Builders, Here is a sample of the mail on aircraft finishes and how professional builders and magazine editors distorted the perception of traditional craftsmanship:
Cleanex builder and flyer Dale Williams of SC writes:
“William, You are singing my song here about aircraft finishes! I’m currently painting my “Cleanex” with a very experimental method that many would run from i.e. aluminum boat paint put on using a series of rollers. The paint itself is a three-part Acrylic Urethane Enamel. After applying the paint I’m doing a bit of sanding and using some 3M rubbing compound to turn my 20′ paint job into a 10′ paint job. The swirls and final polish will be done with Meguiars #9 Swirl Remover. This paint goes on extremely thin so the weight of the applied paint verses the finish is easy to control. I do not yet have mine finished as I’m awaiting the trim colors from the supplier before I can apply the numbers, striping, and graphics. Here is a photo of the Cleanex belonging to Clarence Dunkerley that used the same paint and application method:
These are indeed “industrial” paint jobs but also are “experimental” and the money saved goes under the cowling where it belongs. Besides, I learned something by doing it this way! Thanks for a great story and having the courage to write it. Dale N319WF a.k.a. Myunn- daughter of cleanex”
701/Corvair builder, CC#20 graduate Terry Samsa writes:
“Very interesting and quite compelling. I like you even better after that than I did already. Thank you for becoming part of the solution rather than remaining part of the problem.”
Terry, I wrote the second half so that no builder working in his own shop looking at the results of his efforts ever mistakenly compares his work to that of a paid professional who has spent a career getting very good at the skill, and who’s budget puts any tool, material or process in their hands. The magazines had countless stories that implied that you were looking at the work of other regular builders, and I think thousands of builders at home were discouraged by their own results in the unfair comparison. I wanted rank and file traditional homebuilders to have actual confirmation from a former insider that what the may have suspected was actually more true than they knew. I don’t need to be thanked for it, it doesn’t risk my work nor business relationships, my involvement with that side of experimental aviation is long over. -ww
Pietenpol Builder/ATP Terry Hand writes:
“What happens to a business/association that supports and even rewards such dishonesty in “builders”? Fifteen years later they have a CEO who thinks flying a Stearman and a T-6 is staying in touch with the common man, and building huge chalets to rent to Corporate America while spoiling the view at Airventure for the little people is a good idea. And once he is fired his replacement is a guy that bought his degrees from a diploma mill, and everyone thinks he is a great guy. Maybe he is a great guy, but I sure can’t Google and find anywhere that he has owned up to his mistakes the way you did in 2,500 words. That’s where all of this has taken us. Thank you for all that you do- not just for Corvair builders but for all of experimental aviation. -Terry.”
Builder Bruce Culver writes:
“Another timely and revealing essay on the basics of homebuilding, and the ‘dark side’….. Long ago (I joined EAA in 1982) I had a small library of homebuilding books, and I am now replacing those. I just acquired all of Tony Bingelis’s books off eBay, and I remember how much I learned from them many years ago. As for my paint, I was looking at a paint supplier’s website, and marveling at how much money would go into enough paint to do an airplane. I figured it would take as much money as building one of your Corvair engines (or close to it). Since I am doing a “warbird”, I will go for a satin sprayed finish, and it won’t be using paint that costs $335 a gallon….. Echoing others, we owe you a debt of gratitude for helping to make aviation affordable for those of us really bad at picking winning lottery tickets.It was frankly sad and disturbing to see EAA engage in such fraud, but it is obvious they have “moved on”.And 95% of the people going to Airventure won’t have any idea any of this is happening. I have two framed copies of “The Man in the Arena”; one will go into my office, the other into the workshop, a reminder to me that nothing worthwhile comes without struggle and sacrifice. And that is as it should be……”
Here is a sample of what friends wrote in about the story of my Fathers 87th birthday and the importance of Fathers and people of courage in this world. The story also brought a number of private emails where people shared thoughts on their relationship with their Father that I found very moving. In many ways I think my Father is very typical of men of his generation, and for this reason the story about him brings people my age to think about their own dads and the role they have played in our lives. Our family had a very good day together in NJ, and I hope that most of you had a chance to spend some time with your fathers over the holidays. -ww
New England builder, CC#14 Grad, and USN Seabee Dave Simon writes:
“Always glad to hear about your father, William. I fondly recall a few hours visiting with him about the Navy and the Seabees at CC in Massachusetts. Happy Holidays! Dave”
NJ 601XL Builder/flyer Phil Maxson writes:
“I honor your father, a true American hero. Your note describes his accomplishments, but I always remember him as a delightful, humble man with a broom in his hands cleaning up the hangar in preparation for a college in your hangar in Edgewater. I am very glad to have met him.But I honor you as well. you have dedicated your life to making flying, safe, achievable and affordable for many people. You have taught me more than anyone else about how aircraft and engines work. I am in your debt. We members of the Corvair movement are in your debt.”
DC-3 owner and man of adventure Tom Graziano writes:
“William, Thanks from one of the 3%…Tom”
Builder Jackson Ordean writes:
Builder Dan Branstrom writes:
“Amen, and best wishes to all, especially Grace Ellen and your families.”
Builders, Here is some of the mail on the topic of what will we accomplish in 2013:
Newfoundland Merlin on Floats Builder/pilot Jeff Moores writes:
“Hi William; great to see you back “on line.” It is quite cold here now and I am anxiously waiting for our pond to freeze enough to try flying my Merlin on floats from the ice. During my Christmas break I rigged up a preheat system for my engine and tested it. Very simple; just a 1500W heat gun, some scat tubing, and a snowmobile cover tied over the cowling to keep the heat in. At -6 deg. C after 1 hour it was warm enough to try. I was very surprised when, after four shots of prime, it started instantly.
I am now working on a method to be able to easily move the plane in and out of the hangar. One cannot move it backwards in the snow because the step diggs in, so I have to be able to get it out moving forward and get it back in also moving forward and be able to turn it around in the hangar. I’ve flown skis off ice before but not Full Lotus floats, so this is all a learning process. I’m taking my time and proceeding cautiously. – Jeff”
Florida 750 builder Tom Griesemer writes:
“Glad your back. Haven’t had anything to read for almost a month. 1 flaperon done and deburring the right wing skeleton on the CH750. Most importantly was the hot tanking of the Corvair case. Full speed ahead…”
Midwest 2850 cc 750 builder Gary Burdett writes:
“I am close and I plan to spend…..wait a minute…. I’ll get back to you, Honey Boo Boo is on.”
Builders: Here is a sample of what came in the mail.
Builder Earl Brown writes:
“Thanks for the “Pietenpol Week”! Always great to have extra inspiration while working on mine”
Builder Harold Bickford writes:
“Hello William, The Booth Piet and the ch.1279 example are great examples of persistent effort. Excellent workmanship from plans built efforts are evident in the pictures. The owner built Corvair engines follow the Pietenpol formula via the WW approach. It is inspiring to see the results of other’s efforts. It will be fun to see how much can be accomplished this year with the Piet Edi and I are working on. Thanks for posting. – Harold”
Builder Randy Cary writes:
“Great comments William. Welcome back. I’m glad there are people left in this world who have the heart of a servant!-Randy Cary“
Builder Dan Branstrom writes:
“Using Google Earth, Bernie’s old shop is at Latitude 43°35’16.99″N, Longitude 92°17’19.75″W If you go to street view on County Highway 5, and face east, you can see the shop at ground level from 2 shots. The views of his shop aren’t as good as your picture. The aerial view of the small collection of houses gives a good idea of exactly how small Cherry Grove is. It really is just an intersection with a collection of houses and a church. William, your writing has a quality of Richard Bach, in the sense of “Nothing by Chance.” It gives me a deep appreciation for flight and life. -Dan”
On the Cherry Grove story, Ch-750 Builder Dan Glaze writes:
“you wanna know what I think William? I think you and Grace are great people and thanks for the ” rest of the story” good day, Dan-o”
On the Cherry Grove story, Builder Bruce Culver writes:
“This is a beautiful and thought-provoking piece. It has always been too easy for us to be distracted, or attracted to the shiny things in life, the things that are glitter and often not real. Like crows who collect bits of metal and shiny plastic, we look for someone else to supply the means to find fulfillment and happiness. In the final analysis though, all it really takes is a flat open field and a man with a dream….. Well said.”
I received a thoughtful letter from a builder with a lot of positive comments, but they did mention the fact that their own personal aircraft was not likely to look as nice as Gary Boothe’s or Mike Groah’s. They mentioned that in a small way, this was a little discouraging. I gave this some thought last night and wanted to share some perspective on the subject.
While I tend to be very fussy about the engine compartment, anyone who has seen any of our personal Corvair powered airframes could tell you that their finish was well below the level seen in the story about Gary’s and Mike’s Pietenpols. While I am personally content with an ‘industrial’ level of finish on my own airframe, I still have great respect for builders who go the extra distance to make things to their own standard of excellence. There is a very wide space between 100% airworthy and 100% airworthy and esthetically perfect. It is for each builder to decide for himself what level of finish he wants on his plane. You are not competing with anyone. Homebuilding is all about doing it for the right reasons. Just ask yourself how you would build it if no one else on earth was ever going to see it, and as long as the answer falls between the two limits above, build it that way.
Above, a photo of my Pietenpol circa 1999. While the plane was 100% airworthy, and appealing from 25 feet, it was not esthetically high quality. It had a level of finish I call ‘industrial.’ If an I.A. went over the plane he would not find a single nut or safety wire out-of-place. The weight and Ballance was perfect, it could stay in the envelope with any pilot between 135 and 290 pounds. If a welding inspector went over it, he would not find a single rough bead. If Ray Stitts examined the fabric he would find it correctly applied and the tapes razor straight. I regularly loaned the plane to friends for flights to other states without the least concern that it might break or that any system on it needed special care.
Yet the finish was matte and it had plenty of scrapes in the paint; The nosebowl was rough finish; The tops of the eyebrow scoops have a slight back angle because the corner was cut off the sheet of .025″ I used, so I cut the other three corners off to match. If you look on the leading edge just above the prop blade, there is a silver patch over some hangar rash. The patch is shiny because it was made from Duct tape. I cut the tape with pinking shears and few people noticed it. The plane would not have earned a workmanship award, but it met my personal standards of finish. I would build it a little bit better today, but it still would not look like Mike or Gary’s planes. In our hangar our Wagabond is approaching completion. I just spent $200 to replace the wheel bearings and races because they had some corrosion from sitting. I bought new tires and tubes for $249 because the others looked slightly cracked. These parts might have passed an annual inspection on a certified plane, but they were below my standard of being right. Yet the plane has a dent in the boot cowl the size of the palm of your hand that I have no intention of fixing before I fly it. I find nothing wrong with a builder spending many hours to have a much higher level of finish on his own plane, just as long as he covers 100% airworthy first.
Follow this connection: Things in the EAA went off track in the finish department about 20 years ago. I speak from first hand experience here, as I was part of the problem. Back then the EAA started putting the Oshkosh grand champion aircraft on the cover of Sport Aviation with a lavish article by the then editor, Jack Cox inside. Starting innocently with a Glassair III built by a good guy, very rapidly the system became broken. People with money saw that these airplanes were often sold for an astronomical amount after the article came out. They also noted that apparently no one cared if the guy claiming to have built it solo actually ever got his hands dirty.
Suddenly an arms race of professional building was unleashed. Lets say a guy bank rolled the building of a Glassair or a Lancair to the tune of $175K; It wins grand champion, it is on the cover of SA, and then he sells it for $200K. It isn’t a very good return on investment until the guy then hires cheap labor and builds 5 or 6 clones of it. And that was just how it worked in the beginning, before the real money arrived……
Above, this is what a real hot crew of ‘hired gun’ builders looked like in 1995. Yours truly is on the left. The owner of the Lancair IVP is in the middle. I ran this all Embry-Riddle crew for 3 years to build N420HP, the first V-8 Lancair. It had more than 8,500 man hours of work in it. It is the cover plane on the July 1997 Sport Aviation. In the article by Jack Cox, it is clearly stated that the ower built the whole plane solo. He extensively wined and dined Jack Cox to get this story written that way. It made the plane eligible for Grand Champion judging.
Here is economic irony; In 1993, after 5 years and $100,000, I graduate with a 3.85 gpa from Riddle, but I can’t find a job; The Cold war has ended, defence isn’t buying, and the market is flooded with highly experienced former military guys. Airlines are in a slump. Yet, people at the top of the ladder now have cubic dollars from the market expanding and the general economy doing great. There is something new called a ‘dot com millonare’ and evidently they will buy any kind of ‘toy’ sold. This leads to the guys in the photo above working for less than $10/hr on a plane that was worth most of a million bucks.
While it isn’t right, keep in mind that there is absolutely nothing illegal about professionally building planes or paying magazine editors to write lies about them. The only actual crime in the system was the owners signing the FAA airworthyness application and claiming it wasn’t built for hire. The form said the fine was up to $10K for making a false statement. When you understand what a trivial amount of money that was to these people you understand why they all signed it. Plus, in all the years of thousands of people lying through their teeth to DARs, no one ever got turned in. Part of the reason for this was the DARs made so much money, they of all people were never going to blow the whistle on anyone. The only thing that ever slowed the system down was Mooney, who couldn’t sell planes, started making a lot of noise about the FAA not enforcing the rules. The got an advisory circular published, but all Mooney had on their side was being right, they didn’t bring any pay off money, and that was what the system operated on.
Lancair IV’s were the commodity that made the system take off. Skilled labor to build them was very cheap, the planes sold for $550-$850K when they were done, and there was a seemingly unlimited number of newly wealthy people who wanted one. The key to getting known as a supplier was to do what ever it took to be known as a “Sport Aviation cover/ Grand Champion” shop. (By whatever, I mean, but I am not limiting it to, bribing magazine people.) On round one, I was a pawn in this system. After the above plane was finished, I went back to regular small GA work and welding. Work was sparse, I made about $12K gross in 1996.
Christmas Day 1996, I found myself with $25 in the bank and a week away from turning 34 years old. My girlfriend, also a Riddle engineering graduate, said “I don’t want to live this way anymore.” I did what I knew I shouldn’t, made a number of calls, and started a professional building shop with a partner. On January 10th the first kit arrived. I had a practiced speech for the owner justifying why we needed a $5,000 deposit to work from. Two sentences in to it he stopped me, opened an envelope with a $60,000 certified check, and simply said “Call my secretary when you need more.” Our shop was in Edgewater FL, where we leased a 140′ x 120′ hangar. By the end of 1997 we had 11 Lancair IV’s in the shop, and I had hired 30 Riddle students as my own cheap labor. I was no longer a pawn in the game, I was now part of the problem. in 1997 I made about ten times as much money as 1996. That buys a lot of rationalization.
Here was the negative side; Every magazine now got flooded with pictures of professionally built planes and the stories all said the owners built them. I am going to say half of the coveted Oshkosh workmanship awards to individuals were at least partially fraudulent. The people with money all filled out the FAA form saying that 51% was built by amatures. The hired guns encouraged this because if the plane crashed, technically they were not the builders. People who had no idea how their plane was built insisted on getting repairmans certificates. DAR’s, who were largely retired FAA guys, charged $500 for an inspection, but they also frequently acted as “progress inspectors” on behalf of the owners, collecting a number of $500 for 30 minutes paydays, a real conflict of interest.
In our shop, to survive, we paid direct bribes to many people. First, we paid the Lancair chief field inspector $1,000 for every plane that came to our shop because he ‘recommended us’ to the kit purchaser. If we didn’t pay, he would tell every kit buyer to avoid us. We paid magazine people, from many different publications, to write positive stories. We picked up large ‘entertainment’ tabs. It was a long list, but it was easily funded because the going rate to build a Lancair IVP was $120,000 for just the labor, and this did not include the painting. The average IVP that left our shop cost the owner over $500,000. They didn’t care. One of the first ones finished was for a guy who was one of the first 25 employees of Intel. Money didn’t mean much to him. Neither did honesty, he told everyone, the FAA, the judges and the magazine editors, he built it himself. No one was incentivized to speak up. The major companies were selling kits as fast as they could make them. Go back and look at the Magazines and see how many full-page, full color ads they bought. In 97 or 98, that page in Kitplanes was $5,000 a month. When a magazine guy came to a factory, he was treated like royalty, and his whole tab, down to the dollar bills in the strip clubs was picked up.
Most of the Champion aircraft of this era were actually built by hired guns. We only worked on the most expensive stuff, but the system worked all the way down to small-scale guys who built RV-4s and 6s. Rank and file builders who read industry publications and went to major shows had a hard time understanding how a guy who is a hedge fund manager who never built a single thing in his life got a workmanship award for an SX-300 or a Questair Venture or a Legend, may have suspected, but they had no idea how corrupt the process was.
I’d like to say I invested the money wisely, but I didn’t. I lived in a great beach house on 6 acres Ponce Inlet, threw lavish parties and traveled a lot. The only smart thing I did was funnel a ton of money into Corvair R&D. Custom cams, props, testing, everything I wanted was done quickly. I was making up for years of having good ideas but no budget. I paid for my sins shortly. In less than 3 years my partner figured out how to fire me from a company I started; I found out how few friends you have when you’re not picking up the tab, My girlfriend left and took my cat. Christmas 1999, I was about to turn 37, and I had $25 in the bank. Fortunately, I had My Pietenpol, my tools and a rented T hanger, and every week I went to the old mail box in Port Orange and found an ever-increasing amount of mail from real builders who wanted to know more about Corvair engines.
I am all for people painting their own planes. I am more interested in a mediocre job done by a first time guy, than a fantastic one done by a pro in a down draft booth. You can learn something useful from the guy who is using the same tools you have access to. I have no problem with people who want their plane to look nice, and pay others to make it look nice. My only issue is people who claim to have done the work themselves to win some trophy, inevitably taking it from some deserving guy who actually did his own work. I say this knowing that I made it possible for such things happen in the past.
The internet changed a lot of things, people were not so attached to organizations anymore, they could get to read about any kind of plane the wanted, and the magazine editors lost all their power. What never came back was rank and file guys having respect for the organizations, the trophies or the awards. I want to be real careful here and make sure that no one thinks that all of the awards were bogus. There were a great number of people who did fantastic work on their own planes, and you never want to be in a position of falsely accusing one of those guys. To real champion builders, I apologize for having a part in messing up the system. In the “Cherry Grove Part 2” story below I talk about how hurt I was that people at Oshkosh 2002 had so little faith in the message of homebuilding when I needed them to believe. I deserved this. I had knowingly been part of a system that had harmed the integrity of homebuilding. It was a bitter harvest when I was hungry, but I had a hand in making it so.
Earlier tonight I was reading a 1963 Sport Aviation with a basic Tailwind on the cover, kind of industrial finish plane. A very basic Ozzie and Harriet couple stands in front of their pride. Their clothing and body language says they are salt of the earth, working class Americans. 1963 was an era where every person who joined the EAA was going to be in the arena, not a spectator. Hired gun builders have a lot to apologize for, but we were not the ones who decided that regular looking people and the planes they built were not cool enough to be on the cover of their own membership magazine. That one is on the Editors and the management of the EAA…maybe thats too harsh, maybe part of the fault lies with people who were too willing to become spectators in the very branch of aviation that was founded on the principle that no one should be a spectator. .-ww
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