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