Monday, July 30, 2012

Eighty Percent Done, Eighty Percent to Go!

Experienced builders will warn anyone willing to listen that there will come a time in your build when you take a step back and view your creation as something more akin to an actual airplane than a collection of formed aluminium parts cluttering up your shop. It is at this point, they warn you, that you will estimate that you're about eighty percent done. You aren't. If you're really lucky, you might be about half done. It's a lot like having a house built: you stop by the build site one day and there it is, all framed and sided and roofed - it's almost done! Yeah, no. Not by a long shot.

But me? I think I really am about eighty percent done. Other than a couple of more weeks of small jobs, the only thing left is the avionics. Which, by the way, have arrived at Schmetterling HQ.

An interesting thing, these kits. The more they cost, the smaller the package they're delivered in. There, sitting on my kitchen shelf, is the cost equivalent of a brand new Mazda 2 or a Honda Fit or, as I call them, Viking engines in training.

The centerpiece of the suite is the glorious Dynon Skyview. It looks pretty lame sitting there in its box, but just wait until the first time it lights up! It's a thing of beauty. 747 captains would be jealous of its capabilities.

This is the Van's command center. All of the miles of wire meet inside there. For what purpose, I do not know. Some form of electronic alchemy is my best guess.

Ah, switches! Switches and fuses! Touchy-feely things! I couldn't resist turning each and every switch on and off, over and over.

Garmin provides the walkie-talkie, or maybe flyie-talkie is more apropos.

I did the inventory in the morning - nothing was missing. Then it was out to the hangar to continue the work on the cooling duct. It was time to do the final fitting of the fiberglass rectangle that provides the interface between the aft end of the cooling duct and the front of the radiator. Trimming and fitting this particular piece has been something of a pain for some reason. It just didn't want to fit onto the cooling duct well. I finally got it to fit, after hours of judicious and, admittedly, injudicious trimming. At the end of the day, it was required to end up sitting 1/4" from the front of the radiator. To achieve this gap, I cut some 1/4" blocks from some scrap wood and taped them to the radiator face.

By the time I had applied a healthy dose of trimming (the injudicious kind), the duct interface was kind of "floaty" on the cooling duct. It wouldn't reliably stay in the correct position when the cooling duct/cowl were removed from the plane, which of course would need to be done in order to glue the whole assembly together.

To alleviate this, Van's has us drill some holes in the top and side of the interface to allow some clecoes to hold the parts together. Easily accomplished on the top.

Not so easy on the side. The inner side (towards the engine) was impossible to drill. There was no room at all to get a drill down in there. There is quite a bit of engine in the way, after all. After a struggle, I was able to get one cleco on the outer side. Oh, how proud I was to get that cleco in there, even if the hole ended up too big for a silver cleco.

Well, that was all for naught. There is no interface skin in that game. I spent all of that effort putting in a cleco to nowhere.  There's nothing but open air on the other side - there is no cooling duct on that side.

I traced around the flanges of the duct so I would know where to smear epoxy.

I gathered up my fiberglassing supplies. Van's suggests putting the resin/flox mixture that will be used to bond the parts together into a plastic food bag and cutting off a corner of the bag so it can be used like one of those frosting bags that pastry chefs use. I was uncomfortable with that idea, having found it to be a particularly fast way to make a horrible mess when I was instructed to do the same when building my kayak. Instead, I decided to use some syringes. The other problem with using the food bag is that the epoxy gets very hot when it starts to cure, and given the eighty-five degree ambient, that was going to happen very quickly.

Normally I mix by resin in paper cups, but they weren't large enough for the amount that I would need. I decided to use a plastic cup, even though I knew that this method too was going to require very quick work to avoid the worst of the heating problem.

There are no pictures of the actual glassing. Not only was there no time to stop and take pictures, but there was also my concern over getting epoxy on my new camera. It was a rather frantic operation and it was truly a blessing to have Pete on hand to get things for me and to help me get the cowls back on the plane before the epoxy set up into a wrong position.

Oh, and about that plastic cup? It got pretty hot!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Only on a Friday....

I typically average a nine hour work day at the mines. I'm actually present there for longer than that, but I try to squeeze in at least fifteen minutes to grab a quick lunch at my desk. On Fridays, though, I try to treat myself to an eight hour day. It doesn't always work out that way, of course, given that the demands of computer work are no respecters of regular hours. As the clock inexorably (but oh so slowly) works its way towards my hoped for departure time, I start to tense up whenever someone approaches my office door. And so it was yesterday.

To fully understand what occurred yesterday requires some back story. Back at the beginning of the year, one of the larger insurance companies that we work with on behalf of our 3,800 customers approached us with a problem that they had. By "approached us" I mean "made a demand," and by "a problem that they had" I mean "a problem that they had that they were going to make our problem."

This, sadly, is not unusual, and it is the nature of our business relationship that we pretty much can never say no. As with many demands of this sort, meeting the demand would require the hurry-up development of a software application. Which is really just a fancy way of saying "I would have to deal with it."

In a nutshell, new government regulations would require that our customers be notified of an issue that they would have to rectify within five business days or lose hundreds of dollars in reimbursements for product that had already left their stores. Oh, and by the way, the clock was already ticking on the first set of claims. Beneficent as our government is, however, rather than five days I had thirty days to get our customers in compliance or face the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in reimbursements would not be paid to them.

Setting aside the work that I had been planning to do, I got busy. First up was the requirement to import that data file provided by the insurer into our databases. Unfortunately, the data file was provided in Microsoft Excel, by far the worst possible choice. It's not that I couldn't "read" the file in an application and push the data into a database, it's that it is inevitable that at some point in the future the format of the spreadsheet will change and no one will bother to tell me. I have been down this path many a time, but my desperate pleas to send the file in a more reliable way fell on deaf ears. Not wanting to be plagued with having to fix and rebuild the application every time the format changed, I built a function in my program that would sample the first three rows of data in the spreadsheet and display the values to the user as a kind of pre-test. I provided arrow buttons that would allow the user to position the data correctly on the screen and proceed with the import.

Quite slick, that, even if it is me that's saying so.

There were, of course, all kinds of other things that I knew would someday go wrong. I knew, for example, that it was just a matter of time before Customer Service received a call from a customer needing to have a report sent again. I added a function to my Customer Service program that allows them to browse through the archived reports for a store, view whichever report was needed, and elect to re-send it via fax or email at the press of a button.

I also knew that it was just a matter of time before a store called to ask us to send the reports to a different person in their store, so I built in a function to re-assign the name, fax number, and email address for the recipient of a report. I even made it possible to move a store from one recipient to another, just in case someone at a customer's store changed jobs.

Truly, I thought I had thought of and solved every possible thing that could go wrong. I even ran the first few cycles myself to make sure everything worked smoothly, then had a gathering with the users that would have the primary responsibility of running the reports, plus a small group of secondary users that could fill in should the primaries not be available.

And so it was that when I saw a Customer Service agent headed my way on Friday afternoon, I was poised for the worst. "Hey, Dave, I have a problem with one of the reports."

"Oh, no," I thought, "what could possibly have gone wrong??"

"What happened is I got a call from one of our customers," the agent told me. "He called because he received a report that doesn't belong to him. His name is Hussein Hussein, and it looks as if we have a different customer of the same name, and the report got sent to the wrong one."

"Wait," I replied, "we actually have two customers named Hussein Hussein? I would have been surprised to learn that we had one!"

But remember how I said that I had thought of everything? Well, I had actually thought that we could potentially have a name collision, although I would have bet on it being John Smith or Tom Jones, or something like that. I never foresaw Hussein Hussein as a possible problem, but this was one of those occasions where fixing it for one case fixes it for all. It would simply be a matter of using the application to move the store from one Hussein Hussein to the other. That said, in cases like this we like to ask the customer for a middle name or initial that we can use to differentiate one from the other, lest the confusion recur and we have to go through the whole thing again.

As it turns out, this particular agent was on the ball. He had already contacted one of the Hussein Husseins and gone to our Operations group to have his record updated to include his nickname. This Hussein Hussein was forever more to be known in our data base as Hussein Shane Hussein. All I needed to do was move the store to the correct Hussein Hussein and I was done. I might get to leave on schedule after all!

Not long after all of this transpired, the agent was back at my door.

"Dave, Hussein Shane Hussein called, and he is livid at having received one of the reports with someone else's data on it."

That made no sense to me at all. In fact, it should have been impossible. The reports are all generated from within my application - there's no room for human error. I said as much to the agent.

"Well, I thought you might say that, so I had him fax a copy to me." Ah, a sharp one, this fellow. And sure enough, upon inspection I saw that there were two reports, each having a different store name and recipient name in the top block that I reserved for such things, but an identical list of claims on each. To say that my flabber was gasted would be quite an understatement.

"Okay, this is surpassingly odd and there is naught to do but to consult with the person that handles these things."

Yes, I often do talk like that at work.

At this point, it was clear that my early departure was no longer in the cards; the only remaining question was how late I would be. There was something north of five hundred dollars at stake here - there would be no leaving until this was rectified. Off we went to visit the user that handles the sending of these reports.

My first question to her was whether she had attempted to re-send the report.


I then told her that we had gotten a call from Hussein Shane Hussein and that he was angry about receiving someone else's data.

"Oh! I must have sent it to the wrong store."

"But I'm not clear on how that could happen," I told her, "since I've already fixed the contact information for both of them. It should have worked automatically. Besides that, I'm not at all clear as to how the data got crossed from one store to another. The re-send function doesn't re-generate the report, it just sends the archived original."

"Oh, I did it manually," she told me.

"Really? In what way?"

"Well, I printed the report, used WhiteOut(tm) to cover up the store information, printed the other store's information, and taped it onto the report. Then I sent it from the fax machine," she explained.

A long pause....

"Oh," was all I was able to say, feeling as if I had been punched in the gut.

I honestly had never even come close to thinking of that possibility!!

At that point, all I could do was shake my head, go back to my office to grab my stuff, and head for Silke.  I was in no mood to deal with the heat and noise that comes with my thirty-five mile highway drive home. I left the top up, turned on the A/C, and hit the road.

Which reminds me: I've noticed something about Silke. When driving with the top up and without the radio on, she creaks and groans quite a bit on bumpy roads. This is pretty much normal for convertibles, but for some reason I didn't expect it from a Mercedes.  Not to be overly crass (that's your warning that I am about to be overly crass, by the way, so avert your eyes if you must), but it's kind of like hearing a pretty girl fart:

You know at some level that surely they must, but it's still somewhat jarring to hear it for yourself.

Saturday worked out well for an early start at the hangar. Pete agreed to an early start as he still had quite a bit of work to do on the surprisingly complex tail cone installation and I wanted to do some more work on the cooling duct. The avionics will be arriving soon, so I'd like to wrap up some of the loose ends that I've left, well.... loose.

One of the things I haven't mentioned about the cooling duct is that mine exhibits the same problem as many others I've heard about. The problem is that one of the springs that hold the muffler onto the exhaust headers rubs against the duct. This is what is known in the airplane builder's vernacular as "a bad thing." The fix for it is to cut a hole in the duct and build in a "bump" to give clearance for the spring. It is that job that I wished to complete today.

Before I could do that, I had to "fix" the duct's location against the lower cowl so I would lose all of the positioning work that I had already done. Fixing the duct in place is accomplished by drilling into its top flange and clecoing it in place.

Once it is secured, the lower cowl can be removed and the same thing done with the lower flange.

I had marked the spot where the spring was rubbing before removing the cowl.

All I had to do then was grab the Dremel and cut a big hole in the duct.

Hole: accomplished!

I have plenty of fiberglass cloth scraps left over from the canopy work, so I cut a couple of pieces to form the bump.

All I had to do then was mix up a batch of epoxy resin and wet down the patches. Then I just pushed them through the hole. Gravity kept them in bump shape while the resin cured.

Meanwhile, I shifted gears and did a messy job on the exhaust springs that I had been putting off. The idea is to fill the springs with RTV. According to Vans, this will keep that from resonating in synch with the engine, the worry being that the vibration of the resonating springs will cause premature wear and tear on them and on the muffler/headers.

As I said, it's a messy job. How messy?

Abattoir messy.

After cleaning up from that act of butchery, I decided I'd like to do something a little more delicate. Installing the Exhaust Gas Temperature (EGT) probes looked easy.

And it was.

At first.

Getting these wires put together was surprisingly difficult. There's generally a whole lot of airplane getting in the way of everything I try to do these days.  I guess that's a sign of progress.

The other side was much easier, but there was quite a bit too much wire left over. You can't change the length of the wire on a thermocouple because it will change the resistance of the sensor, and that in turn will cause erroneous data to be displayed. I just coiled the excess wire up and bound it with tie wraps and silicone tape.

I also decided to do something about the two little sensor wires that were just kind of floating around alongside the engine. I wrapped them together with some wire wrap so they would behave as if they were a cable, rather than two wimpy little damage-prone wires.

That was enough for the day. There was mowing and weed whacking yet to be done back at the palatial estate.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fawlty* Advice

Way, way back when I was a directionless teenager spending hours upon hours locked in my room teaching myself how to program a computer (a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I - the first in the entire city of Cincinnati), the CEO thought he might get me interested in more career-worthy pursuits. One of these, I believe, was the venerable farm veterinarian. Or not, but it makes for a better story a little later, so let's just agree to stipulate that it is for that reason that I found my self reading the All Creatures books written by the talented British author James Herriot.

If, in fact, the hidden agenda behind the CEO's recommendation of these books was to encourage me to work towards a veterinary degree, well, it was a horribly implemented plan. You see, these books are chock full of not-so-enticing stories of being awakened in the middle of a frigid winter night in order to drive out into the cold, dark country to perform the unenviable task of pushing a prolapsed uterus back into the rear end of a ewe.

'Ewe', by the way, is pronounced 'Ewwwwww!' in this context.

There was another oft-delivered piece of parental wisdom back in the day, which came in many forms but ultimately distilled down to "Stay in school!" Various forms were brought to bear: "Stay in school so you don't end up sweeping floors," or "Stay in school so you don't end up as a dishwasher somewhere." Naturally, I didn't take that advice and dropped out of college after my freshman year having decided, correctly as it turned out, that I needed some time in the real world. I enlisted in the Air Force where I spent five years working on airplanes, the most notable of which was the SR-71 Blackbird.

I never once had to do dishes.

Once I separated from the military, I put myself through college and ended up with a Bachelor of Engineering in the specialty of Computer Science. I parlayed that education and my long-held interest in computers and programming into a series of programming jobs, a couple of Vice President positions at small companies, and eventually ended up where I am today as an IT Director for a Fortune 13 corporation.

Here's the irony.

This is what meets me when I get to work at 5:45 am each day:

Granted, it's not my responsibility to clean that mess up every morning, but if I don't do it one of the ladies from our Operations department will have to do it. The rumors of Chivalry's death are greatly exaggerated.

So, what about that prolapsed uterus? Where does that come in?

Well, today I decided to brave the 91 degree evening temperatures and go out to the hangar to do a little work on the airplane. Having wasted my entire Saturday work session on those cotter pins, I wanted to get out there and see if I could accomplish what I had been unable to do on Saturday. Namely, I wanted to see if I could get the cooling duct fitted into place.

It is this that reminded me of Dr. Herriot.

Frankly, Herriot was a piker. This cooling duct does not appear to be in any way affiliated with the lower cowl. I looked over and over to see where Pete had missed the scribe line that would have halved the size of this thing. Eventually, though, I managed to shoe-horn it in there.

Now there's all kinds of fitting to be done, and that kind of thing goes much better with help. It will wait.

* Yes, I know it's 'Faulty' - it's an inside joke.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

See Smell & Avoid

Often times, things that I have learned from flying have parallels in the ground-bound world as well. Take, for example, the one of the key fundamentals of VFR flying: See and Avoid.
Visual flight rules (VFR) are a set of regulations under which a pilot operates an aircraft in weather conditions generally clear enough to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going. Specifically, the weather must be better than basic VFR weather minima, i.e. in visual meteorological conditions (VMC), as specified in the rules of the relevant aviation authority. The pilot must be able to operate the aircraft with visual reference to the ground, and by visually avoiding obstructions and other aircraft. The VFR pilot is required to "see and avoid" obstacles and other aircraft. Pilots flying under VFR assume responsibility for their separation from all other aircraft and are generally not assigned routes or altitudes by air traffic control.
As it turns out, there is a similar concept for convertible drivers: Smell and Avoid.

I mention this because I have had occasion to practice both in the last two days. Last night I convinced the co-owner to go out to dinner in a topless Silke. This is normally something that she (the co-owner, not the car) doesn't enjoy because the wind plays havoc with carefully coiffed hair. We weren't going far, though, so she agreed to it. In order to make the experience as pleasurable as possible, I decided to take an alternate route to my norm because I happened to discover that very morning that a road-kill deer that has graced the side of the road for more than a week now was getting more than a little fragrant. I learned that the hard way, to be honest. One of the nicer things about driving a convertible is that all of your senses get the full impact of the environment through which you are driving. One of the less nice things about driving a convertible is that your sense of smell is right there in the mix.

After dinner, I started the return trip without lowering the top but the co-owner said that I might as well - the trip to the restaurant had been just fine and we might as well enjoy the evening. As we were on the way home using the usual route, she reminded me that I was going to have to go past the dead deer if I continued in the way we were going. Not to worry, I said, I will simply go another way around. Genius, right? Well, not so much. No more than a quarter of a mile later as we were driving past the local golf course, we encountered the pungent, unadulterated odor of a very recently flattened skunk.

Par for the course, I suppose. If you'll pardon the pun.

This morning dawned clear and cool with calm winds, the very definition of VFR weather. Counter-intuitively, these conditions provide for some of the more risky VFR flying there is. The reasons for that are: 1) lot's of people will be flying, and 2) without a clear wind direction for guidance, it's pretty much anything goes when it comes to which runway direction people will use at uncontrolled airports. Beautiful days like this can cause complacency at precisely the wrong time.

But.... I haven't been flying since my ride with Pretty Penny nearly a month ago and a thin patina of corrosion has again begun to coat my flying skills. After the horribly embarrassing landing that I made with her aboard, I resolved to not let myself get that rusty again. Of course, a month's worth of 100+ degree days put paid to that resolution.

Thus it was that Silke and I arrived at the hangar early this morning. Having had a Smell and Avoid failure just last night, I decided that I would use the fallback technique: hold your breath.

The plan for the flight was to head out west to MadCo, the scene of my last poor performance, for some stop and go landings. In the cool air and with just me aboard, we were able to approach the reported-but-not-experienced-by-me top speed of Silke.

Coming from the east and having my choice of runway direction, I made my first landing on runway 27. After taking off again from a very fine landing, I made left traffic to go back for another.

This is one of my favorite moments in flying: the turn from the base leg to final. This is where all of the various elements that need to be tightly coordinated come into play all at once. Airspeed, altitude, and bank angle all have to be considered and managed, as does the track of the airplane across the ground as the winds influence our path. It's the closest thing to ballet that I will ever do. And it is simply beautiful to experience.

I never made that landing, though. As i was on short final, the reason that the FAA insists on pilots having 20/20 vision became apparent: I saw another plane taking off directly at me. Having never heard a peep on the radio, I assumed the pilot to be operating NORDO (no radio), which while legal, I consider to be pretty stupid. Handheld radios are comparatively cheap, after all, and well worth the cost when compared to encountering situations like this. That said, this is also the very type of situation that calls for the key fundamental of See and Avoid.

I made a go-around.

Having climbed out of the final approach and into a left downwind for runway 9, I went ahead and landed in that direction instead. As it turns out, the other guy was doing stop and go landings too, and I ended up behind him for my next takeoff.

That was enough excitement for the morning, so I headed back to Bolton, where I made another good landing. Rust: removed.

Speaking of things that should have been easy but weren't, if you will excuse the labored segue, I spent three hours working on the plane yesterday morning. It was an eventful day in that it saw the return of Harley to the shop, the last time he was there being the day we installed the landing gear. Shortly after that day, he was involved in a car accident which put him in a hospital bed for some very, very long weeks. He's still pretty beat up, so he spent most of his visit in the management role that I usually reserve for myself.

He was quite helpful in that role, as it turns out. After seeing Kyle, lighting technician and caterer for The Jackson Two, catch a little bitty demerit on his FAA inspection in the form of an unsecured cotter pin on one of the main gear wheels, I thought that perhaps I should check my own. Which, to my chagrin, ended up being completely without any cotter pins whatsoever. Easily fixed, I thought, although that proved to be, as usual, untrue. The problem is that the cotter pins that Vans sells are slightly fatter than those that come with the wheels, but I have already purchased a large quantity of the Van's pins for future use.

To get those to fit requires drilling the hole in the axle to a #30 size, rather than the infinitesimally smaller size provided by the manufacturer. This, while easy to do, would require the removal of the wheels, which in turn would require the lifting of the airplane. Having never done that, I would need to consult the maintenance manual provided by Van's. That posed no problem - I am a 21st century builder so I had only to consult the electronic copy that I keep on my iPad.

The directions were pretty clear: push the tail down, place a sawhorse under the front. Lift the tail up, slide in the aft sawhorse. What the manual didn't say was just how to lift the tail. There's nothing to grab hold of to lift with. As we muddled around trying to figure that out, Harley suggested that we put some padding on a 2x4, slide it under the tail, and have someone lift from each side while one of us slid the sawhorse into place. Ever helpful, I immediately volunteered to manage the sawhorse placement while Pete and Harley's son lifted the plane. I'm selfless that way. Known far and wide for it, in fact.

After that is was just a matter of removing the outer brake pad, removing the axle nut, removing the wheel, drilling the hole, replacing everything that had been removed, and discovering that the cotter pins were too long to fit down inside the hub of the wheel to allow them to align with the hole in the axle. Back to the iPad for to consult with those that have gone before and shared their experiences on the internet. "Bend the shank of cotter pin, get it started in the hole, and bend it back to the straight and narrow" they said.

And that is precisely what I did.

The difficulty of this seemingly simple task caused me to wonder if perhaps I might be better served by passing my time in a more simple pursuit. I'm thinking maybe something like completing a 60,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Beatle's White album.

Once I'm done with that, I'll move onto AC/DC's Back in Black.

Yep, much easier!