Lifestyles of Troglodytes


There are two types of people in this world: those who look at technology as the solution and those who think of simplicity as the solution. In the mechanical world, we all know this debate degenerates rapidly to “Tech-Geeks vs. Grease Monkeys.”  What my Tech-Geek friends don’t know is that there is actually a lowerarchy (as opposed to a hierarchy) in the land of Grease Monkeys. There may very well be a system like this in Geekdom, but it’s probably expressed as an equation or as an analogy to electronics, and therefore understanding it is beyond my short monkey attention span. For my friends on the other side, I reveal the descending order of taste and sophistication in simple mechanical solutions:

(1) Old School, (2) Luddite, (3) Knuckle-dragger, (4) Neandertal, and finally, (5)Troglodyte.

Old School isn’t a bad term at all. Many people think of it as a compliment, an indication that the recipient knows how it was done with craftsmanship before people thought of throwing money at problems as an actual strategy. Even Luddite is worn as a badge of honor by some, especially when it is delivered as an intended insult by your opposite number from  the land of Geekdom. The bottom three are the turning point, headed down a slippery slope. Very few people are civil after being called a Knuckle-Dragger, and none are after being called a Neandertal. I wouldn’t be offended if one of my friends with a PhD called me either. This is because it would be an upgrade. Simply put, I am a mechanical Troglodyte.

First a confession: Until recently, I didn’t even know that Troglodyte was a Greek word for caveman. I always thought it was one of the creatures that swam around in the primordial ooze for 60 million years or so, trying to find a purpose in life. I had a perverse pride in being named after something that was around for a long time. Getting demoted from a big chunk of natural history to a footnote in Greek mythology is a tough break. It would probably hurt my self esteem, that is if I had any of it to be hurt…

Above: This is actually a Trilobite.  They have been extinct for half the time there has been life on Earth. For a long time, I thought that this is what a Troglodyte was. Getting this wrong for most of my life might be a good indication that I really am a troglodyte.

We live at an airpark full of incredibly mechanically inclined people. At most airports, there are one or two skilled welders. At our place, there are one or two people who don’t know how to weld. My neighbors made fun of me for months because I stupidly confessed to not knowing how to operate a road grader.  Here, little kids on BMX bikes will ride by and criticize the heat range of your plugs when you’re doing an annual.  In this setting, you might think the Troglodyte would be king, or at least respected. Sadly no. In Grease Monkeyville, the Old School debates with the Luddite the merits of the Duramax Diesel vs. the Powerstroke. They even make room in the conversation for the Knuckle-Dragger with the non-turbo ’80s Cummins 6B. But they all shun the Troglodyte as he looks at the 4-53t Detroit in the old loader and thinks about installing it in his rusty Chevy pickup.

I hold that my Troglodyte status is valuable in aviation, especially today when an ever greater number of people arriving in the ranks of aviation have been conditioned to think that technology is always the answer. You know, the people who think of a glass cockpit as a substitute for looking out the windows in the pattern. People who are slow to understand that having a system that will not break is superior to the most elaborate instrumentation that tells you when a complex system just broke. People who chat on their smart phones while preflighting and forget to untie the tail rope. I am going to teach these people the things my mentors taught me, that the pure joy of flying is found in the simplest of settings, that the more basic things are, the more reliable they are, that there is a real value to knowing how things really work and how to repair them. Yes, I am going to teach this to all the electronically addicted new arrivals from the land of consumerism, that is right after I solve the Riemann hypothesis and fix the Middle East peace crisis.

It’s really ok to be an adherent to any tribe, and I can get along with just about any person who likes planes. It is not a requirement that they spend an hour in the flymart with myself and friends looking at a pile of 145 Warner parts. We are not required to accompany them as they shop for a color coordinated pseudo flame retardant interior. People need only find the place that is right for them, and not worry about what other people are doing. To each his own ooze. Happiness is knowing where you belong, forgetting this is where the trouble starts.

I am kicking around the idea of making a new set of wings for our Tailwind project.  It has an original 1950s set that are as thin as potato chips and have all the area of two medium-size coffee tables.  Fine for Wittman, but the thought of a gross weight take off in summer makes me think about attacking the paper company trees off the end of the runway with a chain saw and blaming it on the very rare Florida beavers. More span and wing area is better than taking up logging. My composite Guru friends Scott Vanderveen and Arnold Holmes offered to help with a sophisticated set of tapered wings with a laminar flow section. At first this was very attractive, but in time I have reverted to my Troglodyte ways and picked the most Troglodyte of wings, a constant chord with a Clark Y airfoil. 

Today was the day I was going to cut the first pattern. I went out to the back porch where all the aviation engineering books from the 1930s are kept, and I was going to look up the ordinates, figure out if I needed to use a 48, 50 or 52″ chord to enclose a Piper spar, and use a calculator to get the points and plot them out with a ruler and bend a capstrip between the points and trace the line. As I was taking out a dusty NACA book,  I realized that I was doing this task like a Troglodyte. My Old School and Luddite friends were sure to catch me and make fun of me. This was going to be worse than the road grader. Dan would stop by and read aloud sections of my Conversion Manual where I wrote about experimental aviation being for people who “Want to learn new things.” My chance had arrived. I would show them. I would go online, find the data, email it to the print shop, and come back with a real CAD drawing. I would be at least upgraded to Neandertal if I did it all by myself. I turned on the computer, searched the Net and came up with 50 hits, led by a very sure set of data provided by a guy named  “Stealth Pilot.”

Stealth Pilot– 27 Mar 2008 14:04 GMT ……the clark Y aerofoil is 17% thick and has it’s ordinates set out from
the bottom surface. the NACA 4417 aerofoil is the clark Y with the ordinates set out from
the chord line. The 4418 (1% thicker) that should be close enough if you compare the 4415. The shape was an educated guess based on a number of previous good aerofoils. justinius clark had a reasonably good eye for these things.        Stealth Pilot

Stealth Pilot sounds good, but of course, just about everything he said was wrong, including the name of the designer. I should have known better than to read about a Troglodyte airfoil from a guy who named himself after a plane that had no airfoil. Moving on I read the next 15 hits… They had huge errors also. Then I saw it… A lot of the post 2009 hits actually referenced Stealth Pilot’s story, as if it was a footnote from Virginus Clark himself. Site after site repeated the data and the 17% thick claim. It was the National Enquirer referencing The Star as their reliable source.

After a few more posts like this, I turned off  the computer and went out to the shop with a copy of the ordinates, an ancient HP-48 calculator and a roll of brown paper. I dug a flexible 1/4″  x  1/4″ capstrip out to connect the dots, and went about making the drawing, happy in my Troglodyte ooze of simplicity.


Zenith 601XL-2,850cc, Woody Harris


I had a chance to speak with Woody Harris on the phone late last night. He spent some time telling me about the flying he had done lately in his Zenith, but he also spoke of other aviators he had met and flown with and that he had just bought a set of plans after getting to know an experimental aviation stalwart, Callbie Wood. Woody also told me about his new hangar nearing completion on a small airpark in northern California. If you were listening to Woody and didn’t know his background, you might think he had been in aviation for 50 years, a real old school guy. But that is an illusion, Woody has been around aircraft for only 5 years. Even knowing Woody very well, I often forget that he arrived recently.  There is a good lesson here: If it is worth doing, Woody immerses himself, he gets in and stands In The Arena. It isn’t his nature to sit on the sidelines and watch the game.

I know guys who have been thinking about doing something for more than 10 years. They have read all the stuff I have written, we have talked about it, and a big part of them would like to have the adventures Woody is having. Most of these guys have much more time in their lives and more funds than Woody. Some inner message tells these guys to hold back. They were not born with this attitude of reluctance, someone taught it to them along the way. Some one subtly sent them the B.S. message that they “were not good with their hands”; taught them to worry about what other people would think; told them they weren’t good pilot material; simply, they weren’t worth the investment, that their place was on the sidelines watching the action.

If someone sent Woody these messages, they never stuck. If I had a time machine I would go back and restart all the reluctant guys with a pure positive attitude. The only real option is to start today, and replace all the negativity with positive experience, and really come to understand that Woody is just like you. You are entitled, by virtue of just being an individual, to the same adventures he is having. If someone hasn’t said this to you, let me make it clear: Flying a basic aircraft safely is a skill that anyone can learn.  Building planes and engines that are reliable is something that anyone can learn. For various reasons, none of them good, some people like to pretend that you have to be Chuck Yeager to fly a basic homebuilt, and that you have to be a Northrop master craftsman to build a safe plane. Both of these are false, and if you buy into either, you’re letting someone escort you off the field, to a seat in the spectator section. Yes, building a plane is a challenge. Yes, flying your plane is a great and liberating milestone in life. But these rewards belong to anyone who rejects the negativity and fears, any builder who puts in the hours and wants to learn the skills. I am speaking from experience here; for a number of years I bought into some of the B.S. that says aviation is for special people with “talent” or “gifts.”  I only started making real progress when I rejected that kind of thinking. To this day, when I encounter that kind of attitudes, stories or writing, I quietly repeat the mantra “F.T.S.” (For polite people, think of this as “Forget that stuff.”)

Woody spent years building and racing cars at an international level. He probably learned a lot of the stuff a bit faster than a person with little or no mechanical experience. This doesn’t matter, you’re not in a competition with Woody or anyone else. You’re only measuring yourself against how you will feel if you let another year slip by, loosen the grip on your dreams a little more. Any step in the correct direction of putting you in the center of your life is progress against drifting away like that. Just as negativity is contagious, so is being positive. I have always done much better when I spent my time with guys like Woody and actively worked at having no contact or exposure to negative people. This means attending events like Corvair Colleges and making positive friends, while ceasing to listen to people who think planes are all dangerous, and reading negative comments on the Net.

Below is a photo series that I have taken from our main page, (This blog is I have gathered it here to put it in one place. Because they happened over time, they appeared on our pages in many different months on the “At The Hangar” updates. The latest photos are now 6 months old, but they are still a good read. Woody is sending in more soon and we will put them up here. I have left the original notes with the photos, but I have added some current notes in blue.

Thanks you. 


Woody Harris’ ZenVair #18, N743WH, taking off on its maiden flight at 0733 PST February 27, 2008.
Our man on the West Coast, Woody Harris of Vacaville, Calif., ecstatically reported that he enjoyed the first flight February 27, 2008, pictured above, of his Corvair powered 601 XL. Using the 601 XL quick build kit and All Our Installation Components, he finished it in a little over a year. Woody has a very busy schedule, which includes running his high performance automotive shop, auto racing, co-hosting two West Coast Corvair College Events, flying Rick Lindstrom’s ZenVair 601 XL (as featured in Kit Planes magazine) from Florida to California, and being a good husband and father, as one of his daughters got married in the past year as well. This shows you Woody knows how to use time well, and also demonstrates that a 601 quick build kit is one of the fastest to assemble that we know of. Choosing a Corvair to power it does not add a major time component to the construction of the aircraft.

Here, Woody Harris works on his installed engine. It is a standard 2,700cc with Falcon Heads that Woody built himself using all of our Conversion parts. While our customers build very good engines in general, most of them have small details which, while not affecting airworthiness, leave them slightly short of the Engines we build in our shop. This is to be expected as we’re professionals, and our amateurs do an outstanding job for first time builders. With this understood, I’ll say that Woody’s engine is the closest customer built example I’ve seen to matching our production engines. His engine had ARP case and head studs, and a very high level of finish. It may have been two different colors, but it’s only one level of quality: Excellent. (The above photo was taken at Corvair College #11 in California a few months before Woody’s first flight. His first engine was  2,700cc. He later added a Dan bearing and upgraded to 2,850cc pistons and cylinders.)

Woody is a very outgoing and modest builder. When I first spoke with him I asked him what he did for a living, and he told me, “I work on cars.” Something inside told me he didn’t change oil on Toyotas at Jiffy Lube. On the visit to California, we passed through his MSI shop, a high end tune up and road racecar import operation. It’s the first shop I’ve seen in a while with a chassis dyno built into the floor. Amongst the racecars, mechanics, slicks and lifts are mementos from decades of all out effort at tracks from coast to coast. (The first time I hung out with Woody we went to the Performance Racing Industry trade show. I had a hint that he knew a lot about racing when we walked past the Cosworth display and everyone knew him on a first name basis.)

A head on view of Woody’s N743WH taxiing in from its first flight.
The 601XL is an outstanding packaging of a very roomy cockpit, a fairly sleek airframe in a very buildable package. The narrow 28″ width of the Corvair and our Low Profile Nosebowl and 601 Cowling Kit complement this.

Woody, above left, and his friend Steve celebrate with cigars and Piper Heidsieck champagne after the first flight. Woody has had a lifetime of achievements in the world of motorsports that the rest of us only dream of. Yet he still rates flying an airplane that you built yourself as a landmark event in life.

This is the output side of the turbocharger that we will be using on the turbo engine. Note that it has an integrated wastegate. This is a common feature on modern car turbos. However, almost no modern car turbo has the capability of being used in a drawthrough application, which is a highly desirable format for aircraft use. It took us a long time to find an expert on turbos who could properly fabricate a modern turbo, appropriately sized for our application, with a carbon seal. (Eventually, Woody’s plane will be retrofitted with this turbo. The 2,850 is the best engine for turbocharging, as it intentionally has a lower static compression ratio than a 2,700cc engine.)

This Exhaust System is built out of 321 stainless. Its future home is on Woody Harris’ 601 XL. Woody just completed a 66 flight-hour circumnavigation of the United States.  He will be retrofitting his 2,850 cc engine with a turbocharger. This is the engine half of the exhaust system, and it was built in my jigs. Our regular Exhaust Systems are built out of 304 stainless, which is extremely durable and fairly resistant to heat flow. 321 is the alloy of choice for Turbo Systems, as it withstands elevated temperatures even better. Notice how the one pipe crosses underneath the engine to go over and meet with the other before heading into the Turbo. After thorough testing, we may offer this as an option to a handful of builders who have need for it. It is worth noting, however, that naturally aspirated Corvair powered 601s with 2,700 cc engines have exceeded 17,000’ and have little problem with density altitudes over 14,000 feet. People building a Zenith today can continue to work with it knowing from Woody’s example that the Turbo system is intended as a later retrofit for an existing flying aircraft.

In the above photo, Woody Harris’ 2,850cc Zenith 601B sits at the end of the ramp in North Carolina at First Flight Airport with the Wright Brothers Monument in the background. This brings his aircraft to the end of his first leg of a coast-to-coast and return flight. I believe that this is a pretty classy way for Dad to show up at his daughter’s house on the East Coast. Although Woody has spent a lifetime in the mechanical world predominantly driving race cars in both Europe and America, it’s worth noting that he’s been in aviation less than five years. While he certainly would have thought of it before, it was at the urging of his daughter who is an ATP, that he explore some adventures in flying. I mention this because if you’re out there reading this and you’re thinking that you might be too late in the game to have your own adventures, you’re quite wrong. If you don’t have a pilots license, you have never built an airplane before, and you’re 63 years old, you are at the exact spot where Woody was four years ago. Yes his mechanical background gave him a leg up, but it plays a smaller role than most people suspect. His determined character and his quest to learn new things were much bigger factors in his favor. If you had been standing next to me at Oshkosh when Woody arrived, and watched him hop out of the airplane and talk for 4 minutes straight about the previous days flying, including sentences like “We timed it perfectly because Old Faithful went off just as we flew by,” you would note that all the hours that you’re putting in your shop are well worth the adventures that lie in your future. Go out there tonight and get one evening closer to writing the same chapter in your own story that Woody has written in his. (I have Woody looking into his logbooks, but I am pretty sure he has flown a Corvair powered plane in more states than any other person. I don’t bring this up as a point of competition, I just want builders at home to understand that with good judgement and training, you can go a long way, even if you have not yet written in the 500th hour in your logbook.)

James Stockdale – Philosophy


Aviation has always attracted its share of adventurers, but it has also seen a good number of people who lived by a personal code that made their lives and actions stand out in history.  I have made a point studying the lives of these men, reading most of the available works on them. There is much to be gained by understanding their  perspectives, ethics and philosophy.  Although I have read the biographies of several hundred aviators in the past 25 years, I can say without hesitation that James Stockdale had the most impressive personal code of all.

Above, Stockdale’s official USN photo. The blue ribbon supports the Congressional Medal of Honor.

More or less, anyone can be said to have some code of personal conduct. The majority of people have a very flexible set of personal guidelines, bendable enough when combined with a little hypocrisy to ease their path through the day. Many people who do have a firm code have the luxury of never needing to demonstrate a fidelity to it. Others are tested only once, for a short moment in their lives. James Stockdale not only lived by a very demanding code, he spent 2,700 days in the Hanoi Hilton living up to it. It is hard to think of another man in aviation whose personal philosophy was put to such a test.

There is an important distinction here. Stockdale credited his survival to philosophy more than faith. There are a number of moving biographies of human survival written by men who endured much of what Stockdale did.  Jeremiah Denton’s book When Hell was in Session is one of the most moving stories I have ever read. Denton clearly states that first and foremost, faith saved him. Likewise, this is also the central thesis of Robbie Risner’s The Passing of the Night. John McCain’s Faith of my Fathers speaks of his desire to measure up to the code of his father and grandfather.  Each of these men felt the common ground of duty, country, honor, family and faith, each man differing in  the proportion of strength he gained from his allegiance to each of these elements. Stockdale felt all of these, but contended that a set of values, based on ideas that were 2,400 years old, afforded him not only survival, but gave him honor, effective leadership, and allowed him to thwart his enemies despite being their captive.

Above, James Stockdale before his aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam. As Commander of the Air Wing he flew all of the aircraft types they operated. At the Gulf of Tonkin, he flew an F-8 Crusader; later he was shot down flying an A-4 Skyhawk.

What Stockdale endured as a POW  is covered on a number of Web sites. Here is a sample from his Wikipedia page:

“Locked in leg irons in a bath stall, he was routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his friends’ ‘black activities,’ he slit his wrists so they could not torture him into confession.”

This went on for years. Stockdale was in solitary for half the time he was a POW. He spent several years in leg irons. He endured 15 torture sessions, many lasting more than a week.

Above, on the left, Colonel Risner with Stockdale beside him about a week before their release from the Hanoi Hilton. These two men, as the ranking U.S. officers, bore the added burden of leadership of all the other POWs. They took this as a deadly serious responsibility. Stockdale did not have youth on his side during imprisonment; he was 49 years old when this photo was taken.

Although the actions of the North Vietnamese officials look purely sadistic, Stockdale knew they were driven by the goals of destroying the morale of the POWs, forcing them to make “confessions,” and advancing their political goals of eroding U.S. support for the war. Stockdale saw his war as continuing through a contest of wills. He effectively and repeatedly demonstrated that he was willing to die before he would be their tool. Winning this contest is credited with convincing the prison officials that it was futile to further torture the POWs. This is the centerpiece of his being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Although many people know what Stockdale was able to accomplish, they spend far less time trying to understand how he did it. In all of his writings and recorded speeches, he stated that the means he had at his disposal was his understanding of Greek Stoic philosophy. His actions demonstrated that in a contest of wills, stoicism is very effective armor and weaponry. Three years before his capture, he was in graduate school and his instructor had given him a gift of the works of Epictetus, the best known of the Greek stoic philosophers. Stockdale absorbed this material in great depth. He brought the books with him on all three of his combat deployments.

Stoicism was the dominant creed of the Greeks, and for a long period, the Romans. Like most developed systems, it is not possible to accurately summarize it in a few sentences. Among its basic tenets are that man does not control his circumstances nor the actions of others, so they should not be lamented. Man does however have absolute control over his opinions and conduct. He cannot abdicate from this if he is to have a life of value. Men should strive to be indifferent to things they cannot control. The only thing that Stoics should never be indifferent to is the struggle between good and evil, and this battle takes place in each man’s heart, not in the external world. Each person should define their own moral purpose or quest, and not be deterred from it. Stoicism is not about allegiance to a system or state, it is about developing an allegiance to your own moral purpose. Although it is focused on the individual, its end result is not self-glorification nor narcissistic. Its goals are tranquility, freedom and leading a life without fear.

I highly recommend going to the bottom of Stockdale’s Wikipedia page,

and looking under the heading of “Writings” where you will find a link to a 22 page paper titled “The Warrior’s Triad.” This is a transcript of a speech that Stockdale gave in 1995. It is of sufficient length to come to a good understanding of the role that Stoicism played in Stockdale’s life.  For a simple example of Stoicism in action, here is what Stockdale said when asked which prisoners had the hardest time in captivity:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”  

Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.

What is in this for you the homebuilder? Something very important that it took me a long time to learn. The primary determinant of whether or not your aircraft is ever finished is not how much money, skills, information, time nor previous flight experience you have. The single most important factor is your personal attitude toward the project, and your willpower to bring the factors you do control to effective use in advancing your goals. You are never going to read this reality in an aviation magazine, as I am sure most editors don’t know it.  If they do, it isn’t in their interests to say it.

In Stockdale’s test of wills, his enemy’s goal was to make him succumb to fear. If he did, they could determine his mindset and actions from there forward.  It is easy to say that 99.99% of us will not find ourselves in such circumstances. Literally true enough, but perhaps misleading. Stoic philosophy is all about being in command of yourself, and not letting anyone or any circumstance dictate your opinions, attitudes or actions. Stockdale’s enemy was obvious, his goals were clear. Your life and the challenges you choose may not be as dramatically profound as Stockdale’s, but they are no less important. These things literally are the value of your life and your satisfaction with leading it. Choosing to learn, build and fly are not common goals. The vast majority of people are afraid of these things. If this fear stops them from acting on their ideas and dreams, then someone else is controlling them. People are not born to be afraid, they are taught this. Stoic philosophy is a method of undoing this, recognizing your own value and sovereignty as an individual. Aviation is a singularly appropriate Arena to develop one’s personal codes.  It offers near limitless potential to those who take it seriously, it holds serious risks and penalties for those who do not.  At any level worth engaging, it is not a pastime, a game, nor a sport. It is a real endeavor worthy of your devotion.

We are now in the 6th decade of homebuilding, and the resources available to homebuilders, in terms of disposable income (compared to 1950s households), tools (actually cost less today), information (the Net) and access (the Sport Pilot Rule) are better than ever. So why does the completion rate for projects remain low? It took me 10 years to understand that the answer lies inside each person. When I first started in homebuilding, I had training and information, but little money. This latter element became the helpful scapegoat for a slow start. Around me were plenty of people sending the message that if I just had more money, and blindly spent it, the trajectory of my progress would change. This is the common message of consumer aviation, and it is a lie.

Aircraft are not free, they do cost money to build. I sell parts for engines and components to mount these engines on aircraft. I consider the things we sell a very good value.  On the surface, this appears to make us like every other aviation business. The difference requires a moment of thought to consider; I am here to share what we know, to teach you what I have painstakingly learned. The things we sell allow you the builder to put this knowledge into action in your own life.  I am working to assist people in becoming successful builders, not blind buyers. Having worked with Corvair builders for more than 20 years, my plan is long-range. The completion rate of our builders is twice the industry average, despite many of our guys working inside tight budgets and often being new to aviation. A here-today-gone-tomorrow LLC is focused on selling things. I have always focused on the success of individual builders, and the sales have taken care of themselves.

We have all seen a guy with an untouched kit in his garage, a shelf full of electronics and instrumentation, an interior kit, and a stack of sales brochures he picked up at Oshkosh. None of the people who sold him these things made it clear to him that he couldn’t spend his way to success in experimental aviation. It wasn’t in their interests to do so. If it were my sole goal to sell things, it wouldn’t be in my interest to type this. My goal is to get many people flying. To achieve this, I need to make them aware of what really stands between them and their success. The single most common reason why people don’t finish their planes, learn to fly them and achieve their personal goals is simple: They have been continuously exposed to the subtle message that they can’t do it, they shouldn’t trust themselves, they are not worth the time and treasure of the quest. People would reject this if it were delivered this plainly, but it is sent in a thousand subtle messages that seep into the back of your head and gradually slow your progress and steal your pride. It comes from consumer co-workers who want to see your desire for adventure beaten down to the level they settled for; from the 20,000 hour pilot who would rather have you marvel at his achievements than to counsel you to have your own; from the people who live their lives in fear of everything, unable to differentiate between the odds of being eaten by a shark and dying of heart disease. It is a lot to counter, but if you have the mindset of Stockdale, you will win your contest.

Thank you.


Postscript notes:

James Stockdale is sometimes remembered as Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential running mate. Perot, also a graduate of the Naval Academy, selected Stockdale based on his belief that Stockdale was a man of spotless character, superior intellect and proven moral courage.  In the Vice Presidential debate, both of his opponents knew his life story and wisely were as respectful as possible. The media did little homework and focused on Stockdale’s deafness (a byproduct of beatings he endured in captivity).  This disrespect initially made me livid, and the public lapping it up made me depressed.  Stockdale would have chided anyone for reacting the way I did. A fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophy is being indifferent to the reactions of others.  In time I got over it, but I learned that you can never trust people who endlessly try to reduce the world to sound bites to teach you anything of importance. H.L. Mencken, a real journalist, always pointed out that Americans were drawn to short, simple, and conveniently neat answers … which were invariably wrong. Mencken died in 1956, mercifully before the proliferation of TV news as we know it.

Sterling Hayden – Philosophy


The subject of today’s post is a man best known for his work as a Hollywood actor. His autobiography, The Wanderer, is a an excellent reminder that the public persona of celebrities, good or bad, probably bears little resemblance to who these people really are. In the book, a very complex man is revealed: He captained an America’s Cup yacht to victory before he was 25; sailed to Tahiti and became engaged to a princess; in WWII he was an OSS agent fighting with the Partisans in Yugoslavia; he is in films like Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather, but detests acting and Hollywood; he is a harsh critic of himself and others, yet has great respect for the common man; above all else, Hayden is an adventurer who rejects everything that consumer society tells him he must do.

Hayden’s commentary on the last subject is well worth considering in great detail. His lifelong love was sailing, not flying, but his words ring true for any airplane builder. Hayden made and spent several fortunes, but never found himself short of great friends. They were all attracted to his personal code of living life as an adventure, on his own terms.

Above, Sterling Hayden in his Arena, circa 1950.

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea … ‘cruising’ it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. ‘I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.’ What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of ‘security.’ And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone.What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.The years thunder by, the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

The walls inside our home are lined with bookshelves. They contain many volumes that I found personally moving. But the very first time I read Hayden’s quote above, it hit me like a lightning bolt, directly reaching my strongest, but unspoken, dreams and fears. There are things I feel I must do in life, planes I wish to build and places to fly them to. Hayden plainly states that dreams and adventure are the core of a life worth leading, and he identifies consumer society as the mortal enemy of any man’s dreams of adventure. The fact that the man wrote “But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade” in 1962 gives you a good idea of how far ahead of the power curve he was. It also makes you realize that if he was alive today he would have an aneurism thinking about how little people heeded his warning, and how little most people are willing to get out of life.

Read the words about cruising vs. voyaging: We have all seen some super wealthy guy dump a ton of money into a plane, and fly the plane to Oshkosh in search of recognition in the form of a trophy. This is the predictable cruise that Hayden speaks of. An expenditure without passion and a predictable result without meaning. Now picture a guy who feels like he must build a plane, but doesn’t know if he can find the money to complete it, yet he starts anyway because he is unwilling to abandon his dreams. The budget forces him to learn and to be resourceful. He must make things with his hands. He may not know how to fly when he starts building, but he is committed to the belief that he will meet this challenge. This is the voyage that Hayden is speaking of. Replace the word Seaman with Aviator, and it fits right into place.

By choosing to build your own plane, accepting and managing the risk, you are making a giant course correction from a life consigned to “the cancerous discipline of security.”  The next time you tell someone that you are building your own aircraft, and the first thing out of their mouth is something about how they would never build one nor fly with you, just think of Hayden writing: “In the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone.” That is what is going to happen to all the people with a long personal list of things they would never do. If you are persistent in pursuit of your dreams, your place isn’t going to be among those who expended their lives relentlessly looking for security. If the goal of the captain was to preserve the ship, he would never leave port. Most people never do. The goal of the captain is to seek adventure, to meet all the challenges and still achieve the goals, to be In The Arena, not rusting at the pier in the safe harbor. Make your choice. If it sounds scary, it’s because consumer society has had decades to teach you to doubt yourself,  your potential,  your dreams and abilities. Building a plane and learning to master it is the rejection of these messages, and the replacement of them with the knowledge that you are the master of your own adventure.

Thank you.


Above Sterling Hayden plays “General Jack Ripper,” the mad SAC wing commander in 1964’s  Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear war. The character was patterned after General Curtis LeMay. Beside him is Peter Sellers playing Group Captain Mandrake.  Sellers also played president Merkin and Dr. Strangelove.  The film is a masterpiece; I have seen it about 20 times.

If you wish to see Hayden in an interview, look at this YouTube selection:

In it, Hayden is being interviewed in NYC in 1980. He has just returned from attending Marshal Joseph Tito’s funeral in Yugoslavia. He is 64 years old in the interview, yet he is full of life. Johnny Depp said that he made up the whole pirate Jack Sparrow character based on watching films of Keith Richards. Looking at the interview, it is easy to imagine Richards styling his personal image after Sterling Hayden. You don’t have to develop the look of a pirate to emulate their quest for adventure.

Vern’s Aero-Cars


Our friend and welder, Vern Stevenson, has had a lifelong love affair with all things mechanical. He has built a number of different aircraft, mostly light single-seaters. His hangar is just down the way from ours, and a tour of it is an education of how much a man with imagination, skill and some material can do. In addition to his aircraft, the hangar houses a motor home made from a former Greyhound bus, a 1968 Shelby GT-500, Various Big Block trucks, a 300 HP Corvair sand rail, a Porsche 914 powered by a 327 Chevy, and many others, all handmade by Vern.

Vern’s current passion is aerodynamic cars. Growing up in humble circumstances, Vern fully espouses the pure hot rodding of the 1950s, an era that placed creativity and mechanical ingenuity above all else. I have been to rat rod car shows with him, and he points out that his friends have always been doing it “old school.” None of them are interested in a car or a plane that is just another purchased product. It has to be handmade to have any interest to them. Although they could buy any car part they like, or most finished cars, they don’t. To Vern and his friends, one of the rewards is demonstrating incredible skill at bargain hunting, horse trading and bartering.  Among his friends, Vern is the unrivaled champion of these talents, and the two projects have a parts total price that reflect this.

Above is Vern’s “Streamliner.” It was inspired by Craig Breedlove’s land speed record attempt car, “The Spirit of America.”  Vern’s car is aimed at looking the part, but taking a shot at 70 MPG. The car has 3 wheels, and is considered a motorcycle in Florida. The aluminum bodywork is all salvage material. It hides a mild steel frame that looks like an aircraft fuselage. The canopy came from the Sun ‘n Fun flymart for $30. The engine is derived from a very early Dodge Omni, and I think it is a VW based design, something like a Rabbit engine. Vern has handmade a very tall set of rear wheels to cut the rpm at speed. The weight is around 900 pounds. The car is a two-seater. Vern keeps good track of his spending as a matter of pride. He has several hundred hours of work in the car, but he has less than $500 in total materials.

Above is Vern’s yet unnamed project. He has been messing with it part time for the past two months or so. It is also a three-wheeler, and makes the grade in Florida as a motorcycle. (Car insurance is not cheap in this state, and motorcycles are exempt from the requirement.) If you look closely, you can see that the back half of this creature is a two-seat Lancair fuselage. The front is a Geo Metro front end. As crazy as it sounds, Vern has artistically blended the two. It isn’t going to win the New York Auto Show, but every motorhead that has seen it has been captivated. The design was driven by the fact that Vern’s girlfriend didn’t like the tandem seating of the Streamliner. The digital camo paint job is an experiment in how you break up the shape differences of the front and back halves.The rear end is out of a Suzuki motorcycle. There is a steel tube subframe that joins the A-pillars of the Geo to the longerons and the spar carry through of the Lancair.

Above, a look inside the new project. It retains most of the dash and the pedals of the Geo. The steering column has been moved over about 3 inches. The wheel has a race car style quick removal to making getting in easier. The hinge mechanism for the canopy is the rear gate hinge from a minivan. The seats are 914 leftovers. Vern is hoping for a comfortable cruise and 60 mpg. By trading some time and parts, Vern has kept the budget ultra low. He is just now getting to $150 of cash laid out. He claims that he is willing to “go all the way” (Spend $500) to see the project through being roadworthy. If either of these vehicles have special driving requirements, it isn’t an issue, Vern has a 40 year history of driving anything with an engine from Stock Cars to excavators. He is a gifted motorcyclist, and he is sensitive enough to machinery that he taught himself to fly ultralights without ever taking a single lesson. In the 1980s ultralights were powered by a number of two strokes not noted for reliability. In his first 500 hours he had 18 engine outs but never got more than a scratch.

Neither of these two are directly related to flying Corvairs, but I stuck them in here to point something out. While Vern is speaking of, or working on these vehicles, he is among the happiest people in the World. The simple joy of creating something with your hands using tools is a real joy in life. If you are at home and it has been a while since you have had that kind of rewarding feeling, make a plan to get back to it. Many people get into homebuilt aircraft because they falsely believe it to be an inexpensive way to having a completed aircraft.  Building to these people is a necesscary evil. These people actually have a very poor record of completing planes because they derive very little joy from the process. If you have any doubt that a great number of people in homebuilding are driven by just wanting the plane and have no desire to learn or build their craftsmanship, look at how much advertising space is devoted to dubious claims of 300 hour build times and questionable stories about how few skills it takes to build some designs.

Although knowing what you’re up against timewise is a valid question, and you should know if a design requires you to be a machinist, specifically trying not to enjoy the building process nor learn anything has sold a lot of kits, but it hasn’t finished many of them. The build it yourself nature of the Corvair, and the fact that learning here is a goal, not an evil, makes the Corvair movement different. We are glad to assist anyone who is entering The Arena to Learn, Build, and Fly in the company of other friends who feel the same way.

Thank you.


Three Aviation Stories



Submitted for your approval, three stories I wrote in 2009, 2010, and 2011. For me, the human element of aviation has always been the focal point of my lasting love for it. I love the machinery, the creativity and the history, but the story of the individual, the person, is what intrigues me.

The stories here cover experiences of  Astronauts, an Airline captain, and a Navy attack pilot. As a humble general aviation pilot, I will never fly into space, sit in the left seat of an airliner, nor fly in combat. Yet I hold that anyone who has built a single part, soloed a plane of any kind, or has spent years with the inner feeling that they were born to be part of the human panorama of aviation, can relate to the stories below.

The stories are not pleasant. An average day in the life of a professional aviator is one of reliable performance of duty. It is only under extreme circumstances that the nature of their character is revealed. I am a small part of one subset of aviation, and I will not face these same challenges, yet every experimental aircraft builder understands that he had to move beyond the fears that keep the rest of society sentenced to a mundane life, every soloed pilot understands the measure of courage required to go alone, and every pilot who takes a person aloft understands the responsiblity of the words “Pilot in Command.”

The 20th Century saw the discovery of both the North and South Poles, the Conquest of Everest, and the Development of Aviation from the Wright brothers through landing on the moon. These are fascinating stories of human courage and endurance.  I have spent countless nights reading this history. Yet, the only one of these experiences that I can know some small part of is the story of flight.  Every human challenge that was worth the title of adventure involved actual risk. We endow the title “hero” on the aviators at the pinnacle of our calling. But unlike the general public, we have some understanding of who our heroes are, and the costs they were willing to bear.


Why Bother? (2011)


I stood in my front yard two days ago to watch the last Launch of the Space Shuttle. It was very moving to think about the 30 years of the program, years that have spanned my adult life. “Land of the free and home of the brave” are the end of our National Anthem, but who personifies this? For my choice, I think of Astronauts. I have friends who work in the space program, and they all acknowledge that despite the risks, there is no shortage of very qualified people to go.  I can remember the exact spot where I was in Florida the day The Challenger was lost. I have been to their monument on the hillside above the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.  Before their flight, they were briefed that their odds of perishing were between 1/300 and 1/20. They went anyway, not because they were gamblers, but because they know that some things were worth doing even if they brought a very high risk of death. From the Challenger monument, it is a short walk to JFK’s grave. In 1962 he answered the question of “Why bother?” on the subject of Space flight: 

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

When JFK said these words, he only had about 400 days left to live. Almost all of the people reading this have far more time left here. Question is, what will you do with it? Will you succumb to a “Why Bother?” mentality that seeks out false paths because they appear to require less learning and thinking? If the goal of a seafaring captain was to preserve the ship, he would never leave port. If someone’s goal is to save money and learn as little as possible, I humbly suggest that experimental aviation will prove to be a very frustrating and potentially very dangerous path. If “Why Bother” is such a person’s personal credo, they are never going to get any of the rewards while simultaneously taking astounding unnecessary risks. “Why bother” is much better matched to watching TV than building and flying planes.

I am 48 now, and I am past the halfway point. The exact length of the trip and the destination are unknown, but the road of memories behind get inexorably longer. Is it time to slow down, and ask “Why Bother?” Of course not. Anyone reading this has been lucky enough to be born one of the .1% of the people on this planet who has any hope of building something with their own hands and flying it, a dream so bold that it was beyond the reach of any person who every lived on this planet a mere 110 years ago. I am smarter than I was last year; I have learned more, I have honed my skills in the workshop and in the air. Aviation offers a near limitless arena in which to expand your life, to willfully choose the difficult and rewarding over the easy and complacent. This increase of capability and control that is the reward for honest striving and effort is the only substitute I have found for the nostalgia for a fading youth. I will never run a 5:30 mile again, never do 50 consecutive chin ups again, nor a number of other physical milestones from age 24. But I am a much better craftsman, pilot and person than I was then. Experimental aviation is the setting where I will find out how much I can study, understand and master in my life, not how little. For anyone else who feels the same way, I look forward to reading anything you have to say, seeing anything you have built, and being there when you arrive in your plane to a welcome of people who understand what is worth aggressively pursuing in life. 


Speaking of Courage* (January 2010)

I just finished reading Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s book,  “Highest Duty.” Most of what I read are biographies, and it is rare that I find  one from an aviator that isn’t worth reading. Sully’s seemed particularly good.  He tells his story back to being an airport kid in Texas flying a Champ. Many  polished biographies elevate the subject above reality. Reading this book I felt  that it did a good job of shedding some light on the life of an aviator who is  likely far more than the pages convey.

If you were in the USAF or work in the airline industry, he emerges as a  strong advocate of these callings. Sully does a first class job of  explaining the mindset and challenges of the professionals who inhabit  these parts of aviation. His sudden popularity says something about America, and  he touches on this in the book. He has a Facebook site with 675,000 friends. A  few weeks back I read in the New York Times that his book has been a modest success, selling 92,000 copies. The difference in the numbers tells me that people out there are looking for a hero, but they care far less to know how their heroes think or what forces shaped their lives.

Sully has a simple message inside his tale: Training pays off, even if it isn’t tested, living your life prepared is its own reward. Today, many people  want to know the tricks and inside tips on any subject they encounter. They want  the Cliff’s Notes on life instead of actually living. Sully, who recounts a  lifetime perfecting his craft, offers a strong indictment of such a  mentality.

He is quite clear that the terms ‘hero” or “miracle” do not apply to  himself or to flight 1549. He explains why he feels that the successful outcome  was the result of training, team work, judgment and a few factors going their  way. He clearly states that he did not expect to die. However, Sully  does believe in both heroes and miracles, and part of the book explains  this by contrasting his situation with that of Captain Al Haynes and United  Flight 232.

Above, Al Haynes

We forget a lot quickly these days. America has long forgotten  the name and the flight number, but most people in aviation remember the Sioux  City accident of 1989. It happened my first year at Embry-Riddle. The crash was  examined in great detail. At the University, we had a good idea of how low the  odds of survival were, and most people felt the term miracle could very well  apply. The crew of UA-232 fought to find any way to regain control of the  DC-10. Haynes and crew had little reason to believe they would live. Through  astounding skill, composure and leadership, Haynes made the best landing  possible. 185 people lived. Many did not.

Captain Haynes came to speak at Embry-Riddle not long after the accident.  His face still had the scars of the crash. He had been hailed in the media, but  I felt being at Riddle had to be different. Here, we had students  who had some real understanding of what he had pulled off.  In “Fate is The Hunter,” Ernest Gann’s preface states that airline  flying is a kind of a war story, where “the designated adversary always  remains inhuman, frequently marches in mystery, and rarely takes  prisoners.”  I went to see him up  close, to look at a Captain who had just returned from battle.

I stood five feet away and watched Captain Haynes as he spoke  to people. He was kind and direct, but somewhat detached, with a look as if his  real thoughts were far away. I was young and impressionable, and clearly before  me was a real hero. He had salvaged a victory for a certain disaster. To my  eyes, he was now among the pantheon of aviation’s eternal stars. Perhaps the distant look in his eyes was appropriate for a man who was proven in  a field where all prepare for their battle, but very few are tested.

Fourteen years later, Captain Haynes is the guest speaker at the evening  program at the Theater In The Woods at Oshkosh. Here, at the center of the world  of flight, his star has never been diminished. The outside world has forgotten  and moved on, but here, inside, the faithful fill every seat. It has been a  full day of exciting things, but the people are now settling down as they take  their seats. They will soon listen to a serious subject from a man  known for a heroic deed. The last time I saw him I was part of a very  young group, just at the start of our time in aviation. I looked around and saw  where my classmates would be in another 20 years. The people around me had  most of their flying logged away. Their gray hair and modest dress told  outsiders nothing of the adventures these people had seen. They had led the  strenuous life of challenge, and known its rewards…and perhaps its costs also.  I looked around and guessed that many of them had lost a close friend to an accident.  As soon as I formed that thought, I realized to 14 years later, I too,  was in this last group.

The presentation was a technical one. Captain Haynes had made it his duty  to frequently speak on behalf of preparation, teamwork, training, and when your  test comes, not losing yourself or giving in to fear. He had spent the previous years communicating this, never accepting a fee or any kind of reward.  They played the ATC tapes and slowly brought us to the moment of the crash.  The audience was moved. Many people near me sat quietly wiping away tears in the  dark. Perhaps they were thinking of friends, now long gone, wishing their  friends had been luckier and had a man like Al Haynes for an instructor, a  mentor or a co-pilot.

At the end of the presentation, a man, looking like he could have come from any EAA chapter in America, stood up. He struggled to gather himself and start a  sentence. After a moment, in a choked voice, he got out “I just want to  say I think you’re a hero.” A round of applause broke out, but it was  quickly put  down with a wave of Captain Haynes’ hand. He addressed the man directly. In an  even voice with very little emotion, he said “I am not a hero. 112 people on my  flight died. Please sit down.”

After the lights come up and the people drift away, I sat with Grace. It  was very hard for her. I have little memory of the Burn ICU, but Grace had sat  there all day, every day, for weeks. The cost was not abstract to her. Of all  the people in the theater, she knew what the last moments of many of the 112 had  looked like. After some time, we got up to walk out to the parking lot. As we  went past the back of the theater, Captain Haynes was standing there with a few  of the people from the stage crew. Grace went over to personally thank him for the  evening. I stood about five feet away.

The 14 years had not been kind to Al Haynes. Both his son and wife had  died. His daughter was terribly ill. I could not hear what he was saying softly  to Grace, but he had the same look as he did in 1989. He was there, but  detached. His story reminded me of a Greek Tragedy, no matter how  noble his actions, fate struck people in his care.

A different man might have  written it all off. Given up, and assigned the events to bad luck, a curse or  even a vengeful God. I don’t think it is too much to say that Al Haynes would  have none of these outs. He is a man, Naval Aviator and Airline Captain. He has  a lifetime of being in command, evaluating the circumstance, minimizing the  risk, and taking responsibility for the outcome. Such a man couldn’t easily  shrug off or rationalize away the loss. Right or wrong, he is the kind of man  who would only see it as his personal responsibility, and this is the  reason I will always be able to say  Al Haynes is my hero.

*Speaking of Courage is the title of a chapter in Tim O’Brien’s 1990  novel  “The Things  They Carried.” The writing is an unflinching look at sorrow, love and  personal responsibility in the wake of tragedy. It is a profoundly moving work  of philosophy for people who do not trust easy answers to hard  questions.


Friday Night, November 20, 2009


Just as I am getting used to Daylight Savings stealing an hour of the  evening, the days are getting noticeably shorter here. During the week, our  clock revolves around 4 p.m. This is last call to drive the ten miles into town to  the Post Office with the days mailings. In the summer there are hours after this  to eat dinner, mess around in the shop, and casually pre-flight the Taylorcraft  before going aloft for the last hour of light. But now the casual hours are  gone. I drove back to the airport with an eye on the low angle of the sun, maybe  only 50 minutes until it sank.

I pushed the plane out to the edge of the runway. I stood there for a  minute, not a single person was in sight. Just the sound of a circular saw from  somewhere up on the North end of the field. The visibility was poor, there would  be little to see, but I had been out the past 6 days in a row and today would  make a week. Kind of a pointless exercise, going up for 20 minutes to round out  a week, frivolous really.  These are the things you think of on the ground,  by the time I am running through the mag check the pros and cons of going  aloft are forgotten. I orbit the airport in big slow circles at 70  mph, engine at 1700 rpm, just licking over. It all looks gray and  colorless. Was it noticeably greener a week ago or is it just the  haze setting the mood? 

When I touch down, the landing gives me the  same feeling as finishing a chapter in a captivating book: Looking up  from the last page with the powerful feeling that you have just been  somewhere else. Taxing up to the house and shutting off the engine I  have the same sensation.

Three or four minutes later, our EAA chapter president returns from being away all afternoon. A 180 mph pass at 10 feet  signals the arrival of his RV-7. As he flies the landing pattern, I walk  the 400 feet up to his hangar. We arrive at the same time. He has an unexpected  passenger, Dave, our airpark president. Dave has his own RV-4, and I have never  seen him as a passenger in any plane. In his youth he flew an A-4 from the  USS Forestal into the most fiercely defended airspace on the planet. The black and  white photos of him in his hangar are of a much younger man in a flightsuit  with a helmet under his arm. He has the same grin today, but you get the  impression that big chunk of Dave’s youth, and a good number of his friends, only  exist in his memory after 1967. Either way, he looks really out of place in the  right seat, or in any side by side aircraft for that matter.

The moment fits the gray haze: Pat and Dave have just returned after  delivering the RV-9 of a fellow EAA member.  This man has also taken up  residence in Dave’s memory. He was killed this summer, along with another friend,  in an unexplained Glasair crash. One moment they were flying a low pass over our  airport, a little dog leg to say hello on their way home. The next day  Pat found the wreckage in the woods a few miles away. They delivered  the RV-9 to the man’s widow, who was very thankful. The plane was just  finished, and it is magnificent. She is keeping it in storage until next Oshkosh.  The man was an EAA member for 30 years, known in some circles. She would like it  judged posthumously. She had said some moving things to Pat and Dave, but at the  moment we were standing out on their ramp with the sun fading, neither of them  felt up to relating her exact words.

Dave started a sentence twice, but after  a pause he didn’t finish.  Pat spoke about a guy he knew in flight school,  lived 3 doors down, a Marine. Pat heard about his crash on the news, and walked  out his front door in disbelief. Seeing the black cars gathered down the block  took away the doubt and hope at the same time.

An engine starts at the far south end of the runway. It is Dan Weseman and  the Cleanex. After a minute of run up, he roars past us, 50 feet at midfield.  Dave looks at Pat and says “Let’s get him.” The RV-7 turned around and back on  the grass in seconds. Dave pushes out his RV-4. Their take off alerts the  airport, and several people drift out of their hangars to sit on the grass and  watch.

 If flying at most airports is an elegant ballet, flying at our airport is  Mixed Martial Arts. The furball is formed, broken and formed again over our  heads at 1500′. Between the sounds of wide open engines, the radio  chatter barks out from the base station in Alan’s hangar. In minutes they  are joined by Bob in an RV-4 from the North end, and then another  RV-7. In the sky they turn impossibly tight. You can’t always make out who is on  top, or even who is who, until a glint of the sunset differentiates a painted  wing from a polished one. It is hard to believe that the same airport was dead  silent 20 minutes ago.

One by one, they drop out and land. Pat is first, and has most of a beer  finished as Dave rolls up. Bob is the last to break off, leaving it where it  started, with Dan alone in the sky doing a few last slow rolls. The mood is transformed. It was 10 minutes of really being alive. Dan landed, rolled  out in front of us, turned a smooth 180 and taxied back towards his hangar, his  home, his family. He was close enough for us to see his expression, but he didn’t look  over. In the air, he had been far closer to the other pilots. The light is gone  now, and the day is over.

A few more words, and the hangar doors are shut, and people drift away.  Walking back to my place, I pause in the dark to watch Dave walk out to his  pickup. He had been the one to say “Let’s get him.”  This had been Dave’s  doing, perhaps his ritual. A little farewell to a man whose memory had just been  carefully and lovingly wrapped up for safe keeping. It was now stored beside the  others. A resident, final age 58, joining a group of younger men, some  of whom arrived 42 years ago. Although I’m sure he cherishes them all,  he probably doesn’t visit with them often. Dave is too full of life for much of  that. Besides, one day he will have all the time in the world to spend with  them.

William  Wynne, 2009

High Volume Oil Pump


The following photo series is of testing a new High Volume Oil Pump that we had made. The assembly and testing covered about 5 hours on Friday night. When I was in my 20s, I used to make a point of donating 10% of my week’s pay to Anheuser-Busch corporation on Friday night. In the past 2 decades, I have found more productive things to do with weekends. Years ago, people saw how much time I spent at our old hangar and often said that I practically lived at the airport. After Grace and I were married, rather than trying to get me to come home from work earlier, she came up with the solution of moving the house closer to the hangar. For the past 6 years they have been 10 feet apart. Our hangar is 40’x50’, but I do most of the work in the adjoining 15’x30’ shop seen in the photos. Our hangar is a basic metal pole barn without insulation. The workshop is fully insulated and got an older central heat and A/C system installed last year. (We have a neighbor in the HVAC business who needed a Warp Drive prop.)  Although we live on a little airport, working in the small shop next to the house gives me the same feeling I had when I first got started building planes in the garage behind my house at 1235 International Speedway Blvd., Daytona.  Working in the shop makes me think about all the other builders out there working in their garages, basements and workshops, all the people enjoying the hours creating their plane with their own hands. No matter how diverse homebuilders are, they all have this in common.

Here is a shot of the basic unit. A high volume pump is basically a longer set of gears with some type of extended housing. The extended gears are from a small block Chevy V-8, and they are identical to a Corvair’s except they are .400” longer. The next time some brilliant guy in your EAA chapter tries to tell you that Porsche or Franklin designed the Corvair engine, you can ask him why he thinks the oil pump is interchangeable with a V-8. The Corvair is 100% Chevrolet engineering.

The extended housing on high volume pumps is usually a two piece affair that his held together with roll pins, it can be a little tricky to set up, and it does have some pumping losses from a less than perfect fit in the assembly alignment. It also has two gaskets in it. Above you can see that our housing is a one-piece bowl-shaped unit, CNC machined. Instead of aligning itself on roll pins, it centers itself on the two shafts, which are stabilized by the housing. This is not a new concept, this style had been made before by Corvair car racing guys. However, our unit was sized from scratch, and independently developed to serve aircraft guys. It is self aligning, has minimal pumping losses, and only has one gasket.


If you have been around Corvairs only a few years , this is a tool you may not have seen before. I built it many years ago to test oil systems. It is the back half of a Corvair case with a little sump added underneath. It has plugs welded in a lot of places to seal it, and the gauges are set to read oil pressure before and after the bypass. It has a valve to allow mimicking any bearing clearance and oil flow requirement. This part is actually a rare “RL” case from a 180hp turbo Corvair, but it is special for another reason: It flew several hundred hours in our Pietenpol. Over the years, we have tested many cases on this unit. After we moved to Gold Oil Filter Housings, we stopped working on rear oil cases for builders because most Gold Oil Systems use our replacement oil cooler bypass valve built into the Sandwich Adaptor.  This unit was very good at detecting a marginal stock oil cooler bypass, in addition to testing oil pumps.

Over the years, I have made lots of pieces of custom testing equipment, because testing is the most important element that we do. Many people have an idea about making a part. If they have time and money, or they are amateur CAD guys, they can get a machine shop to make the part. Some of these will function, and a still smaller fraction will work with other required parts in a way that fits in the final installation. Some of these parts will actually pass basic testing. But the real testing requirement is not showing it will work, but aggressively trying to find the way the part, or under which circumstances, or in which combination it will not work.  Few people understand that this is the real focus of testing. Most people who conceive of an idea, defend the concept, nurse it through manufacture, and then start testing it have a big emotional attachment to it. At that point, they believe in it. They have a very hard time trying to develop any test that will show the part or concept to be deficient or vulnerable. For testing to be of any real value, you have to run it as if it is being directed by your worst enemy, your ex-wife and her mother, and the guy at work who thinks homebuilt aircraft are crazy. For the period of testing, you have to pretend that these people have PhDs from MIT and Cal-Tech, and they want to find any flaw in your idea. You have to really let go of any emotional attachment to the concept’s success. This is really what running an effective test is all about.

Adhering to this over the years, we have tested a lot of ideas that never saw the light of day. All of the things we do make were refined by the process I just outlined. Our evolution in the development of the engine and installations was never hampered by an emotional attachment to the way we were doing it. Once a month or so, I will get a guy on the phone who will say something like “well you used to do it that way” referring to the set-up he is planning on using in his plane.  He saw in an old photo on our Web page, and is yet to understand why it evolved. His attachment is understandable, it’s how we did it once, and he doesn’t see the forces that drove the evolution. I talk a lot, but I am also a very keen listener, and in the conversation I can hear if they guy has an emotional attachment to the old way, and if he is resistant to the logical reasons why it evolved. You don’t have to build your Corvair the way we do, but when evaluating your choices, be very cognizant of the emotional attachment factor creeping in and not letting you truly evaluate the merits. Homebuilders by their very nature arrive in the field wanting to do something different. They are reluctant to be seen as conformists. This is a good concept, but it can also work against the practical goal of completing the plane. If 10 new guys all look at the logic of why we build engines the way we do, evaluate it, and then choose to build their engines that way, this is not a sign of conformity, this is critical thinking leading many people to the same point. There will always be some guy on the Net who  criticizes this and tells everyone how his engine is going to be totally different, that is once he gets started building it. 20+ years of working with homebuilders has taught me that the odds of that person flying anything are microscopic. But it isn’t primarily because his idea is bad, actually the Achilles heel of his whole concept is that It is emotionally driven by a force that has very little sustenance in it, the concern for what other people think of you.


In the background, a selection of oil pump gaskets in different thicknesses. This is how Corvairs set the pump clearance. After test fitting them, and checking for a slight drag on the pump while turning it, I settle on a .007” thick gasket and give it a light coat of spray copper before sealing it up.

Here is the unit all buttoned up, Yes, I ate dinner at the workbench.

The drill bit is pointing to the pressure regulator bypass hole. It has to be opened up when you install a high volume pump. Otherwise the pressure will be very high until the oil temp is thoroughly warmed up. The enlarged hole allows the bypass to work with cold thick oil. Without enlarging this hole it might take 15 minutes of running on the ground on a 40 F day before the oil settled down to its normal regulated pressure. Before this, an increase in rpm will raise the oil pressure. On very cold start ups you want to watch this, because even with the hole enlarged it is possible to have the oil pressure exceed 80 pounds by carelessly revving the engine to taxi it while the oil is still cold. Give the engine a chance to warm up, don’t be in a rush. Oil pressure spikes are very rough on the drive system running the pump. This is true of almost all engines, not just Corvairs. People don’t talk about ideas like this with the buy-it-in–a-box imported engines because they just wanted to buy something and use it. Since the primary motivation with Corvair builders is to learn while creating, we talk about things. Most people are happy to just have things, people attracted to the Corvair were the ones who took apart the toaster at age 10, because for some of us, we need to know why.

This plug holds in the spring and the pressure regulation piston. Make sure your piston is polished and the bore has no burrs left over from enlarging the hole. I use a copper crush washer for the gasket. I use the higher pressure spring from Clark’s. The wrench size is 13/16” but it has small fine threads, so don’t do more than 15 foot pounds or so. I do not safety these, and I have never seen one get loose. This plug is shiny because I nickel plate them.

Above is the unit in action. It is being driven by an electric drill on a priming shaft, just the way we prime the engines at the Colleges before we run them. After running through the system, the oil is returned to the center of the case by the 3/8” aluminum hard line on the right; it is entering the case where the #1 cylinder was. Notice that you can actually see the oil stream flowing in the photo. From there it goes back in the bottom of the case and is sucked into the pickup again. The new pump flowed like a river, even at very low rpm. We are going to let it run for a long time in the shop this weekend, with the drill trigger held down with a zip tie. It will be noisy, but I have my sister’s old 1970s stereo that she bought with babysitting money in the shop, a hold over from when people cared about sound.  120 watts, Ohlm speakers and an extended cut version of Exile on Main Street and I will never notice the sound of the oil pump rig running all weekend. Monday we will take it apart and look for any wear on the inside.

Grace and Scoob E were out in the shop helping with the project. Above, Grace ran the drill during the set up tests. This rear cover will have a Gold Oil Housing on it when it is finalized, but for testing, I have it set up with one of our old style oil top plates from the 2004-2007 era. You can see the built-in pressure gauges in this photo.

It wouldn’t be Friday night without a little fun. Our neighbor Roger was having a cookout and a bonfire in his front yard just down the runway. We missed dinner, but arrived in time for the relaxing around the fire with a beer phase. Most builders know that the one pound cooling fan on a late model Corvair car is made of magnesium. We brought one down and after warning those present, tossed it in the fire. It ignited after a minute of warming up. For five minutes you could have seen our airport from low earth orbit. The camera doesn’t do the event justice. It illuminated the entire southern end of the airport; you could have read a newspaper 500’ away. At most airports this would have brought firefighters, hazmat people and the news media. At our airport it brought more people with beer. As a little kid, I played with matches, built tree houses, took apart the toaster, made go-carts and was known on a first name basis at the emergency room. My test methods have gotten a lot better than childhood forays into chemistry, but my incessant need to know remains the same. I accept that the majority of people in life have a consumer mentality that tells them that simple possession is the route to happiness.  For the rest of us who know that our path to happiness is learning and creating, we have the  Corvair movement. The Harley Davidson slogan, “If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand”’ is a modern version of George Mallory saying “Because it’s there” about mountaineering. The first statement has become something of a cliché, and many of the people saying it are concerned with what others think, but Mallory was deadly serious that he was not going to lead his life by the mundane concerns of others.  My mother taught us to be civil to everyone, but even as kids, there was a clear distinction between always being considerate of others, and leading your life by what other people think. It was an important inoculation that protected me, especially in my teenage years, from peer pressure and the things it leads adolescents to. In the long run, it made me comfortable following my own path, with little concern for what the larger group thought I should be doing. The Corvair movement is a reflection of this, and if you feel the same way, I say “Welcome aboard.”

Thank you.


Welcome to The Blog


Welcome to the FlyCorvair Blog. With the help of a computer savvy friend, we have set this up to have a single point where people who are building and flying Corvairs can come and get fresh, factual information and motivation for their own projects. Most blogs are something of a monologue. This one will be different. For many years we ran a Daily Question and Answer section on our Web site. Hundreds of builders wrote in and had their question answered in this forum where other builders could also benefit. These posts are still archived on our Web site; they are a good resource, but we are taking a big step forward with this blog site.

Today we have access to vastly improved software and the answers can easily be enhanced with pictures and embedded video. I am pretty good at sharing information in the form of writing, but we all understand that in homebuilding, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a short video clip can often be illuminating and very motivational. This site also has other options that builders can choose, like being notified by e-mail when there is a fresh post here by clicking on RSS at right to subscribe for free. The program that we are using here is one of the most popular formats because it has very user friendly features like categorized archives right on the side of the main page. We are just getting to know the system, and we will make every effort to explain its features as we utilize them.

In 20 years of writing about aviation, all of my best efforts were sparked by a conversation or an experience shared by another aviator. Anyone reading this, no matter what your experience level, can be the builder who determines the subject of the next column. Just send your thoughts to, my regular e-mail address, or leave a reply in the comment box at the bottom of each post. Over the years, a number of Corvair aircraft discussion groups have sprung up on the Web, and almost all of them have faded away. One even had a name very close to our business, but had nothing to do with us. Another was nicknamed “The island of misfit toys” because it was populated by a lot of characters who had been tossed off other discussion groups. For many years, I was a major contributor to Mark Langford’s group, but we have mutually come to the friendly conclusion that I would be better off with my own place to converse with builders who choose to follow my testing and work. Mark wants to keep his group independent, and he believes that people should have a place to say nearly anything they wish. Inevitably I always try to steer the conversation back to what has been flight tested, what is known, what works for builders. These are divergent concepts, thus Grace and I have brought this site into operation. Although I will still write a number of articles for print publications, this blog and our main Web site will be the only places where you will find me on the Web.

Just like you, I have an aircraft project out in the shop. Neither of us are going to get to the flightline if we spend all of our time at the computer. People are an equal element of flying to me. I love planes, but the human component drives me just as much. I work every year to strike a balance so that we make friends and finish planes. One without the other isn’t success for me. I have found that most builders feel the same way. I turned 49 last week. Statistically speaking, I have 26 more flying seasons left. Sounds like a lot, but I know right know that it isn’t enough. I can’t get more time, but I can spend what I will have wisely. It took me a long time to learn that I don’t have to like everything and everyone in aviation. I am not obligated to appreciate corporate jets nor $169K light sports. It took a while to understand that “the brotherhood of aviation” is a beautiful concept, just like Santa. Here is my reality: Aviation is a giant place, with plenty of room. All I am looking for is a place to build and flight test our ideas, share them with friends and the time to go do some flying. I didn’t get into this to make everyone into an alternative engine convert, nor is it my job to tolerate every mystery e-mail name with an opinion and a keyboard. Staying focused on spending my time wisely brings me to the decision to put our effort into the people who will read this site.

Here, by choice, we can have a positive discussion between real people who have come to learn and share information on our favorite engine. It isn’t going to be for everyone, but I do have a very long track record of working with a great variety of people. These builders have possessed the common goals of succeeding in aviation and sharing this with other builders. Sounds pretty basic, and for most builders it’s just common sense, but it is worth noting that there is 25 times as much information on aircraft building on the Web today as there was 10 years ago, yet the completion rate of aircraft has not changed, and the accident rate may be slightly higher. Quantity of information isn’t a substitute for quality, and is often just more hay when you need to find a needle in the stack. Together we can make this the location for flight proven information and friendly motivation. Welcome aboard.

Thank you.

William Wynne