Notes from the Edge

Brian Martinez

Originally published April 1994

So, you're interested in building an airplane and you're either head over heels in love with a particular design or just searching through the trade magazines with hopeful eyes and not much of a bank account. I know where you are looking to go, but I'd like to discuss the darker side, the things some of us miss in our call to glory. I'll tell you what the slick magazines won't.

The reason I'm writing all this is because I'm in the middle of another of the panic attacks that I have been having for the last three weeks. It occurs every time I even think of what it's going to take to pull through the last odds and ends to get my plane (Q-200) to the airport and make the monster fly. The night before last my wife gently tried to massage the tension out of my upper body as I was so tight that I was beginning to cramp. You think maybe it's all that epoxy or maybe the toxins in the paint I've been using? I don't think so. You think maybe it's just job stress coupled with an intense desire to finish? Maybe early midlife crises? Maybe that's it, but I can't be sure.

Older builders will tell you about being 95% completed and having another 95% to go to finish an airplane. Others (generally &*%$# systems engineers) will describe 80/20 relationships of doing 80% of the work in the remaining 20% of an effort. I don't really believe I'm overloaded in this manner, I just feel tired. There is a common saying in homebuilder circles that there is a finite amount of effort that a builder will put into a project, after that he will finish it, one way or the other. I'm there now, guys. I can't truly say that I have hated the process, but it's had its moments and I'm still not done. I must also mention that I will probably continue to build these things until I'm dead cause I'm an obsessive/compulsive guy when it comes to this.

So what does the dark side look like? It looks like buying a kit out of production for 4 years and having to scrounge for parts which no longer exist. It is finishing a major prefabricated assembly and realizing with your "engineering" mind that you would have had a better part if you had done it from scratch. It is the never ending labor of composite finish spline sanding in a summertime 105 degree F garage wearing a respirator; with sweat streaking through a face colored white with the dust of cured micro slurry. It's investing in lasers and electronic angle finders to achieve accuracies others somehow find with a simple plumb bob. It's also the frustration of implementing all the "nice to haves" and "warm fuzzies" that your nonbuilder buddies can think up and realizing years later that you really didn't need any of it. You have been adding dead weight and expense to your plane that could have been had with a handheld. Then, it is the horror of watching your 7 years of work packed up on a trailer for a long slow precarious trip to the airport and seeing the restraints come loose on a bump less than a mile from the destination. The dark side is spending more time building the plane than you spend with your family. You have had no weekends off and no vacations, because even though you were physically elsewhere, your mind was still on the project. I am also sick of answering meaningless questions: No, Burt didn't design my airplane, it's not a canard it's a biplane with no horizontal, and you can't go out and buy one for so much money. And even more: No I don't know when it will be done or when I will fly it because I'm not even sure it will fly. AND FINALLY: Use of composites or aluminum in a design is all a tradeoff. The stuff you really want to build your planes out of is called "unobtainium." Now, you show me the Kitplanes ad or article that says all this! Don't get me wrong. I'm not down on the movement. I'm just warning you.

Is there any good in all of this? I'm not sure, but maybe the look on your four-year old's face when he asks you what you are working on or maybe the open mouthed awe of your ten-year old when he sees your engine running for the first time. Maybe that's it. I'm not sure. I do know that it is much easier to see how I will design the next one. This is stuff that the Aerospace Engineering curriculum did not teach. I've also learned another thing for sure. And that is, if you are a first time builder, build it simple and cheap. You guys out there who turn up your noses at Tailwinds, Sonerias, and anything without an electrical system have never built an airplane. The guys who build simple airplanes will fly cheaper and more often with less to fix than the guys who spend a megabuck for the latest and the greatest. Airplanes are tradeoffs in performance, time, and lifestyle. Think about it.

(Ed. Note: The latest part of the dark side was the discovery of .035" crankshaft endplay in the rebuilt Continental engine for Brian's Q-200. I saw him picking up some tools at Home Depot to make the repairs. In the shopping basket were the following: a chainsaw, a cutting torch, an axe, two sticks of dynamite, and, for some reason, a hockey goaltender's mask. I persuaded him to put everything back, but on the way out the door he kept muttering something about how Scott Horowitz was right about "I hate my airplane". Soon, though, it will be "I love my airplane". Right, Brian?)


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