Finally Winging It!

Hello my dedicated readers, er, I mean reader (thanks, honey)! This week we’ve decamped to Telluride for our annual Memorial Day getaway. While there’s no actual work happening on the plane, the break is giving me time to catch up the build log and post some (hopefully) interesting content (in between margaritas and jigsaw puzzles).

Athena tells me she much prefers the shop and “helping” with airplane building over this.

Too Big for UPS

The big news is that the wing kit finally arrived a few weeks back. I had many people ask how close the final shipment came to the estimate provided by Van’s. It was pretty close. I ordered it the first week of January and Van’s promised shipment within 16 and 20 weeks (they are now listing lead times in months–sigh). I knew shipment was getting close when I noticed the balance charge show up on my credit card. Then about a week later I got an email from the shipping company tell me I could call and arrange delivery. I thought it odd that I had not gotten confirmation from Van’s but then shortly thereafter I got a packet in the US Mail (how quaint!) giving me the details I needed, along with instructions on how to handle potential damages. I have seen some pretty bleak reports of damage during shipment and was hoping I would not have to deal with such headaches.

Of course, this had recently happened a couple miles from our house.

Fortunately I had no such issues when the shipment arrived.

Does Van’s paint the dollar sign to signify, “If you rob this truck, steal these first”?

I’m sure the driver had some questions about the odd-shaped crates but if he did he kept them to himself.

I was tempted to explain that I was a massive pole vaulting enthusiast.

The driver was very accommodating and pushed the crates over the curb and up the driveway into my garage/aircraft factory.

After the rush of the delivery was over I realized I had made a tactical error in scheduling it for mid-week. In retrospect it would have been better to schedule it for Friday so I could have quit work and gone straight into inventory management. However, you shouldn’t attempt to build an airplane if you aren’t good at problem solving and, after thinking about my predicament for a few moments, I grabbed my laptop so I could take my remaining Teams meetings from the garage. I assure you I was definitely, sort of, paying attention.

One thing that is not on the inventory sheet is the shear volume of packing paper Van’s uses to protect the valuable cargo. I was pretty sure I could have packed a small, single family home with everything that was left over, as you can see in the time lapse video below:

Another satisfied customer of Van’s Packing Materials Company.

Inventorying the kit is a critical first step as you only have 30 days to inform Van’s of missing components and get them shipped for free. After that you pay the bill. I inventoried the large/aluminum parts as I unpacked them but there are several bags and sub-kits that require more careful study. In the end everything was accounted for with the exception of some backordered flap nose ribs, some AN4 bolts (they shipped AN3’s instead), and 3 measly K1000-06 nut plates. I felt sort of bad for making Van’s send me 3 replacement nut plates as I’m sure I have some extras but, being extremely Type-A, I could not violate the mandate to tell them what was missed. I received the bolts and nut plates within a week or so.

You Can Have a Storeroom or a Workshop But Not Both

As satisfying as the unpacking and inventorying was it left me with the dilemma of what to do with all the new pieces parts (not to mention the completed empennage) such that I would have room to work (and park my truck at night). I had already used a good chunk of the wall space for some decorative aluminum art pieces:

And I’d cleaned off enough junk from some storage shelves for the smaller pieces:

It looks so cool I almost don’t want to start building. Almost…

That left the problem of what to so with larger wing skins and the massive spars. My first thought was to hang the leading edge skins from the ceiling. I bought a hardwood closet rod at Lowe’s and fashioned some plywood brackets but, after attaching the brackets to the ceiling discovered the skins were just too heavy and cumbersome to safely get them up there. Instead I opted to reposition the “elevator wall art” so I could hang the skins alongside):

Note the strings keeping the skins from expanding.

For the wing skins I decided to use the space along the wall I normally try to keep clear do I can open by truck doors. I used some structural pipe, hose and pipe clamps, and the sides of one of the crates to fashion a shelf of sorts that hold not only the wing skins but rear spars, j-stiffeners, and other long parts:

The reason I chose to mount the shelf off the floor was that I need room to store the wing spars. While it won’t be too long before the spars are part of the larger wing structure I did want a way to tuck them away during the initial construction phases. The solution I came up with was to attach some casters I had on hand to the shipping crate. That way I can roll them against the wall when I need to:

Overengineer (ō-vər-ˌen-jə-ˈnir); verb; To make something more complicated than necessary; often implies that the complexity was added intentionally.

That left only the empennage, which had been occupying one of my rolling workbenches for the past several months. I had already decided it would live on the ceiling of the garage. The question was now to get it there. I thought about purchasing a manufactured solution like the one I use to store our Christmas sleigh (don’t ask–long story) but these are a bit overkill and expensive for what they are. Therefore I decided to try to roll my own solution.

I had previously fabricated two cradles to hold the empennage and so started by building a frame out of 1×3 boards and some plywood gussets to which these could be attached:

I bolted eye hooks at the corners and to the ceiling joists with the idea that I’d use rope to hoist the whole enchilada skyward and then secure it with some surplus light fixture chain I had on hand. After I trial run with ropes passed through the ceiling hooks I discovered the whole thing was too heavy to lift, even though most of the weight was surely the wood, not the aluminum. In the end I decided to add pulleys to both the frame and the ceiling to fashion a rudimentary block and tackle system. That provided the leverage I needed and, for the first time, at least part of the airplane took flight:

The empennage just rests in the cradle so to keep to sliding out and ruining both part of an airplane and two cars I threaded a bolt through a length of chain and fitted it to the tie down bracket. In the end I was pretty happy with the result as will be easily to get back down if I want to work on some of the remaining tasks.

Now, in the immortal words of Robert Irvine, “Let’s get to work!”

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’.


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.


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.


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.


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!