2,500 words about levels of aircraft finish……


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

3 Replies to “2,500 words about levels of aircraft finish……”

  1. William, you are rising to the top in spite of yourself because you are truly a good and honest man. Please endevor in the future to write a memoire. It would be an inspiration to all that are weary of this disenchanted and disconnected world we find ourselves in today. I find myself lifted in spirit whenever I read your writings. Thank you. RAY

  2. William, I already had respect for your accomplishments in aviation but this doubled it. In life we all make mistakes and have regrets but the people who learn and change, improve are the ones I respect the most. We all go through life’s adversities but the ones who spend that life making themselves better everyday by learning and changing are the ones who really understand what life is all about.

  3. My hair raised with “…my girlfriend left and took my cat.” Hard to let the water calm after being wronged. My experience parallels, only it’s federal government based.

Leave a Reply

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

%d bloggers like this: