Workshop and Tools

Woodworking minus patience equals firewood.

Author unknown

One of the first things that happens when you start to build an aluminum aircraft is that your woodworking skills improve. This might seem counterintuitive but not only do you need several good-sized workbenches on which you will measure, drill and rivet, but some assembly steps require custom jigs or cradles be built. Furthermore, while I suppose you could assemble and airplane using nothing but hand tools, having a variety of power tools (in particular a band saw, drill press, sander and grinder) make the process go much, much faster. Therefore, one of the first steps in the aircraft construction process is to outfit your workshop.

Now I’ve been a bit of a workshop nerd for most of my life. I grew up on my grandparent’s farm and, like all good farmfolk know, you need a well appointed workshop if you expect to survive more than a few harvest seasons. My grandfather was the first influential person in my life when it comes to nurturing my DIY talents. Some of my earliest memories were following him around as he built (and repaired) all manner of farmhouse facilities. I had plenty of opportunity to observe. For instance, we got our fresh water from a spring near the Penobscot River, which was pumped several hundred yards up to to the house. It seemed like several times per year my grandfather needed to drive his tractor through the forest to the pumphouse and climb down into the pump fit to execute a repair. I never knew exactly what he was doing but was fascinated by the process. Likewise, his basement workshop was filled with amazing tools (including, as I recall, a dedicated saw blade sharpening machine). He built an apartment for my mother and sister in the farmhouse attic. As the kids say today, he had ‘mad skilz’.

GRAMPA GEORGE (FRONT ROW, RIGHT) THAT DAY EDDIE VAN HALEN CAME TO VISIT

The second major influence on my “craftiness” was my Uncle Bob, whom I got to spend time with during and after my stint in business school in Rochester, New York. Uncle Bob was a Kodak “lifer” who, along with his wife, Dallas (my mom’s older sister), had raised his family in a beautiful, turn of the century, arts and crafts home. He was planning his retirement during the time I lived nearby and I helped him rework part of his basement into a proper woodworkers shop (including chiseling a channel in the concrete floor for his table saw’s electrical connection). His passion was furniture construction but I learned a lot from him about general carpentry and, unlike during the time spent with my grandfather, I now owned a home and had reason to invest in some tools of my own.

UNCLE BOB (AND AUNT DALLAS) WEARING FLANNEL AS ALL GOOD CARPENTERS DO

Over the course of many years (and homes–and wives!) I slowly built both a modest workshop and modest carpentry (and other) skills. By the time we arrived in Colorado I was able to fabricate basic necessities like bookshelves, desk drawers, crown molding (through admittedly just barely) as well as tackle basic electrical and plumbing jobs. I was also comfortable with attempting basic plumbing and electrical tasks. My workshop consisted of few decent hand tools (gratefully bequeathed to me by my grandfather), some cheap power tools, and a basic workbench I built from plans found online. As the reality of an aircraft building project began to settle in I filled out the stable with few additional workshop tools that had been on my wish list and started work on additional workbenches for my impending assembly activities.

Like many builders my first task was to construct two Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1000 workbenches–or EAA 1000 for short. Their design, 2′ by 5′ with a shelf underneath, has proven imminently practical for a variety of homebuilt aircraft projects. By building two you have the flexibility of being able to push them together to work on large pieces (I’m looking at you, wings!) and, like other builders, I opted to create a lip on one side (all the better for clamping!) and fit them with casters to facilitate easy, single-person repositioning.

In addition to the standard workbenches I also fashioned a separate rolling work table for my power tools. This was a mashup of an old restaurant tabletop I bought at auction a few years ago (see, honey, not a hoarder!), some crappy drawers I had built for my wife when we were renters and kept around in the garage (see, honey, not a hoarder!) and some plywood (see, honey, that’s why we own a pickup truck!).

And, while not strictly a requirement for airplane building, I decided to (finally) have our garage floors finished, replacing a half-arsed job I started when we moved in. It is officially the second highest expense in the building process thus far but well worth it to create a space I’ll enjoy spending hours at a time in.

Now that I had a space worthy of highly technical and time consuming activities it was time to fill it with (more) tools. There is a small part of me that sometimes wonders if the real attraction of aircraft building is the opportunity to acquire more tools but I try take my mind off it by browsing the Grainger website.

While most well-appointed workshops do contain many tools that can be used in aircraft building it’s not to say they always should, especially when higher-precision and purpose built tools are available. I, like many homebuilders, chose to “jump start” the tool acquisition process by purchasing a kit tailored to RV construction. Realizing the popularity of Van’s designs, several companies specialize in selling kits with most of the tools that most people don’t already have. While all kits contain the same basic collection of implements there are differences in optional tools as well as a range of prices. After comparing the options from companies listed on Van’s website I decided to order a package from Cleveland Aircraft Tool. They are certainly not the least expensive option but–based on feedback on the online forums–have a reputation for great service and tool quality. They also allow for some customization of the kit. After a couple weeks I got a pre-Christmas gift from my new best pen pals, Mike and Annette.

IF THIS DOES NOT EXCITE YOU THEN PERHAPS AIRCRAFT BUILDING IS NOT FOR YOU

Experienced builders will notice a couple things in the above photo. First, I went with a C-frame dimpler. I’ll leave the endless “C-frame vs. DRDT-2” debate to others. Suffice it to say it’s what I learned on (during that one class I took) and I’m building my airplane in an apartment so noise be damned! Plus, I find the rhythmic “whack-whack-WHACK” to be a very soothing, Zen-like experience. Second, you can see a hand squeezer in the photo. I was impressed with the design of Cleveland’s “Main Squeeze” so I got one…along with a pneumatic squeezer that’s on backorder. I selected a Sioux air drill because of the reputation and often hook it up just hear it go, “Whizzz! Whizz!”. I also purchased Cleveland’s lightweight air hose and manifold kit so I didn’t have to constant swap the airline between tools. I attached the manifold to one of the benches so a simply quick-connect to my compressor supplies all my air-powered needs.

WOW, THESE AIR HOSES REALLY BLOW!

Speaking of compressors, another important building decision, I upgraded from my tiny (and loud) portable compressor to a 26 gallon oil-less Kobalt model from Lowe’s. While it’s not as quiet as a two-stage, oil-lubricated model it is rated the quietest among comparable models. I would have liked a bit more capacity but, hey, if it’s good enough for Plane Lady then it’s good enough for me. I did end up ordering a few more items form other suppliers like Aircraft Spruce and Arrow but I’ll save discussions on those for a future post where they actually get used. Until then, time to build something!

Why She’s “The One”

JEEZ, HONEY, COVER UP WILL YA?!

After the selection of a mate, selecting the type of aircraft to build is an important life choice. A fair number of other builder’s websites include some discussion of why those the particular make and model airplane to build. Since I am nothing if not a sheepish follower I thought I would do the same. It’s important to point out that choosing an aircraft model to build is a complex calculation–not unlike dating–and, like how I met my wife, I fell in love with the RV-10 over the Internet.

Well, perhaps love is too strong a term. Many well-known advocates of aircraft ownership talk about choosing an aircraft based on your ideal “mission”. Borrowing a term most associated with military maneuvers doesn’t lend itself to expression of primal emotions. So, to begin with, I should state that my prioritized list of kit aircraft requirements looks something like this:

  1. Something I can build that results in a safe aircraft
  2. Gets me and my “bestie” places we’d like to visit in reasonable time
  3. Gives me joy when I take the controls
  4. Takes advantage of state-of-the-art technology
  5. Reasonable construction and maintenance costs
  6. Cool looks

The relative orientation of #2 and #3 is the result of living with both an airplane and a spouse. When I ordered the Maule I pictured myself flying around the PNW (Pacific Northwest), visiting remote grass and dirt airstrips “just for the heck of it”. When I started looking for “the (human) one” I didn’t really think about how she’d react. I just assumed that any sane person would revel in the ability to slip “the surly bonds of earth” because, well, d’uh! What I discovered is that “she who I am forever devoted to” was okay with flying as long as it had a purpose, like visiting a cool place (or at least getting an awesome dinner). I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.

Satisfying #3 is an allusive task. Joy can be measured in many dimensions and certainly there are times when flying is not joyful (I’m looking at you, low-level wind shear). Still, if you’re going to spend this kind of money you really need to love the end result. In my mind one thing that contributes to joy is an airplane that’s easy to fly 80% of the time. Pilots know the feeling of getting the power and trim just right so you can fly the airplane with one finger on the yolk or stick. I got to know my Maule well enough that this became subconscious and, when the winds were mild, created quiet a tranquil setting in the cockpit (the constant hum of a fuel-injected 540-cubic-inch engine notwithstanding).

BEST VIEW IN THE HOUSE

One of the things that surprised me the most was how easy it would be to satisfy #4. Back when I gave up flying, “glass cockpits” were just starting to show up in light aircraft. The experimental market had led the way but, even so, the options available in 2004 were limited and relatively expensive and most builders were content to stick with traditional “steam gauges”.

ACTUAL STEAM GAUGES: “ROYAL HUDSON” LOCOMOTIVE AT WEST COAST RAILWAY HERITAGE PARK, SQUAMISH, BC

Fast-forward 16 years and my how things have changed! Pretty much everyone building an RV-10 is planning for a glass panel cockpit with integrated autopilot, XM satellite weather, cupholders–you name it! Many have elected to go with a Garmin avionics suite. The creators of the venerable G1000 series for certificated aircraft have an entire line of touch-screen based components for the experimental market.

SPACE SHUTTLE ASTRONAUTS WOULD BE JEALOUS

Now we get to #1 and #5 on the list. In some respects they are related. There are a myriad of companies out there that will sell you aircraft plans or kits. Many more have come and gone. Those that have lasted have done so because they offer solid designs that mere mortals can reproduce as well as great support. This carries over into long term ownership. Something that’s complicated to build in the first place is going to be hell to maintain.

There are numerous companies and designs that have the benefits of longevity and being able to fine tune the construction process which, generally speaking, breaks down along the lines of the main material used. There are still aircraft being built today using wood, steel tube and fabric. White it’s tempting to think of wood construction as something from a bygone era, several designs like the Falco (designed by an Italian, obviously) demonstrate that wood can be beautiful.

THE FALCO: AS SEXY AS A 1980’S POP MUSICIAN

My Maule, in fact, was a bit of a hybrid. It featured a fuselage formed from steel tubing a covered in fabric and aluminum wings.

FUTURE MAULES PLOTTING THEIR WORLD TAKEOVER

Another intriguing material used more and more in aircraft these days is generally referred to as “composites”. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner famously features a carbon fiber fuselage but most amateur aircraft builders don’t have access to multi-million-dollar fabrication machines. Scissors, brushes, and squeegees are readily available, though, which helps explain the popularity of fiberglass construction.

The world likely has one person to thank for the acceptance of fiberglass as a aircraft construction material (not to mention a resurgence of muttonchops), Burt Rutan.

IF YOU JUST DEISGN THE WINGS LIKE MY SIDEBURNS IT’LL FLY LIKE A DREAM

Before we was BFF with Richard Branson and designing vehicles designed to take millionaires to space (and hopefully leaving them there), Rutan designed and built several light aircraft using “mold-less composite construction”, a fancy term referring the process of shaping Styrofoam into airplane-like shapes and slathering it fiberglass fabric and resin until it was as stiff as back back after a night in a hotel room bed. His designs, such as the Vari-eze and Long-eze developed a devoted fan base and inspired other designers. One variation I seriously considered for a time was the Cozy (all Rutan-inspired designed must end in a ‘Z’ sound).

ALL RUTAN-INSPRIED DESIGNS LOOK LIKE THEY JUST CRASHED WHEN THEY’RE PARKED

The challenge with composite kit aircraft is that the builder needs to decide between two extremes: a mostly “plans” option, which is cheaper but requires more fabrication of major components, and a most “kit” option, where the kit provider does much of the complicated work–for a price. Both option result in a very sleek result and lots, lots of sanding. Either would have satisfied priority #6 but the latter was not in my budget. As such I would have been faced with a very complicated build with a material with which I had no experience.

That left what is probably the most popular–and historically voluminous–aircraft construction material: aluminum. While Junkers J1 is considered the first all-metal construction aircraft, the practice of building aircraft from metal didn’t really “take off” until the 1930’s. Driven by war, aluminum aircraft construction evolved into a process that anyone could accomplish. (After all, what was “Rosie the Riveter” riveting?)

PHOTO IS FROM 1943. TECHNIQUE IS FROM JUST NOW.

The list of available aluminum aircraft designs is long. Aluminum is inexpensive and the techniques to make it conform to an aerodynamic shape capable of flight is easy to teach (though tough to master). For a time I was intrigued by a designed called the Mustang II. It was a plans-built aircraft, meaning you paid someone to send you a boat-load of blueprints and his best wishes that you had the talent and skill to follow them.

ALL YOU REALLY NEED–THAT AND A CLOSE RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR AIRCRAFT ALUMINUM SUPPLIER

I actually ordered a set of plans, if for no other reason to fantasize about how I was a construction mogul (who wore suits with thin ties and drank martinis), but realized this was probably too big for me to take on. (See prior blog posts re: sanity.) That left choosing a design from an established kit plane supplier with a reputation for the ability of its customers to successfully complete and safely fly their designs (see priority #1). Enter Richard VanGrunsven.

THE GODFATHER OF ALUMINUM KIT AIRCRAFT, SANS TUXEDO AND COTTON UNDER HIS LIP

VanGrunsven was an engineer by training who was intrigued by amateur-built aircraft and, after tinkering with someone else’s design, creating one of his own, the single seat RV-3, in the early 1970’s. People took notice and before long he was selling plans and parts that he fabricated himself in a small shop. Over the years the company he founded grew and introduced more designs (there are now 8 distinct aircraft that one can choose from). In the nearly 50 years since Van’s Aircraft started, over 10,000 aircraft of various models have been completed, an unequalled stat in the kit plane world. All that experience, combined with modern manufacturing techniques and a knowledgeable team of in-house experts (and a robust builder and third-party supplier community), has yielded airplane kits that anyone with moderate mechanical skills can safely construct. Priority #1 satisfied!

Now, having chosen a supplier, which model was right for me? Back in the early 2000’s, when I first got the idea to build, the choices were pretty straightforward. Van’s offered just a handful of designs, all two-seaters. The big decision was ultimately seating for pilot and co-pilot–tandem (one behind the other) or side-by-side. Having learned to fly in a Piper Cub (and being righthanded), tandem seating was appealing. You flew with your right hand and controlled the throttle with your left, plus the visibility out of both sides of the canopy was hard to beat. However, Van’s tandem seat models, the RV-4 and RV-8 tended to be a bit cramped, which would be tedious on long cross country flights. As for side-by-side models, the RV-6 was van’s most popular kit and the slightly roomier RV-9 was a great cross-country machine. With the exception of the RV-4 all could be built with either tricycle or convention (tailwheel) landing gear, giving me the option.

SO MANY RV’s, SO LITTLE TIME

Then in 2003 Van’s introduced a completely new (and for them) radical design–the four-place RV-10. It featured the usual aluminum construction but with the addition of a fiberglass cabin top and gullwing doors instead of a plexiglass canopy. It only came with tricycle gear and was not aerobatic, but was roomy and still fast, utilizing six cylinder engines, rather the standard four on other models. The added seats meant I could take my entire family (of 3) and our luggage to a destination of our choice. Along with the scaled-up capabilities came a scaled up price tag (not only for the kit but for the requisite engine and propeller as well) but when you start accounting for the cost to build any aircraft that meets your needs the numbers because abstract very quickly.

The RV-10 buzzed patterns in my brain for the decade or so I was out of the flying game until late this year when I began riffling through the mental file cabinets under “Aircraft: Building”. As of last year almost 1,000 RV-10’s had been completed and Van’s has continued to refine the designs and plans. The aircraft has an exceptional accident record, with many issues attributed to builders not following the plans or making other stupid mistakes. While I had never flown in one (and demo rides had been suspended due to COVID) I had to put my trust in her reputation and what I could learn from her “online profile”. After consultation with “she who will have to deal with a crowded garage for the next several years” I was given the steady green light gun signal (a little pilot joke). On your mark! Get Set!

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GO!

NOTE TO THE READER: Thus ends the bulk of my ruminations for now. It’s time to get into documentation the build process as it unfolders over the next months and years. Since this is likely to transpire in fits and starts (at least at first, while I await deliver of the next major component kit) be sure to subscribe to get notified when there’s a new blog post:

I Blame Jorg

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

Allen Saunders

People who work at Microsoft have a reputation for being driven and having “type A” personalities. While the truth is more nuanced, certainly we do like to be in control of things. After all, creating computer software is an exercise in control–trying to make the computer do what you want, when you want without it doing what you don’t want. It was with that mindset that we made a fateful decision in the summer of 2007. I was feeling a bit stuck in my job and our daughter was approaching pre-school age. Several multi-day day road trips to visit family in Nebraska had us thinking it might be best for her if we lived closer to family. But how to pull it off?

Redmond, Washington is the “center of gravity” for Microsoft, where you were most likely to progress in your career, due in large part of the sheer volume of engineering jobs available. Yes, we have offices all over the work but these are mainly for sales and consulting teams. If I was going to find a good engineering job in the middle of the country it was likely going to be with another company. Before giving up on Microsoft, though, I reached out to an old boss of mine, Charlie, who–last I heard–was managing internal training programs. If anyone knew of interesting jobs around the company I thought it would be he.

Unfortunately, upon connecting with Charlie I discovered he’d taken a new position and was no longer with the training org. He told me he’d just taken a position at our office in Boulder, Colorado. Excuse me?! What office in Boulder, Colorado? Oh, yes, it’s relatively new–the result of an acquisition–and, yes, we are hiring.

I’m not sure if “Wait! What?” was a meme back then but that we likely my reaction. He suggested I email his boss, Steve, and set up an interview. I did and, after what seemed like months of waiting for a decision, I was offered the job–Program Manager for Microsoft Streetside imagery. Things had come full circle. I had worked for Charlie during my time in Flight Sim where I had had to teach myself about mapping. I had now just landed my first post-simulations role thanks, in part, to my experience making maps.

JUST STAY ON UNTIL YOU REACH THE END OF THE LINE

I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have found roles where I get to learn about new and fascinating technologies. I have never been the type to specialize in one thing, perhaps because I just didn’t know better. After all, I have an undergraduate in hotel and restaurant management plus an MBA–not exactly the onramp to software development. To compensate I try to be open minded, hard working, and a fast learner. I put those skills to work over the next several years helping to design, deploy and manage Microsoft’s version of Google Streetview, which, admittedly, has been less successful than our competitor’s offering (as evidenced by the fact that you were just thinking, “Wait, Microsoft has a street view product?”).

MICROSOFT STREETSIDE CAMERA VERSIONS OR REJECTED STAR WARS DRIOD DESIGNS? YOU DECIDE

This project gave me the chance to work with some very talented hardware engineers and computer vision scientists in Boulder and at our sister office in beautiful Graz, Austria (near Arnold Schwarzenegger’s birthplace), which I got to visit several times. Eventually I was also tasked with managing our rather large imagery production operation, which helped produce over 400 photorealistic 3D cities (“Wait, Microsoft has 3D cities?” 🤦‍♂️). Life was good. I could see myself working on Bing Maps for some time and my wife and I decided to “put down roots” and broke ground on a new home. We had plans!

Then life happened.

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JUST WHEN YOU THINK YOU’VE SEEN EVERYTHING

I knew that Monday was not going to be a normal one after receiving a late-night meeting invite for a mandatory breakfast meeting at the historic Hotel Boulderado. It wasn’t the timing of the request it was that they were going to feed us. Something had to be up. That’s when we learned we’d been sold (well, not actually us since I think that was outlawed) and had a luxurious seven days to decide whether to accept a job offer from our new masters or cast off on our own.

For a variety of reasons I chose to say, “thanks but no thanks,” though I was in the vast minority. I think many viewed the Silicon Valley darling’s impending IPO as a way to cash in but something just didn’t feel right to me. Once again, fate intervened and I found work immediately in the Skype for Business team, again doing things I was wholly unqualified for–helping Microsoft launch a cloud telephony service as part of Office. In additional to filling my brain with yet more technical knowledge and acronyms (PSTN, SIP, SBC) the role did bring me closer to the world of (commercial) aviation, thanks to twice monthly trips to Seattle and the occasional overseas hop.

The decision to stay at Microsoft turned out to be a gone not only because Uber eventually shifted their strategy, necessitating downsizing at their Boulder operation, but also because the company-provided insurance came in handy when my wife almost died that New Year’s Eve during surgery to have a tumor removed from her heart (a story for another time). Still, the fun wouldn’t last. After a series of reorgs and management changes I found myself once again looking for “what’s next”. And, once again, circular pathways and my passion for flight would collide once again.

In August 2019 I caught wind that Microsoft was looking to get back in the 3D game once again and wanted to resurrect the software and processes we’d used successfully for many years in Boulder. This needed to happen fast to meet the needs of a large government customer but, thanks to the Uber debacle four years earlier, very few people with knowledge of the system were still around. Suddenly I had become singularly valuable.

OKAY, I’LL JOIN YOUR TEAM…FOR ONE MILLION DOLLARS!

About the same time I heard about how Microsoft was also planning to bring back Flight Simulator, after unceremoniously shut down the studio in 2009. In the midst of this dual act of necromancy I reached out to a former colleague from the TrainSim days–a former F-15 pilot whose name is Royal Winchester (because of course it is)–who was working as Creative Director on the game. He, in turn, put me in touch with the new head of FlightSim, Jorg Neumann, to see if they, too, would value someone with historical context. The answer seemed to be no. Because the new version was being developed out of house there wasn’t the need for as many fulltime staff. Disappointed, I thanked Jorg and accepted the Bing Maps position.

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TWO ARNOLD REFERENCES IN ONE BLOG POST! BOO-YAH!

By now, if you’ve been following along, you can probably see what’s coming. As has been widely reported, Flight Simulator 2020 combines real-world mapping data and AI-based computer vision algorithms to present a version of the real world in the game. This includes all the aerial imagery and 3D cities we created back in Boulder. As the release date approached the two teams, Flight Simulator and Bing Maps, worked closely to ensure a successful launch. I was involved because I understood how the 3D cities were built and had context for the needs of the game. They even drafted me (along with a few of my colleagues) to help produce a video highlighting our collaboration.

NOT BAD FOR BEING LOCKED IN OUR HOMES DURING A PANDEMIC

I began to feel like the universe was trying to tell me something. I started to discuss with my wife how the dream to fly again was being rousted from it’s career-and-family-fueled slumber. She encouraged me to pursue the dream again so, as a good program manager is want to do, I started making lists. I made lists on what I needed to do to get my pilot’s license current again. I also made lists related to building an airplane. Why build? I had always had in the back of my mind that it would feed both my passion for flying but also my general inquisitive nature and love of a challenge. The question was, could I do it? Should I do it? Those would take more time to answer but I decided at last I might as well get back in the cockpit again.

I renewed my FAA medical certificate and started searching out local flight schools. I came across Western Air Flight Academy at nearby Rocky Mountain Metro airport (KBJC) in Broomfield and made an appointment to meet with an instructor to discuss my goals. I chose Western not only because they were close by but because they are part of a larger network–with locations in Colorado, California, Oregon and Nebraska–and are also a flying club with different varieties of aircraft available to rent. My instructor, Natalie, (who is not that much older than our daughter 😆) listened patiently while I explained my situation (including how I somehow only had 1.3 hours of tricycle gear time in my logbook) and then, on a cool November afternoon, I took the controls of a veteran Piper Archer for my first flight as Pilot in Command in over 16 years!

FLYING LIGHT AIRCRAFT IN THE AGE OF COVID

On subsequent flights, Natalie took me through the normal suite of skills required for a flight review–ground reference maneuvers, slow flight, stalls, and so forth. The air work came back quickly. At first my landings were a bit sketchy but, in time, those improved as well. Then, with the stroke of a pen in my logbook, I was deemed once again authorized to fly!

MOST OF MY TRAINING HAS BEEN IN THEIS NEARLY NEW CESSNA 172S G1000 MODEL I DUBBED “THE LEXUS”

With this accomplishment under my belt it was “put up or shut up” time with respect to aircraft building. I found a local A&P who builds and refurbishes aircraft and who also teaches a construction skills class that gives you a sense of what’s required. You learn about the basic techniques and get to practice with some of the tools creating a section of an aileron.

OKAY, JUST REPLCIATE THAT 150 MORE TIMES AND YOU’LL HAVE AN AIRPLANE

Attending the class provided a much needed confidence boost. I was pretty sure I could pull this off and, if I needed help, Troy was just 45 minutes away. Attending the class also got me introduce an acquaintance of Troy’s who, like me, had been bitten by the building bug and knocked out the majority of an RV-10 tail section over the course of the preceding few months. However, hopefully unlike me, he realized he wanted to fly more than he wanted to build (or least spend the next couple years building) and bought a used Piper Comanche. With the means to take flight acquired, the tail section was now playing the role of aluminum artwork in his basement. He was looking to sell. After a visit to his “aircraft factory” (with Troy in tow to ensure the workmanship was up to snuff) we shook hands (preceded and followed by rigorous disinfection protocols) and I took possession of one largely completed tail and several boxes of assorted parts, bolts, rivets, etc. I had graduated from balsa and plastic models to something that would someday carry me and my family on far-flung airborne adventures in a mere 42 years!

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED

Looking back I am still somewhat amazed at the sequence of events that, in a relatively short time, resurrected a series of childhood (and grown-up) dreams and compelled them to take flight. If I think about it, though, it was during those meetings with Jorg, discussing the new Flight Sim, that the first inklings began to scratch the recesses of my brain. And once I had the chance to experience the game, taking in the beautifully rendered aircraft, terrain and weather, I realized I would not be content to simply “fly my desk” when the real sky was calling. So you see, Jorg, a few years from now, when I send you a bill for the thousands of dollars I spent chasing the passion you helped me rekindle I hope you understand why.

Flying a Desk

My wife is a genius. Of course, what loving (or at least savvy) husband wouldn’t say that about his significant other? Still, mine really is. Not long after we started seriously (SERIOUSLY!) dating the love of my life noticed that I was less than completely fulfilled at my job. Yes, I was working for one of the greatest (then not-so-great then great once again) technology companies on the planet but my role was, how to put this…like being the late-night host on QVC. Yes, I was getting paid but I knew my soul was slowly being syphoned off to feed a future real estate mogul’s run for President.

Being keenly in tune to my mental state she asked a question that, in retrospect, was both genius and obvious: “Is there anything that Microsoft does that you would want to be a part of?” Well, duh! Of course there is but, geez, I mean, it seems like such a long shot. Everybody and their brother (or sister!) would want to work there and who am I?

I don’t remember if she physically “whacked me up side the head” or just made her reaction know with the patented “wife stare” but she was having none of it. She instructed me to “mop up what’s left of your ego” and go find out if they were hiring. Fortunately for me Microsoft has a pretty robust email address book and I quickly found the email for, let’s just call him Andy (because that’s his name), and I dashed off a quick message about whether they were hiring, or not, and, if not, that’s okay because I understand you must get a lot of email and, er, I’m sorry, what? You are looking to hire a Scenery Program Manager? Okay! Not sure what that is but, yes, I’d love to talk to you about it.

I spent the next week or so preparing for the interview. This consisted of two distinct activities. In the first, I went through the myriad of potential interview questions I thought I might be asked. This includes classics like, “why are manhole covers round?” to “describe the universe in 20 words or less and cite 3 examples.” The second activity involved, whenever I had the opportunity (in the car, doing dishes, shopping with my girlfriend), blasting Foo Fighters “Learning to Fly” in my headphones. (I am seriously not making this up.)

Now, perhaps you have had the experience of not knowing exactly what you did to achieve something that you really, really wanted. I don’t recall what I was thinking after the interview but I do remember–thanks in part to the ability to look up my own employment history–that I was, in fact, offered the job. I was the newest addition to the Microsoft Flight Simulator team…doing scenery…or something.

GREEN AND GRAY. SOOOO MUCH GREEN AND GRAY.

As it turned out, “scenery” was just shorthand for “all the stuff in the game that’s not an airplane”. The thing about a flight simulator is that a simulated aircraft is pretty much useless unless you have things like, say, airports, navigation aids, terrain, obstructions, and so forth. When I joined the team there was a single, external company that provided all of this to Microsoft for inclusion in the game. If the term “single point of failure” makes your heart rate increase then you understand the position that Microsoft was in at that point in time. I was tasked with, generally, to “fix this” by bringing the “scenery” creation workflow back in house.

I would like to say the good thing was that I was an expert in GIS (Geographic Information Systems), map projections, datums, and multi-user databases and knew I could totally nail this. The reality was more nuanced, meaning I had (mostly) no clue what I was doing at first. Yes, I’d done database work before but didn’t know a spheroid from a hemorrhoid. Fortunately we had some talented folks on the team who did know and–better still–could refrain from rolling their eyes when the ‘noob’ would say something stupid (which happened frequently). We also recruited a talented developer named Gene from GIS powerhouse ESRI to help design and build our new system. In the end we pulled off our mission and our new “scenery” management system eventually took flight, though I did ship one version using the existing provider and some high-tech visuals:

MY CONTRIBUTION TO FLIGHTSIM 2002: PUSHPINS AND STAR STICKERS

My wife had been right–I just needed to find a role that nourished my whole self, not just my desire to be a ‘softie. The team that produced Flight Simulator (and it’s sister title, Combat Flight Simulator) was extremely talented and dedicated and included some true franchise veterans–folks who’d been there “in the beginning” (or pretty close to it). I truly enjoyed working with those folks and got to work on some projects that were pretty unique within the software industry, like our dynamic, real-world weather system. (For which I was awarded a patent for realizing people like to pick from lists.) I got to learn a lot about aviation, too. Microsoft partnered with industry players like Boeing, Jeppesen, King Schools and others. In a sense I probably got more exposure to the industry that I would have just flying my Maule around Puget Sound. And that’s not to say there wasn’t real flying. There were several pilots and airplane owners on the team. Our collective stable included a Cessna 206, Bonanza, Extra 300 and, weirdly, 4 Maules.

There were a myriad of other side benefits, too. Microsoft sponsored a booth at EAA Airventure in Oshkosh every year where the public got to demo our products (FS and CFS in alternating years) and you can’t have a booth without people to staff it! I got to go on several occasions and experience the “red carpet” treatment of a premium sponsor–meaning sleeping in a hotel room, meal tickets and getting around the sprawling complex via golf cart. I even flew my Maule there in 2002, alongside the esteemed Bruce Williams in the right seat. My wife flew out commercially and then flew back with me to Seattle (with a stopover in Nebraska at her parents’ farm), a trip notable for turbulence and a wicked crosswind landing in Butte, Montana.

Finding a “home” also benefitted my career. After serving as “scenery guy” I was promoted to Lead Program Manager and led the development effort for a couple of versions. I grew as a leader and a manager–gaining experience I still lean on today. Being project lead also meant I got to spend time promoting our simulation titles to the press and at various tradeshows.

BEING LOCKED IN A WINDOWLESS BOOTH FOR 8 HOURS TALKING TO JOURNALISTS BEGINS TO TAKE A TOLL

This was a mostly fulfilling experience, with the exception of that time when were accused of aiding terrorists (bad time to be the guy in charge of scenery). Or when a helicopter with our logo on it got wrecked…

I retained my lead role through the release of Flight Simulator X (‘X’ for EXTREME! Not.), after which I decided I needed a change of pace and moved over to spearhead the reintroduction of Microsoft Train Simulator. (You may laugh but the first version sold over a million copies!) The first few months on the job were great fun. The team got to go to Vancouver for several days for engineer training at BCIT where, after some classroom work, we each got to try our hand at driving the school’s diesel locomotive. (Seriously, why do people keep trusting us with complex machinery??)

JOSH EXPLAINING TO ME SOME VERY TECHNICAL ASPECT OF A DIESEL LOCOMOTIVE

However, despite the efforts of a very creative team, some very large ambitions (World of Rails, anyone?), and a press junket by yours truly, that product was never to see the light of day. Somehow I saw the writing on the wall (graffiti on the boxcar?) and had started putting the plans in motion for an even bigger change of pace, moving our family (which had grown to include a feisty four-year-old daughter) out of rainy Seattle for the sunny skies of Denver, Colorado. I had learned a great deal, not just about aviation but about myself and I will forever cherish my days working on Flight Sim. But life moves forward and it was time to put my dream back on the shelf for a few more years…

A Dream Takes Root

PHOTO BY DARIUSZ SANKOWSKI

He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.

Friedrich Nietzsche

How many dreams stick with you since childhood? For me the dream of flight formed when I was a young boy growing up on a small farm in rural Maine. I would look up as airliners passed overhead, drawing faint while streaks across the sky, and, if I was lucky, catch a glimpse of a light aircraft meandering over the fields and forests. I became fascinated with flying machines of all types and became an avid builder of balsa and plastic models. I even replicated various aircraft designs by gluing together toothpicks (with varying degrees of success) for 4th grade show-and-tell. Building models fed my aviation aspirations before I really understood what it would take to command these amazing, complex, and magical craft.

I can’t recall if there was one moment when I knew I wanted to learn to fly or whether small events coalesced into a sense that the desire had always been there. Military aviation intrigued me but these hopes were dashed when I came to understand (incorrectly) that those pilots needed perfect vision and by age 10 my eyes were already succumbing to nearsightedness. My first experience in a light aircraft came a year earlier, facilitated by my fourth grade teacher, whose husband was a private pilot. The instrument panel of his rented Piper Cherokee towered over me so my view was limited to what I could see out the passenger window. Nonetheless I was in awe of the sea of gauges and switches. Actually being able to take the yoke and maneuver the aircraft was addicting.

As I got older I retained my love of flying and relished any chance to travel by air. When I was 12 I got to fly cross-country (alone!) to meet by biological father for the first time. As I recall, the TWA Lockheed L-1011 was roughly half full (not like the sardine can seating of today) and the flight attendants served complementary champagne to the entire cabin (with the exception of the unaccompanied minor, of course). I don’t remember if I ever seriously discussed learning to fly with my parents or whether I just assumed it was an unrealistic and frivolous desire at the time but, either way, I filed it in the “someday” mental folder. High school and college and marriage and life (and marriage again) filled my waking hours and added their constant pull to my bank accounts.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties, with a second marriage slowing drifting to an end, that I decided to take stock of life and what I had (or hadn’t) gotten out of it. By now I was working a stable, well paid technology job and had downsized from a “power couple McMansion” to a spartan one-bedroom apartment in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. I was making intentional changes in my life to create a better, more fulfilling future. So, while it sounds cliché, I finally just asked myself, “what am I waiting for?” The call of the sky hadn’t disappeared. It was time to make those past dreams real. It was time to become a pilot.

I must have also uncovered a contrarian streak because I also decided to pursue my dream a bit differently than most. About a year earlier a colleague had introduced me to the world of taildraggers. He owned a Maule—a M7-260C to be precise—and we would discuss the benefits (and challenges) of tailwheel aircraft during several scenic flights. Learning to fly a plane with a “little wheel in the back” was difficult for many skilled pilots of tricycle gear aircraft, much less someone with no practical piloting experience (beyond games and simulators). It would be much harder than training in your average Cessna or Piper. Sounds great—sign me up!

It was also during this period that I made another decision. Realizing that I was now both single and well compensated I placed an order for an airplane (a taildragger, of course). Eschewing notions of renting, co-ownership or potential problems of a pre-owned aircraft, I landed on (no pun intended) a brand-new-from-the-factory Maule which would carry the moniker N5509M. Now, unlike with an automobile, there are no “new plane lots” with rows of airplanes to browse. Research is performed at airshows, fly-ins and the occasional chance encounter on the ramp. I eventually decided on an IFR-equipped M7-235-C, the logic being I would eventually train for and receive an instrument rating. I selected options like float fittings, stainless steel cowling screws and cupholders (just kidding), submitted the order (along with a sizable deposit) and set about waiting for the factory in Moultrie, Georgia to alert me it was ready to be picked up.

Owning your own aircraft is a big commitment, both financially and in terms of your free time. As it happens, two events occurred in between placing my order and flying down to Moultrie to pick up my purchase: the dot-com bubble burst and I met “the one”. Both would have an influence on my dream’s future trajectory. My plan to rely on stock sales to fund the balance due on N5509M had to be altered and I ended up financing the equivalent of the proverbial “luxury SUV”, adding to my monthly obligations of hangar rental, insurance, fuel, maintenance and so forth. And while “her one-ness” was not opposed to the occasional cross-country flight to a worthy destination she did not share my drive to go “burn some AvGas” on any available sunny weekend.

FRIDAY HARBOR FOR DINNER? OKAY, MAYBE WE CAN KEEP THE PLANE.

In her defense, the square footage of my hangar was larger than that of my apartment and if we were going to get serious (and we were!) owning a house was more practical than sharing ownership of an airplane with the bank (though they never asked to borrow it, which I thought was nice). So, not long after we tied the knot it was time for N5509M to find a new home. It was a bittersweet transaction. Though I was saying “so long” to something that represented the culmination of a childhood dream I knew “she’ would be in good hands and not far away. On March 12, 2002 I inscribed the final entry in my logbook as pilot in command of N5509M for the ferry to Vashon Island. I had sold N5509M to my flight instructor George.

I felt the pangs of melancholy for some time afterward but, as it often does, time helped heal the wounds. I had a new bride, an exciting new job (more on that in another post), and a new house to finish building before our new baby arrived. Before long the demands and joys of marriage and parenthood took center stage. My consolation came from an acceptance that I had, at last, realized my childhood dream in a way few do. After all, how many people can say they owned their own airplane? Surely my dreams will now be dominated by other things and I can safety cherish my flying days as fond memories, never again to emerge so strongly.

Or can I?