Homebuilding, Mt. Everest and Sherpas.

Builders:

In public forums, I have often compared completing a homebuilt to trying to climb mount Everest. The comparison is a valid one. Both have these things in common: Very few people in society try it; It takes several years of prep work; It costs about $45K; It has an 80% failure rate; It has a significant risk of fatality.

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The analogy is effective because it allows builders to look at a similar task, but one that they are not emotionally invested in, and they can get a better look at their own plan, and see how it needs to be improved if they are to be in the 20%.

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When I bring up the topic at Oshkosh forums, I often ask new potential homebuilders to imaging us walking into a base camp village in Nepal, and finding 10 different storefronts, each offering assistance from their Sherpa to climb Everest. I challenge each new builder to tell me what the #1 question you have to ask any Sherpa before hiring him.  Most people get this wrong by guessing “What will it cost”. I point out that the litmus test question is “Have you ever been to the top?” Unless the answer is “Yes” only a fool would use the man’s services or advice.

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Here is the homebuilding connection: When new builders go on line to discussion groups for answers, particularly any group where people don’t use their real names, They have no idea if the guy offering the “answer” has ever built and flown a plane, or even done the specific task he is speaking of.  Listening to such people is hiring a Sherpa who no one has met before, and has probably never been to the top.

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Same goes with taking in person advice at the airport. Most people speaking of homebuilts, and often offering advice, have never built one. You name the sub topic in homebuilding, particularly alternative engines, and the unqualified advice pours forth. Challenge any one of these people, and they will quickly respond that their experience, although it isn’t in our branch of aviation, or aviation at all, is valid. I simply ask you, If you were hiring a Sherpa  to climb Everest, and he told you he had never been to the top but “All mountains are the same” would you bet the outcome of your work dreams and money on his guidance? Not if you were sane.

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I have known perhaps 500 people who have completed a homebuilt. But I have also been to Oshkosh more than 20 times, a listened to maybe 10,000 people who claimed to love homebuilts, but had never finished one. Perhaps 5,000 of the people got started once. If asked, they could only offer the reason why they quit, and their answer would likely be defensive and inaccurate. Having the ‘benefit’ of  being subjected to the other 4,999 stories of failure, I am in a better position to see common threads in the approaches that didn’t work.

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Think running out of money was the main problem? Not by a long shot. I contend that taking unqualified advice, both from the internet and in person, and particularly adopting beliefs and practices of these ‘advisors’ is the #1 problem. Often running out of money is simply a symptom of having taken a series of very wild goose chases, all on the advice of people with no first hand experience.  If I an offer only one piece of advice that you follow, make it this: Pick your advisors in homebuilding as carefully as you would pick your Sherpa in an Everest attempt. Your success depends on it, and in some cases so does your life. -ww.

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Above, Tenzing Norgay. 1914-1986. The best known Sherpa who ever lived. He and Edmond Hillary were the first two humans to summit Mt Everest.  He was named as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century by Time. The iconic 1953 photo from the summit, is of Norgay, not Hillary. Although he had just accomplished what no human before had done, it was a triumph of planning, conditioning, good decision making, courage, and will, not a technology breakthrough. Norgay didn’t take Hillary’s picture because he had never used a camera before. In the Sherpa’s arena, possession of technology was a currency of comparatively little value. Most great adventures are stories of the human spirit, consider this when planning how complex to make your aircraft.

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Below is an allegory I wrote to a Pietenpol discussion group, looking at the question of what to do when a constant flow of new people show up on the group who don’t understand the scope of the task of building an 85 year old plans built design, and they don’t believe in listening to the advice of “Sherpas” if they can find the answer they want from “tourists.” Many of the people are fixated on “saving money” and what their paint scheme will eventually be.

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The allegory element about the price of ropes relates to the discussion on 4 main bearing Corvairs vs ones with 5th bearings installed. The comments about selling stuff relate to junk being sold by people who quit, like these stories: Built by William Wynne? Built according to The Manual? . Like most of the stuff I write, some people ‘get it’, most people don’t , and some people send me hate mail. All outcomes are fine, as long as some found it thought provoking. -ww.

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“If we were Sherpas at the base camp to mount Everest, and a new person came into camp with the stated plan to climb it, and all they talked about was the colors that they had picked for their tent and then complained about the cost of quality ropes, what would you tell them? Are you being a better ambassador to mountaineering by just being polite and welcoming, or is it a better idea to explain to the new person that a successful summit is made of long and careful preparation, learning and work, and it will cost money, and by the way, your best guidance is going to come from Sherpas who have lead climbers to the summit before. You would also explain that the 10% who make it to the top follow this not just because they want to summit, but also because they want to live through it.

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After the new guy is done telling everyone in the village, who are mostly tourists, all about his color coordination and objection to rope that cost more than $4/foot, you politely say that color doesn’t matter, physical fitness and conditioning does, and although it was once done, no one climbs on $4/ft rope anymore, it is all done on $5/ft rope, that is why the book says use $5/ft rope. That once you are up on the mountain you will see strains put on the rope that you can not understand by looking at the price tag in the village, and he should just listen to you because you have been to the top, and you have also seen people killed by cheap equipment. It doesn’t matter now anyway, because he is in terrible conditioning, and it will take several seasons to get in shape, and in the long run the cost of $1/ft on rope will be meaningless then.

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The reasonable new climber will understands this. He remembers that when he became fluent in a second language, became a working musician, and when he was in competitive sports, the common thread to find the reward, was long preparation, and following the guidance of a coach who had been there before and had long demonstrated the path to many others. He understands that the goal in each of these was to “Become” something greater than he was, a word that means there was a transformation of how he felt about himself.

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He understands that his actual goal is to “become” a skilled climber, and then use these skills to summit Everest. Summiting is not the primary goal, and people who don’t want to put the work into the training and transition to being a climber, people who just want the trophy as cheap as possible, will never make it.
The Unreasonable new arrival doesn’t like to hear anything about this. He comes to the village unable to differentiate between bureaucratic rules and accepted and proven wisdom of experience. He can’t tell the difference between garbage like cliques, pecking order and blind dues paying, and the very different situation of working for something for a long time and later understanding it earned you the respect of people who had done the same. Unable to differentiate these things, he rejects it all, and honestly believes it is all negotiable and interchangeable. He does not understand that he has left suburbia, the office cubicle, and world where repeated broadcast babble is substituted for understanding. He is in a new arena, and he is just getting acquainted with the idea that his home currency isn’t very valuable here.

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The reasonable man gets to work on the task of 3,000 hours or so to transform himself into a climber. The progress of each week is self-rewarding, because the goal is the transformation, not what one might do with the skills once he has them. The unreasonable man, focused on possession of the trophy, does not start training, he starts bargaining. He wants to know if there is some way to turn 3,000 hr into 1,500 hr. He gets attached to any story that seems to be about cleverly reducing the ‘cost’ of getting to the top. He likes fir ladders instead of spruce ones, and latex tents instead of doped ones. While these ideas all have merit when selectively applied by experienced climbers, the unreasonable man’s attraction is purely about short cutting the system. He doesn’t understand that having Google translate on his I-phone isn’t the same as being able to speak a few words with the Nepalese natives.

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Completely missing the point that it costs what it cost to climb the mountain, and the real side of the equation you control is if you become a climber or not, and being an understood and respected climber is about what you know and can do, and not where you have bought tickets to, the unreasonable man is stuck on the price of things, particularly that $5/ft rope. Because he can’t tell the difference between random rules and wisdom, and because he has never operated in an office with the death penalty for small mistakes on the job, he comes up with the brilliant idea of taking a poll of the tourists in the village to find out if the Sherpas are full of shit. If 51% of the tourists say $4/ft rope is great, then this confirms what he ‘knew’ that people who want you to use $5/ft rope are just salesmen (even though they don’t sell rope). He believes in polls because they are surveys fill his internet world and are the basis of his illusion that corporations/neighbors/ politicians care what he thinks.

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To his surprise, the first people who speak up after the poll are not tourists, but climbers who have been to the top. They all tell him to use $5/ft rope. Some of them even have tales of almost falling when the previous standard was $4/ft rope. There are some people in training that say they are still thinking about climbing slowly and using $4/ft rope, but the unreasonable man, who is really just seeking any affirmation of his belief that he can save money and get the same goal, misses the point that none of the people who are in favor of $4/ft rope have been to the top, and that the original climbers on $4/ft rope were using new rope, not rope reconditioned in Pakistan. The only people who were qualified to inspect ropes and treat them were 2 shops in the US, and that costs money.

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The unreasonable man concedes the $5/ft public debate for the worst reason: He is concerned what other people in the village think. Still, at heart, he really isn’t convinced. He will revisit this exact same approach on every single aspect of preparation and training. Because most people are polite, he will not have others point out that he really isn’t getting in better shape, nor is his real knowledge of climbing increasing. Over time the progress he makes will not yield satisfaction because he can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, which to him is getting to the top of the mountain. Because no one takes the time to say he has the wrong mindset, he ends up wasting 5 years living in the village, learning little, conducting the same type of poll over and over again.

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One day he gets fed up, declares that he would have been to the top long ago if he had been in a village of friendly Sherpas and supportive townspeople. It is all their fault. He puts up a notice on the bulletin board saying he is selling his gear, but no one wants it because it was all cheap stuff built around a $4/ft rope collection, assembled by a guy who wasn’t really into the work.

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As he is carrying the gear to the dump outside the village on his way back to suburbia, he meets a new guy walking up the trail. He makes him a great bargain, and points out that the gear includes a well known book on climbing written by a Sherpa named W. Nguyen*. Unreasonable guy has a very believable sales pitch saying the gear was great, but he didn’t need it anymore because he had decided to go back to suburbia and drive around in a three wheeled RV. New guy is very excited, because just like the unreasonable guy, his goal is to be able to tell people he climbed the mountain, not become a climber. To his perspective, he just saved a bundle of cash, and he is appreciably closer to having a summit photo on his face book page. The deal is struck and the cash exchanged just outside the entrance to the dump. The new guy carries the gear into the village, and walks into the town square where he stands on a box and introduces himself, and in short order tells everyone what decorative color he is going to paint his tent.

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* Nguyen is actually a common Vietnamese name pronounced ‘win’ just like ‘Wynne’.

About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

4 Responses to Homebuilding, Mt. Everest and Sherpas.

  1. schwarty says:

    WW, I am the proud brother of builder Blaine Schwartz. I found this article very good and can relate very well. As I am a restorer and builder of Harley Davidson Panheads. An engine and motorcycle that HD built from 1948-1965. You most likely have knowledge of that already. Enjoy the writing and theories. Schwarty

    Sent via a little High Tech Magic.

    >

  2. Dave Gingerich says:

    WW

    From time to time you have mentioned a problem that plagues our beloved amateur aviation field: the low, low percentage of completions. There is a related phenomenon that never gets mentioned: the high percentage of completions that were started by someone else. There seem to be abundant statistics on the former, but none on the latter.

    It would be very interesting to see some numbers on the percentage of the aircraft at fly-ins and those featured in your blog that were started by a person other than the one who completed them.

    Having spent 13 years completing an aircraft, and then flying it for 25 years, I have experienced the problem “from inside”.

    When you start building an aircraft, you start making parts, then sub-assemblies, then bigger sub-assemblies. People who know you’re doing it are amazed, humbled, envious, or maybe even angered by your audacity. At some point, people whose opinion you respect start complimenting you on your work. Nobody who hasn’t done it knows how much work, ingenuity, and persistence it takes. Nevertheless, down deep inside, you know about all the little things you wish you had done better, or aren’t sure you did right.

    Then at some point it hits you! You are going to have to fly this thing! No matter how much praise has been heaped upon you, your handiwork is not an airplane until it has successfully flown. Your wife may not like the idea of you flying something you made yourself. Your (by now grown) kids no longer want a ride. You aren’t the world’s greatest pilot. You can’t afford to hire Steve Hinton to come make the first flight.

    At this point, many, builders reach for Trade-A-Plane or Barnstormers. There are dozens of viable excuses to sell—too busy, moving to another state, “borderline diabetes” or marginally high blood pressure. Nobody will blame you if you sell out now, and let somebody else enjoy your work.

    Sound familiar, successful fliers of completed homebuilts?

    So how can we encourage those people who have gotten the “Oh my God, I’m going to have to fly this thing.” syndrome?

    Maybe we should quit saying: “You too can build an airplane” so much, and start saying: “You can finish and fly this airplane” a few times! Because you can!!

    Dave Gingerich
    N475DG

  3. Patrick Hoyt says:

    Once some guys reach the top of their mountain, they discover that they enjoyed the climb so much that they seek out another one, and begin another ascent…

    Patrick Hoyt
    N63PZ

  4. Kevin Purtee says:

    You’ve taught me a lot over the years. I came upon one of the salient points in your post on my own, though: listen to successful people. I’ve said that on the Piet list many, many times. It never took, so I quit saying it. If someone approaches me in private I’ll share my experience with them. If they choose to listen to dumbasses I leave them to it.

    There are about 4 people I listen to for technical advice. I’ve carefully vetted all of you and you’ve all been successful in building and flying airplanes.

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