affordable aircraft. Working class guys make up a majority of people in the EAA. These people did not join a profit driven corporation, nor did they join an entertainment based media company. They joined a membership driven association, and they have a right to expect that organization to serve them. If it isn’t doing it, the first person to hold responsible isn’t the new president. It is all the working class members who paid their dues and complained quietly, but never took the time to write a letter to headquarters, failed to write a “What Our Members are Building” note about their friend’s KR, never voted in for a candidate for the Board of Directors. No one ever got the change they didn’t insist on.

Although they can be blind to it, one of the major enemies of working class guys in aviation are working class guys in aviation.  They can be terrible about biting the hands that try to feed them. Here is an easy example; many people ask why I like John Monett. I don’t like him, I respect him. He has a very long track record of trying to make affordable things. He should be championed by many working guys, but more often they talk about him being a charm school drop out. If he is a jerk to you, don’t buy things from him, but don’t let this stop you from appreciating the fact that he has done a lot for working guys who want to build a plane.  Burt Rutan was at least as caustic to people in his day, but he abandoned the working class guys 20 years ago, and today he is more likely to be found hanging out on the beach in Bora Bora with Richard Branson and a half-dozen topless girls from Columbia, than he is to be found at Oshkosh. Yet he is hailed as a hero by many working class guys. Monnett has a good reason to be crabby:
Working class guys need to remember who is still In The Arena and who is on the beach.

Second, working class guys need to stop messing with the people trying to serve them. A guy selling plans to a plane isn’t getting rich. People making copies of these plans need to stop, period. People who make obvious copies of things they didn’t develop, should never have any working class guy as a customer.  I have seen several people build Aircampers from the reprints of the 1929 plans because these were sold for $20 less than the modern ones from the Pietenpol family. None of these guys liked hearing that the ’29 lift strut attach at the spar was completely unairworthy. I was the EAA 288 Chapter president at Spruce Creek and when I was morally lost I built Lancair IVPs for rich guys. I can flatly say that wealthy guys don’t often make mistakes like this, they are not penny wise and pound foolish, but many working guys are.

Wealthy guys recognize that they need successful people to work for them, to build their planes, so they can go to airshows and tell foolish journalists that they built the plane themselves. They have nothing against their hired gun builder making $12 or even $15 per hour. Conversely, many of us who work to keep aviation affordable know the Brittany Spears Cycle.  This is when working class guys love you when you’re an impoverished mousekateer, but the moment you can afford to get large fries at the golden arches, you are now called a sell out on the Internet discussion groups, and it is open season on your reputation. Your only hope is to have a meltdown and shave your head. Once you’re suitably humble, and it’s verified that you are not making a living, working class guys will welcome you back.  We are very lucky to have built the Corvair movement before the rise of Internet groups, we are insulated by loyal friends to a great degree, but I can think of many very smart guys with plenty to offer working guys, who have opted out of the market in the past 10 years simply because they got a good look at how others were treated. Maybe they didn’t want to have to shave their heads.

In the end, the main thing any individual can do is run his own show well. This means accepting that you are going to build a plane that suits you no matter what the industry tries to tell you is the right thing for you to buy. This means getting your plans and parts through legitimate sources. This is having a good rapport with the experts that you work with. Having positive comments when others choose pointless ones. All of these things are well within any builder’s sphere of control. Beyond this, you can put some effort into things that are partially under your call. I have gotten very good rewards by being active in our local EAA chapters. I have gotten a lot out of writing articles and stories. I cannot guarantee that there will be any positive effect from petitioning EAA headquarters, but I will say that people who don’t make their opinions known have little room to complain that things haven’t changed.

No matter how it all goes, we will still be here because we believe in what we are doing. I have had my faith in aviation tested a few times, but no matter what has happened, it has always still been there. I can’t say this for most of the things I thought I would always be able to count on 20 years ago. 10 years ago, after a particularly trying week at Oshkosh, Grace had the wisdom to understand that we had to go find something we had misplaced, something that our industry had long forgotten. The drive from Oshkosh to Cherry Grove is about 250 miles, but it takes about 60 years to get there, in the sense that you need to go back in time to get “there.”  We spent a few hours in Cherry Grove. Dave Mensink, Grace and myself were the only living people there, but it didn’t feel lonely.  We stood on the field where Bernard had 70 years before, laid claim on his right to a piece of the sky. For the next 3 or 4 decades that followed, nearly every guy in homebuilding was a working class guy, and damn proud of it. Along the way, homebuilding got careless and allowed some new people to suggest that the people who invented this were no longer what it was about. If you are a working guy, and you’re struggling to imagine how you are going to build a plane, have no worries. You have a lot in common with the Patron Saint of Homebuilding, and in this arena, that is the only currency that counts. -ww

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