Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Speech that Wasn't

I had been contacted by the coordinator of one of the high school RV-12 build projects asking me if I would say a few words to some of his students that would be at Oshkosh. Because it was only eight students, I didn't feel like I needed to prepare anything. When he wrote back and said that the national director of these programs would be there, and that there would be a lot more kids than the original eight, I thought that I had better write something down.  Some of this will be familiar - it's from the article I wrote a couple of years ago.

The speech got cancelled when I had to take an ill Co-pilot Egg back to West Bend, but here's what I had prepared:

Some of you are preparing to embark on a journey, and some of you have already done so. You are participating in an endeavor that will forever brand you as "that guy (or gal) that built an airplane." 
It is a huge distinction. Consider how many high school quarterbacks there are. Now consider how many people have built an airplane while still in high school. There are far, far fewer of you. 
Also consider this: the physically smallest person on your team is the most likely to be the team hero!  There are a lot of tight spaces in an RV-12, and someone is going to have to crawl into them to finish various parts of the kit. So if you're built light like I am (or used to be, anyway [pat gut]), this is your chance to shine!
Those of you just getting ready to start might be wondering what it will be like.  I know I did.
Here is what I learned. This is an article that I wrote the day I ran into "The Wall."
"The Wall" is the time that occurs when you just want to give up. Things haven't been going well, the pressure has become too great, and you've had enough. You can see the results of "The Wall" in the dozens of ads on under the headline "kit for sale."   
In my case, it came after the plane was already done. I had no sooner finished it when yet another service bulletin came along, and it was a pretty big one. It wasn't huge relative to the overall project, but if you think of it as the 27th mile in a marathon, you will better understand why it hit me so hard.
So here it what I wrote: 
You will 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 the suppressed eye roll variety are:

"When will it be done?"
"A real airplane?"
"Are you going to actually fly in it??"

And my personal favorite, usually asked rhetorically by everyone but your mother-in-law, is "Are you crazy??"

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

After a while you build up a library of ready answers for the most common questions, along with the ability to spit out a wordy “non-answer” answer when a factual answer would require too much time and effort, or worse, a commitment to a completion date.

It’s very much like the way that a politician answers questions. It’s like the “heat thunder” you sometimes hear in the summer: plenty of bluster, no rain.

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

It's hard to answer that question 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 examples will 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 have not.

It is important to understand that building an airplane is not just something that you are doing.
It becomes, to a very large degree, something that you have become. You become that neighbor, that friend, or that co-worker that everyone defines you, and often introduces you, with the singular trait “he’s building a plane in his garage.”

A project of this magnitude has a profound 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 all becomes intertwined in personal relationships, work performance, and on any given day, your mood.

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, or the first time you move the control stick and parts of the airplane move in response, or the first time you sit in it and make airplane noises.
The day you start the engine for the first time, and it sounds ever so much better than the pretend sounds.

These are the days that bring with them 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. It will be reflected in your demeanor - you will be fairly vibrating with pride and excitement to the degree that 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!

But even that glow is, of course, tempered by the immutable fact that you will be in it when it does.

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 tempter 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 is there to remind you that someday you will be betting your very 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 also 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 the 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. Sometimes they will be a distraction, at others times they will be a welcome break.

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 plethora of other frustrations, you will learn that it is often 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 will be days when you realize that 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.

I know this, because I did just that.

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."

Along that journey, you will learn deep and abiding lessons that will affect the rest of your life.

You will learn that most mistakes that you make can be fixed with various combinations of time and money.

You will learn to question everything you read, no matter how reputable you consider the source to be. Everyone makes mistakes, and that includes experts.

You will learn the costs and consequences of inattention to detail.

You will learn that there is no shame in asking for help.
You will learn to be critical of yours and others work, but not in the sense of overt, accusatory criticism or blame, but as dispassionate, fact-based observation of results. See also: teamwork.

You will learn to properly and safely use tools you never knew existed.

You will learn to not only use the right tool for the job, but how to deal with situations when the right tool isn’t available. Knowing when a suitable substitute can be used or when there is simply no other choice is an art you will start to master.

You will gain a deeper understanding of how mechanical things work.

You will learn to not be afraid to try to fix them.

You will learn that despite what the sticker says, sometimes there actually are user serviceable parts inside.

You will learn to live with people that think you learned more than you actually did: “If you can build an airplane, you ought to be able to fix….”

And finally, you will learn that no matter how big the job is, no matter how many people tell you that you’re crazy for even trying it, if you approach that dauntingly huge job as a series of much smaller jobs, you will eventually finish it.

And that is the most important lesson of them all.

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