Sunday, September 20, 2009

Welcome to Schmetterling Aviation

No, my name is not Schmetterling. (Hmm, that doesn't quite ring like "Call me Ishmael.")

So what is Schmetterling Aviation? Well, we'll get to that. A more interesting thing to know is what the purpose of this blog is, so let's get that out of the way. The purpose of this blog is to act as a personal journal as I work through the building of a Van's RV-12. While it will be mostly "how I did it" in nature, I hope to also share some of the other aspects of working through such a long and complex project.

What? Another question? "What's an RV-12," you ask? An RV-12 is the latest entry into the venerable line of homebuilt (aka 'Experimental') aircraft kits manufactured and sold by Van's Aircraft. You can learn a little bit more about the RV-12 in particular at this link. As long as we're on the subject, it is also pertinent to know that I currently own and fly a different model of Van's, the RV-6. All you could ever want to know about that is available on my other blog, The Papa Golf Chronicles.

While the RV-6 is also a homebuilt airplane, I did not build it. The building of an RV-6 takes a significant amount of time, and as I was more interested in flying an RV-6 than I was in building one, I took the expedient path of simply buying one that was already built. I've been flying that airplane for over four years and enjoying it immensely. The next question is easily predicted: then why would I want to build an RV-12?

The answer to that is, unfortunately, fairly complex.

Partially it all comes down to an inherent need that I have built into my psyche. The fundamental fact is that I love to create things. If I ponder my collection of hobbies and interests throughout my life, I see a common theme. When I was a teenager, I was interested in photography. I was also interested in software development. And, of course, I was passionate about flying. To those ends, I was the school photographer and had a B&W darkroom to develop and print my own photos. I had a TRS-80 Model I when I was 16 years old. The TRS-80 was the very first consumer level computer in the world. I built and flew RC airplanes.

Today, I develop software as my profession and for fun I fly around in my RV-6 taking pictures. My work life offers me the opportunity to see a need within my business unit and tailor build a solution to it. I create new Windows applications from scratch and enjoy seeing the entire organization benefit from my work. When I'm not at work, the RV-6 and the camera give me the chance to capture a special perspective in my photography by presenting both a unique platform from which to take aerial pictures and a very fast way to make day trips in order to gain access to locations that would normally be time prohibitive.

So, if I've got all of that going for me, why build an airplane? And why build one that flies slower than the one I have now? As much as I enjoy my work and hobbies, I still feel a hunger to create something more tangible. Software is called that for a reason; it's not something you can pick up and feel. It's created by sitting at a desk typing in code which, while technically could count as something built with my own hands, it doesn't impart the same sense of having built something more tangible and permanent. Besides, it's work. It exercises my mind and gets me through the work day, but it is by no means suitable as a recreational activity. What I need to scratch my itch is to actually build something. Something solid.

"So," you're thinking, "there must be something else you could build. What about porch furniture?" Believe me, I've been there. What I've found is that my projects have to meet a few essential criteria:

  - it must be a kit. I don't have the skills to create things from plans. For example, I built a beautiful kayak from a kit. It was a big, messy job, and I loved 98% of the time that I spent doing it. That other 2% of time was spent cleaning nasty things like epoxy from my hands? Well, not so much.

As a follow-on project, I tried to build a plywood canoe from plans. The idea was to do something a little less costly than the kayak kit had been. I'd rather not talk about that; it was an epic failure. Allow it to suffice that things work out better if most of the fabrication of major parts has been done for me.

  - it has to be something I can use when I'm done building it. I have no interest in models or other things that just clutter up the house when I'm done with them.  Neither does my wife.  My job is to clutter up the house with stuff; her job is to stop me from cluttering up the house with stuff. We meet somewhere in the middle.

  - it helps me to know that there is support available if I run into things that I don't understand or know how to do.  The community of airplane homebuilders is vibrant and always ready to offer assistance, and Van's has a great reputation for builder support.

This brings us to the RV-12. The kit is brand new and uses state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques and comes with extremely detailed instructions. Compared to the difficulty of building an older design like an RV-6, building an RV-12 is skads easier. Note that saying 'easier' is not the same as saying 'easy', though. As a comparison, the building of an RV-6 was expected to take at least 2000 man hours. An RV-12 is measured at an average of 700 hours. So, easier but not easy. The time savings comes mostly from pre-drilled parts and the use of blind rivets rather than driven rivets, but the superior quality of the building instructions also plays a major part.

I expect it to take at least three years for me to build my RV-12. That's three years of knowing that I have an exciting and interesting project for me to work on when I get home from the paying job. That's three years of challenging and varied work towards a purposeful goal. It will have its ups and downs, of course. There will be days when I want nothing to do with it. There will be days when I can't wait to get home to work on it. There may even come a day when I decide that I've had enough and I just can't finish it. It happens.

Why three years? Well, I've often said that building an airplane is something that you do when you're trying to fill your time, not something that you do when you're trying to find time. The shorter build time of the RV-12 changes that belief. If I can average an hour a day for three years, even applying a conservative padding of almost 50% more time onto the predicted 700 hour build time has me done and flying in three years.  Sure, I could get it done sooner if I wanted to work at it, but this project is intended to be low pressure recreation. I have a flying airplane already; I'm in no hurry to finish the new one.

Even so, it's a big commitment.  Many, many people start kits and do not finish them. If for any reason I decided to give up, there will be a ready market of people willing to buy a partially completed kit for the price of the materials that I have in it. It's very helpful to know that there is a safety net out there and the only thing I would lose is the value of the time that I have put into it, and that is no loss at all, considering that it is the way I want to spend my time.

If nothing else, I think I will build the tail over this winter. I'm not a very outdoorsy type in the bitter cold weather anymore and I need a project to keep myself occupied over the long Ohio winter. The beauty of the RV-12 tail kit is that the vast majority of the work can be done in my basement. That said, because the tail kit includes the very large tail cone, the final assembly of the tail will have to be performed somewhere above ground. I'm not keen on leaving the cars out on the driveway, so using the garage is out of the question so it will likely end up out in my unheated hangar where I have plenty of room to do the final riveting.

The advantages of starting with the tail are related to cost. The tail kit is $2,150 (plus shipping) which is a very small initial expense when compared to the overall cost of the kit. Another benefit is that there is resale value for the tail should I decide that I don't want to proceed with the rest of the build. I figure there will be a very large number of RV-12s built, so there should be a ready market for a completed tail. Why not buy one already done for the same cost as the kit itself?

The more important and difficult decision will be whether or not to continue to build the rest of the airplane. As the build process progresses, both the cost and the physical size of the components increases dramatically. I would be reluctant to build an entire wing or fuselage in the hangar, but if there is a reasonable ratio between time spent fabricating or preparing individual parts before assembling them into or onto a prohibitively large structure, well, that would be different. If I could take a bunch of deburred and fluted ribs out to the hangar to final rivet onto the spar, for example, the time spent in the hangar would be minimized. That's only really important for the three or four months of bitter winter cold; a good fan would keep the hangar at a suitable temperature for all but the worst of the summer days.

Along that line of thought, I asked Wingman Ted*, who is currently building an RV-10, what that ratio might be. His estimate is 50-50. So, half the time would be spent preparing parts in my basement, the other half would be spent assembling them in the hangar. Even though I live just a mile from the hangar, this would inevitably slow the pace of the project somewhat, but I think it's important to note that I have an advantage over the more typical builder: I already have an airplane to fly. What do I care if it takes three years to finish an RV-12? And with the option to bail out and sell the partially complete kit any time I want, I don't see much financial risk to the endeavor.

So, back to the question of "why an RV-12 in the first place?" Well, I ain't getting any younger and the LSA airplane has the benefit of removing any worries over losing my medical. That is, after all, how I got my RV-6. I think the guy that built it only put 155 hours on it before losing his medical. And, although the RV-12 is 30 knots slower than the RV-6, it is more capable when the winds get higher than my comfort level in the taildragging, small rudder RV-6. And with a nosewheel, the RV-12 would be suitable for flight instruction. That would be a boon to co-pilot Egg**!

So, at long last, why Schmetterling Aviation?

I don't know.

I shared all of this with my Dad and he decided that he'd like to be involved in the project. He suggested the name, and it sounded just fine to me. One of these days I'll ask him where the idea for "Schmetterling Aviation" came from, but for now I'm just thrilled to have him on board.

* You'll get used to the pseudonyms.  It's just a thing I do - I don't use other people's names in my writing.
** See what I mean? "Egg" is my daughter.


GregoryJ said...

Great! Another blog to keep up with! Geesh!!! :)

Hugo said...

I've been thinking about the -12 as the kit for me. Having no experience in building, the idea of starting with a single kit appeals to me.

[My 2¢ alert]

Why not start with the wing? If most people will be starting with the empennage, then those who gave up on their project would flood the market with tail feathers. If you have a wing kit, wouldn't that be more value on the marketplace to a builder who might be looking for a Q/B kit?

[This concludes my 2¢ alert]

DaveG said...

Hugo -

That's an interesting suggestion, but here are my thoughts:

- The wing kit costs $5,480, more than twice the cost of the tail. I think it's better to start with the lowest cost part. This was pretty much the deciding factor.

But also:
- The wing is more complex. Better to get up to speed on a more manageable part.
- The wing takes twice as long to build. Meaningful progress will come quicker with the tail.
- The wing will require hangar building sooner than the tail. The tail can be done over the winter in my basement right up until final assembly in the cold, cold hangar.
- There will eventually be quick build kits. Those traditionally are only available for the wing and fuselage, not the tail. My thinking is that anyone in the market for components that they don't have to build themselves will want a completed tail.

I'm not even sure if I would do the wing next after the tail. If I do the fuselage, I will have something to attach the completed tail to and not have to store it on the hangar floor or on sawhorses. The fuse is actually a little cheaper than the tail too.

Torsten said...

I love the name "Schmetterling Aviation" for your airplane factory, Dave! It is so suitable for building an LSA! At least that's how I feel, when flying across mountains around noon in Southern Arizona in my RANS S-12S... like a butterfly in thermals, trying to maintain something that remotely reminds fellow butterflies of a "course". I just hope that the RV-12 will be feeling a bit less like a butterfly when flying at maximum gross weight in such conditions as my wife is not exactly "thermal proof" and has to make use of the "bag" far too often.

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