Sunday, January 17, 2010

On being "Done"

For all intents and purposes, I am done with the tail cone.

What I have found as I reach the latter stages of mid-life, though, it that one often has to qualify just what is meant by the word "done."

In the pragmatic sense of the word, while there is work yet to be accomplished on the overall empennage kit, in the absence of a fuselage to attach it to there isn't much point in doing it. For example, the next section in the manual details the process of attaching the vertical and horizontal stabs, and in turn attaching the rudder to the vertical stab. I may or may not do that now, mostly depending on whether the empennage will be easier to store with or without those surfaces attached. But the attachment of those surfaces doesn't require any sort of construction; those parts are already built.

This is an example of the fluid sense of the word "done." There are RVs out and about that even after more than 2,000 hours of building and an additional 2,000 hours of flying cannot truly be called done. In extreme cases, they aren't done because they haven't been painted. In more subtle cases, I offer up my own RV-6 as an example. A couple of months ago, I met the guy that built that airplane. He looked at the fiberglass fairings that streamline the juncture between the landing gear legs and the side of the fuselage and said something about them still not being done. The fairings that he had originally put on it had been, in his mind, only intended to be temporary until he could get around to making nicer ones. I too had considered them in exactly the same way, and I too never got around to replacing them.

It is for this reason that I have always been irked at the accusation that I never finish any of the things that I start. There are many things that I have finished, although some of them have taken much longer than is the norm. In the strictest sense, my college degree took from the Fall of 1979 to June, 1996 to get done. That's quite a lengthy period to attain a four year degree, but perhaps it's more understandable once you realize that there are eleven years of military service and the start of a career mixed in there as well. My private pilot's license took nine years to achieve, but those were nine years of traveling the world while in the military and earning a salary only slight better than minimum wage. Both of those made any length of contiguous flight training very difficult to do indeed. And that instrument rating I earned? How many people have one of those?

There are certainly counter-examples. There is an unfinished canoe in my basement, providing companionship to an uncompleted porch swing that will never see the porch and is very unlikely to ever swing. Those were projects that I attempted to do on a low-risk budget (mostly by buying wood that isn't suitable to the task of supporting bodies on the water or hung from the porch ceiling) because I was not confident in my abilities to build from scratch. Those were valuable efforts, though, in that I learned that I do not do well when trying to fabricate every part of a kit using my extremely limited skills. Counter to those two examples, there is a very nice kit-build kayak residing down there as well. The kayak isn't a perfect example; it has not yet been varnished. In that sense, it is no more "done" than an unpainted airplane. It floats, it's well constructed, and it even looks very nice. But it is not truly "done."

Whether it is fair or not, it is this history that will be used to judge your abilities to complete a project as complex and mind-bogglingly large as building an airplane. It is also this history that made this comic so outrageously funny to me:

(Don't sit there squinting; click on it to see a larger version!)

By the time you reach the age where your 50th birthday no longer seems like it is safely in the distant, almost science fiction future, you get to know a few fundamental truths about yourself. One of those truths in my case is that I have an insatiable hunger for new experiences. That hunger often leads to interest in new hobbies. Combined with another strong trait that I have, which is the tendency to try on ideas in the same way a woman likes to try on shoes, it can (and does!) result in the collection of a lot of detritus. Abandoned projects start to litter the closets and basement. It's inevitable. And there's no small number of shoes sitting in the closet gathering dust, too. It happens. Fact of life. Once you understand it, though, you learn to be on the lookout for it.

Of course, some interests stick. Flying, photography, writing - all have stayed at the forefront for years and years. You can see two of these at work in this blog, and all three in the Papa Golf Chronicles blog.

Having varied interests and a fundamental desire to create things has had salutary results in at least one area: my career. As a software developer, I get to design and build things every day of the work week. As a one-man show, I even get to decide what to build and when to build it. There is tremendous satisfaction in that, but it is tempered by the fact that the end result of my work benefits others far more that it benefits me. Well, indirectly, anyway. It certainly benefits me in a pecuniary sense. But it doesn't offer the pride of creation and the lingering sense of enjoyment that something like building the kayak did.

From the combination of all of those things things arose the desire to build an airplane. From an honest (or so I'd like to believe) assessment of my abilities and my weaknesses, I selected the RV-12. The RV-12 is the Building An Airplane for Dummies book of Van's airplanes in many ways but, as with the series of books in the "Dummies" series, there is enough meat to satisfy all but the hungriest builder. While the normal Van's kits have a completion rate of somewhere around 50%, I predict that something like 95% of the RV-12 kits sold will be completed. The RV-12 is far more similar to the kayak kit than it is to the canoe or porch swing.

So, here we are. While I am still in the very early stages of building an airplane and it would be the height of foolishness to definitively state that I have this challenge beat, the completion (such as it is) of a major component is of great significance. There are remaining challenges, and some of them are major. Forming the longerons, building the fuel tank, fitting the canopy: these are all major battles remaining to be fought before the war is won. Any one of them could ultimately be my Waterloo; only time will tell. But for now, the future looks bright.

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