Saturday, March 01, 2014

How to build your own airplane

When Colin Goodwin bought a kit plane, he had nowhere to build it, no flying experience – and no idea that 11,000 rivets would be the least of his problems

“I remember when it all started very well.” Colin Goodwin, a 51-year-old writer, is sitting inside the club house at White Waltham Airfield in Berkshire enjoying a breakfast of bacon and eggs. He’s talking about the day in August 2006 when he went to an aircraft show in Gloucestershire with no plan other than to have an enjoyable day out. “But then this plane called a Van’s RV-7 won first prize for the best kit plane at the show.” Goodwin registers my blank expression and smiles. “I hadn’t heard of it either,” he says.

“It looked quick and pretty, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So when I got home, I looked on the website and could hardly believe how fast it was or how far it would fly. It’ll do 215mph and if you got in her now, you could fly to Corsica. From that moment, everything that happened afterwards was fairly inevitable.”

Inevitable to him, maybe, but the problems that stood between Goodwin and his flying his own aircraft were immense. “The least of my worries was I had no money,” he says, spearing another rasher. “The greater concern was I had nowhere to build it.” As a kit plane, the Van’s RV-7 is not an aircraft you just buy and fly. Engine and instruments aside, you build the entire aircraft down to inserting the last rivet. A Van’s RV-7 has 11,000 rivets.

Goodwin’s other obstacle was so insignificant to him he fails even to mention it. Because he’ll write about anything that moves under its own power – planes, cars and motorcycles – it might be reasonable to assume he has a wall-full of engineering certificates, degrees and other qualifications relevant to the not inconsiderable task of building an airworthy plane. Not so. Ask him to detail his credentials and he replies: “Do four O-levels count?” He pauses: “Actually, now you mention it, I do remember at one stage in the build deciding I needed to go on a metalworking course. A day was enough.” Oh, and he also had to factor in learning to fly.

The origins of such stern stuff are not hard to find. Look at the side of the sleek and purposeful aircraft he spent five years constructing and you’ll find it is registered G-DMBO. The G is compulsory for all UK-registered aircraft but DMBO is Goodwin’s homage to his father or, more specifically, the flying elephant that was painted on the side of his Wellington bomber.

“Dad signed up on day one in 1939, desperate to be a pilot, but he couldn’t pass the maths.” He ended up as a front-gunner and bomb-aimer first on Wellingtons, later in Lancasters. “Back then, in Bomber Command you had a one-in-four chance of surviving 30 missions. He completed 53.” He was never shot down but often came back in a plane “with rather better ventilation than when it had left”.

Goodwin junior’s strategy was simple. “My plan was to do it bit by bit, working on one wing while earning the money to buy the other and so on. All I needed was somewhere to build it.”. . .

Everyone Goodwin spoke to told him to build it close to home or else he’d never finish it. “I looked at various local workshops but they were either too expensive or not suitable. Only then did it occur to me to build it in the garden.” Yet he lives in a typical three-bedroom house in the middle of a terraced street in Hampton, Middlesex. Like all such houses, its garden is small and notably lacking in aircraft-building facilities.

“The garden is about 15ft wide which isn’t really enough but I realised that if I built a shed, bits could just stick out of it. My wife agreed so long as I converted the shed to a summer house at the end of the build.”

Goodwin started on the empennage – the tail – because it was the cheapest section of the plane. “It cost $1,000 all in: tail, elevators, the lot. Even I could afford that.” Having friends who travelled helped too. “Every time a mate went to America, they came back with a few extra bits.” Even so, despite the help of friends and neighbours, the project almost stopped before it started. “I did the first 10 rivets and they were all rubbish. Imagine that, knowing you’ve got 10,990 to go. That’s the only time it nearly defeated me.” It turned out the fault lay with his rivet gun, not his technique.

The logistical challenges of building an aircraft in a suburban terrace are even greater than they might seem. Just to get to the shed, every part had to go through his standard-size front door, his house and into the garden – so each crate of components had first to be unpacked in the street. The shed was so small he couldn’t walk around what he was building to get to the other side, so he crawled underneath instead. And once each section was built, he had to get rid of it before he could start the next. A friend with a hangar at an airfield in Gloucestershire agreed to store the sections but Goodwin could hardly dismantle them again to get them out of his garden. So his neighbours got together to carry each section across every garden fence between his house and the nearest street. “No one ever complained,” he says. “It became a bit of a community project.”

Soon, months of building turned to years. Goodwin was earning a living by day and working by night. Many processes required more hands than one human possesses, in which case friends, family and, most often, his father-in-law came to help. Goodwin never worked weekends. “It was tempting of course, but it’s a marriage breaker.” Instead he learnt the art of using all those small fragments of time most of us lose every day. “Most days, I’d find 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there and, instead of reading the paper or putting the kettle on, I’d go and work on the plane.” Even so, the tail alone took six months, as did each wing. The fuselage took two years of graft to complete.

The real problems came when Goodwin realised the project had run away with not only his time, but his money. “You complete the basic structures but you’ve still got the finishing kit, including fancy stuff like wheels and brakes to come. Only then do you realise the idea that this is a cheap way to build an aircraft is a fallacy. All the really expensive gear – the instruments, engine and propeller – had yet to be bought. The whole thing got completely out of hand and I had to do massive amounts of ‘man maths’ to make the numbers add up.”

In the end Goodwin spent about £60,000. He reckons that if you pared the budget to the bone and chose the minimum legal instrumentation, a second-hand engine and fixed-pitch propeller, you could build it for £50,000. He thinks the completed aircraft is worth about £90,000, which values his labour at slightly less than the minimum wage. But he has no regrets: “This is the only plane I’m going to build or own and not having the money was actually quite handy. If I’d had 50 grand, I’d have probably spent 50 grand and not got the plane I wanted. But if you haven’t got 50 grand, not having 60 grand really doesn’t make much difference . . .” Man maths at its finest.

Unfortunately, with £20,000-worth of the Lycoming engine now attached, the fuselage couldn’t get out of the shed. Undaunted, Goodwin hacked a hole in a wall big enough to accommodate the aircraft body, had it winched away over the rooftops and kept his promise to rebuild the shed as his wife’s summer house. Then all that was needed was a trifling five months in the hangar in Gloucestershire turning all his different assemblies into an aircraft.

Agonisingly – and despite having qualified as a pilot in the interim – Goodwin was not at the controls for its maiden flight as, under civil aviation law, it had to be flown first by a test pilot familiar with how such aircraft should operate. It behaved perfectly. It was then taken away to be painted before finally arriving at White Waltham. “That was the moment,” says Goodwin, “not when it first flew or when I first flew in it, but when it landed here and was finally home. I will admit that was quite something.”

An offer of a spell in Dumbo’s right-hand seat is too good to refuse. We take off and, as soon as we’re at a steady 200mph cruise at 4,000ft, Goodwin invites me to take over. I haven’t flown much but the way the plane responds instantly to the slightest pressure of my fingertips reminds me of a thoroughbred racing car.

“There are two reasons I stuck with it,” says Goodwin as we stroll back into the clubhouse after an hour in the air. “First, I never thought of it as building an aeroplane. In my mind I was building a wing rib, or an aileron, or whatever I was working on at that time. Mentally to take on the entire project would have been overwhelming.”

And the second reason? “When I get revved up about something, I’m not very good at quitting.” The evidence of that is parked outside.

What I learned about myself

● That I’m actually a lot more organized than I thought.

● I have a lot of patience when it’s required.

● I can rebuild my morale after making mistakes.

Colin’s tips

● Don’t fantasize too much about the adventures that you’re going to have when it’s finished.

● If you mess a bit up, put it down, do something else and then finish the day’s building with a pint.

● Always tidy the workshop at the end of the day.

● Try and do something every day, even if it’s for only half an hour.

● Get friends to come in and do a bit with you. About six different people had a go at riveting.


You can’t do it without these guys:

America’s kit-building organization – they have good how-to videos on the site:

Company that supplies bits and pieces ... you’ll be spending a lot of money with them:

Story and photos:

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