Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"What's it like?"

You get a lot of questions from people that find out that you are building an airplane.

Some become routine.

Some test your ability to suppress an eye roll.

Examples of those are "When will it be done?" and "A real airplane? And you're going to actually fly in it??"

After awhile you build up a library of ready answers for the most common ones, along with the ability to spit out a wordy non-answer when the real answer would require too much time and effort. You know, much like a politician.

The hardest question of all, though, is, "What's it like? What is building an airplane like?"

It's hard to answer because there is no simple, concise response that can truly convey what the experience is like. Most people have never tackled a project that requires the level of commitment, persistence, tenacity, frustration, elation, perspiration, dedication, and time that comes with the job of building an airplane.  There are parallels that can help people to understand, of course, but few of those example projects eventually  result in a day when you are going to trust your very life to the end product.  It is that aspect, I believe, that erects an insurmountable communication barrier between those that have and those that haven't.  It is also why one of the more routine questions, albeit almost always a rhetorical one, is "Are you crazy??"

In some ways, the answer is "Yes, I  must be."

It is important to understand that building an airplane is not something you do. It becomes, to a very large degree, what you are. A project of this magnitude has an effect on your life. At work, at home, in the middle of the night when an anxiety attack resulting from an issue with the plane is keeping you awake - the project is always somewhere in your mind. A bad day at work will often result in a bad day working on the airplane. A bad day working on the airplane can easily cause a bad day at home. It becomes intertwined in personal relationships.

That goes both ways, though. The first time you step back from having placed the final rivet in something that actually looks like part of an airplane. The first time you move the control stick and parts of the airplane move in response. The first time you sit in it. The day you start the engine for the first time. The sense of accomplishment and the pride of having actually created a part of something that hundreds, thousands of previous generations could only dream about - people will be questioning what kind of wonderful drugs you're on. And with each of those moments comes the understanding, the visceral knowledge that someday, someday, it will fly! Which is, of course, tempered by the immutable fact that you will be in it.

That little demon is always in the back of your head, gnawing away at your elation.

That little demon has its purpose, though. There will be days of abject frustration. There will be parts of the project that are just plain hard. There will be temptation. "Screw it, this is good enough," the temptress will say. "Let's just get on to the next thing."  The little demon will have none of that. These are the times when that little bastard is going to insist that you take a step back, maybe even take some time off, and come back refreshed and ready to do that task right. He's there to remind you that someday you will be betting your life on the quality of this work. And if that doesn't do the trick, he is not above reminding you that the airplane has a second seat which will someday be occupied by an innocent whose life is riding on the same bet.

Is that an emotional burden that can be hard to carry? Hell yes it is! It is part of the reason that  building an airplane is not something you do, it is something you live. It is why even simple mistakes will plague your waking thoughts and disturb your sleep for days. And you will make mistakes. There are few things you can do in life that can be as humbling as a project like this. You will be furious with yourself. You will be astounded to learn how fallible you are. You will question whether you should even be doing this. "How could I have missed that?" will be a question you ask yourself every bit as often as a curious person will ask "When will it be done?"

You needn't be alone, though. At least in the case of my RV-12, there are other people that have gone before and are willing to share helpful tips and pieces of advice. Not all of it will be useful; you need to be the final judge as to whether you want to follow anyone else's lead. You will have visitors as you work. You may even be lucky enough to pick up ready and willing helpers along the way. Chances are that you will be blessed with new, lasting friendships.

Sure, there will be a few know-it-alls that think their way of doing any particular thing is the only way, but that's endemic to the breed of person that has the self-confidence to tackle a project of this magnitude. There are points of contention that actually bring out evangelistic fervor in some people. Emotions can run high.  It's not always easy to set that kind of thing aside and get back to focusing on your own work, but as with any of the plenitudinous other frustrations, it's best to just step back for a few days and get settled down before doing any work on the plane.

That is, in fact, one of the more important lessons to learn. There are days when you aren't working on the airplane because you want to, you're working on it out of some sense of obligation or pressure from external influences. It is at these times when you are more likely to make mistakes. Your mind isn't fully engaged. You can read directions that clearly state the need to drill a 3/8" hole and proceed to blithely drill a 3/4" hole. You will then spend a few days beating yourself up over it.

The lesson to be learned is to know when to not work on the plane.

An adjunct to that lesson is to know when not to put pressure on yourself. Unless there is a good reason to do so, deadlines for completion are best avoided.  Delays are inevitable. Parts may need to be replaced. Tools may need to be acquired. Midstream changes can come flying in from the factory at any time, often requiring the re-work of something you thought was finished and done. Knowing at an intellectual level that these things can and do happen helps, but it cannot prevent the immense frustration that comes from an unexpected delay. It's just one more thing to deal with.

So in light of all that emotion and complexity, what's my answer when someone asks me what it's like to build an airplane? How do I condense all of this down into an easy answer that at least partially conveys the depth and subtlety of it all?

Like this:

"It's a journey of self-discovery."


Carl said...

Dave.. you really should take all of this blog and put it into a book and maybe even self publish it. It would be great to see all of your experience condensed into book format. I love the blog and recently have experienced very similar feelings with regards to pressing on and making mistakes. Your ability to capture the essence of building a plane in words is incredible.


Steve said...

Awesome post, Dave. I have no idea if I'll ever find the motivation, finances, or time to build one myself... but this certainly puts a whole bunch of clarity around the thought process that may lead to that point. Hope you had a great Christmas and New Year!

Anonymous said...

So with all that said...Are you done yet?

Anonymous said...

I own an RV but was not the builder. I don't think I have what it takes to build an airplane. I think some people do and some do not. My main shortcoming is patience and certainly as you have so eloquently described, building an airplane takes patience. When I used to build Revell models as a kid I would always end up with extra parts that I would say "whoops" and throw them away. Not a good habit for an airplane builder. I can think of nothing more satisfying then building an airplane and then flying it!! Keep up the building and flying and the writing. Good luck!

Brent at iflyblog.com said...

Bravo! You said it perfectly! Congratulations on your newly hatched airplane. I know you will love it!

tec said...

Awesome post! Congrats on finishing. And thank you for sharing the journey. Thomas

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