Sunday, October 30, 2011

Icing the cake

It's not that the Ohio weather was any great shakes when I departed for southern climes on a business trip early last week, but the weather that I returned to is worse yet. Not worse in the sense that inconvenient forms or precipitation are covering the roads and making things slippery, but that isn't for want of sufficiently low temperatures. Let's see.... a quick glance at the internet thermometer shows 28F on the other side of the walls. Brrr!

Having suffered the indignities inherent in modern air travel (up to and including a seat-kicker behind me and a top-of-lung non-stop screaming diaper-filler right next to her, both accompanied by the type of negligent parent that ensures no improvement in their behavior in the foreseeable future) and the inconveniences of hotel living for nearly a week, I needed a couple of days to recuperate and regain momentum on the sundry initiatives that laid fallow in my absence. It could have been worse, I suppose. As I was sitting at the gate in Atlanta waiting for my flight to depart (three hours!!), a pilot walked by who was seemingly engaged in some form of remote-parenting, more than likely of a teenager. What caught my attention was that he had a cell phone up to his ear and he was yelling, "Look at me! LOOK AT ME!!" into it. I was not alone in breathing a sigh of relief when he continued on past our gate; none of us were thrilled with the idea of our lives being in the hands of a pissed-off pilot that doesn't know that he can't be seen through a cell phone.

Having rested, recuperated, and re-engaged in routine requirements/recreations, I resolutely returned to the regrettably repetitive work of filling the gaps in the canopy fiberglass. This requires the mixing of a filler called "micro balloons" into a cup of epoxy.
Glass and quartz bubbles also called micro balloons used to add to mixed epoxy and hardener. Totally non-structural and very light, with a texture and color approaching talcum powder they are used to thicken epoxy.
The 'talcum powder' comparison is spot-on. The powder is so fine that it behaves almost like a liquid when you're stirring it, with one critical difference being that it also likes to blow out of the cup as a fine dust. Considering that this dust is comprised of such lung-unfriendly materials as glass and quartz, you can imagine the pains I went to in order to avoid inhaling it.

When thickened enough to resist against the unwavering pull of gravity, the mix takes on the consistency of cake icing.

Unfortunately, I am not very good at all at icing a cake. I ended up just smearing on as much as I thought it would take to level out the transitions from one area of fiberglass to another. Sanding will have to smooth it all out.

The stuff is reportedly very easy to sand, but I suspect that it is going to generate copious amounts of the very unpleasant dust that was floating around as I was mixing the batch. So there's something to look forward to!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A strange coincidence

As I'm sure we all know, fathers are put on this planet for one, and only one, primary purpose which is, of course, to embarrass our children whenever and wherever possible. This is a function calling that I answer with the utmost dedication and diligence. Opportunities have arisen far less often as Egg has grown to an age where she pretty much has a life of her own and doesn't accompany her old man with the frequency of past years, but events transpired this week such that we found ourselves doing some shopping at my favorite bulk food warehouse, Gordon's Food Service. As we were making our way to the checkout, Egg grabbed a little plastic cup containing a free sample of some form of candy product. Happily munching away as I took care of the purchases, she started chatting with an idle cashier who shared that it had been her that had to manually fill all of those little cups with candy.

"Don't worry," she assured young Egg, "I'm sanitary."

To which I replied, "What a coincidence! I'm sterile!"

Perhaps you can imagine the mortified look plastered on young Egg's face, but I tend to doubt it.

Now, you may be tssking in disapproval this very moment, but you have to know that Egg will not rest until she gets even. In fact, I'm pretty sure she did that every evening. As we were driving home, I heard the unmistakable tacky tacky tacky of her exchanging text messages with someone. I asked her what was going on and she told me that she was telling one of her girl friends about the manner in which I had ensured that she could never again shop at GFS.

"I don't get it; she thinks you're funny," she said with a confused tone.

"Well, I've always felt that she is mature beyond her years."

A brief pause.... two hands cupped over an area in which young women seem to have great deal of concern about physical development....

"You mean here?"

Me, every bit as mortified as Egg had been just a few minutes before, "NO!! I meant her sense of humor!!"

I'm pretty sure that was a cunning and deliberate payback.

Egg was always a pretty fun child to hang around with, but it just keeps getting better and better. I'm sure going to miss her next year when she goes off to college.

That eventuality is what ate up most of the weekend. Rather than watch football or work on the plane, we made a trip down to Lancaster to look for a place for her to live next year. The college she will be attending there is too small to have dorms, so we need to find an apartment for her. Preliminary internet searches did not bode well - it seems that there are no apartments to be had there. Fortunately, we were able to drive around enough to find a few promising locations conveniently located near the school. We also found the mall. Wherein we found a dress shop. Wherein we she found a dress.

Between finding housing and clothing, we both found the trip to be eminently satisfactory.

Sunday morning was also devoted to a road trip, this time to a car dealer about eighteen miles west of Columbus to look at a potential replacement for the Miata. It wasn't a Mustang, though. At the urging of Co-pilot Egg, I have agreed to consider a Mitsubishi Eclipse convertible. This trip, alas, was a complete bust. As it turns out, the car dealer in question is not particularly diligent about keeping their online inventory page up to date.

It was after 3:00 Sunday afternoon before I was able to make it out to the hangar, despite the fact that I had been itching to get out there all weekend. Sure, I'm just going to be sanding and sanding and sanding for the next few weeks, a job that typically holds no appeal whatsoever, but this time is different: I had a new tool that I was desperate to try out.

One of the challenges of sanding along the front of the canopy is that the area needs to be formed into a curve with a roughly 2" diameter. Van's suggests using a block of round wood or something to attain that shape. "Bah!" says I. I intend to use something far more sophisticated. I hereby introduce you to the Skil Octo(tm):

I hear you. "Calm down, Fella, it's just an electric sander!"

Well, true, but note this: it has a dust collector! That's a pretty big deal when sanding fiberglass in the hangar; if not captured, the dust will migrate into the adjoining hangars and get all over the neighbors' airplanes. To which I'd normally say, "Yeah? So??" but it's different now that I am my own neighbor. I don't want to have to be dusting my RV-6, after all.

I hear you. "Calm down, Fella, it's just an electric sander with a dust collector!"

True, but check this out: it has a collection of attachments. First, and most important, the 2" radius:

And for those tight areas, the pointy-skinny attachment:

Cool, huh?

It came with a bunch of sandpaper, including a nice 60 grit perfect for the first rough sanding. I knocked that out in about an hour, but it soon became apparent to Pete and me that this job was going to require more than sanding; there was also going to be quite a bit of filling. The worst parts are along the top of the sides and the trough along the front of the canopy.

We had plenty of time and thought we'd mix up a batch of filler to apply, but we ran into a problem. The plans tell us to mix up a batch of filler using epoxy and micro balloons, and we have no micro balloons. We have flox, but that's not the same thing. That was it for the day; I had to place an order with Aircraft Spruce for a pound of micro balloons. The picture in the catalog looks like a hand-filled bag - I sure hope whoever fills it is sanitary!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Here it comes....

It was 5:15 this morning when I found myself shivering in a 45F degree breeze, feeling the biting sting of small, sharp raindrops being blown against the side of my face, struggling to perform menial tasks with hands that were playing the bumbling fool as is their wont when cold, and irrationally shouting bitter imprecations at the unhearing and unfeeling, yet irritatingly inquisitive, deaf/mute LCD screen of the gas pump as I filled the car for yet another dark and rainy commute to work, the whole while thinking, "This is only going to get worse. And soon."

Winter is coming, and I am ill-prepared for its onslaught of pertinaciously foul and objectionable weather.

Even fall has had an impact on the work schedule. As we can no longer count on temperatures conducive to the curing process of epoxy (60F is required for the type of hardener I'm using), we have had to strive to make good use of every opportunity to get the canopy fiberglass done. The two major applications of glass require a goodly number of contiguous hours to accomplish, so it's no mean feat to find the right combination of available time and appropriate weather. It doesn't take much to throw a wrench into the delicate balance of opportunity. This was readily apparent last Saturday when Pete and I met at the hangar with the hopes of applying the fiberglass strips that cross over the front of the canopy and fair into the sides of the fuselage. As you may recall, we were able to get the strips of cloth cut to size, but had to call for a hiatus to wait for the temperatures to rise.

These breaks that send me home are always risky; it's easy to get out of the house at 7:00 am when the family is still in deep hibernation, but it can be much harder later in the day when events can conspire to trap me at home. Which is precisely what happened on Saturday. With one foot figuratively out the door, I was reminded that Co-pilot Egg was going to be coming home with a few friends in order to have some commemorative photographs taken prior to her senior year homecoming dance. Fair, that, and happy to do it. Besides, Sunday looked to be warm enough towards the latter half of the afternoon.

The problem? Well, we need to come to an agreement with regards to the word "few."

Getting that photo was tricky enough, but it all fell apart when I asked them to form a pyramid.


Sunday fortunately delivered on the promise of 60+ degrees, so the fiberglassing operation got the green light to proceed. As is normal in all cases, but more so in recent endeavors, a great deal of cerebration needs must be applied to figuring out just what it is we're going to try to do. Specifically, that is. We fully understood that the general idea was to build a bridge across the front of the canopy, but the precise positioning of the varied-width strips was somewhat difficult to discern from the provided diagram.

It seems easy at first glance, doesn't it? Well, that's simply because I didn't include the accompanying text. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture plus a few dozen obfuscatory words is worth somewhat less. Eventually we figured that those absurdly narrow strips down in the middle of the pack were going to decompose to nothing more than a few loosely affiliated threads once we tried to wet them down with epoxy anyway. Might as well gird the loins and apply the noses to the grindstone, as it were. In the event we pretty much just lined up the forward edges of the thicker strips as shown and placed the narrower strips where it appeared that they'd do the most good.

It's hard to tell if it's right or not; we'll find out when we try to sand it all down to the correct shape. That'll be nice work for the cold, blustery days that will soon be upon us.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

An Unfortunate Addition to my Financial Lexicon

I made an offhand comment about the pending loss of my cute little red Miata (lovingly nicknamed "Ernesto") the other day which has not gone unnoticed. So, in acquiescence to popular demand, I shall attempt to explain what has transpired.

The air bag warning light has come on, and stayed on.

No, it doesn't sound like such a big deal at first blush, but...

Edmunds provides an appraisal value for private sale of $1,699.  Now I consider this to be ludicrously low since I can easily find contemporaneous models with asking prices approaching $4,500, but I don't know whether they're selling at that price. Mine has fairly high mileage at 117,000+, but it also has fresh paint, a fresh top, and some wicked nice wheels and tires. I figure that the $4,000 region is more accurate, but all of that is moot: fixing the airbag is at least a $1,000 job, and I'm afraid that if I throw another grand into, something else will break and I'll be right back to where I am now. And $1,000 is the bottom line estimate; the Mazda dealer (I know, but small shops want nothing to do with this kind of work) wasn't even sure they could find the parts.

1996 Mazda Miata - asking $3,850  (21 city / 26 highway)

Your first reaction will be, "So? Drive it without the airbag. Even in that state, it has to be safer than a motorcycle."  Well, yes, but there's a reason that I don't ride a motorcycle. You have to understand that Ernesto is my drive-to-work car, and my drive to work is 35 miles each way of moderately dangerous highway driving. I've seen too much mayhem in my fifteen years of traversing the city every day to be comfortable with driving a protection-impaired car. If Ernesto was just a "take a nice drive on a pretty day" car, I might feel differently.  He's not, though; his entire raison d'ĂȘtre was to provide an economical means for getting to and from work without running up the mileage on our "good" cars.  I cheated a little bit with the selection of a Miata for that task since it was really only useful for 3/4s of the year, but there was a little trade-off for having a car that helped to make the normally onerous commute enjoyable.

So, here we are. It doesn't make any economic sense to repair Ernesto. He is to be sold off to the highest bidder, and it is questionable as to whether his role as "enjoyable ride" will be filled with another vehicle. There are a few reasons why a replacement may not be possible: 1) I'm leery of buying another fifteen year old Miata lest a similar mechanical situation arise, 2) I can't afford a newer Miata, 3) the only other affordable convertible (a convertible being an immutable requirement) I like would be a 2004-ish Ford Mustang (appox. $8,000 - $10,000) and it has a six cylinder engine, which flies in the face of the "economical" requirement, and 4) the mileage on the "good" car has reached a level where the idea of keeping it low seems silly.  So, it comes down to whether I need a sports-ish car, or whether this is more a case of wanting a sports-ish car.

The saddest thing about all of this??

It's the fact that "need" has entered into my financial lexicon.

I'm not sure how or when that happened, but there it is. I'm not sure which is the more depressing, the loss of the Miata, or the realization that I might not be able to talk myself into replacing it.

2004 Ford Mustang - asking $9,850  (18 city / 27 highway)

Work on the RV-12 slowed again this week both because of all of the other unrelated work that has been piling up and because the next step, as with the last, requires a fairly big commitment of time. Van's says three hours. I believe them.

I met with Pete today for a brief preparatory session. The next job is more fiberglassing - this time we will be laying down thin strips of glass across the area where the canopy bubble meets the forward top fuselage. The preparation came down to cutting ten 36" long strips of various widths, ranging from 2 3/4" wide down to an absurdly narrow 1/4" wide.

We would have gone ahead with the epoxy work too, but it was only 50 degrees in the hangar and the West Systems 206 hardener I bought requires at least 60 degrees to work properly. We're hoping that it gets warm enough later in the day to proceed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Happy Anniversary!

October 9th was the second anniversary of my RV-12 build and I celebrated by starting the fiberglass of the forward canopy arms. This is one of those jobs that takes days of effort - the first day is spent thinking about ways to avoid doing it, the second through fifth days are spent doing the things dreamed up on the first day and, as it turns out, there are a few more days of preparation work to do as well. Sunday dawned temperate and clear, and promised temperatures suitably warm for the efficacious curing of the epoxy. It was on!

The days of preparation are all a blur now so I can't put a firm timeline on the process that I will be detailing below; suffice it to say that the time period is roughly a week of on again, off again effort.

The point of all of this is to create a smooth, attractive, and aerodynamic blending from the stark, angular facets of the metal canopy frame into the canopy bubble and fuselage. Just between you and me, I'll settle for two out of those three, and I don't particularly care which two it is. The plain truth is that I do not like working with fiberglass.

That having been said, here we go with the narrative.

The first step is to provide a support for the fiberglass. You could almost call it a mold, I suppose. It starts out as a pair of foam blocks, one for each side of the airplane. Those were trimmed and glued into place as detailed in this post.

Pete happens to own a very nice sanding block and was kind enough to bring it down to the hangar. In turn, I was kind enough to let him use it to trim the blocks. I'm generous that way - known for it, in fact.

Van's supplies a pair of paper templates that serve the dual purpose of acting as aids to masking off the appropriate areas of the fuselage and for the eventual cutting to shape of fiberglass cloth. I had stored them in a safe place where I wouldn't lose them; I found them after only three days of searching.

A strip of high quality electrical tape is used as to protect the canopy and provide a guide line for the fiberglass strips that will fill in the area between the forward fuselage and the canopy bubble.

I finally found a use for all of the paper that the kit parts come wrapped in.

There are ten fiberglass cloth shapes to be cut out, five for each side. One of the template paper sheets is used as a sacrificial cutting template whereby it is cut smaller for each size of cloth "part." I bought a very sharp rotary cutter to use for the somewhat complex curves required.

A perplexing problem quickly manifested itself. No matter how carefully I would trace the cutter around the template, the resulting sheet wouldn't come out shaped anything at all like the template.

As you can imagine, this problem created quite a bit of back and forth discussion between Pete and myself with suggestions and theories flying fast and furious. We eventually reached a consensus: the loose weave of the cloth combined with the shear forces being applied by the cutter were distorting the shape of the cloth as it was being cut. The solution? I would mark the outline of the template with a Sharpie(tm) marker and cut the cloth without the template paper blocking the view.

That worked somewhat better, but it was still hit or miss. It seemed that the large piece of cloth that I was cutting from might be part of the problem; various areas of it tended to get stuck to the work table and cause strange bends and transformations to occur. We finally hit upon the brilliant idea of cutting out a piece of cloth only slight larger than the finished part would be. It was much easier to get the smaller piece to sit straight on the table than it was when dealing with the huge sheet.

That problem solved, we finalized the masking job by covering the instrument panel and seeking out any sneaky little holes that might allow epoxy to drip into inconvenient places.

The Van's plans rely on a temporary forbearance of gravity to keep the wetted fiberglass from sinking into the areas

Pete had done some research and found a pretty good suggestion on another RV-12 builder's blog. He suggested using the left over scraps of foam to fill in those areas in order to provide support for the cloth.

There wasn't enough foam remaining, so I took a somewhat less satisfying path: I used some weather stripping that I had bought for the RV-6 canopy (which turned out to be a real fiasco, but that's a story that I'd prefer to just forget about).

The piece of foam that Van's specifies gets fiber glass permanently glued to it, but we didn't want that to happen with our extracurricular foam. We covered it with packing tape and waxed it with paste wax to keep the epoxy from sticking to it.

The next step was somewhat painful. The parts of the pristine canopy and the aluminum side skirt that get covered with the fiberglass have to be scuffed up to provide a bite for the epoxy to grab ahold of.

Everything was finally ready to cover with the fiber glass.

So I went flying. I thought it might be instructive to go take a look at a finished RV-12 to see what this fairing was supposed to look like when it was done. While I've said that I'd settle for two out of three of the goals, here's what a three-out-of-three exhibit looks like:

It was a pretty nice day to fly, as it turns out.

The Fall colors are proudly showing the way to a dismal winter.

Back in the hangar, it was time to wet and place cloth.

Three and a half hours of grueling and tedious work later, the peel ply was on.

Things happen fast when you'r working against the ticking time bomb of mixed epoxy and things get pretty messy:

The peel ply came off a couple of days later to reveal a nice, solid build-up of fiberglass. Naturally, the number one rule of airplane building (what has been done will soon be undone) will soon be in play: most of this will get sanded off.