For almost five years I had been skirting the question my friends and neighbours were asking, but now I had to answer it for myself. Just how was I going to get the bloody aeroplane out of the garden? Plan A had always been to fit the engine to the fuselage, plumb as much in as possible and then, when the time came, remove the engine. Then it would be a case of all hands to the fuselage and gently lift it across three gardens and out into the cul de sac adjacent to our row of houses ? simple. I hesitate to liken the process to pallbearers manhandling a coffin, but you get my drift…
Ironically, a permit aircraft with its lovely glass-screen display, electronic ignition, adjustable oil cooler flap and other such advanced kit, sprouts a lot more wiring and attachments than does a simple Piper Warrior. It became obvious halfway through fitting the engine that to remove and replace it again would not be the work of a morning. In fact, it started looking like a couple of weeks’ effort at the inside. Reconnecting the wires would be a pain but nothing compared to a rematch bout against the rubber engine mounts.
Early on in the project, the neighbours and ourselves chipped in to chop down a large tree at the end of our gardens that blocked out much of the sunlight on the odd occasions we have it. I lost a whole morning’s scribbling dangling out of my office’s Velux window watching the world’s most skilled tree surgeons lopping off massive boughs and using a large crane to hoik them safely to a waiting munching machine. I hadn’t seen a such a big crane operating in a garden environment before and hadn’t appreciated the deftness of touch of a skilled operator. “You could use one of those to extract an aircraft from a garden,” I said to myself.
That thought was filed away for the future and the build progressed along the lines that you have been following in Pilot. In fact on your last visit to what one pal refers to as the ‘Wendy House’, the engine had indeed been fitted. This required the tail to poke out of the shed, which in turn created a bit of a security risk, thereby creating the dichotomy of wanting to get the aircraft safely into the hangar as soon as possible, but not before I had completed as many jobs on it as possible. It’s about eighty miles from my house to the final assembly point and that’s a mighty commute.
THE GRAND LIFT-OUT
By the end of last year I’d got as far as I could with the RV. No point in fitting the empennage at home because it’s not a long job and besides, not easy to do with a lack of space. But the undercarriage was on and the fairings and spats made. Time to find a crane hire company. I found Lee Lifting (based near Heathrow) on the Internet and, since they’d recently had the job of lifting the Olympic rings onto a barge on the Thames, reckoned they were pukka chaps. And so it was to prove.
Lee’s advance recce party, a hardened car nut called Tony Fitt ? who admired my motoring library and stayed most of the morning to talk about Lancias ? cased the joint and worked out all the angles of dangle. A quote for £600 seemed extremely reasonable.
The day came and all the neighbours came out to watch. Neighbours are a crucial part of the homebuilding process and have to be treated with kid gloves. Mine have been spectacularly good. I’ve done my best to do the riveting when they’re out at work or their babies aren’t trying to sleep, but it’s not just the noise:it’s the hundreds of deliveries from LAS (Light Aero Spares), Van’s, Harry Mendelssohn and countless other businesses that I have been supporting for the last five years ? packages that have to be signed for and kept safe. A courier company even asked me if it could leave the propeller with a neighbour if I was out; I didn’t think so.
As well as organising the crane, I also arranged for Dick Flute to come along with his truck. You might have seen Flute’s advertisement in magazines: he specialises in moving aircraft and has shifted half the RVs built in the UK. He’s a pilot himself and understands aircraft; where their tender parts are and where they don’t mind being pushed.
The grand lift-out was almost an anti-climax. Lee Lifting were as professional as I’d hoped and Flute arrived to the second with his truck. Within an hour the aircraft was out of the garden and safely in the back of the truck. So it has flown, albeit as a UAV. Was I nervous watching five years’ work and quite a few bob go up on a rope? Not really. The relief of getting it out of the garden and the novelty of for the first time seeing my machine from more than three feet away made up for any worries. Plus the crane people so obviously knew what they were doing.
THE WINGS ARE ATTACHED
By lunchtime the RV was safely in the hangar where for many years wings and empennage have been waiting patiently to join the fuselage. Irritatingly I’d promised to take my daughter to Egypt for a week for her 21st birthday so I couldn’t immediately start assembling the ’7. My test pilot, guru and friend John Michie came down with me on the first day back and within a couple of hours we had the wings temporarily bolted to the fuselage. What an amazing moment: as a bare fuselage it looked like a flying machine of sorts, but with the wings on suddenly the proportions all looked right.
But the sense of relief was something else. There was no reason why the wing spars shouldn’t have neatly slotted into the centre section and all the bolt holes lined up, but during warm Egyptian nights the week before I’d been worrying that I might have built the wings upside down or made two right-hand ones. Or that the centre section’s gap would be too tight and the spars not fit in between them. But no, Mr Van’s builds kits so cleverly that even a motoring journalist with only four O Levels can assemble them.
Our next job, working in an unheated hangar with a foot of snow outside, was to set the wing incidence and sweep back ? a simple matter of using plumb bobs, bits of tape and a measuring rule. Then, under the watchful eye of Michie, drill the hole in the rear spar and the slot that it fits into in the fuselage. Cock this up and you are in real trouble. It’d be find another hobby time ? and most likely find another wife.
With the wings now set correctly (they’d have to come off again) we moved on to fitting the tail. All the way through a project like this you are of course adding bits that go together to make the finished machine. But spending an evening making a bracket that will hold a fuel filter seems very remote from building a flying machine. But when you bolt the horizontal stabiliser onto the rear of the fuselage and then offer up the fin, you stand back and say, “My God, those are what makes it fly. And those elevators that will bolt on in no more than five minutes with a spanner, through them I can control this thing that I have made.”
I think I’ve said before that building an aeroplane, certainly this one, is sixty per cent mental and forty per cent practical. I have had to carefully manage my expectations over the last five years; trying not to build up in my mind visions of flying to Venice or other exciting places when the reality is still a pile of bits on the floor. You have to learn how to deal with the mistakes and when to put aside a long and drawn out boring job with a day or two of making something more interesting or sexy to give yourself a boost.
TICKING OFF THE ‘TO DO’ LIST
Gradually the job list has been getting shorter. Every single tool that I own, every single nut and bolt is in that hangar. It has to be that way because you can’t nip home eighty miles for another drill bit. And at last I know what it is like to have space. This is the first time that I’ve been able to walk around the fuselage and be able to cross from one side of it to another without having to crawl underneath it.
Ailerons on; wow, I can sit inside and wiggle the joysticks. Now for the flaps. There were going to be problems discovered at the putting together stage, it was inevitable. And here’s one: the piano hinges to which the flaps attach are not in the correct position so that the flaps hit the side of the fuselage on their way up. Five years ago the thought of drilling out roughly sixty rivets would have filled me with despair, but now, with many dozens of duff rivets behind me I was just able to crack on with it. Within a morning the old hinges are in a bin and two new ones carefully riveted on and in exactly the correct position. Minutes later the flaps are in place and whirring up and down, via the electric flap motor.
Talking of electric motors, why didn’t the electrically-powered trim tab on the elevators work after I’d connected it to the main loom? Out with the multi-meter and down into the footwell to start prodding and testing the wiring behind the panel. And then it dawned on me: I’d fitted a kill switch that would cut the power to the trim tab’s servo in case of it running away with itself. Yup, by simply pressing this button the electric trim suddenly started working.
Every little job is disproportionately exciting. The other day I bled the brakes. Naturally there was a pipe union that I’d forgotten to do up and there was a pink puddle on the cockpit floor, but a cloth and spanner sorted that. Now I can sit in her and press the brake pedals. And I can fit the spats and lockwire the wheelnuts.
Mick Allen at Turweston is going to paint G-DMBO. I told him that he could only have the job on condition that he didn’t bend my ear if found the design to be aesthetically offensive. Fortunately he was most enthusiastic. Allen prefers to paint aircraft after they’ve flown for a bit because it’s usual for the fibreglass bits to move around a bit and crack; plus if you have to make a tweak to aileron trailing edges or elevators you won’t be messing up fresh and soft paint. That’s fine because I am carefully planning the paperwork bit to dovetail with the painting.
NO ‘CATCH 22’ WITH THE PAPERWORK
Ah yes, the paperwork. There’s been a bit of debate recently about the efficiency of the LAA and why it isn’t a bit more computerised and up to date. It’s simple. The organisation could employ more people to deal with mod approvals and the paperwork, and the process could be more automated, but this would have to be paid for and the only way that could be done is by putting the fees up ? Catch 22. Anyway, I’ve known for three years that I was going to be bonding my RV’s canopy on instead of bolting it on, which would therefore require a repeat mod. It would have been daft to have waited until the last minute to lodge the paperwork, so I did it last year. The result is that I’ve got the approval in the file and the paperwork process won’t be more complicated than it needs to be.
The other day I was on a train and to kill time I wrote an aeroplane job list down in my A5 notepad. It only ran to five pages. A year ago it would have filled five notepads, not pages. One of the jobs is ‘fit propeller’. I’m happy to report that it has just been ticked off.