Friday, December 22, 2006

My plane, my child

I ordered my RV-7A slow-build kit in the spring of 2001. Like many airplane builders, I wasn't sure I had the skills to build an airplane. I wasn't sure I had the money either. As I get started on the finishing kit five -- almost six -- years later, I'm still not sure where the dough is going to come from for my pay-as-I-go project. It's a balancing act to make sure there's not more "go" than "pay." But so far, so good, so slow.

What intrigues me about the slowness of the project is how many life forms it has taken on. I talked a few weeks ago about how the project is building me too, but the project has also been quite transformative.

When I first contemplated a homebuilt, I thought it would be a great way for my kids to be involved in something with me. At the time, they were 15 and 12 and, looking back, I probably should've started it earlier. But, of course, there wasn't the money to do so because, among other reasons, there were two kids who were 15 and 12.

Long-term, I viewed an airplane as the way to visit the kids when they went off to college in the far-flung corners of the universe. I saw the plane as the magic carpet for Dad.

The kids were as excited as I was when the tail kit arrived. They enjoyed helping to unpack everything. But as I started the project, it was rare to find more than one of us in the garage. The 12-year-old made a few more appearances during the original construction of the "H" jig to build the HS (at that time), probably because 12-year-olds are more "Dad-friendly" than 15-year-olds, who are starting to discover girls, TV, sleeping late, videogames, and one-word answers to any conversation the old man should initiate.

So the project became an occasional solo act. By the time the wings came along, things had changed. We realized one of my sons had some special needs at the time and it was a difficult time for all of us. The annual trip to Oshkosh with him, and his occasional bit of help on the plane turned the project into "therapy" for a short time, and between it and me, the strings that connect a father and son, though frayed, never broke. Never.

When things got worse, however, enthusiasm for the project waned because life was getting in the way. It's hard to be excited about flying, when your child is in pain on a near daily basis. And so, in a fit of my own desperation, the project was put up for sale. Fortunately, it didn't sell and I listened to someone on a bulletin board who said, "just roll it into the corner." Since it was a pay-as-you-go project, leaving it alone for awhile didn't cost me anything. And so, my project became an abandoned project.

As a few months went by, the ups-and-downs of family life started to stabilize a bit and work resumed on the project. From time to time, my youngest boy, then 15, helped me buck the rivets on wing skins. And my oldest son would take a crack at it too, and proved quite good at it.

I started treasuring more, those times. I started treasuring more, the dings or dents that they helped me make in my wings (OK, I made most of them by myself!). When they would help me with a particular section, I would have them "autograph" the inside of the part with a Sharpie pen. I have quite a few autographs and messages that will be there forever. I'll never erase them. And so now, my project was a father's scrapbook.

Just this morning I was downstairs finishing up putting some nutplates on the wing skin (where the fairing attaches) and I started looking over those wings that have sat in the family room for the last 3 years. I cringed at one bad rivet on the rear spar doubler, and then started looking inside the skins and finding the messages from both kids on the days they helped shoot some rivets. "World's best flush rivet," one said. Another just said, "Sean," in his barely-legible signature that didn't mask his pride at mastering something. Anything. Something propelled him on his road to adulthood, past the minefields of adolescence. I think a few well-shot rivets deserve credit.

When the fuselage kit arrived, both of my lads were becoming young men -- fine young men. I realized as I looked back on the project, that there's a parallel between building an airplane and raising children. Plenty of people tell you it can be done with patience and a lot of money. That you'll start out trying to get the hang of it, make your share of mistakes, but pressing on and doing the best you can, you'll get better at it. And by the time the finishing kit arrives, you'll realize you were better at it than you sometimes thought, often wishing that you could go back and do the parts again, armed with the knowledge you didn't have before. Sometimes you'll look at other builder's projects and wonder why theirs are so perfect to the naked eye, but then they note that they made mistakes too, and you feel better. Your project is another of your children.

And then the first flight comes and your project is a finished airplane flying on its own power, and you burst with pride -- and maybe some tears -- at your accomplishment and the beauty of your project. The folks who said, "it'll get better" when you were folding over rivets, were right. It does. It gets darned near perfect and the occasional poorly-executed task in the past seems insignificant, no matter how much sleep it caused you to lose at the time.

My sons are out of the house now. They're flying on their own. My oldest son, now 21, isn't pounding rivets with me anymore, but he is working with me at my place of business, and it's been a great time. My youngest son, 18 and counting, shares an apartment with the brother he used to battle on a daily basis, and is Minnesota's youngest EMT, working on becoming an advanced EMT and paramedic. He's going to school and working full-time. I didn't build them by myself, but I did some of it.

And so now my airplane project is my youngest child; keeping the old man company and reminding me on a daily basis that when I'm gone, it, the dings, the dents, the autographs, and the eventual flying magic carpet, will remind someone that I was once here. Doing the best I could, making my share of mistakes, and loving every minute of it.

I dream of the day my project will be fully grown, and we can go flying with its siblings.

(This article originally was written for the RV Builder's Hotline)

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