Monday, October 12, 2015

The Saga of Serial Number 75

Let's start the tale of RV-12 serial number 75 with a baseline: the tail kit for my RV-12, serial number 284, arrived at my door on Tuesday, October 13, 2009, four days short of six years ago. It took three years at a relaxed pace to convert the series of sub-kits into a flying airplane. In comparison, serial number 75 flew for the first time on October 5th, 2015.

That means that it was in some state of hangar decoration for at least six years, but probably more like seven.

Why do we care? What's our interest in serial number 75?

Well, it comes down to this: I've spent the last year and a half helping to get it in the air.

It all started back in the days when I was spending quite a bit of time out at the hangar building N284DG. As anyone who has built a plane at the airport knows, they attract other airport denizens in the way a Walmart Black Friday sale attracts bargain hunters. This isn't necessarily a problem, mind you; it's often the case that a few minutes of talking about the progress being made (or, in some cases, not being made - I'm looking at you, longerons) can be quite enjoyable.

It's also not uncommon for visitors to profess a desire to get their own RV-12. More often than not, nothing ever comes of that, but sometimes.... sometimes they surprise you.

One of those RV-12 enthusiasts was Jan. At the time, Jan had a Cessna 172 that he used for flying back and forth to Florida. He was very interested in the RV-12 as a more economical way to make that trip, but he wasn't keen on the building process. I can't remember if I ever suggested that he seek out a partially completed kit, or if I instead suggested that he find one already flying, but the net result is that one day he stopped by to tell me that he had purchased, or was on the cusp of purchasing, an "almost done" kit from a fellow up in Wisconsin.


Naturally he was interested in my opinion. After talking it over, I suggested that I call and talk to the seller to see what kind of state the kit was in. Apparently it had been sold at least once before and returned, which obviously made me curious as to what Jan would be letting himself (oh, let's be honest: us) in for. After receiving reassurances that the prior work had all been done to an E-LSA level, and that it really just needed a month or two to finish up, there was nothing more that I could say. It all sounded fine on the phone, right?

A couple of weeks later I heard from Jan again - the kit had been purchased and had been trailered down to his hangar in Ohio. I went over and took a look at it. There were a few scuffs here and there, but it looked pretty good. Most of the difficult work had, in fact, been done. The canopy was done, the engine cowlings were done (oh good!! No fiberglass work!), the engine was mounted, and the avionics were in.

Piece of cake, I figured.

Then I noticed that all of the hardware that had arrived from Van's in coded paper bags referenced by an inventory sheet had all been dumped in plastic buckets with no rhyme or reason evident. The assembly instructions were in disarray as well. Step one was going to be the Herculean task of sorting all off that stuff out. Jan, who didn't know an LP4-3 rivet from an AN4-4 bolt, was going to have one heckuva time with that, I figured. As it turns out, though, organizing stuff is something he's quite good at. Within just a couple of weeks, all of the bolts, nuts, washers, etc. had all been sorted and stored neatly in containers.

Ah, now it will be a piece of cake, I figured.


One thing Jan was not especially good at, and he is by no means alone in this, was looking at a seemingly insurmountable problem and breaking it down into a series of achievable goals/tasks. Myself, on the other hand, well... I had been there too, and I knew just what to do about it. The trick is to find one thing to focus on to the exclusion of all else, work on it, finish it, then find another. It's a lot like the advice people that are afraid of heights are given when they manage to find themselves clinging to a tall ladder: don't look down! Or as the old fortune cookie says, every journey starts with one step.

With Jan, my advice was to not look at that airplane-shaped pile of aluminum as an airplane, but instead to simply ignore it. This was far harder for him to do than it had been for me, primarily because by time I had an airplane-shaped pile of aluminum to look at, I had already completed thousands of small tasks to get it that way. The value of the baby-steps approach was already ingrained.

As it turned out, we had a blessing disguised as a curse: none of the service bulletins had been done on the fuel tank. The blessing was that it presented an achievable goal (in my eyes - Jan's opinions on the subject were very, very far in the opposite direction), but the curse was that the work involved in doing those repairs was not amongst the fonder memories of my build. In fact, it's onerous. It meant opening the tank, drilling holes, installing nutplates, and worst of all, applying ProSeal.


We dove in, and I soon (gratifyingly!!) learned that this was not going to a situation of me finishing his plane while he watched. The opposite was soon apparent: although he didn't have a lot of experience with this kind of work, he was eager to learn. So, from the very start the model we used was me demonstrating how to do something, then him doing it for however many times it took to get it done. I showed him how to drill a hole, countersink it, and use a rivet squeezer to mount a nutplate. I then disappeared for a few days until he contacted me to let me know that the work was done. I wish I could find a way to treat yard work that way.

I can't remember precisely how long it took to get that tank done, but it was at least a few weeks. That was probably right around the time that we determined that going from "almost done" to "ready to fly" was going to take much longer that we had hoped.

It was also just about this time that we learned to adopt a deep and healthy distrust of any work previously done. The genesis of this new attitude was simple curiosity - I noticed a thick white wire in the avionics bay that had an inch wide covering of black electrical tape. Wondering what could possibly be under that tape, I peeled it off to find that the thick wire was actually a bundle of five very thin wires, each of which had been cut completely in two. The outer casing of the wire bundle was the only thing holding it all together, with the black tape serving no other function than to hide the damage. While we had already been vigilant to this kind of thing, this incident was enough to show that extreme vigilance was a better approach.

In the end, we found multiple occasions of negligence, many of which were benign but a handful of which were actually dangerous. No small number of them were in areas that required a great deal of effort to repair. I don't mean for this to sound judgmental - buying someone else's kit, or completed airplane, for that matter, is very solidly in the realm of 'caveat emptor'. We simply metaphorically shrugged our shoulders and moved on.

My role eventually dwindled down to mostly acting as a consultant as Jan became more comfortable with working on the plane. I was also tasked with any work that required working in a confined area. I've always hated having spindly little arms, but I can't deny that they come in handy now and then.

Whenever we ran into a situation that required more brains and/or lifting capacity than Jan and I could handle, we called in the reserves in the form of fellow RV-12 builder Kyle. He was always ready to fly up north and lend a hand when we were in a bind.

Jan eventually became comfortable with the idea that the project would be done someday. While he never got to enjoy the sense of progress one gets when a pile of individual parts eventually becomes something large enough to look like a major piece of airplane, he did notice that the list of outstanding tasks was getting shorter. By the time we got around to retrofitting the optional ADSB system, all I had to do was show Jan where (and why) I had chosen to mount the antenna; when I stopped by the next day, the entire installation had been completed.

My work was finished - Jan had made the progression from pilot to builder.

Finally there came the day when the FAA was going to come do the airworthiness inspection. Jan found that to be quite unsettling. I received a text message from him the night before the inspection stating that he knew, just knew that the plane would fail the inspection. Having been through this myself, I was able to offer some comforting words: "So what if it does? The worst case is that we have a specific list of things to fix, which is far better than the last year and a half of searching them out for ourselves." That made sense to him. By the time the FAA guy arrived at the hangar, Jan was in the right state of mind to realize that the FAA inspection was not something to be dreaded, but rather a service to be appreciated.

The plane passed with flying colors, so to speak.

Thus ends the saga of serial number 75, at least for me. After logging over five hours of preparatory flying time in my airplane with me in the right seat, the first solo flight for Jan in his own RV-12 was, at long last, a piece of cake.

For reals this time.