Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tanks a lot, I had a great time...


But we will get to that.

First I want to share some of the pictures I took when the co-owner and I attended the 2014 RV & Boat Show. Note that the 'RV' in this instance is the traditional ground-bound type. We're still in the multi-year "let's go look at them" phase, of course, but I continue to be amazed at these things, 5th wheel trailers in particular.  These are not the campers I had imagined them to be - rather, they are quite roomy and well appointed. The following pictures signify nothing other than some of the more intriguing styles available. Well, that's not entirely true. They also are indicative of the lengths that I have been going to in order to avoid for as long as possible performing the SB work on the fuel tank.

So, yeah, I thought it a good use of an early Sunday afternoon to go look at trailers.

This one caught our eye for an unbelievably simple reason: it was the first we had seen (and only, to date) with a little desk for the computer.

It had a pretty nice TV and faux fireplace too.

We really liked this one for the faux stone fireplace and the swivel-mount TV.

I was sitting in one of the two plush leather recliners when I took this picture. The love seat opposite is also a pull-out bed.

Nothing super fancy in the kitchen, but it had a full-size refrigerator/freezer.

This one took a more open but somewhat minimalist approach. Note the lack of an entertainment center. The benefit of the relatively spartan interior was a gross weight low enough to be towed by a 1/2 ton pick-up.

Everyone, and I mean everyone that looked in this bathroom said "Wow!"

I cheated a little bit here. This isn't a trailer, this is a $310,000 motor home. It even has a dishwasher!

Having run out of delaying tactics (by which I mean the co-owner had no interest in looking at boats), I had no choice but to get started on the tank. The first step was a doozy: I had to get inside.

The ProSeal was going to be a royal pain from beginning to end. I started by trying to cut off as much of the "squeeze" as I could.

That did precisely nothing to loosen up the circular panel. I mucked about trying one thing after another to get that thing off, with no progress whatsoever.  As is my norm, I finally got frustrated enough to progress to the "over-tool" stage, in this case by grabbing a small jeweler's screwdriver and an anything-but-small tapping device, also known as a bloody big hammer.  The idea was to get the little blade down in there just far enough to open a gap.

Which, as it turns out, actually worked.

The gap allowed me to get the razor blade down in there to cut through the ProSeal that had such a firm grasp on the panel.

It eventually began to look like a crazy acupuncturist had stopped by to help.


The ProSeal left quite a mess, as did the screwdriver. I am not optimistic about getting a leak-proof seal ever again.

Before starting on the main show, I diverted long enough to install the new mechanical fuel gauge.  Naturally, it needed a hole to live in, and the only way I know of to make a hole that big is to use a hole saw, one of the most violent tools available.

With the hole done, the rest of the installation was as simple as dropping in the gauge, match drilling five screw holes, and bolting it in.

Moving on, the next thing that needed to be done was the drilling out of the rivets in the area that would soon be inhabited by the new internal doublers.

Blind rivets are super easy to drill out. The hole keeps the bit centered, and the 'caps' pop off pretty much of their own volition.

The mandrels are another story. They need to be punched out.

All of this tomfoolery left a lot of detritus inside the tank, as was to be expected. What was not expected was the finding of the remains of a housefly.

This is the inside view of one of the new doublers.  They mean business this time!

A number of methods were used to clean out the tank. This was one of the more effective.

Getting ProSeal on the backs of the new rivets (plus three sets of nuts & bolts) was a very messy job.

At some point in its curing cycle, ProSeal decides that it will only stick where you don't want it.  This is right around the time that co-pilot Rick stated that I had probably reached the point of leave-it-well-enough-alone, or words to that effect.

The newly renovated tank is currently sitting out at the hangar with a couple of gallons of fuel in it, just to see if it's going to leak. While I was out there, I went ahead and did one of my other projects, which was to find a way to protect the cockpit floors. They're only thin aluminum, and they double as the exterior skin of the fuselage. It seemed that years of dragging my heels across them could have a detrimental effect, so I bought some floor mat material at Walmart and cut out some mats. They're held down with Velcro tape.

There are still more jobs to be done, but I did manage to get the re-weighing done with the help of Kyle, Inspector of Weights & Measures for The Jackson Two.  The results show that the plane gained twenty pounds of weight from the paint.

I have enough additional little jobs to do to allow me to stretch this out until February 1, at which point I will sign off the annual inspection. By doing that, I will be able to push the annuals into March within a year or two, which is right where I want them.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The End of an Era

It is with a heavy heart indeed that I share the news that Brave Sir Hogarth, my long time flying buddy and companion, passed away this evening. He was 13 years old.

Some of you have been with me from the Tampico days and probably well remember some of his aerial trips with me, back in the day when I had an airplane capable of carrying such a large, oddly shaped passenger.

He was a good dog, although his appetite for cat food got him into trouble now and then. At one point I thought that maybe he would like to wear a kitty cat hat if he was so find of stealing the cat's sustenance: 

For most of his life, Hogarth could not tolerate the presence of another dog. Luckily, due to our devious plan to sneak another dog into the pack by telling him that little puppy Cabot was actually just another hamster, Hogarth was able to enjoy pack life for the last four years of his life.

Hogarth to this day remains one of the best looking dogs I've ever known, even if I do say so myself.

He sure did appreciate a good laugh!

My experiment with having him join me in the hangar while working on the plane was short-lived, though. He had a way of expressing his boredom and disdain for the entire process:

He was no great help in the shop, either.

Given his druthers, he much preferred lounging in front of the fireplace.

Despite his thick coat, he could get chilly at times.

He was a valuable addition to our family and we will never forget the contribution he made to our lives. I think Co-pilot Egg's eulogy speaks for all of us.
My baby boy. We got you when I was seven and it was the best day of my life. I was so excited. You were never allowed to sleep on my bed but I started sneaking you in until it was allowed. You would lay right up next to me and protect me from the dark. Whenever I had a nightmare you would just lick my face and it would be all better. You stopped being able to jump up on my bed the last few years, so we would always help you. It made your day. You were such a sweet boy. Always full of kisses. I hope we gave you the life you deserved. I love you Hogarth. You were my first real dog and I'll never forget you.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Project

There's no denying that the completion (well, excluding service bulletins and maintenance) of the RV-12 has left me in a void of inactivity.  It's not a "I'm sitting in a lotus position in the middle of a room humming yoga chants" kind of boredom, mind you. Between work and other interests like reading or online car racing, I manage to fill the hours. So it's not precisely business and/or distractions that I find myself craving, it's something far more elusive: a purpose/goal. I need to be working towards something.  Without a definable end point, how do I gauge progress? Without a measure of progression, how to I get a sense of satisfaction? Where is the inner glow of a difficult job done, or an easier job done well?

I've already thought about and rejected any number of ideas.

I considered building a Factory Five Project 818. The 818 is a kit car ($10,000 plus tax, shipping, and a few options) built using a Subura WRX for donor parts. It's a mid-engine, rear wheel drive sports car with the looks and some (more than enough for a street car!) of the performance of a Ferrari, for an estimated total cost of $18,000 - $20,000.

The problems are manifest:

  - no temperature controlled space to build it in
  - no non-temperature controlled space to build it in
  - no place to store it
  - cost

That one stays on the "some day" list for now.

I thought about selling my little sail boat and kayak in order to build a small 12-14' power boat. I don't use the kayak much anymore because I can't lift it up onto the top of the big Hyundai. I sold my other "guest" kayak (made a couple hundred bucks on the flip) to buy the sailboat, so now kayaking is a solo endeavor which, for the aforementioned  reason, doesn't work. Solo kayaking also suffers the same problem as the sailboat: I don't like doing things alone anymore.

I looked into building something like this Bateau Fast Skiff 14:

There are a few problems with this, too. First, it would need a trailer. I have one, but there is a sailboat sitting on it, and I would have to sell the sailboat to 1) get the cash out of it, and 2) free up the spot in the hangar where it's stored. Cost is also an issue, but not in the way you might think. The boat itself would cost about $2,100 to build, but then I would need an engine. Even used, that's at least $500 - $800. All up, I'd be about $3,000 into it. That's a problem when you consider this, which carries a $2,700 asking price:

It even comes with the trailer. And a spare tire. Hard to beat that.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I have been thinking about this for months. With the long days stuck in the hours with cold, COLD air making any outdoor endeavor very uncomfortable, it has been more front-of-mind than usual.

Finally, however, I have found a project.

I am going to make....

a pilot.

It will require no work space. It will require no storage space. And while not being exactly cost free, it's a manageable kind of cost. To do this, though, I will have to become a Light Sport Certified Flight Instructor (CFI-S).  I have considered becoming an instructor before, but in the non-LSA world, that means getting a Commercial Rating first, which could easily cost up to or more than $5,000.

Things are different in the LSA world. No commercial rating is needed. The only requirements (absent the boilerplate requirements to speak English, etc.) are:

   -- 100 hours as pilot-in-charge (PIC) in a powered aircraft. I have 700+ hours.
   -- 50 hours of flight time in a single-engine airplane. All of those 700+ hours qualify.
   -- 25 hours of cross-country time. I get that many in any given year.
   -- 15 hours as PIC in an LSA airplane. I'm at roughly 40.

There are other requirements that can be boiled down to two written tests and a check ride. There is a prerequisite for the check ride: three hours of dual instruction in the 60 days preceding the check ride.

I will start with the written tests. The first one is practical knowledge - this is essentially the same test that I took decades ago when I was working on my first license. I doubt of I could pass that test today, although there is any outside chance that I could - it only takes a score of 70%.  That would meet the letter of the law, but it would be an unnecessary short cut.  Besides which, the oral portion of the check ride will require me to know my stuff, as will teaching a student.

To relearn all of this stuff at a high proficiency level, I went in search of training materials. After a somewhat prolonged search, I opted for the Sporty's Learn to Fly course on the iPad. There were other platform choices, but given the immense convenience of the iPad, which seldom leaves my side, I thought that would be the best way to go. All of the videos can be streamed via WiFi, or downloaded onto the iPad itself to allow for viewing from literally anywhere.  The program contains more than just the training videos, too. It also includes test preparation with a Test Simulator that uses actual FAA questions. Finally, you take a couple of timed practice tests and it tells Sporty's to send the endorsement required to take the written test. Total cost was $200 plus a cut for the government.

The second test is Fundamentals of Instruction. I'll have to buy another set of test prep software (or a book) for that, and it won't work on the iPad, but it's pretty straight forward stuff and should be easy to learn. I figure $50 at most.

The tests aren't free, either. $150 each. Ouch!  We're at $550, not counting the three hours paid to an instructor - figure $150 for that, so let's call it $700.

That's what the packaging to ship the Project 818 kit costs.  Not the shipping, the packaging for shipping.

So, for the sake of argument, what precisely do I intend to do with the CFI rating if/when I get it? That's easy: I'm going to teach someone to fly. I even have a candidate: there's a guy that I used to work with that has flown with me a couple of times. The first time was in the RV-6, and it was a notable flight in that he was one of those passengers that I get every now and then that don't want to try their hand at the controls. The second time was in the RV-12 and the situation was the exact opposite - he flew us for 20 - 30 minutes and did quite well at it.

There are a few issues, though. Because of the nature of the certification category of the plane, I can't do any commercial work in it, and that includes getting paid to instruct in it. That doesn't matter - I'm not doing it for the money. The gas isn't free either, but by law he is allowed to contribute pro-rata for fuel, oil, and airport expenditures if we share a common purpose, typically meaning that we both had a common reason to be there. This is intended to keep us from acting as de facto charter pilots. But this is a weird and murky area in the FAA rules, so even a split for the cost of the gas might be questionable from a legal standpoint. That's something I'll have to look into. Note that it's not the FAA regulations that are the question: they pretty much expect a CFI for charge for the service, but I can't use the airplane for hire.

If the worst case is that I do something I would have done anyway  (e.g. fly around with a friend on a pleasant evening) and foot the entire fuel cost, I can't make myself see that as a loss.  Figure fifteen hours at five gallons per hour with a worst case cost of $6 a gallon: $450. And like I said, I can guarantee that I was going to fly those hours anyway.  That takes me to what, $1,150? That's still less than a boat which, by the way, would be useless until Spring.

There is another wrinkle in that, for reasons having to do with insurance, he will not be able to fly solo in my plane. For that he would have to rent. Fortunately, there is a rental available up on his side of town. He would have to rent for roughly 7 - 9 hours. He's only required to do five hours of solo before the check ride, but he would also have to have a checkout from a CFI at the rental outfit (side benefit: that would like a practice check ride) and he would have to rent their plane for his actual check ride - that would add a few more hours.  On the plus side, it's a pretty nice looking plane (representative sample of a 2007 Evektor SportStar):

While there are still a few issues to be worked out, none of them seem to be show-stoppers. The worst case is that I get the rating and use it to teach in a rental. Not as convenient, but not a problem either. And if Co-pilot Egg ever decides that she wants to learn, all it would take is a call (and more money, one would assume) to the insurance company.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

No Tanks, I've Already Got One

Having never owned an airplane of such recent vintage as the RV-12, I had no idea how much refinement of the design continues as life in the wild environs of actual fleet usage points out weaknesses both major and minor in the original design. These refinements are passed out to those of us with completed airplanes via the innocuous sounding name of Service Bulletins.  The other, and more insidious, method is via revisions to the plans and kit contents. The latter is intended to fix issues for planes either in the process of being built, or for future kits.

While the improvements that are made via plans revision are optional for completed planes, Service Bulletins are arguably not.  Whether mandatory or not in the eyes of the FAA, I consider them certainly worthy of consideration. Having just gone through the painful process of selling an airplane, I know that the seller had better have answers for the well-informed buyer. For that reason alone, it is a good practice to acquiesce to the demands of the manufacturer when they create a Service Bulletin. Besides which, Van's does not go to the time and expense of creating these things and sending the parts (free of charge) for inconsequential trifles.

The RV-12 fuel tank has been the subject of a number of revisions and Service Bulletins.

It is now subject to another.

No one like messing about with the fuel tank. At best, it's a tedious and smelly job if it involves breaking open the ProSeal sealant that leak-proofs the tank. ProSeal is one of those horrible smelling chemical compounds that provides a valuable function, but does so at the cost of being a royal pain to work with. It carries with it an attitude of staunch recalcitrance, primarily exhibited by its preternatural penchant for sticking to everything but the place you want it to stick to, up to and very much including human skin. And did I mention that it stinks? I did? Well, it smells so bad that it bears repeating. Adding injury to insult, it is relatively expensive and has an unconscionably short shelf life. Conventional wisdom has it that storing ProSeal in the freezer will prolong the shelf life, which is why it is not an uncommon occurrence for me to periodically happen across a jar or two of it that had been tossed in the icebox and forgotten.

So, the newest Service Bulletin, which goes by the name of of SB 13-12-19, is more than a little frustrating because it is intended to enhance a previous Service Bulletin that came more than a year ago.  To understand the original problem, you have to be aware of where the fuel tank is in an RV-12, and how it is mounted. And to understand my trepidation in breaking it open for repair, you need to know that I opted not to build the tank myself for fear of crafting an expensive sieve.

Unlike pretty much every light plane in the world, the RV-12's fuel tank rides inside the airplane, rather than being built into the wings. The reason for this is that the wings on the RV-12 are removable and having a few hundred pounds of fuel in them would make the removal of the wings fraught with difficulty. In the picture below, you can see that the lower front of the tank is bolted to the aft face of the U-shaped channel that is the very backbone of the fuselage.

This channel, officially known as the "center section," also provides a strong airframe member to which the landing gear is mounted.  This is the crux of the problem intended to be solved by both the first tank related bulletin and the new, enhanced version. What has happened twice now is that a severely bollixed landing has applied enough rearward pressure on the landing gear legs to cause the center section to rotate forward. This forward pull of the aft face of the center section has ripped open the bottom of the fuel tank with predictable results. No one enjoys being bathed in gasoline, for any number of reasons.  This needed to be fixed, even if it is one of those very rare, "probably won't happen to me" cases.

The Service Bulletin resulting from the first accident had us install a doubler behind the flanges that the bolts go through to secure the tank.

The theory was that this more robust flange would provide enough retaining force to allow a new "frangible" bolt to just pop off its head, thereby allowing the tank to remain behind as the center section pulled away from it.

A second accident of the same variety disproved that theory.

Here is the NTSB finding, inclusive of a mis-identification of the manufacturer ("Rans" makes kit planes, but "Van's" makes the RV-12):

NTSB Identification: CEN13CA569
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Sunday, September 29, 2013 in Hatley, WI
Probable Cause Approval Date: 12/02/2013
Aircraft: RANS RV 12, registration: N817RV
Injuries: 1 Uninjured.

NTSB investigators used data provided by various entities, including, but not limited to, the Federal Aviation Administration and/or the operator and did not travel in support of this investigation to prepare this aircraft accident report.

During the landing flare to a private field, the airplane encountered a crosswind from the southwest. The wind pushed the airplane to the north and the airplane landed prematurely on a high berm located to the north of the runway. The landing gear collapsed and the airplane was damaged by the postimpact fire. The pilot did not report any mechanical anomalies with the airplane.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The pilot did not maintain control of the airplane while landing with a crosswind.

Note that this accident happened on the first flight of the airplane. I feel for the builder - what a horrible thing to happen, although he was blessed with no injury - that could have been SO much worse.

So, here we are with another Service Bulletin to try again.  This one sounds fairly simple: add a couple more doublers. Problem is, this time they're inside the tank.  That means breaking the ProSeal seal and opening up the tank.

The two new doublers are depicted using dashed outline lines:

To get inside the tank, I will have to remove the large circular panel. You can see the outline of ProSeal around its circumference.  That will be a chore to remove, but it is by no means the most difficult part. Rivets will have to be drilled out to allow for new rivets to be used to attach the doublers, Those too are slathered with ProSeal that will need to be removed. The replacement rivets will also have to be installed "wet," which means that they need to be dipped in ProSeal before pulling them.

As long as I'm going to be doing all of that, I decided to also install a new mechanical fuel gauge that Van's deemed a nice enough addition to add it to new kits with a revision, but not safety-related enough to reach the plateau of a Service Bulletin, a decision I heartily agree with.

The mechanical gauge was developed out in the field by a guy that was not satisfied with the method Van's used to allow for a visual inspection of the fuel level. With wing-mounted tanks, this is typically addressed with a simple calibrated dip stick. The location of the filler neck on the RV-12 precludes that: the dip stick would have to be both flexible and lengthy. Instead, Van's provided a series of small holes in the side of the tank, running vertically from top to bottom. There is a plastic "window" mounted inside the tank to keep the fuel from simply pouring out through the holes. The idea is that you can look through the holes to see the fuel level.

Clever, but not nearly clever enough. The window material used in early tanks wasn't particularly fuel proof, and the installation was a major pain. Even when done successfully, the fuel level could not be seen from two out of the three positions that one would really want to be able to see it: while fueling, and while flying.  The far more serviceable if not quite as clever fix was to install a mechanical float gauge on the top of the tank. After a couple of years if foo-fooing the new gauge, Van's quietly adopted it into the design and ditched the idea of the windows. To their credit, they provide a retrofit kit for the gauge.  

I will install it. Why?  Well, for two good reasons: I will be opening the tank anyway, and I recently had occasion to want to visually see how much gas is left in the tank rather than trust the word of the skittish Ms. Sky View.

I am currently in the preparation phase, mostly because the parts from Van's have yet to arrive. There's nothing stopping me from getting the tank opened up, though. It's already out of the plane (I'm halfway through the annual inspection) and down in the basement shop waiting to have rivets drilled out. That necessitated the purchase of a new drill, the one I used to build the airplane having given up the ghost in the way that most tools die these days: the batteries are fried, and replacements cost nearly as much as the entire drill kit cost.

I made a trip to Home Depot to pick up a new one. There is an incredibly diverse number of options in the selection of cordless drills, especially when considering the utter simplicity of their function. I tend to buy on the low side of the price curve when it comes to simple things like drills.  And sure enough, here was a Black & Decker at a "New Lower Price," which I understood to mean "will come up at the checkout at the old Higher Price."  This not being my first experience with this kind of thing, I pulled my trusty cell phone (which these days come with more functions that the bastard child of a Swiss Army knife and a Leatherman) and snapped a picture.

A few minutes later, I was at the self checkout. To my utter lack or surprise, the computer popped up the price as I scanned the bar code: $69.97.  Plus tax.

I called over the self checkout attendant to point out the error. She grabbed a phone and called for assistance, presumably from someone able to go verify the suspicious story I was telling her. Her face crumbled. 

"Well, for how long?" she asked plaintively.  "Really? I have a customer waiting."

"Well, if this helps," I interjected, "I've shopped here before and I pretty much expected this to happen. Here, take a look at this."

She studied the picture above, compared it to the box I had already put in a bag, and broke into a wide grin.

"Never mind, he took a picture of the price card. I can take it from here."

I thought she might be a little insulted that I had taken a picture as evidence, clearly having no faith in their ability to manage their point-of-sale system. Quite the opposite happened: she was vociferously thankful. She didn't want to stand around waiting with an irritated customer anymore than the soon-to-be irritated customer did.