Reflections on the Lake(land)

Invariably, someone always asks me the same question as I come dragging home: Was it worth it?

We all come away from Sun 'n Fun with something, beyond the bag of dirty clothes, a little sunburn, a bit of dehydration, and a case of fatigue. Throw in some jet lag and a much lighter wallet, and it becomes a valid question.

Comparisons to Sun 'n Funs past are inevitable. It starts early on, with manufacturers nervously comparing attendance estimates, mentally gauging whether or not the public is in a buying or tire-kicking mood. The weather is always mentioned, either as a direct influence on the crowd or as an impediment to actually flying in. And this year was no different, with a few holes in display area here and there where an airplane should have been.

Changes to the rules had their noticable effect as well. That "fat ultralight" that we flew in the past (ahem, for instructional purposes only, of course) is gone, and that impact was obvious in a much leaner Paradise City. Still, there's always someone showing up with a better, Part 103 legal mousetrap, and this year was no exception. There certainly was no shortage of aircraft of all sorts making circuits on the grass runway.

Even with a soggy start, this year's Sun 'n Fun had no shortage of new products, thrilling aerial acts, and of course, the Thunderbirds. Brand new Light Sport Aircraft were everywhere. The people in the Lakeland area were warm and gracious, I never knew that I had so many friends that I've never met before. The weather was mostly good and flyable, and there was no shortage of attendees.

In spite of the difficulties of commercial airline travel to and from, and the hour-long delays to just park the rental car in the mud, this year's Sun 'n Fun was one of the better ones, in my book.

Worth it? You betcha.

Rocket Racing League Announces Schedule, Velocity Aircraft Sold

Positioning itself as a "new entertainment sports league that combines the exhilaration of racing with the power of rocket engines," the Rocket Racing League announced that it will stage its first exhibition race at Oshkosh this year. The vehicles will be liquid-oxygen-fueled rockets in modified Velocity airframes. Three more exhibition races will be held at Reno (September 10-14), at the X-Prize Cup (Las Cruces, NM, date TBA), and at Aviation Nation, Nellis Air Force Base (November 8-9).

No doubt to ensure an adequate supply of airframes, RRL's subsidiary, Rocket Racing Composite Corporation, has purchased Velocity Aircraft. It is expected that Velocity will continue selling and servicing the Velocity as an Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft.

According to RRL, "Under the terms of the agreement, Velocity Aircraft will become a wholly owned division of Rocket Racing Composite Corp. and will produce an airframe that will be consistent for all competing Rocket Racers. Through a rigorous research and development, all Velocity-constructed Rocket Racers will be equipped with the safest-possible airframe for any kind of aircraft. The cockpit seats for all Rocket Racers will be reinforced to withstand impacts up to 20G load and other safety measures will be added using a methodology similar to that of F-1 and Indy Car to better protect pilots and passengers alike."

According to the press release, "Scott Baker, president of Velocity, Inc. offered his enthusiastic remarks that, 'Velocity is truly excited to be a part of Rocket Racing. Many of the technology advances that are planned for the Rocket Racer models transcend and offer performance and comfort benefits to Velocity owners who use their aircraft for personal and business travel.' "

No word on the availability of the rocket engine for homebuilders.

Amy's RV-10: Hangar Health

Pro-Seal: It’ll stick to anything, the label says, and that’s the truth. We’ve recently re-experienced it when Van’s Aircraft sent us a bit to re-seal the leaky right fuel tank, which was found to seep between the threaded strainer boss and the rib. Even just to set a small bead of the stuff it’s imperative that you dress out, with an apron or your worst shop clothes, and thick protective gloves, to make sure that you don’t end up sticking your skin to your project.

And Pro-Seal is one of the milder substances most who build aircraft come into contact with during the construction process. The caustic etching compounds, toxic fiberglass dust and paint fumes are all cause for boning up on how to protect yourself while working in your hangar.

I was thrilled to be handed a copy of Dr. James W. Allen’s Working Healthy: A Manual on Health Techniques for Aviators, Maintainers and Aircraft Builders halfway through our project. The thick book, written by a pilot-doctor who was inspired by his own mechanics to write, holds critical information on just how bad some of this stuff can be for your body. The good doctor lists, through tables and charts, both what common shop chemicals and procedures can do to a body, and also, more important, how to protect yourself so that your health never falls victim to the creation of your dream machine. Remember, he tells us, if you aren’t healthy when it’s finished, you may not be able to fly it!

My favorite sections of the book are on the ergonomics of both the workshop and, though we don’t often think of it, the tools we select to use. The advice Allen gives here will save you a lot of visits to the chiropractor, or worse, the orthopedic surgeon.

A dab of Pro-Seal around the opening and under the head of the strainer, and a couple of days of curing fixed our seeping fuel tank problem, as Van’s tech specialist Ken Scott advised, and after another couple of days testing the repair (by leaving the tank full of fuel and watching it), we were satisfied. The right tank was reinstalled.

Full-power tests of the engine followed. That required more stringent chocking, and even hitching the back of the airplane physically to the hangar (tying it down works, too). The good news is that the brakes work well, and the ropes never even strained during the 10-minute run (not all of that time was at 2500 rpm, and the engine was only briefly at 2700 rpm, takeoff power). Taxi tests are next.

That's All Folks....

Well, another Sun 'n Fun airshow has gone by. As the traditional start of the season, this one was, at times, fraught and promising, often nail biting and reaffirming. It started, as you’ve certainly heard a thousand times, wet and muddy. By good luck, I elected to travel from the West Coast on Monday, missing the worst of the weather. The aftermath was there, however, in the form of soggy fields that would stiffen to amazingly odiferous clay, making it seem like we were out in the stockyards in the long walk from rental car to show grounds.

I would love to have flown myself in, but Delta got me back and forth for under $300, nonstop from Tampa. I couldn't fly the Sportsman to Phoenix and back, in fuel alone, for that sum. Still, I'm saving up for the trip to OSH this year.

Anyway, those nasty local conditions, as well as significant weather elsewhere in the country, helped thin the crowds on day one. (George Braly, of GAMI fame, one of the most fearless weather fliers I know, didn’t even make Lakeland for the nastiness between Ada, Oklahoma, and Florida. Likewise, Monty Barrett was weathered at home with his Cessna 195.) By the end of Tuesday, I was fearing that we’d had a perfect storm of red blotches on the radar, frighteningly high fuel prices and an underlying apathy that I’ve seen growing toward Sun 'n Fun over the last decade. Indeed, my first visit in 1990 made it seem like a true Oshkosh contender.

But then Wednesday saw the grass dry and the spirits lift. More fly-in traffic arrived, the booths were becoming more trafficked, and the general mood was one of hopeful optimism. (As opposed to hopeless optimism, and hopeful pessimism, I suppose.) I walked on site early past the LSA mall, still surprised at how many manufacturers there are. I remain convinced that once Cessna and Cirrus get rolling, there will be a shakeout of the smaller makers. It just stands to reason.

On the main grounds, the general feeling was that the industry had dodged a bullet, but there were still signs of wait-and-see. None of the major engine manufacturers, for example, had big news at the show. Superior’s XP-400 was still on display, as were the new aluminum cold-air intake systems that will replace the ill-starred Ryton experiment from a couple of years ago; Superior is, currently, shipping the new parts. Its world was rocked by the announcement late in the show that Thielert founder and CEO, Frank Thielert, had been ousted from the company along with the CFO. Remember that Superior is a wholly owned subsidiary of Thielert. Word at the show was also that Superior has had difficulty keeping up with demand for some of its aftermarket products, which are largely sourced from Austria.

Lycoming continues to push the Thunderbolt series, but I have yet to see one in the wild. The Williamsport company’s reps did corner me and suggest there were big announcements coming for Oshkosh. Similarly, Engine Components, Inc. hinted that some “exciting” news was in the wind for this summer, but I couldn’t tease much out of them. ECI’s president, Gary Garvins, did tell me the company has been working closely with Hartzell to do more prop vibration testing with long-stroke engines—the IOX-340 was announced two years ago—which hints at additional product along those lines.

Changes to the “51% Rule” were on everyone’s lips, none more so than the kit manufacturers. The industry received what amounts to a reprieve from the governor when the FAA announced, late in the show (and with no notice to the press...thanks!), that all currently approved kits—those that have previously been inspected by the FAA or its designees and found to have less than half the work completed—will be grandfathered under whatever new rules come about. The look of relief on the faces of, for example, Dick VanGrunsven and Lancair’s Joe Bartels told the story.

And to end the show, for me, I got a peek into the biggest, baddest, most gotta-have-it BBQ I've ever seen. Thank goodness I have an airplane to keep me busy, else I'd want to build one of these.

Plane-Power Keeps the Juice Flowing

There's nothing like meeting vendors face-to-face to get instantaneous answers to your questions about their products, and the aisles in the four large commercial buildings at Sun 'n Fun were chocked full of information seekers. I spent a bit of time with Stephen and Linda Klodd of Plane-Power, chatting about the latest innovations in powering up your flying machine.

What initially caught my eye was an elegant little voltage regulator, its flat-pack form factor about a quarter of the height of the traditional mechanical regulators.

Stephen explained that the regulator on display had several features that you just couldn't get before, such as reverse polarity protection should you accidentally reverse your battery terminals, user-switchable to either 14 or 28 volts systems, user-adjustable output voltage, and when used with another one (as with a twin), the two regulators will load share with just two conductors connecting them together. And, it's PMA approved for installation into certified aircraft. All for $169.

Plane-Power also had lightweight alternators (Experimental aircraft only) on display in 60- and 70-amp varieties. Priced at $459 and $479 respectively, these units are another cost effective way to significantly increase the electrical power available in your airplane with minimal investment. And, these units come with all necessary hardware, mount, and even a new wiring harness to finish off your upgrade.

Finally, I took a look at the slick little alternator designed for the venerable Continental O-200. With a full 50 amps of output power, this gear-driven unit not only greatly upgrades the old generators originally used by Continental, but will save significant weight as well. It also allows for a greatly simplified electrical system, as the voltage regulation is internal. Not quite yet available for certified aircraft, Plane-Power is expecting the FAA's blessing in short order.

It occurred to me that Plane-Power is doing for alternators what SkyTek did for starters, and upon sharing that observation with Stephen and Linda, they heartily concurred. More information about the full Plane-Power line-up can be had at plane-power.com.

What's That Banging? Metal Being Shaped

On my way to the Zenith 701 sheet metal project, I was waylaid by the constant and very loud sound of sheet metal getting the heck pounded out of it. One of the instructors, Jake Hunsinger of Mansfield, Ohio, invited me in to join the fun.

Using the Tuck Puck method, developed by Carey Culpepper last April, the participants set a flat, round piece of sheet metal on a concave puck base, machined from UHMW plastic. (It's available for $30 from TuckPuck.com, as is the $26 instructional DVD.) Also, the TuckPuck can be used to stretch the metal instead of a shotbag. This method is also described on the MetalMeet website.

Hunsinger was introduced to metal shaping in October of 2006, and quickly got involved in the online MetalMeet.com community. While metalshapers work on other applications such as classic cars, aircraft components such as wheel pants and scoops can be shaped as well.

The rudimentary shaping that I did started with deburring a round piece of sheet metal (away from the flat file's tang, thank you very much). Once my chances of slicing my hand open with the sharp edges were eliminated, we centered the metal over the puck, and with a long, rounded plastic mallet, I pounded away around the interior circle, drawn on with a Sharpie. A few good whacks resulted in a "tuck" or a "flute" at the outside edge of the metal, which was then stretched and flattened with the long plastic mallet with a rounded end. Round and round I went, until I had a rough bowl-shaped piece of metal where a disc once was.

The real use of the skills became apparent when Hunsinger showed me the wood form for a pair of wheel pants that would be shaped at the workshop. A paper pattern for that part was laid over the wood form, with orienting arrows and reminders to ensure the piece is shaped properly.

Because my bowl was pretty lumpy and uneven, it was time to smooth it out in the English wheel, this one featuring a rounded lower wheel. I was impressed with the emphasis on personal safety during this workshop experience. Not being of large stature, I received quite a bit of advice on which mallet would be easiest for me to handle. There were also a lot of careful eyes on my work on the English wheel, most of it advice on how not to smash my thumbs between the upper and lower wheels.

This was just a quick taste of metal-shaping, and I expect to have a more in-depth experience at AirVenture 2008. Besides, I need another bowl for the matched set.