Shop perspective: Mastery or ?


Here are a few photos to give builders some insight to a day in our shop. They were taken the week before we left for the Zenith open house. Perhaps the most important aspect of our work with builders is that I am essentially a homebuilder myself. In our industry, there are countless companies staffed by people who have never turned a wrench on a homebuilt aircraft. These people have little or no understanding of the needs and capabilities of rank and file homebuilders. Many of these sales people have no exposure to real builders beyond handing our brochures at Oshkosh. Very few of them have ever made a single house call to a builders shop, and consequently have little real connection to traditional homebuilders.

We are on the other end of the scale. Over the last 20 years I have held 23 major colleges and made something like 400 house calls. This is a lot of opportunity to listen to builders and really get to know them. Until you do this, I can make a good argument that you are not really in a good position to be an asset to builders. Yes you can sell them things, but until you know them, you don’t even know if builders are installing the stuff correctly, far less learning anything nor improving their own personal capabilities.

Look at the photos below and notice that my shop and hangar may be a little messier, or have more old school tools, but it is still a homebuilders shop. A product producer who has a spotless CNC shop, but never works on aircraft directly, will have a distorted view that technology rules the day in homebuilding. It doesn’t. Craftsmanship will always be paramount. No matter how the part is made, a human, (an amature not a professional in homebuilding) will have to bolt this part on and operate it. Unless you understand these builders, and are willing to invest effort in assisting them in the development of their personal craftsmanship, you are not going to make a difference. technology is an important tool in the process, but it isn’t the focal point. It’s called homebuilding for a reason….if every part was made exclusively in a high-tech factory and came pre-installed, you could drop the name Homebuilding and replace it with the term Factory-buying.

At Zenith I met a guy who was having a different brand of aircraft built for him. He was dropping some big checks to have his airframe built, have a buy-it-in-a-box engine installed, and another guy paint it. Almost everything the guy had to say was a frustrated complaint. Little surprise, he had gone to great expense to remove every satisfying element from homebuilding and replace it with a consumer experience, had attempted to negotiate a leveraged exchange rate for the craftsmanship of others for his dollars. In direct comparison, I had a number of corvair builders share pictures of things they were very proud to have created with their own hands. There is an obvious truth that people who make things are happier than people who buy them.

Above Grace is sealing parts, hardware and instruction sheets into sealed bags. This is in one end of our 20x 30 shop. It is disorganized because we were packing up the trailer to head out to Zenith. The shop is usually full, but neater. For the most part, Just Vern and I work in the shop, so it’s small size is not a problem. It is well lit and has central heat and air. (It is attached to our 40×50 hangar, but the hangar is truly ‘climate controlled’, in the sense it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter.) Look Closely and you will see the Scoob E. is lying on the chair behind Grace. He tends to spend 23 hours a day within 10 feet of her.

Above, parts laid out that were assembled into Gary Burdett’s 2850cc engine. Gary is well along in the construction of his Zenith 750, and elected to have us assemble his engine. Even though he purchased it complete and test run, he has taken advantage of all of our educational material and the type of learning we offer at colleges. He is far more knowledgeable on the building, operation and maintenance of this engine than almost any person who buys an engine from a company that places little effort or focus into builder education

Note the high-end parts that went into Gary’s engine. The Falcon Heads are vastly better than any Corvair head that every left the factory; The pistons are Forged, CNC machined and made in the US; The crank is fully stress relieved and deep nitrided. The engine components are far better than the ones GM used. Corvairs were rated up to 180hp in the car, redlined at 5,500 rpm. Not only do we use far better components, bet we simultaneously flat rate the engine to 55% of this power output 58% of this rpm limit. This is the root of all the success of the Corvair engine as an aircraft power plant. It is truly an automotive Conversion engine, because we have converted in the form of substantial internal improvements while flat-rating its output. This is the only rational way to expect a car engine to reliably do the job of an aircraft engine.

Over the years, there have been countless companies that tried to promote the concept that a car engine rated at say 100 hp at 6,000 rpm can have a reduction bolted to it and be put directly into a plane, and then asked to reliably produce 100hp and turn 6,000 rpm. Everyone understands that if you drove your car like that it would have a short life span, but many people bought into this idea because they wanted to believe it. These engines were called auto conversions, but in reality they were not….they were just auto engines, being asked to continuously develop power at high rpm. Most of these engine came out of cars that were wrecked, many were out of designs marketed to 18-24 year olds, most of whom have no concept of auto motive maintenance like oil changes. When asked what they would do if their stressed engine broke, almost all of these people said, “I will just go get another from a junk yard” as if every aircraft engine conveniently breaks on the ground in front of a snap on tool box.

You can’t teach people who don’t want to learn nor consider any thought that would challenge something they have a big emotional investment in believing. I don’t try, I am just here to work with people who wish to learn more about how they can become their own engine builder, and maintenance department. Some people would gladly take the word of a junk yard operator that the engine he is selling is read to fly. Corvair builders are the kind of people who would much rather count on an engine based on a 52 year track record of steady improvement on an excellent design, that they built with skilled hands, with conversion parts specifically designed to make the engine reliable. Which engine you gravitate toward depends entirely on what kind of person you are.

Above, Gary’s 2850cc engine at power on the break in stand. A fundamentally simple engine, that we have a long track record of expertise with. Safety in aircraft is all about understanding and having mastery of the machine you are operating. You can not show me a single person who was ever hurt in a plane because he understood too much about it, but I can show you countless statistics that used to be humans who got caught operating a machine with pass-able skills when the moment required better.

I do not have an instrument rating nor a multi rating. If I wanted either, I am sure I could write a check to a ratings mill and have enough skill in 10 days to do a passable job on the check ride. People who actually have mastery of muti and instrument flight understand that neither of these are forgiving of “pass-able” skills when it counts. I can make a good case that this extends to every skill set in aviation, that safety lies in mastery.  My personal concept of what I want to do in aviation is mastery of the stick and rudder VFR planes that I like. Because I am a homebuilder, I am also speaking of mastering the building of this plane, and it only makes sense to me to know the power plant, and I mean really know it, as well. 

Plenty of people demonstrate that you can get away with very little understanding of aircraft, flight, powerplants and weather, and still get back to the airport. Maybe they don’t care, maybe they are not bothered by trying to cut a few corners or get away with stuff, But this isn’t me, and it isn’t why I am in aviation. I am here to really know things, and to be the master of the equipment I am counting on. The inherent simplicity of the Corvair and the educational nature of the movement makes this possible.  I honestly don’t understand people who would be comfortable pushing the throttle in on the take off roll, comfortable with the idea that the guy at the junkyard said “the engine was only driven on Sundays and had low mileage.” Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase “trust with verification.”  After 24 years in experimental aviation, let me suggest you will be better off if you just skip to the last word and just “Verify.”-ww

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.