Categories: all aviation bicycle gadgets misc motorcycle theater

Wed, 22 Mar 2017

Building a Biplane: Gathering Materials

I am finally making some forward progress on actually building a biplane, instead of merely thinking about it, and doing activities that prepare me for the eventual build.

The first thing to figure out about the build -- about what happens the first time I take a piece of wood or steel and try to turn it from raw wood or steel into an airplane part -- is where to start. The Marquart Charger has so very many parts.

So, I fell back on a couple of reasonably simple tests: 1. What can I do that will not be a huge committment (in case I hate it and realize it's a waste of time)? 2. What do I already have the skills to do?

The answer to #2 is simpler than #1, so I'll address that first: I know how to work with wood. Although I've had a class in welding, and I was reasonably happy with my progress there, I currently lack equipment to perform welding, and my skill level at the end of class was clearly... beginner. There's work needed before I want to honestly assemble any airplane parts with my welding skill. So, woodworking was a logical starting place.

The only parts of the plane that are made of wood are the wings. The wings are made of these parts, when viewed simplistically: wooden ribs, built up out of little sticks and epoxy; 12 foot long spars that cost hundreds of dollars each; and some steel cables, fittings, and welded parts. The ribs need to be built before the wings can be assembled, so ribs are a fairly obvious starting place.

The rib is built up of 1/4" spruce sticks known as capstrip. The general idea is, you build a jig to hold the various pieces in place by cutting out a piece of plywood or MDF, then screwing blocks or inserting pins, then you cut out a bunch of capstrip to the appropriate lengths, fit them into their locations, and glue the whole thing up with epoxy. Those little squares are made of 1/16" thick aircraft plywood (don't even ask how much aircraft plywood costs), and are also glued on, then stapled in place. Once it's all held together with staples, you can pull the rib out of the jig, flip it over, and glue down the plywood gussets to the other side, and start on another one. There's also the plywood nose-piece which needs to be prepared beforehand.

So, then my list of things I need to acquire before I start goes like this:

  • 600 or so feet of 1/4" capstrip
  • Several square feet of 1/16" plywood
  • Several square feet of 1/4" plywood (for nose-pieces)
  • Epoxy and supplies (mixing cups, stir sticks, etc.)
  • A fancy staple gun
  • Fancy staples
  • Some hardware-store plywood or MDF
  • A way to cut the nose-pieces so they're identical to each other

As you can imagine, not every store in town carries aircraft certified plywood. There's no market for it. So, that has to be ordered from a specialty supplier in Illinois. Ditto the 1/4" capstrip: specialty supplier. Fortunately, the epoxy and supplies are easy to find locally. The special stapler (a Senco SFT10XP-A/D) wasn't available locally that I could find, but was available online. Special staples from Senco are ridiculously priced (mostly because they come in quantities sufficient for building 100 airplanes), so cheap Chinese Ebay staples are on hand for a trial, and if I don't like them I can order the name-brand ones. The MDF I'll be using for a jig hasn't been acquired yet, but is easily available at any lumber yard for not very much money.

The fancy wood has been ordered, but I don't yet have a delivery date from the supplier.

Of course, I have a stumbling block: the garage isn't finished yet. I've been dragging my heels on getting out there and tackling the final steps, which are to clear it of everything and paint the floor, then to move all my workshop stuff into the space and build a work table for the plane.

There's also the unacknowledged missing tool: how to cut out the nose pieces? I can do it with the jigsaw I already have, but really a bandsaw is the right tool for the job. I don't want to put theater-quality parts into this plane, I want aircraft quality parts. So there may be a major-ish tool purchase on my path before I can really start.

Even with the impediments and stumbling blocks in front of me, it's pretty cool to be getting close to actually sawing wood on the first part of my very own biplane build!

Posted at 14:33 permanent link category: /aviation

Mon, 06 Mar 2017

Calling the Bet

The following story is true, to the best of my knowledge.

A group of pilots were sitting around shooting the breeze one morning recently. The coffee was hot, the room was warm, and the sole politically liberal pilot was sitting with a group of Trump supporters. This took place a week or two after the 9th District Court of Appeals returned a preliminary ruling upholding the stay on Trump's travel ban executive order.

The conversation turned, as conversations do, to the subject of politics. One of the Trump supporters eventually made the assertion that, "80% of the decisions handed down by the 9th District Court of Appeals are overturned by the Supreme Court." After mulling this over for about 2 seconds, the liberal pilot looked at the speaker and said, "No they aren't." The Trump supporter was quick to defend his position: "Yes, they are. I read about it on [a right-leaning news website, the name of which I've forgotten]. It's absolutely true."

There was a round or two of "No they aren't" and "Yes they are," then the liberal pilot cut this useless tactic off with, "I'll bet you a hundred thousand dollars you're wrong." This caused the conversation to pause. His tone clearly indicated he wasn't kidding, and in a group of retired people who can afford to own airplanes, it wasn't outside the realm of probability that he actually had $100k to back up his bet. The pilot who'd suggested that 80% of the 9th Circuit's decisions were overturned (an obvious falsehood on its face -- there are only a fraction of 9th Circuit decisions which go to the Supreme Court, much less than 80%) eventually responded, "I can't do that," his tone suggesting he was just a trifle hurt the bettor would make such a suggestion.

Then why did you say it in the first place?! railed the liberal pilot, to himself. He didn't say anything out loud, though, for the point had been sufficiently proven.

The following story, as far as I know, is also true (and to be clear, the terms Seattleite and Montanan are only used for identification purposes, with no negative sentiment expressed):

A 30-something Seattleite was visiting his old stomping grounds in Montana, and was in conversation with an old friend who had stayed in Montana, when the topic of the upcoming election (this was several months before the November 2016 election) was raised. The Montanan said, with absolute sincerity, "You know, there's going to be some kind of a false-flag terrorist attack around the election, so that Obama can declare martial law and install himself for a third term, and eventual dictatorship."

There was that familiar pause, and the Seattleite said, "No way." "Definitely," responded the Montanan, explaining briefly the somewhat convoluted logic which supported this view. The Seattleite extended his hand for a handshake and said, "I'll bet you a thousand dollars that won't happen." The Montanan demurred, but the Seattleite persisted, "Come on, you just said this is guaranteed. This is easy money, why won't you take the bet? I'll give you a thousand dollars when martial law is declared in November." And yet the old friend from Montana wouldn't take the bet.

These stories, to me, suggested a new and interesting tactic to combatting the kind of false news and conspiracy theorization which seems to be running so strong on the right side of the political spectrum these days. It's not a tactic that will work with a group. It's not a tactic you probably want to try on social media (betting is illegal in most jurisdictions, so leaving hard evidence around that you're engaging in it isn't the best idea). But one on one, with people who have a sufficient level of trust to honestly place this kind of a bet, it seems foolproof:

When someone makes a clearly absurd assertion that is easily disproved and yet they seems to stick to it, call that bluff. Make the wager, and make it big enough to be a scary amount of money (or whatever commodity may be offered) if they lose. If they take the bet, you (seeker of the truth that you are) get their money. If they don't take the bet, then you get to have the conversation we're all itching to have: Then why do you persist in this madness if you don't really believe it?

Posted at 09:12 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 09 Feb 2017

For All Your Pink Slip Needs

Should you find yourself wanting to send a message to someone, perhaps the person currently infesting the White House, perhaps on March 15th, 2017, I have generated some useful files for you.

Download the appropriate PDF files here:

Pink Slip front
Pink Slip back
Pink Slip front and back

The "front" and "back" files are single pages, allowing you to print with just about any printer -- do a sample print to see which way you need to turn the paper when flipping it into the printer's feed tray. The "front and back" file is both pages in one file, to facilitate printing on duplexing printers.

When printing, print onto pink cardstock. Any cardstock should be fine, but to strictly qualify for the 34 cent postcard stamp, it should be between .007" and .016" thick.

I highly recommend US Flag postage stamps for those of you mailing through the US Postal Service.

Posted at 21:16 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 26 Jan 2017

The Time Has Arrived

I must, regrettably, break my long, long streak of not discussing politics on this journal.

With the arrival of Trump as President (I still shudder when I associate those words together), there is no more time to pretend it will all be ok. We're only five days in, and already he's issued executive orders to:

  • Fast-track the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline
  • Defund overseas organizations that provide any positive information about abortion
  • Gag all US agencies from discussing climate science, global climate change, or other scientific data
  • Repeal the Affordable Care Act without any hint of a plan to replace it
  • Punish "sanctuary cities" (including Seattle)
  • Build a wall on the border with Mexico
  • Roll back business regulations (how exactly is unclear)

He continues to natter on about voter fraud, for which there is no evidence. He has repeated on live TV that he thinks waterboarding and other torture methods are acceptable, and should in fact be used by US authorities. The list goes on, and as time passes and this post ages, this will most likely look like a tiny drop in the ocean of evil that he attempts to enable.

The refrain I hear over and over again, and which I repeat myself, is, "But what can we do about it?" Fortunately for us, a group of people who lived through the Tea Party years has assembled a handy guide for us:

The Indivisible Guide (local cached copy, check the source site for updates)

I will be going through the Guide, and seeing what it has to offer. The time to sit back and let the politicians sort it all out is over. If we want to continue to have a country as we currently recognize it, you and I and everyone we know needs to act, now.

Posted at 15:07 permanent link category: /misc

Sun, 08 Jan 2017

Adventures in 14/48, or, Why Are There Cello Pegs on the Ground?

I was invited to play with the band in 14/48 this weekend, and gladly accepted -- I've never been invited to be part of the show before. I've photographed, but that doesn't feel the same, since that job has no impact on what actually happens on stage. It's not one of the Five Disciplines (acting, directing, writing, designing, band).

I didn't know what exactly I'd be in for, but was excited to find out, and glad to have my friend Kenna in the band with me. I was also apprehensive: although I've been playing cello since the age of 8, I am not really fluent with the instrument at this point in my life. I've played a number of shows in the last few years, but those were situations where I had a month or two to practice and get the music down before I ever showed up on stage. The nature of 14/48 is such that you don't even know what music you might play until part way through the day. There's literally no way to be prepared other than to have a willing attitude and reasonable skill with your instrument.

As it turned out, I was the least skilled instrumentalist in the band, which was a good thing. Everyone around me was fantastic, and I was able to pick and choose my moments to concentrate on; I could really add the cello's voice where it mattered, without having to worry about supporting the whole show. Our keyboard player is, for his actual day job, a music director in musical theater. He is the choral master at a church, supporting (if I understood this correctly) three different choirs. He is skilled at keyboards, the same way that I am skilled at computer programming. Our guitarist, likewise, is absolutely proficient at his instrument. Also the drummer. Also the multi-instrument woodwind player I sat next to. They were an unbelievable crew, and I was humbled to be in their presence, but also so glad that I could allow their skill to shine through when the music was beyond me, or simply inappropriate for cello.

The first show, on Friday, went quite well. I flubbed my solo in the first show of the night, but nailed it in the second. There were some good cello moments, and the whole process was enjoyable (setting aside my own feelings of inadequacy, which are just par for the course).

The second show, on Saturday, was shaping up to be just as good, though there were fewer clear moments where a cello was called for. We had a good rehearsal, and were much more comfortable with each other as a group. I even had the fortune to contribute the seed of an idea that grew into the opening song.

We set down our instruments as the stage manager called out that she wanted to clear the stage so they could open the house for the 8:00 show and let the audience in, and all looked good. We filed back to the Bullit Cabaret, which was serving as a huge greenroom for the festival. It was that interminable wait between when you've finished preparations for a thing, and the actual doing of the thing.

A few moments later Lesley, the multi-woodwind player, came up to me with a slightly worried look on her face, and said, "There are cello pegs on the ground!"

I had a long moment where I tried to decide if she was joking or not -- she didn't seem the type, but the idea of my tuning pegs just falling out seemed preposterous. I decided she was joking, and said, "Ha! Funny joke!" but her expression didn't change. She repeated, "There are cello pegs on the ground. I think you should go take a look."

In a way, I had been prepared for this. On Friday, the C string on my cello had just come completely loose. I figured it was the cold, dry air outside interacting with the very warm stage environment. In that case, I'd just re-tuned and all was well, if a bit disconcerting. No further problems that night, though.

I got to where I could see the band area, and sure enough, there were two tuning pegs lying innocently on the ground under the cello, and three of the four strings were hanging loose. No problem, we still had five minutes, and it wouldn't take that long to re-tune. I walked out on stage, grabbed my cello, and prepared to head back to the Bullit.

Oh right, the cord. I'd forgotten that we'd plugged in the electric pickup for tonight, so I leaned over to pull it out without applying much critical thought to my actions. The C string, the only remaining taut string, came loose as I tugged on the tight connection, and there was a clatter as the bridge fell to the ground. Crap, thought I. Jen, one of the singers, had been hovering in the wings to see what was up, and I called her over to give me a hand as I disconnected the cable with a bit more care and gathered up the pieces to try to salvage the situation.

It was as if the cello had simply gone slack, like one of those toy figures where you press in the bottom of the base and it all falls over bonelessly. I found myself thinking of gelatin that suddenly de-gels and goes all sloppy.

There was no damage done, but you generally try to avoid completely releasing string tension on a bridged instrument like this, to avoid any chance of the soundpost falling over; that's the piece of wood that spans inside between the belly and the back of the cello, which keeps the belly from cracking inward under the pressure of the strings. If it falls over, you're pretty much done unless you've got the special tongs luthiers use to manipulate a soundpost, which I do not.

I carried the pieces back into the cabaret space and sat down with the cello on my lap, and started stringing the C back into place, trying to line up the bridge where it was supposed to go. The little lightbulb went off in my head though, and I stopped and peered through the F-hole, trying to spot the soundpost. Uh-oh. Flashlight came out, and confirmed: the soundpost was down. I almost laughed with actual delight: this was a completely new experience, and one over which I now had absolutely no control. It was very freeing, in a way. I was never worried, just trying to fix problems as they arrived, which is a very comfortable place for me.

By this time, a small crowd of concerned bandmates and performers had gathered around me, and I tried to explain what was happening, and that, essentially, I was done for the night. There was no recovering from this. I think they were expecting grief and agony, and I just sat there smiling at the universe's joke.

We conferred for a bit, and I ran through the runsheet that Nathan, our keyboardist, had so helpfully put together. We determined that there was nowhere that the cello just had to play (and which would therefore require that actors be notified), and Jessamyn, the stage manager, ran off to get things rolling again. The one cue I'd had that would have been important to communicate to actors had been cut by the director just before we went on, which turned out to be a stroke of good luck in the event of Cello Catastrophe.

I debated what to do with my bandmates, and we eventually decided that I'd come out anyway, and as soon as possible, we'd get Jason's bass guitar from storage and I could continue on that (I played bass guitar for a while in high school, and although I hadn't touched a bass for 5+ years, that would be better than just sitting there occasionally clapping or singing into the complete absence of vocal mic in front of me). Kenna handed me her tambourine, and I made some half-hearted taps when it felt right, but the first act I felt pretty naked just sitting there with no instrument. The band is also the source of many sound effects, to which I was contributing, but half my sound effects were based on having a cello in front of me.

Fortunately for me, Jason and Dan, the drummer, were on the ball, and produced the bass out of thin air at intermission. I had an instrument to play, even if it had been ages since I'd played it. Why not have my reintroduction be on stage, in front of 150 people, for songs I'd never played in my life? Sure!

It actually worked out pretty well, all things considered. Nathan was already playing a bass part on the keyboard, so I was able to come in and contribute to the sound when I could figure out which notes I needed to play. It turns out, to my unwarranted surprise, that "I Wanna Be Sedated" by the Ramones is basically played on open strings on the bass. It's super easy.

Between the 8:00 and 10:30 shows, I was able to scamper off to a quiet part of the theater and practice a couple of the other songs so I would be slightly more ready, and the 10:30 show did feel a bit more solid.

One thing that I found myself explaining over and over to people after the shows were finished was that although the cello explosion was a disaster as far as being able to play during the show, it's a more or less trivial operation to have fixed once I get it into the violin shop. Resetting a soundpost is a matter of a couple minutes for a skilled luthier, and restringing the cello is similarly very easy -- I would have done it myself if the soundpost had still been in place, and it would have delayed the start of the show by less than five minutes.

One advantage of explaining the situation over and over was I gained some cool insight into how a cello is constructed. The body of the cello is made of a particular type of wood (actually several similar types, but identical for the purposes of this discussion), and the pegs are made of a different type of wood. I think the soundpost is also made from a different type, but I'm less sure of that. I'm guessing that the materials are chosen such that the pegbox (where the pegs hold the ends of the strings, just under the scroll at the top of the neck) will expand faster than the pegs themselves. This means that the pegs should never have an opportunity to crack the pegbox where they pierce the sides, resulting in an expensive repair. Likewise, the soundpost material is probably chosen so that it won't elongate, or will elongate at a slower rate than the belly and back of the cello, so there's no chance of it accidentally cracking one of those huge pieces of wood.

Repairs to the belly and back are regularly made, because they're such relatively vulnerable pieces. Most repairs end up making the instrument sound better, although they negatively impact the value because they're visually ugly (where "present" counts as ugly, even if the luthier did a perfect job with the repair). So it would make sense to pick materials that would tend to prevent these kinds of damage. I'll be interested to chat with the luthier when I bring my cello in next week. (Conveniently, it needed to go in anyway, to repair a bruise in one edge.)

Several people commented that I have a very good 14/48 story now, and that's certainly true. We were asked to sign the wall with other 14/48 artists who have appeared at ACT Theater, and I signed as Ian "Cello Exploder" Johnston.

14/48 was a great experience for me, and I'm glad that I was invited, and actually had time in my schedule. It was fantastic meeting my new bandmates, a couple new theater faces among many familiar ones, and to have been part of an ever growing history of Very Quick Theater in Seattle.

Now, to get this pile of cello parts in to the shop...

Posted at 14:55 permanent link category: /theater

Fri, 30 Dec 2016

A Simple Accounting

As I am extremely unlikely to fly for the remainder of the year (all one and a half days of it), I decided to tally up my flying hours.

2013 4.0
2014 8.8
2015 8.5
2016 71.4

Just a sliiiiight jump there in 2016.

Posted at 11:12 permanent link category: /aviation

Tue, 27 Dec 2016

Avare ADS-B Notation

Warning: Deep nerding ahead. It's safe to skip this one if you're not super into aviation and ADS-B.

This year, Kwanzaa-bot brought me a Stratux box, which is a little Raspberry Pi-based ADS-B receiver. Neat!

So, I hooked it up and set up Avare, my aviation app of choice, to read the data. Totally works. Neat!

But, what the heck does it all mean? There are these hard-to-see dots, and small text, and although it's cool to see other airplanes flying around, it seemed a bit obscure and hard to understand. So, I ended up digging into the source code, and figured I'd write up a quick document to let other folks know what the ADS-B display is actually showing you in Avare.

Decoding the ADS-B Data in Avare

ADS-B traffic data in Avare is represented by a colored dot with a line extending out of it, and a small text area beneath the dot. The dot moves as updates are received, but if an update is missed, the dot will not move.

Dot color: The dot is colored to indicate the vertical position of the traffic. The colors are as follows:

Green: Traffic is more than 1000 ft/300m below you
Red: DANGER! Traffic is less than 1000 ft/300m below you
Magenta: DANGER! Traffic is less than 1000 ft/300m above you
Blue: Traffic is more than 1000 ft/300m above you

Barb direction and length: The line extending off the dot (called a barb in the source code) shows the velocity of the traffic. The longer the barb, the faster the traffic is moving. The direction it points shows the indicated heading of the traffic.

Text info: Each target has text associated with it, in a small box below the dot. This consists of two pieces of data, separated by a colon. The first is the callsign of the traffic (such as ASA1234 or N12345), and the second is the target's altitude.

If your altitude is known, the altitude will be displayed as a + or - value (eg, +5000 or -120). If your altitude is not known, the target's pressure altitude (ie, altitude above sea level) will be displayed, with PrA' appended.

NOTE: when you see PrA', remember that you must refer to your own altitude to determine if the target presents a danger to you or not. PrA' traffic will always be colored blue.

I'm looking forward to flying with ADS-B In on my tablet, and I'll be glad to know what I'm actually seeing on the screen. If I find changes to how it works, I'll try to update this document.

Posted at 11:36 permanent link category: /aviation

Thu, 22 Dec 2016

The Champion I Didn't Need

I went out to visit a Champion 7EC in person today, which I was considering buying. The ad sounded good as far as it went, but I knew that it had been somewhat neglected by its current owner, who wants to get out of flying. So, I was going with the theory that it might be a bit rougher than what I was looking for.

In case you're feeling lost: the Champ 7EC is a 2-person airplane, this particular example built in 1957. I'm looking into Champs as being the kind of plane I might really enjoy owning -- I love flying the 7AC Champ at Harvey Field, and the 7EC is basically a 7AC with an electrical system (which means no hand-starting, yay!).

The drive out to Eastern Washington took a bit over three hours, and I chose today because it looked like the last day where the weather and my schedule might coincide in the near future. I stopped in town to grab a burrito before I continued on to the airport.

I was greeted upon entering the office with the information that the man I wanted to speak to wasn't around, as he was out for lunch, but the logs were there on the table if I wanted to look them through. Look them through I did, and the picture which emerged was not exactly positive, but was good enough that it would be worth checking out the plane itself in person.

When my man arrived, we talked for a minute or two, and the subject of the airplane's current owner came up. They described him as "Mr. Magoo-like." If you're not familiar with the reference, Mr. Magoo is an old man character, famously short-sighted to the point of blindness. Further conversation revealed that our owner only had an annual on the plane every 5 years or so, probably didn't have a medical cert, etc. For obvious reasons, I'm not putting anyone's name anywhere here, since I don't want to get any of these fine folks in trouble.

We walked into the hangar to look over the plane.

This particular Champ started life as a 7FC, which was the famously reviled "Tri-Champ," a tricycle-gear Champ that most people disliked, simply because Champs have always been taildraggers. Bellanca issued a Service Letter on how to convert a 7FC to a 7EC, and this letter was followed to make the conversion.

My first impression of the plane was mediocre, and unfortunately it didn't get better from there. The paint was patched and faded, though not badly so. We approached from the right side of the tail, and my man explained that he'd taken the gear legs off to repaint them -- I had told him I anticipated coming next week, but the weather forecast convinced me to come early, and so I caught him somewhat unaware. He'd also removed the upper cowling, and those parts were sitting off to the side, stripped and ready for new paint. It looked like he was doing a good job with them, so no complaints on those touch-ups.

The interior was as I'd seen from the advertising photos, with no real surprises. The inside of the plane was the best part of it, with clean instruments, if not the most lovely panel. The seats appeared to be in good shape, including the wide rear seat, which would fit two skinny people. It was interesting to see the extra frame tubes that were installed to support the nosewheel, and which would render the frame more sturdy in a crash, though probably also a bit heavier than a real 7EC.

We walked around to the engine, and that's where things went downhill for me. Although the engine was rebuilt about 20 years ago, it was in rough shape. Rusted rocker covers were the worst sin that the engine itself indulged in, but aft of the engine, the battery was covered by a distressing coat of white acid damage, there was exposed wiring, frayed insulation, and the baffle seals looked like they'd been salvaged from the Titanic before being installed and left in the sun.

The starter is the old pull-type, where you pull a handle in the instrument panel, which engages the drive gear and completes the connection all at the same time. Nothing wrong with this on its face, but the unit itself had chipped paint and rust showing, and just generally looked like it was halfway to the scrap pile. The pull mechanism appeared to work, but was loose on the starter -- possibly normal, possibly not, I'm not familiar enough with them to know.

I ran my fingers over the leading edge of the metal McCauley prop, and was pleased with the first blade, but the second blade revealed a heavily dressed area 1/5 of the way from the tip that is probably perfectly legal and safe, but gave me real pause. I noticed the wing root fairings (and later the elevator trim tab) had badly peeling paint, and the gap sealing rubber at the wing root was ancient and cracked. The landing lights and nav lights looked to be in good shape, and strobes had been added to the wingtips.

As I continued my walk-around, I noticed that the ailerons were quite stiff, and moving the stick confirmed that both ailerons and elevator felt like I was fighting ancient oxidized grease, or possibly rust, on the pullies. Not encouraging at all. At the same moment, I tried the carb heat knob, and realized that it had probably not been pulled in years, and certainly wasn't about to start moving now. Master switch on, and the radio lights up, but has no display. Mr. Magoo probably hasn't used it for years; no idea if the transponder works or not.

The tailwheel was trapezoidal in cross-section, as if the mount were permanently rolled to the left, though it looked alright, and any misalignment wasn't visually obvious (helped by the fact that the plane was rolled ~10° to the left to facilitate the gear leg work). The tail looked like a standard Champ tail, though the numbers on the port side of the tail were peeling badly.

In general, the plane felt like one of those situations where you mentally read over the ad again in your head, and realize that although it was accurate, and although the pictures you saw were correct as far as they went, there was an awful lot they didn't say. The advertised price of $29,500 also suggested a plane that was in decent shape, although I never expected it to be a show winner at that price.

I feel bad that my reaction to the plane was so negative, as the gent who was showing it to me was correct -- this plane just really needs someone to take it home and fly it regularly. Unfortunately, I am not that person. I need whatever plane I take home to be in good shape, not a project. I have project enough ahead of me without buying a second one.

Posted at 19:25 permanent link category: /aviation

Tue, 20 Dec 2016

Build Time

Any time anyone has asked, I've been sort of casually saying that building this biplane project will take between 5 and 10 years, "More like ten than five," I usually finish.

I was chatting with someone recently, and I explained my logic more completely:

If I followed an ideal, unobtainable schedule, I would work on the project 2 hours every day after work and 10 hours every weekend. Then I pulled out my calculator, confidently typed in 3500 / 520 and got a huge shock: 6.7 years!? But it used to be three and a half! What crazy-ass numbers was I looking at before?

Glumness followed. The ideal, unobtainable schedule is just that. There's no way, in reality, that I'm going to go out to the shop for two hours every single night, nor be able to spend 10 hours every single weekend. So 6.7 years... crap, it's gonna take me 20 years, not 10!

A day or two later, glumness still more or less in place, I explained it again to someone else, and had the forehead-slap moment: that's 20 hours a week, not 10! 1040 ideal hours per year. Whew! I was right before. 3.4 years for my crazy ideal schedule. So, 5-10 years still sounds like a reasonable expectation.

It's amazing what a little slip of a digit will do.

Posted at 11:41 permanent link category: /aviation

Fri, 02 Dec 2016

Champ or Biplane?

I have reached an odd plateau in my search for an airplane. I am basically equally compelled by two fairly different approaches, and I keep switching back and forth between them, depending on my mood.

On the one hand, the Champ. There are numerous 7EC Champs out there for sale, and they look pretty good. On the other, the biplane. I have found a surprising number of Charger and Charger-adjacent biplanes out there too. These are photos of planes that are currently up on Barnstormers, not necessarily planes that I'm thinking about buying.



How They Differ

Here's a breakdown of the important differences between the two plane types. Note that most of these dollar amounts are not real, they're just to give a sense of the differences between the planes. I've colored some fields red and green to indicate where I like or dislike a factor about the plane. Uncolored fields indicate differences that are of minimal importance, or where I prefer both choices equally (sometimes for different reasons).

Champ! Charger!
Purchase Cost $25-30k $20-35k
Date of Manufacture 1945-1960 1980-2005
Horsepower 85-100 180
Direct (fuel) Cost per Hour ~$25 ~$50
Cruise Speed (mph) ~90 ~110
Climb Performance (ft/min) 600 1500
Cockpit Type Enclosed Cabin Open
Maintenance Requires A&P (mechanic) Me and a Wrench
ADS-B Out Costs ~$5000 ~$2000
Cheap Avionics Allowed Nope Sure
Modifications Allowed Very Limited Unlimited
Fun Factor Good Huge
Year-round Flying Sure If you like being cold
Travel-worthy Slow but pleasant Faster but WINDY
Passenger Friendliness High Intimidating/Exhilarating
Wow Factor Low Oh Yeah
Applicability to Charger Build Basically None Total
Resellability Good Terrible

A few notes about what these things mean.

Horsepower: No doubt you're looking at me a bit sidewise right now. Despite what every advert in every magazine will tell you, some people do not actually want all the horsepower. I really like the Champ's low-powered approach.

Climb Performance: Why should I rank these dramatically different climb rates equally? Same reason I don't place a huge value on horsepower. They're both fine.

ADS-B Out: This is an avionics system that I will be required to install by January 1, 2020, so it's pretty much a guaranteed cost. The huge difference in price is because the Champ is certified, whereas the Charger is experimental. This means that (practically) you can use cheap gear in the Charger that you can't in the Champ. Additionally, the Champ will require the services of an avionics shop for the installation. In truth, $5000 may be unrealistically low for the Champ.

Travel-worthy: Going any distance in the Champ is a pleasant, if somewhat slow, affair. There's a lovely enclosed cockpit around you, and as long as you have the patience to wait out the relatively slow cruise speed, it's fine. The Charger, on the other hand, will get you there a little bit faster, with less luggage, and feeling like you've just been beat up for however long you've been flying. The open cockpit is not a deal-breaker, but it makes longer journeys less pleasant.

Passenger Friendliness: The reason these are equal is because I have a variety of passengers I'll go up with, for a variety of types of trips, and they will split roughly 50/50 on whether the Champ or the Charger is the better plane to fly in. Some will love the gentle ease of the Champ, and some will love the rowdy fun of the Charger.

Resellability: The Champ has a ready market of planes and people who want them. It's not fantastic, though (the pilot population is shrinking steadily, and the population of pilots who want anything to do with a taildragger is tiny and shrinking). The homebuilt biplanes seem to have, effectively, no market at all. I'm chatting with sellers who have had their planes nominally for sale for years. I can only assume at this point that if I buy a biplane, it's mine forever, because I'll never be able to sell it.

What Does It All Mean?

I wish I could tell you. If I had all the money, I'd have one of each, but I don't, so I can't.

There is no single most important factor on that list, but the high ranking ones are resale value, travel worthiness, fuel costs, and the accessability of maintenance, both in terms of costs, and what can be done. The two planes are ridiculously balanced with those factors in mind.

I don't know what any of this means, but I suppose the best lesson I can take from it is that I should look at planes as they come up, and perhaps when the right one appears, it will make itself known to me. Unfortunately, I already know that this approach will leave me forever wondering about that plane I didn't go visit (most of these are far across the country in the Midwest or on the East Coast), or the one that appears shortly after I make my decision. I'm better off if I make a firm choice one way or the other, but I can't seem to find the right answer for myself yet.

Posted at 22:55 permanent link category: /aviation

Sat, 26 Nov 2016

Checkin' Out the CB-1

In my previous entry, I looked at a Starduster Too for sale in Bellingham. Interesting, but ultimately not the right plane for me.

About a week ago, I noticed that there was another plane for sale in Bellingham (what is it about Bellingham?), this time a Hatz CB-1, which is also a small two-place open-cockpit biplane. I had been to visit one earlier this year, in Olympia, and it was interesting enough that it seemed like it was worth a closer look. In particular, it only has a 140 HP engine on it, which would make it much more like the Champ I so enjoy than the "overpowered" (for my use) 180 HP motors on some of the other planes I've found.

So I skipped out on work last Tuesday, and drove myself up to Bellingham to check it out.

Click for a gallery of detail pictures

The plane is being kept in a heated hangar at Command Aviation, at Bellingham International Airport. In conversations with Cassidy, Command's chief A&P mechanic, I learned that it had been sitting for a while, and that a pilot who had some experience in the plane would be there to meet me when I arrived. I reserved a Piper Warrior to fly up, but I had very little confidence the weather would support it, and indeed I ended up driving instead.

The plane is tucked into the back of the Command maintenance hangar, where it seems to be reasonably out of the way, and hasn't suffered from any obvious hangar rash. I ended up going over the whole thing, looking at all the documents, checking out everything I could think to check out.

The plane, N4257, is actually in pretty good shape. It hasn't been run in the last 2 years, which is the biggest technical ding against it, although it's been in a heated hangar for that entire time, so the chances of it being damaged by sitting so long are comparatively low.

What I learned going through the docs is that it was put together pretty well, but was ground-looped at least once a few years ago. Jeff, who had experience in the plane, said it was ground-looped twice, once in each direction. Command opened up the wings, and declared the repairs to have been well done. Looking at the plane itself, there were a couple of relatively minor technical issues (the cowling rubbing on the engine; the throttle cable having been improperly tightened so it didn't work correctly any more). Otherwise, it was pretty nice.

I did think a couple of choices were odd, notably the non-sensitive altimeter. However, the oddest choice is one that the builder doesn't really have any control over: the access to the front cockpit.

The Hatz CB-1 is well-known for having tough access to the front cockpit, where the passenger sits (in all these biplanes, the pilot sits in the rear cockpit for balance reasons -- the passenger seat is right on the center of gravity, so the balance isn't noticeably changed by adding 100-200 lbs there). I had noticed it in Olympia, but didn't give it a lot of thought. Then I tried to get in myself.

A word about me: I'm about 6'2" tall, and a relatively lean 215 lbs, but still, I'm a big person. I'm also unusually flexible for my size and age. With a bit of grunting and twisting around, I was able to get into the passenger cockpit. It wasn't fun, I wouldn't want to do it ever time, but it was possible.

Unfortunately, it would not be possible for some of the people at the top of my list of "passengers I want to fly with." Notably, my parents, who are healthy and in reasonable shape, but are not likely to be flexible enough to make that entrance.

To get into the seat, the prospective passenger must duck under the wing (the top wing completely covers the passenger seat), somehow pull their legs over the coaming around the cockpit, get their feet on the seat, and then slide down into the seated position. I found it easiest to shove my head and torso forward, between the windshield and the wing, as if I were trying to jump forward onto the engine cowling. But my chest is too deep, so I was listening to the windshield creak as I was doing it, and it felt very unstable.

I wasn't able to start the motor, but that's for the best. It would disrupt whatever minor oil protection the motor currently enjoys after sitting for so long. The passenger seat is a sufficient problem that it's simply not a good idea for me to pursue the plane. I'm sad about that, since it's otherwise such a good choice. There are other factors working against it, but they are no more substantial than I've found on any of the other planes I'm looking at.

Command Aviation is asking $25,000 for the plane, which is a pretty reasonable price. If you find yourself interested in a small biplane with a 140 HP motor and an inaccessible passenger seat (but much more friendly for people who are shorter and more flexible), I recommend you check it out.

I shall continue my search, with my sights set on a distant but seemingly near-ideal Marquart Charger next.

Posted at 16:22 permanent link category: /aviation

Thu, 10 Nov 2016

Join me on Signal

The world is at once new and different, and the same as it ever was, but that's not the point of this piece. We're entering a scary new chapter in our story, which is the point.

tl;dr: Load the Signal app (Android link, iPhone link) on your phone. Our SMS and phone communications can be much more secure. We all need this, not just people who "need encryption."

What is it?

Very much like WhatsApp, Signal is a secure messaging app for your phone, that allows you to send SMS-like messages and make voice calls. Critically, it encrypts those messages from the moment you type them in, to the point where they arrive, and are decrypted by your recipient's Signal app. Same for voice calls. It's called end-to-end encryption, and what it practically means is that your communication is hidden from prying eyes.

There are longer articles out there on why this kind of encryption is good, which go into detail. A simple search on "end to end encryption" will yield them up.

Why Signal? Why not WhatsApp or one of the others?

A key facet of decoding communication between two or more parties is called traffic analysis. That's where you don't even look at the messages themselves (ie, no need to see what Bob wrote to Alice) you just look at the fact that Alice and Bob are communicating. You look at the times and dates on which they communicate, you look at the frequency with which they pass messages, you look (if possible) at the source and destination location when messages are sent.

This information, the information about the message, is popularly known as message metadata. Metadata is routinely used in courts of law as evidence. It can be used by hackers for a variety of purposes, as diverse as human creativity can allow for. It is certainly used by intelligence agencies and government security forces.

A very intentional point of Signal is that it doesn't record this metadata. Signal effectively blocks its ears and says "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU," and records nothing about your communications. It just provides an anonymous conduit through which information passes. There's nothing to hack, nothing to subpoena.

The other apps (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google Allo, and others) that use Signal's encryption protocol certainly afford you well-encrypted communications. However, by saving your contact list, or recording the time and date of your messages, or other insecure handling of message metadata, compromise your security in non-obvious ways.

Finally, unlike the other apps, Signal is open-source (which means its code can be reviewed by security researchers; and it has, here (PDF)). It is not owned by a large corporation; it's actually supported by donations of time, effort and money.

Why do I need it?

Typically, the people who are thought to "need" encrypted communications are what you would probably classify as people you don't interact with every day: political organizers in oppressive regimes, dissidents, spies, terrorists, human rights activists, etc. If that mention of terrorists has you looking at me side-wise, let me remind you that the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 was coordinated entirely with burner phones (prepaid cellphones that are effectively untraceable) using plain ol' SMS and phone calls. It's very hard to track someone's phone number if it was activated yesterday, and discarded tomorrow. They had stacks and stacks of them piled up and ready to use.

Anyway, the point is that most of you reading this will not put yourselves in that same category, of people who need to hide their communications.

However, there are two powerful counter-arguments to that, which you can also find more detail about in other articles: first, your communications are definitely eavesdropped upon, right now, by your own government. They are almost certainly not targeting you, and even if they did, the shopping lists and cat pictures you send are unlikely to excite them. But your text messages and mine are being slurped up and analyzed by the NSA (if you're in the US; other agencies if you're elsewhere). This has long made me uncomfortable, but not quite uncomfortable enough to act, until now. More on that later.

The second counter-argument is that more traffic makes it harder to track the real targets of interest. We can probably all agree that people working for human rights in oppressive states are freakin' heroes, and desperately need to maintain a cover of secrecy so they aren't hauled in front of a crumbling brick wall and shot, or worse. But if it's only people in that kind of a situation using an encrypted communication channel, suddenly it becomes very easy to track down all the dissidents in your country. Just see who's chatting with the encrypted server. Doesn't matter what they're saying, you just know that if they're using it, they're against the regime. (If this all feels a bit too distant, remember that Black Lives Matter or people organizing protests against the new guy may be considered as just such a dissident organization in the US by some).

Now, if you and I sign up and start using it to send cat pictures and shopping lists to each other, and if thousands of our friends do the same thing, suddenly it's much, much harder to track down those same activists. If we all start using a system like this as our go-to app for messaging, the noise of our chatter makes it much easier for the high-risk users to pass their traffic along with more certainty and anonymity.

Ok, smart guy, why now?

As I write this, we're two days past the election of the United States' first openly tyrannical president. He hasn't telegraphed any plans to start rounding up the intelligentsia and have them build roads in Siberia, but direct parallels to this situation have led to exactly that outcome in other places and other times. We are now living in considerably more dangerous times, whether we like it or not.

I don't foresee myself actually having to organize a resistance movement; I don't think the country is that far gone, nor do I think it will be in 4 years. However, you would probably find a lot of intelligent, empathetic people saying the exact same thing in the early 1930s in Germany. It could easily happen here. Wouldn't it be nice to already have a means of communication set up that allows us to speak without the dread certainty that everything we say is being funneled straight to the security forces?

At some point, the theoretical tyrannical forces would shut down Signal's systems, but by that time, it will be far too late to do anything about it in any case. How nice to have those secure communications up until then.

What else?

If you really want to get serious about this, there are some excellent articles out there on how to secure your online communications and activities. Avoid Facebook like the goddamn plague. Use DuckDuckGo for searches instead of Google. Use the Tor browser for as much of your browsing as you can. Do these things routinely, to increase the amount of traffic the bad guys have to sort through.

I've been an advocate of encryption in routine communications for decades now, but only recently has it become easy enough to ask all my friends to do it. Now that it is so simple, I encourage you to use it all the time, for all the reasons stated above.

Posted at 22:37 permanent link category: /misc

Sun, 30 Oct 2016

Checkin' Out a New Ride

Some time late last year, it suddenly occurred to me that I was in a position to buy an airplane. I'd been flying a bit more, so it was on my mind. I ended up doing a bunch of research and settled on the Beech Musketeer as a likely plane I might own. It never really came to pass, since I wasn't sure it was actually a good idea (spoiler alert: owning an airplane, much like owning a boat, is never actually a good idea, as far as your accountant is concerned).

I decided, instead of buying a plane, to take the money I was seriously considering spending every month on this project, and put it into rentals for a year instead. If I still felt the same way at the end of my experimental year (ie, I'd flown a bunch, and didn't feel like I was breaking the bank), I would look more seriously into getting my very own moneypit in the sky.

Without thinking about it too hard, I spent the last year flying whenever the urge hit me, and have ended up spending a lot of time flying Harvey Field's Aeronca Champ 7AC. And really, I've grown to love it. The plucky little Champ, with its diminutive 85 HP motor and bare bones aesthetic. Something about it really puts a smile on my face.

So I realized, I'm in the same position again. Time to look seriously at planes. Only this time, it's not quite the same position: now I'm looking for an interesting tailwheel plane. Without getting into specifics, tailwheel planes tend to be older, they tend to be more quirky, and they're in much less demand because they're perceived as being more difficult to fly (specifically, more difficult to land) than the tricycle gear planes you normally see at the airport.

So, I've got my eyes open, and I'm looking at the Luscombe 8E, Champion/Citabria 7EC, and small, two-place homebuilt biplanes. The 7EC is the most familiar, for all that I've never been in one: it's a descendant of the Champ, and predecessor of the Super Decathlon I flew earlier this year. The biplanes are also surprisingly familiar, since that's all I've been reading about and studying up on for the last few years. The Luscombe is a wild card, since I know it's a small plane, but I don't yet know what they're like to fly, or whether I physically fit in the cockpit and/or through the door (they're small planes).

Click for a gallery of plane pictures

Today I was able to go up and see my first strong contender: a Starduster Too that's for sale near Bellingham. It's a plane that was built in the early 70s (registered in 1973 according to the FAA), and has been restored/refinished at least once, most recently in the late 1980s. It's powered by a 180 HP Lycoming O-360, which frankly seems like overkill for what I want, but there's no benefit to downgrading the engine unless it ends up being my lieblings-plane and I feel like throwing lots of money at it in return for a reduced resale value.

Walking around, the plane proved to be as the seller described: in generally good shape, though the paint was cracking for lack of sufficient flexibility to move with the fabric. The engine looked like most older airplane engines look: it had some oily spots and was generally a bit dirty, but there were no obvious problems and it seemed to be in fine shape.

This particular plane has a smoke system, which is cool enough, though it's hard to imagine when I'd use it.

The seller was kind enough to allow me to taxi it around, and it was surprisingly easy to handle on the ground. Just yesterday, I went for a lesson in a Cessna 170, which is a large taildragger, about the same size as a 172, which is Cessna's current four-place small plane. The 170 was a handful on the ground: the rudder didn't produce any real effect when taxiing around, and I had a hard time keeping it under control (a tailwheel plane is a bit like pushing a loaded hand truck in front of you -- if you don't keep on top of it, it will slip off to the side).

I was expecting/fearing that the Starduster would be the same way -- a real handful on the ground, requiring constant attention and care to keep it lined up where I wanted it to go. Instead, it went where I pointed it, and was much more like a sharpened up Champ, where the 170 was like someone had taken the Champ, reduced its steering effectiveness to near zero, then made it half again as heavy into the bargain.

I didn't have an opportunity to fly the Starduster, both because the wind was contrary for its runway, and because the seller would only let me go up with a non-refundable deposit "to avoid giving everyone and their brother joyrides." I can't blame him for that policy, but it feels jarringly off in a world where people eager to share the experience of their planes keep giving me rides just for the joy of going flying and sharing it with new people.

Regardless, it only took a few minutes of taxiing the Starduster around before I was feeling surprisingly comfortable in it. It was odd to come to that comfort level so quickly (though it's quite possible that it was a bit of beginner's luck masquerading as "skill"), but it mirrors my experience with oxy-acetylene welding earlier this year: I have read and studied up on both subjects for so long, that actually putting the knowledge to use was an immediate relief of a pressure I hadn't been aware was building. OA welding came to me almost immediately (I'm still not any good, but I was instantly comfortable with it), much like ground handling in the biplane came very quickly.

The cockpit of the Starduster is tight, but not so tight that it's uncomfortable. I probably wouldn't be happy in it for long flights, but I think it only has 2.5-3 hours of range in any case, so my butt and the engine would probably be competing for who needs to rest first. Most of my flying recently has been in the 1-1.5 hour range, and even a trip down to Portland would only take an hour and a half at most.

The front passenger's cockpit is a little harder to get into than the pilot cockpit from my brief attempt at each, but it's still pretty manageable. The passenger has sort of terrible access to the rudder pedals, since the landing gear truss is in the way, but it would be enough to fly the plane for a little bit. Both seats have acrobatic-quality four-point harnesses.

Speaking of acrobatics, the plane is clearly capable. The seller posted this video of himself flying it through a variety of maneuvers. I have very little interest in aerobatics, but it's eyebrow-raising to think I might have a plane that could do all that.

One thing I've heard from nearly everyone who's heard this plan is, "Wait, aren't you building a biplane?" That is true, but as I tell anyone who's interested to hear it, my biplane build is going to take 5-10 years, probably more like 10 than 5. I would hate to get to the end of that and realize I'm unable to fly for long due to a huge variety of factors that may come up, simple age and illness chief among them. It's unlikely I'll run into any problems, but why squander the time if I can do it now? This is one of those cases where you get to eat your cake, and have it too.

The giant burning question is now: could I live with an open-cockpit plane in the Pacific Northwest? It's not like we live in a tropical paradise here, and I would have to be ok with flying in near-freezing weather, if I wanted to fly year round (which I definitely do, if I can manage it). It's better than living in the midwest, where I might expect to be snowed in for three months of the year. Certainly I've managed to ride motorcycles successfully down to just above freezing, and arguably that's more arduous than flying, with the full-body exposure to the wind.

Whatever the case, whether I ultimately decide on a different style of plane, or even no plane at all, it's encouraging to have had this moment where I was in a biplane, very similar to the one I'm building, and was happy with the experience.

Update: With some reflection, I've realized that open-cockpit flying is not actually a burning giant question. My flying time is at least 90% solo, and I'm still wearing shorts as the weather descends into daily highs in the 50s and pelting rain. I'll be fine. Any passengers who might want to come with me would have to be willing to bundle up in the colder months, though.

Posted at 22:35 permanent link category: /aviation

Wed, 12 Oct 2016

Dear Cigna, or, A Phishing Vignette

PHONE: Ring-ring! St. Louis, MO calling!

MYSELF: Huh, who is calling me this early in the morning? [swipe to answer]

AGENT: Good morning Mr. Johnston this is mumble-mumble mumble-mumble calling. Could you please confirm your date of birth?



AGENT: I'm sorry, could you please just confirm your date of birth?

MYSELF: No. Who are you? Why should I be telling you this?

AGENT: This is [name forgotten] with Cigna Sleep Medicine? I just need you to confirm your date of birth.

MYSELF: I'm not in the habit of giving out that kind of information to random people who call me. Give me some piece of information, some thing that only you and I could know. I have no idea who you are right now.

AGENT: Well Mr. Johnston, I just need to get you to confirm your date of birth, since I have some information for you from...

MYSELF: No, I have no idea who you are. I'm not going to tell you anything... Look, I'm going underground right now, you'll have to call me back. [HANGUP BUTTON] [OOPS PARKING GARAGE]

PHONE: Call ended.

Dear Cigna: you need to work on your contact procedures. This is the textbook definition of a phishing call, and you're never going to reach me with this approach.

Posted at 11:07 permanent link category: /misc

Thu, 22 Sep 2016

Building a Biplane: The First Work

Now that I've decided I'm definitely building a plane, and have basically settled on the model (finally, hopefully, fingers crossed), I have actually gotten started on some honest-to-goodness work on the plane.

Well, sort of.

The Marquart Charger plans were drawn up in 1968, on paper, and photostatically reproduced. These plans contain dozens of little metal bracket-y things that are to be produced in quantities ranging from 1 to 20 (based on what I've seen so far). An example is shown to the right.

Rather than bust out my file, or a cutting torch or a hacksaw or anything else, I thought about it for a bit, and realized that it would make sense to investigate having these parts cut out by some variety of CNC machine. That is, a machine that can be programmed to cut a shape precisely, and automatically -- Computer Numerical Control. A bit of looking, and I settled on waterjet, which has the advantage of being very accurate, and unlike laser cutting, creates no heat in the part to mess up the temper of metal parts.

One of the reasons I settled on this "waterjet first" plan was very practical: without a shop space, I couldn't build a "real," physical thing. On the other hand, turning the drawings from hand-drawn to CAD models was something I could do just about anywhere, on my laptop. The CAD models are required in order to get the waterjet cutting done. Seemed like a win-win situation, so I started in.

I decided to use FreeCAD, an open-source CAD program, to do my work. I'm a big fan of open source software, and it ended up being a better choice than using the paid program I already owned. FreeCAD does a thing called "parametric modelling," which was perfect for this task. It took me a few tries before I understood it properly, but once I got it down, it made perfect sense, and worked really well.

The basic idea behind parametric modelling is that you draw out roughly the shape you want, without any real regard for exact dimensions or anything else, first off. It's just the shape. Then, you systematically start applying measurements, or parameters; parametric constraints, if you will: this hole is this many inches from this edge. That rounded area has this radius. This other hole has this diameter. In fact, if you look at the diagram, all that information is already spelled out, pretty much exactly as you'd need to enter it into the CAD program!

So, I started drawing out these little parts in FreeCAD. Some of them were more challenging than others. This part, -201 (apparently pronounced "Dash two oh one"), was actually pretty difficult, but it was also the first one I tried. I went back to it after doing a few others: I ended up redrawing it in 1/4 the time it took on my first attempt, plus it looked way better. I am now able to draw up pretty much any of these parts in less than half an hour, and I've got several dozen done.

I haven't yet sent any samples off to a waterjet company, but I've talked to one, and have an idea of what happens next. I think it will be years before I need the majority of these parts, but one of the things I will do early on will be to go get a couple sheets of 4130 cut up by a waterjet. The price hasn't been worked out, and that's the only thing that might keep me from following through with it. But then, even if I decide against doing it, the parts will be modelled, and I can put up the files for others to use if they want. It also sounds like the setup fees are minimal or zero, so it may make sense to farm out a few of the complex or many-copies-needed parts, and do the remainder by hand.

I'm sure I'll write more about it, but that's the progress I've actually made on building my own biplane so far. I've even been logging the time, and I'm already up to nearly 20 hours. Only three thousand, four hundred and eighty-odd hours to go.

Posted at 22:53 permanent link category: /aviation

Sun, 11 Sep 2016

I Really Like That Champ

I started my tailwheel training for real about two years ago, in Aeronca Champ N84842 at Harvey Field. I've had two different instructors in that time, the first doing the majority of my initial training before he got too busy, and eventually left, and the second helping me hone my skills and then, once proficient, burn off time to meet the 10 hours minimum required by their insurance carrier.

Harvey Field's Champ, a 7AC model, has been upgraded from the 65 HP engine to a freshly rebuilt Continental 85 HP. It's been flying out of Harvey Field, if I understand correctly, since it was new in 1946. It is not what you would call a fast plane -- it climbs at about 600 FPM under ideal conditions, and I haven't really seen it cruise higher than 85 MPH. It's got enough weight capacity to carry myself and an FAA-standard 170 lb person with full fuel, but not much more.

It has, to be sure, its fair share of dings and bruises and deficiencies, though no more than might be expected of a well-loved 7500 total time airplane. It's a pity that it doesn't have an electrical system, though mostly for lack of a starter. I'd love to take it further afield than Harvey or Paine, but the rules prohibit stopping the engine anywhere other than Harvey. Hand-propping an airplane is no longer commonplace, and most of us youngsters would mess it up and lose a hand into the bargain.

And yet, despite all these deficiencies, or perhaps because of them, I really like this plane.

There's something about being in a plane with that kind of history, and that lack of pretention, that is very gratifying. It feels like a human-sized plane, and one that can be flown by normal humans. There's no need for an iron-jawed, steely-eyed Pilot Man here. Indeed, the steely-jawed and iron-eyed among the pilot population probably scorn the Champ as a weak little trainer for students and weak pilots. So be it.

I find myself drawn to the underpowered vehicles wherever I find myself, so it comes as no surprise that the Champ is on my short-list of planes I enjoy flying. I also find that flying a tailwheel plane is far more engaging -- literally, I have to be so much more present and attentive for all the ground handling that it feels like a different world compared to the tricycle-gear planes I've flown.

I'm only at about 25 hours of tailwheel time so far, but I eagerly look forward to each new flight, and imagine that number will be growing steadily. I'm very glad I decided to do some tailwheel training a couple years ago. Now I just have to find other tailwheel planes I can rent for some diversity of experience.

Posted at 15:55 permanent link category: /aviation

Sun, 14 Aug 2016

Building a Biplane: Picking the Engine

In the previous entry, I discussed the considerations that went into choosing a biplane model to build. In this one, the next most important consideration: what engine to use?

There are a huge variety of engines that can be used in this class of aircraft, from a glorified chainsaw motor through a gigantic WWII era radial that produces hundreds of horsepower and swings a 9 foot prop. A list of candidates might look like this, in no particular order:

  • Rotec radial (150 HP)
  • Lycoming O-320 (150-160 HP)
  • LOM in-line engine (120-170 HP)
  • Verner Scarlett 7Si radial (137 HP)
  • Warner radial (145-165 HP)
  • Subaru conversion (100-200 HP)
  • Chevy V-8 conversion (200+ HP)

Some of these engines are off the table from the get-go. The automotive conversions, though some have been successfully flown, are generally regarded as "very experimental" and not suitable for a first project if there's any way you can afford a dedicated aircraft engine. The Warner, although a wonderful, well-proven design, has been out of production for decades, and the parts supply is finite and shrinking.

This leaves the certified Lycoming, and "everything else:" the Rotec, the Verner, and the LOM. I'll discuss the everything else category first.

The Rotec R-3600 is the most viable of these engines. It is gorgeously made, and there are a relatively large number of them flying. The Hatz Classic powered by a Rotec is a huge inspiration to me, and their installation has been very successful from what I can tell. Hatz even includes an option for the Rotec in their plans.

The engine itself seems to be well received, but it has a large number of strikes against it. The first one is that it's hideously expensive: I could install a brand new 160 HP Lycoming O-320 for less (not a lot less, but less). The Lycoming doesn't inspire the same reverential vintage feeling, but it has many other positives going for it, which I describe later.

The next issue is that, at some point, it's going to break. Everything breaks, and that's fine, it's part of life. However, when this engine breaks, spare parts are half a world away: the Rotec is made in Australia, and there are no parts suppliers in the US, that I'm aware of. Regardless of how good their support is, it's still a minimum of many days' shipping away, which could potentially leave me stranded somewhere for several weeks between shipping waits (assuming the part is in stock) and finding a mechanic who's willing to work on such an uncommon engine (or who will lend me their tools to work on it myself).

The final big issue is another "it's so uncommon" problem: I'd have to engineer the installation myself. With a more common engine, there are many resources from which I can draw for help with the firewall-forward installation. I'd have to figure out the engine mount, the fuel system, the electrical system, the exhaust system, the cowling, and whether the combination is viable from a cooling standpoint once it's all cobbled together. To be honest, that sounds like both blessing and curse -- I would greatly enjoy solving all those problems, but they would potentially also add years to the build, and I'm already looking at a decade of build time.

The Verner Scarlett 7Si has an advantage that the Rotec R-3600 doesn't have: it's made by a company that has been designing engines for a long time. The Rotec is made by a pair of Australian brothers who decided, with no real engine design experience, to build an engine in the late 1990s, and have made a good success out of it. The Verner factory had been making aircraft engines for decades by the time the Chernikeiff brothers cast their first piston. The Scarlett shows it, too, with design choices that are perhaps less beautiful looking, but more practical, such as the oil filter mounted on the front of the engine, where it's as simple as possible to service, or the direct drive crankshaft instead of using a reduction gear system.

However, the Scarlett 7Si model was just introduced. As in, last year. It is, as far as I can tell, completely unproven. By the time I get to where I have to make a choice on the engine, it may be viable, but right now it's a huge question mark.

The Scarlett also suffers from all the same problems as the Rotec: I will have to engineer the whole installation; parts only come from the Czech Republic; price is unknown, but likely to be high, at least as much as installing a professionally rebuilt Lycoming.

Couldn't find a bigger picture, sorry

The LOM 332A/AK/C is an interesting engine. The Bücker Jungmann, upon which the Marquart Charger is based, used an inline engine like the LOM. It would be thematically very appropriate. The inline configuration also means a smaller frontal area, which means lower drag, always a good thing. (The radial engines, on the other hand, have the highest drag of all the choices.) The LOM engine also seems to be highly regarded among those who have access to it.

However, from what I can tell, people in the US aren't in that group. It appears to be somewhere between problematic and impossible to get a LOM engine here. It may be that I haven't asked the right questions (and I haven't gotten on the phone with anyone yet, which is sometimes required in the airplane world -- not everyone has a website).

Thus the LOM suffers from the same problems as the other unusual engines (engineering challenge, parts availability, maybe cost, but who knows), plus they're difficult to acquire. This presumably also extends to part availability, making it even worse than the others. The LOM is probably not a practical choice.

Which leaves us, conveniently, with the Lycoming O-320. There are about a zillion different versions, but it boils down to the fact that they make between 150 and 160 HP. They have been installed in about a zillion different Pipers, Cessnas, Beeches, and the majority of the other small planes in the world.

The list of positives is long, longer than the negatives of the other types: parts are available everywhere; every mechanic at every airport in the US knows how to work on them; used engines can be bought for less than $5000 and rebuilt for less than $10,000 (assuming I do the work, which I am eager to do); millions of flight hours have proven them to be very reliable and problems are well-known where they exist; the installation instructions are right there in the plans; I can choose to rebuild myself, have a core rebuilt, buy overhauled, or buy new depending on how well I've saved my pennies; cowling parts (such as the nosebowl) are readily available.

The downside of the Lycomings is primarily that they're a very, very old design: the first boxer engines of this type were flying before (probably well before) WWII, and the first O-320 was certified in 1953. Compared to modern engines such as you might find in your car, Lycomings are heavy and inefficient, with little scope for improvement. However, they're also a well and truly proven design for light planes, which is something that basically no other engine design can offer.

A brand new O-320 costs between $30,000 and $50,000 depending on where you look. An overhauled one is in the low $20,000 range. A used one, as mentioned earlier, can be as low as $5000, or as high as you can be suckered into. It's not unusual to see run-out but rebuildable engines on Ebay for under $4000.

Critically for me, the engineering to install a Lycoming in a Marquart Charger has largely already been done. There's still a huge domain of problems that will have to be solved, but the big, oops-my-engine-just-departed-the-plane engineering is already done, and done well.

Ultimately, it's this combination of factors that inclines me toward using the boring old Lycoming for my build. I would love to mount a shiny Rotec on the front of my plane, or figure out how to get the sleek LOM faired in, but I think the advice of my biplane elders is best: stick with the plans, young man. I'll leave my crazy plans for plane #2, should that ever come about.

Still... I wouldn't be entirely surprised to read this entry over in about 5 years, and wonder what the hell I was thinking, with my blingful Rotec freshly unpacked from its crate.

Posted at 22:49 permanent link category: /aviation

Thu, 04 Aug 2016

Building a Biplane: Picking the Model

As I mentioned in the last installment, I'm going to be building a biplane soon. I mentioned that I'd settled on the Marquart Charger as the model I wanted to build, and then coyly mentioned I'd gone through a laundry list of other models without really expanding on the subject.

Welcome to the expansion. I'll go over the various models (as I remember them) and why they appealed to me, but ultimately didn't make the cut.

First, a bit of explanation. An ultralight is an aircraft that can be flown by anyone, with or without a pilot's license, although obviously getting some training is a clever idea. They're very limited, with a low maximum weight limit and other restrictions that make them purely "fun" aircraft with travel potential only a masochist would enjoy. An experimental, in this context, means a plane which falls under the FAA's Experimental Amateur-Built rules, which basically say that you have to build 51% or more of the plane, and it can't be flown commercially. An Experimental Amateur-Built (EAB for short) can otherwise be a huge variety of aircraft, but for the purposes of this discussion, I'll be looking at mostly biplanes capable of carrying two people: pilot and passenger.

The first plane on the list is the Loehle Spad XIII, a kit which can be built as either an ultralight or an experimental. I found it because I searched for ultralights, just kind of wanting to find out more about them, and this was one of the search results. "Right!" I thought, "Biplanes!" I figured if I was going to spend a bunch of time building a plane (which was now percolating in my brain like fireworks), I should build something awesome. I've always liked biplanes, and thus, it began.

The Spad is pretty cool: it looks like one of the important biplanes from WWI, and it could be built as either an ultralight or an experimental. Under experimental rules, it could have a more powerful engine, and would be just generally a more awesome plane. My mind was made up that I was going to build experimental.

However, the Spad has a downfall: only one person. There's no way to lever a passenger in there, and I quickly realized that just like choosing to build a biplane, if I was going to spend all that time building a plane, I better be able to take friends up for rides.

At this point, I kind of went on a biplane research binge, and looked at the huge variety of biplanes I suddenly realized were available to the homebuilder. I rejected a lot of them, finally settling on the Fisher Celebrity.

The Celebrity was my Lieblingsflugzeug for a while, and I researched it intensely, eventually finding a builder who was mid-build, and keeping an active blog. I read the entire thing, fascinated with the process. I even sent him corrections to the weight and balance calculations that he'd published, after he did something simple like forgetting to carry a 1 or something.

My memory of the Celebrity fascination is vague, but I remember really liking that it was powered by a small (100 HP) motor, which meant low fuel consumption. The kit claimed to be easy to build, although I was learning at the time that there's basically nothing easy to build about biplanes, no matter how simple they appear to be. Fisher was claiming some very low build time, like 1000 hours, but internet folk-wisdom was that a biplane always takes 2500-3500 hours, or more if you want to get finicky and detail-oriented.

What ultimately killed it for me was when my builder either finished or got near the end, and ended up horribly disappointed in the actual performance of the plane. It just wasn't enough plane to realistically take two people into the air. 100 HP isn't enough. It can be done, but it will be a slow-poke, and might even be dangerous. And I am not, as you might say, a light guy, so that was pretty much the death knell for the Celebrity as far as I was concerned. There was also something strangely plasticky about the plane that I've never been able to explain, but that's neither here nor there.

The disappointment over the Celebrity left me looking again -- something I'd get to recognize, since it happened over and over and over.

In my latest wave of searching, I came across the Sherwood Ranger. This was many years ago (probably around 2008-2009), so the link you see here is not quite to the same plane I was looking at.

The Ranger had one killer feature that really excited me: folding wings. The wings could be folded back so that you could park your Ranger in a one-car garage, or transport it on a trailer if you wanted. Hangar costs kind of terrified me at this point in time: $300-500 a month, it seemed like an enormous committment, and wouldn't it be cool if I didn't need to have one? So much money saved!

Alas, the Ranger was also without an owner at that time, or at least its ownership was changing. It became obvious as I looked around that the design wasn't really a good choice, simply because its existence seemed to be in question. Without a company backing it, the plans would be unavailable. I also thought seriously about what it would be like to have to tow an airplane to the airport every time I wanted to fly, and spend 30-45 minutes setting up the wings. I'd never do it. The Ranger was off the list.

I was also still on the high-efficiency kick. I looked at the Acrosport II somewhat wistfully, but crossed it off the list as needing too much power. More on the ASII later.

Then, I came across this almost cartoonish looking plane called the Flitzer. It was kind of ugly, but also, kind of... cute? Something. Before I knew it, I was hooked. The cartoonish nature of it was compelling, and it used the venerable VW Bug engine, which could be bought as a kit for a mere $6000 (1/4 the cost of a "real" airplane engine). I subscribed to the mailing list, and was an avid follower for years.

The Flitzer's designer, Lynn Williams (a delightful man who must design airplanes rather than eat or sleep, he's so prolific) also promised a two-place version, the Flitzer Schwalbe, but until just recently, it was always just around the corner, but never quite available. I was pretty sure I'd build a Schwalbe. I didn't love the higher wing as much (the super tight upper wing really appeals to me for no reason I can pin down), but hey, it would carry two people!

One of the very appealing things about the Flitzer is that it's made entirely of wood. There are a handful of metal fittings in the plane, and the landing gear and motor mount, but the rest is just wood and fabric. That was very appealing to me, since I didn't know how to weld, and found that to be a daunting prospect. Most biplanes of this size are built of steel tube for the fuselage, and wood for the wings.

But then, one day (actually quite recently, less than a year ago), I looked at the weight numbers on the Flitzer Schwalbe, and realized the problem: although it would fit two people, the weight limits meant that with full fuel, I could take up a ~60 lb passenger. I only know one person under 60 lbs, but he's 9, and he's going to be above that weight well before I could get anything built. Even reducing to half fuel didn't help much, since the plane only carries about 13 gallons (6 lbs per gallon of fuel filled). And there's no way I could take my parents or some of my more me-sized friends even with no fuel.

It was with profound sadness that I crossed the Flitzer Schwalbe off the list.

That left me, honestly, feeling a bit adrift. I had been thinking "Flitzer!" for so long that it was hard to shift my brain around to anything else. However, I rallied, and started looking around. Interestingly, it wasn't a biplane that next caught my attention, but rather a parasol monoplane -- a plane that just has one wing, but has it up on struts so that it looks like a biplane with the bottom wing missing: the Bakeng Deuce.

The Deuce appealed to me for reasons that aren't as clear now, looking back on them, but I liked it for whatever reason. (If it isn't clear by now, what draws me to these various planes is clearly based on emotions to such an extent that I can't actually explain some of my choices.) It carried two people, looked interesting and different (there are actually a lot of biplanes out there, but relatively few parasol designs in the air). I think this was when I was suddenly looking at payload capacity, and the Deuce delivered on that, with 600 lbs payload. I would definitely be able to take up myself, my heavy friend, and enough fuel to do interesting things. Not much else, but that's what mattered.

However, as I looked more into it, it became apparent that the Deuce was essentially a moribund design, from a support standpoint. There is still an "active" forum online, but I use that term reservedly: I made a post there, and there was only ever one person who responded (the designer), and he was so discouraging that I felt like it was a bad choice. He was being intentionally discouraging to weed out frivolous people, which I am not, and I understood that as I was reading it, but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth and I decided I'd rather find something with a bit more of a community around it. I also couldn't find any Deuces anywhere nearby to go visit, which ended up being a big turn-off.

This was roughly when I started looking again at the "big" two-place biplanes. These are, in no particular order, the aforementioned Acrosport II, the Hatz Classic, the Stolp Starduster Too, the Steen Skybolt, and a number more. The ASII was appealing in part because I'd looked into it pretty thoroughly a few years earlier, and everything I'd read sounded right. It's a docile handling plane that can work as an acrobatic trainer, but isn't twitchy and hard to land. It can definitely carry two people. It is actually physically large enough to fit me. There's a huge support community, with numerous active builders. I could see numerous examples nearby if I wanted to.

That list of attributes can actually be applied to every plane I listed there. They all look good on paper, but for one thing: I don't much like the way they look. That thing I mentioned earlier, about emotion and non-rational decisions? It keeps me away from this long list of otherwise ideal projects. It's kind of a pity, really.

Actually, I should provide some detail: the Hatz Classic is a gorgeous plane, particularly with that lovely (and expensive, but that's for the next installment) Rotec radial mounted on the nose. It would be a good choice, and was basically riding in a tie for first place with the Marquart Charger for The Plane I Want To Build.

The Classic has a strong positive, and a strong negative to balance each other out. Sort of. The fact that it comes with plans already drawn for the installation of the radial engine is a huge plus. However, the negative is that the front seat, by all reports, requires that the passenger be a contortionist to actually get in. Many of the people I'd like to take into the skies with me are not contortionists. Some are very far from any hint of contortionism. So, that's a huge negative for my purposes.

The death knell for the Classic came when I tried to inquire about ordering the evaluation plans offered by the company that nominally sells them: I never heard back. I'd read about this, but wasn't sure what my experience would be. Sure enough, my attempts to reach them were completely ignored, or never even arrived in the first place. The company selling the plans appears to have no interest in actually, you know, selling the plans. Without plans to look at, there's little I can do. I crossed the Classic off the list.

This is where the Charger (what I think will be my actual, real, it's-actually-happening project) really wins: the plans are free. Plan cost isn't a big deal -- it's a $50,000-75,000 project, who cares if the plans are zero dollars or $350? But because they're public domain, they're available. I downloaded a set and had them printed out full-size. It cost $75 from a local print shop. I have PDFs on every computer around me, so I can refer to them any time I want to.

However, in addition to that, the Charger is described in print and in person as being a delight to fly. A "pilot's airplane." One which can go up and do acrobatics if you want, but isn't really intended for that. One which will hold enough weight to take me and a friend up. A plane that, importantly, looks good to me, with those swept wings and long tail.

It's not perfect. There's no one building now, so the pool of people with direct experience is slim to none. However, the Charger is also sufficiently like all the other planes of very similar design that only super type-specific questions will be hard to answer. The landing gear is in need of reinforcement as-drawn, so some engineering brainpower is going to have to go into that. It doesn't have a radial engine installation all planned out and ready to go (this might be a blessing in disguise, but again, that's for the next episode).

But, for its faults and its highlights, the Charger is the plane I've already got 10.4 build hours logged on, all spent with a CAD program, re-creating little metal brackets and fittings so they can be sent to a waterjet shop and cut out exactly right. I've begun learning how to weld. The garage will start construction soon, and I'll finally, finally have a place to build this project that's been bounding around inside my brain for the last decade.

Posted at 23:02 permanent link category: /aviation

Sun, 31 Jul 2016

Wait, You're Building a What?

I've had this conversation a number of times lately, so I'm sure there are others out there who would like to hear it as well.

Since about 2006 (see this previous article), I've been thinking about building an airplane, and for most of that time, I've centered my interest on a biplane. As I said before, I have gone through a lot of designs, but have basically settled on the Marquart Charger.

Glenn Mittenberger's Marquart Charger

The Charger was designed in 1968 by Ed Marquart, as an American version of the Bücker Jungmann, a German biplane from 1932. The Jungmann was designed as a light trainer, good with relatively low horsepower, and nimble enough to do aerobatics. The Charger continues with that plan, though it uses more modern steel in the fuselage. It's a two-seat plane, and I'll be able to take up passengers with no problem, although weight will always be a thing to watch out for.

Jeff and John Hansen's Hatz Classic - click for more pics

The plane is built out of steel tubing in the fuselage (the body), and the wings are made out of spruce wood. The whole thing is covered in fabric, except the sides of the fuselage are covered in aluminum from the engine back to the back seat. The fabric that would have been used in the 30s was cotton, but apparently that grade of cotton is no longer being produced. That makes sense, since when polyester came on the scene, it was a big improvement: cotton needs to be shrunk onto the frame with butyrate dope (a relatively noxious chemical, and a long, laborious process), while polyester can be shrunk on with a hot iron in a few passes.

Lycoming O-320 engine

The engine will be around 150 HP, although exactly which engine I go with is still up in the air. Most likely, I'll go for the same engine that you'd find in a Cessna or Piper light plane, a Lycoming O-320. This is an engine that looks like an old VW Bug engine, but scaled up: 320 cubic inches works out to a 5.24 liter engine (the Bugs only got as big as 1.6 liters). It's a very well-proven design, and you can get parts and service pretty much anywhere you can find an airport.

Most people, after they've finished goggling at the idea of a normal person building a full-size airplane a person can climb into, then wonder where on earth I'm going to do this huge project. The answer to that is fairly straightforward: I'm days away from starting construction on a new one-car garage in the back yard. It will be bigger than my last one-car garage by a little bit, but also substantially taller, and since I'm building it with the specific purpose of building an airplane inside, it won't be the multipurpose hodge-podge space that my last garage was.

Of course, an entire airplane definitely won't fit inside there, so it'll be built in pieces. The fuselage is about 15 feet long, but only about 3 feet wide. No problem for a one-car space. Each wing panel (there are four) is about 5 feet front-to-back, and about 12 feet long. Again, no problem. The tail is around 7-8 feet wide, and 6 feet tall. So, I can fit each piece, unassembled, into the garage. Once it comes time to actually attach wings to fuselage, of course, I'll need a bigger space, but that's years away. I'll rent a hangar somewhere, hopefully not too many hours' drive away. I've already got my name on the list at Harvey Field in Snohomish, where I've been flying their Aeronca Champ 7AC.

I expect this project to take between 5 and 10 years, depending on how diligent I am about working on it regularly. I'm pretty sure I'll have periods of intense work, and periods of less intense work, possibly resembling slack to an outside observer.

This is something I've been wanting to do for a long time, and it's pretty exciting that I'm getting close to actually starting on it. I've technically started, putting in a few hours doing CAD work so I can get some of the numerous little metal pieces cut by a waterjet company rather than endlessly hacksawing away myself. That will be a huge time savings, and well worth the expense. I've also got my build logging system partially completed; it's based on a database, so I'll soon have a page where you can go look at the build log, and it will update as soon as I add a new entry.

I hope that's answered the most common questions, but you know how to reach me if you have more.

Posted at 14:08 permanent link category: /aviation

Wed, 01 Jun 2016

The Return of the Biplane

Ages ago (2006, to be precise), I found I was bored with flying, and needed to figure out something different to do. I was just going out, flying around the pattern three times to keep current, and coming back. Uninspiring, and it felt like a waste of money.

So, I turned to the internet for inspiration, typing "ultralight" into your favorite mega search engine. A number of clicks later, I was saying to myself, "Wait a minute, why am I not just building a plane? What about a biplane? YEAH!"

Unfortunately, I looked around me, and realized that although a fine dream, I didn't have anywhere to do it. My garage was packed to the gills with motorcycles and motorcycle accessories, not to mention stuff, tools, more stuff, random junk, and some stuff. There was nowhere else for all this stuff to go, so I shelved the idea, knowing I would some day move, and be able to pick a house with a better shop situation.

That day has finally come, and I'm in sight of having a good place to build.

Now, of course, I have to figure out which biplane to build. There are a number of good choices, and I have, in that ten years, been through about a dozen designs, each appealing for a number of reasons, but having some ultimate downfall. First, it needs to carry more than one person. I'm not going to spend most of a decade building a plane only to self-indulgently deny anyone else from going flying with me. Next, it needs to actually fit me. I'm not the tall willowy fellow I always wanted to be, more like tall and well-packed. If I want a plane that will work for me and a realistic passenger, it has to have a 500-700 lb payload. On top of that, I want it to look "vintage," like it might have just flown out of the 1930s.

That all narrows the field considerably. The designs which are left after the culling process are the Hatz Classic and the Marquart Charger. Some research has revealed that they each have strengths and weaknesses: the Hatz is a good design, but suffers from a company selling the plans who are basically unresponsive, and from a front seat that is very difficult to get into. Not a huge problem if I'm taking up my lithe young friends from the theater, but a bigger deal if I want to take my parents. The Hatz also has, right there in its plans, the information necessary to mount a Rotec radial engine, which is high on the list of "Oooh, shiny."

The Marquart Charger doesn't have the front seat problem. It's still not like climbing into a car, but at least it's not a contortionist act. However, the designer passed away in 2007, and there's basically no one building one now. It also has a landing gear design which has a few issues, such as being stiff, and prone to cracking at some high-stress points. Although I will obviously always make perfect, slick landings, I don't want to build myself into a known issue.

Of the two, the Charger is currently my favorite. Since Ed Marquart passed away, the plans are now in the public domain, so I've had a chance to review them extensively, and it's easy to see how the plane goes together. It's a lot of work (a lot of work), but none of it is difficult. It's just time-consuming. It will also require some design work of my own, if I decide I want to drop the vast amount of cash necessary to get a Rotec hanging off the front of the plane; the Charger was designed in 1968, and the Rotec didn't show up until 2000.

The Real World

Of course, none of this internet research is actually worth a whole lot without some experience in actual, real-world biplanes.

So, I started looking around. When I was still planning on the Hatz Classic, I sought out Classics in the FAA database, but I only found a few registered, and all quite far from me. I wasn't yet ready to buy a flight to Ohio to look at an airplane, so I looked at the alternatives that were closer to home. There, I located a Hatz CB-1 (the original design on which the Classic is based; slightly smaller, a little bit less refined, otherwise identical) in Olympia. The plane's owner was on several of the forums I was now frequenting, so it was easy to get in contact with him.

I arranged a trip down to Olympia, and was able to spend about an hour circling around the CB-1, sitting in the cockpit, examining details, and generally making vroom-vroom noises. There was no arrangement to go flying, and even without it, I left quite happy with the experience. However, that front seat was troubling. I didn't even try to get into it, but it was obvious from looking at it (it's almost completely under the top wing, which means you'd have to fold yourself in half, dive between wing and windshield, drop your legs in, then slide down the seat until seated) that it would be a real challenge to get into.

Out of the blue, a Skybolt owner based at Paine Field (much closer than Olympia) offered to take me up in his plane. Of course, I said yes, and soon I had 0.8 hours of Skybolt time in my logbook. The Skybolt isn't one of my chosen designs, looking a bit too modern to my eyes, but still, one does not scoff at the opportunity to fly a biplane in this situation.

It was quite enjoyable, but still not exactly the right kind of experience -- it had a canopy, and I am definitely planning on my plane having an open cockpit, with just a windscreen between you and the elements. However, I did discover that, unlike a flight in a Christen Eagle II in about 2007, I was not hopelessly overcontrolling the plane, making it skitter about the sky like a drunken crow. It was a very positive experience, and made me begin to suspect that I could actually do all this, and end up happy with the experience.

Then, this past weekend, I got the opportunity to go up in a Starduster Too. Still not on my short list (it has very graceful lines, but I'm not smitten by the design). However, this plane has open cockpits, and is much more like the right feeling. It is, similar to the Charger, not designed for aerobatics, although it is certainly capable of them.

I found the experience of being in an open cockpit to be a mixed one. It wasn't disastrously windy, and I could certainly get used to the wind (and would quickly figure out the right clothing to make it comfortable). However, between the wind noise and the headset volume necessary to make any of the radio calls audible, I was half deafened by the time we shut off the engine. Obviously a better hearing protection system would be required.

The Starduster Too experience further suggested that I was on the right path, its owner and builder telling me that I've got a good touch for biplanes (a very encouraging comment, as it was unsolicited). I'll have to work on some of the aspects of open cockpit, but it still feels like a reasonable plan. Quite likely many passengers will enjoy the experience, but not choose to repeat it too often -- I think the feeling of all that wind, even though you don't feel the direct blast on your face, will be fairly overwhelming to many. Others, I'm sure, won't be able to wipe the grins off their faces.

What's Next

At this point, I have plans for the Charger printed up (you can see them here if you like). I don't yet have a shop, but I have plans for one, and construction will hopefully start this summer.

Obviously, I need to get myself in the presence of, and hopefully an hour or two flying in, a Marquart Charger. There are two examples in Oregon, and I've already arranged with one of them to visit and see what we can see. I'll be very interested to see how cramped or open the cockpit is, and what I think of the plane in person. I quite like the swept wings in photos, but seeing it in person will be a different experience. To some extent, I can fix cockpit size problems, since I'll be the one building the plane, but clearly the physical presence of the plane is not something to lightly tinker with.

I would also like to get myself in the presence of a Hatz Classic, but I don't have any clear plans for how that's going to work. It may become a moot point: I've attempted to contact the seller to buy a set of "review" plans (printed on letter paper instead of the big 2x3' sheets), but haven't heard anything after a few weeks, and kind of expect not to hear from them. If I can't get at the plans, I definitely can't build the plane.

It's exciting, after a decade of thinking about it, to finally be within clear sight of the start of a project. There are still a few points to be sorted out before I can actually start cutting wood or steel (like taking a welding class starting in June), but I think I'm on track to actually start building ribs (a logical starting point) before the end of the year.

Posted at 09:09 permanent link category: /aviation

Categories: all aviation gadgets misc motorcycle theater

Written by Ian Johnston. Software is Blosxom. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.