Monday, May 23, 2011

Why I Fly (Chapter 15)

My friend Matt has decided to take up flying. He has done so before, but this time he is doing so with a vengeance. This time he has decided to not only get his pilot's license, but at the same time, build his own airplane.

The idea of building your own plane sounds much crazier than it is in real life. Most folks building their own plane will also be flying their own plane, and are therefore significantly motivated to do it well. Matthew has decided to build a Van's RV-9A. After the initial test flight, homebuilt aircraft have accident rates on par with certified general aviation aircraft.

Van's is one of the largest kit plane manufacturer in the world. I met the founder, Richard VanGrunsven at a Washington Pilot's Association Christmas party several years back. He was the guest speaker at a relatively intimate dinner, where we all got to visit with him after his presentation. Mr. VanGrunsven seems to have several monikers, Richard, Dick, and Van - which is the source of the company name, "Van's"

Van's Aircraft is located in the town of Aurora Oregon, about 20 miles south of Portland. Matt had come from Houston for a week of vacation, and talked me into flying him from Paine down to Aurora to tour the factory, get a demo ride, and buy his first kit of pieces.

The flight in my plane takes about an hour and a half, and the tours are at 9:00 AM and 2:00 PM. So Matt and I decided to meet at Regal for a 7:00 AM for the flight. We were air-borne at 7:06 AM.

The weather on the flight down was boring - absolutely nothing to report. Clear sky, distant wispy cirrus clouds, smooth air. Snore… Once at our cruising altitude, I turned the plane over to Matt and got out my cell phone to take pictures. And post to facebook.

We landed a little after 8:30, secured the plane and made the short walk across the ramp to the Van's factory. The main entrance to Van's is more like the side entry to a hall way. To the left is what may have been an office, and is now the "gift shop" (more on that later), and about 15 feet to the right is the main counter. The hall serves as a visitor's lobby. Mr. VanGrunsven embodies the cheap Dutchman. I'm a quarter Dutch, so I am allowed to malign my own heritage.

Matt checked in for the tour, and I acknowledged we were about 20 minutes early. The receptionist suggested we check out the gift shop behind us. Matt and I dutifully complied and meandered over to inspect their wares. I really should have whipped out the camera. What first caught my eye was a remote control version of and RV-6A hanging from the ceiling. Big, and red and white, with two large exhaust pipes out the bottom, it is eye-catching. on the shelves to our left were four or five stacks of logoed clothing, polo shirts, hats, and t-shirts.

There was some other stuff too, like books and assembly videos. But mostly stuff. And then what tickled me was a shelf with stacks of throttle and fuel-mixture cables just kind of piled up on it at eye level. "Gifts," I thought "from the gift shop." And then I had the funny image of someone swinging by the Van’s plant to buy their sweet-heart a gift of a throttle cable. True love.

We were in the gift shop only a few moments when we were called back by our tour-guide, Ken. Now if I were selling something as expensive and passion-fueled as airplanes, I would find a tour guide as close as possible to the Barbie and Ken characters from Toy Story 3, and train her or him on the things that make the RV line unique. Find someone happy, out going, friendly, effusive, passionate, and engaging. Ken from Van's is not that character.

Ken is knowledgeable, and has excellent experiences with the Van's line, and has built and owned several of their kits. He has worked there since the time when the pieces were cut from patterns by hand. He has plenty of time flying RV's indicating a long and successful flying career. But how does a guy work for one of the largest kit-plane manufacturer in the world and gives demo rides in a company provided airplane, not smile at least a little?

During the tour Ken's knowledge of the product line and subtle differences was quickly apparent as we discussed wing loading and techniques for attaching wings to the fuselage (bolt inside, bolt outside, spar carry through, or quick release pins) and seating arrangements of the different models. He pointed out center sections, quick build assemblies, pre-cut, drilled, and stamped parts, the technical abilities of the machines cutting them and the advances over the years in Van's ability to make more precise and consistent parts.

We talked to the operator of the machine cutting the parts, and here's a guy who's job it is to watch a machine cut a piece of flat aluminum stock into something that will later become an airplane part, and he is EXCITED to tell me about it. But not Ken. Move along. These are not the 'droids you are looking for. Meanwhile the guy operating the machine notices my CrazyHorse hat and makes a comment about it. But not Ken.

Matt eventually gets Ken out to the collection of assembled airplanes, where Matt selects the one like he is planning to build for his demo ride. Ken first moves a plane blocking that one, so he can extract the 9A from the hangar. They cautiously go through preflight and strap in, mount headsets, and fire up the plane.

In short order Ken, Matt, and a shiny RV-9A are leaping into the clear blue sky for Matt's demo ride. I go find some coffee, arrange some stuff in my plane, explore around a bit. Soon the shiny RV is turning base to final and settling in for a smooth landing. Ken's skills as a pilot are apparent as the RV slides onto the runway.

Matt hops out of the plane, clearly excited, and says something to the effect of "Are you ready for your demo ride?" I looked at Ken and could tell he was still not excited to be flying.

"I don’t want to deceive anybody about my lack of intent to buy an airplane." And Ken makes no effort to change my mind.

Matt ordered his first set of pieces that will become his airplane. I picked out a $15.00 polo shirt and a $10.00 hat. That’s the least expensive polo shirt I've bought in years!

Matt and I debate lunch in Oregon or lunch in Washington. It is only 10:30. We decide to eat back home and climb into my plane.

After a pleasant lunch on the patio at La Palmera, I am back home with my family.