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

β€œLife 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?” πŸ€¦β€β™‚οΈ). 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 πŸ˜†) 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.