Martin Hone

From Matronics


VH-ZMH Landing
VH-ZMH Landing
VH-ZMH Over Australia
VH-ZMH Over Australia
Final Prep on VH-ZMH
Final Prep on VH-ZMH

Like most kids — well, kids of my generation at least — I used to build model aircraft from plastic or balsa wood kits after school, and rode my bicycle down to the local airfield on weekends.

These were actively encouraged by my father, who had flown Tiger Moths, Chipmunks, and the indigenous Wackett trainer during my very early years. But I doubt either of us imagined that I would also end up flying for a hobby, much less building an aircraft in our backyard. In fact, it was some thirty years later that I had the opportunity to re-kindle the interest, when friends who had bought a Quicksilver ultralight needed some mechanical assistance. This led to the purchase of a well-used Lightwing, and the ensuing nine-month restoration provided a basic appreciation of aircraft structures, as well as a vehicle in which to learn to fly.

Two years later, my father took a fancy to the J6 Karatoo, a rather lovely rag & tube aircraft very similar to the venerable Piper Cub, and we decided to build one together. Unfortunately he passed away in the early stages of construction and never saw it fly, but I flew it for ten years and loved every minute of it, including a circumnavigation of Australia in 1996. It was, and still is, a great little taildragger, but I felt that I had done everything I could do in it, and was looking for a new challenge.

That is when a partly-built Vans RV 6 was offered to me by fellow SAAA member, Barry Brickland, who realized that he preferred to fly than build. The RV series was well recognized by those in the know as a relatively easy to build, high performance aircraft, so after some deliberation, I took up Barry's offer. This particular kit had been ordered in 1996, and was a QB version, which meant that some of the easy assembly and repetitious work had been done, with 51% remaining for the builder. The fact that it sat in my garage for 3 months before I actually commenced work is an indication that I was still unsure of what I was getting into. Coming to terms with how to operate the pneumatic rivet gun, the hand-operated rivet squeezer, the dimpling and deburring tools, understand drill sizing, read plans, and becoming re-acquainted with AN specs for rivets, nuts and bolts was easy enough. Dreaming of the finished project provided motivation, but I still had to get my head around the concept of tackling just one component or sub-assembly at a time, and not on the whole project, which was just too daunting when taken in its entirety.

Once you start, marking out sheets of aluminium, deburring the sharp edges caused from cutting or drilling, dimpling for the countersunk rivets and squeezing them to form a component that will fly 10,000 feet in the air and at a speed of 300 kmh is surprisingly simple and straight forward. When it comes to designing and wiring up the panel and the various electrical systems, there is a lot more freedom. The RV List and the Aeroelectric List are both valuable, internet-based, sources of information and advice regarding every facet of building an RV, and there is bound to be someone in your neighbourhood half way through an RV that can offer support and encouragement.

Along the way, I designed a hinged panel for the main instruments, and a sub-panel for the toggle switches and VHF radio to allow easy access and serviceability. For the same reason I made an access panel on the top skin, forward of the canopy, which allows access to the brake reservoir, starter and battery relays and rudder pedals. I also modified the fuel system to move both the fuel boost pump from the cockpit, and the gascolator from the firewall, to the cooler location within the wing root. But deviating from the plans will entail a lot more time and effort, and must be thought through carefully, but it is not rocket science either.

One of the great things about an RV is that if you do stuff something up, a fax or email will get you a replacement part within a week, but be prepared to be slugged with a hefty freight bill if you want it quickly.

As Harvey the RV came together, I was glad that I had taken the opportunity to purchase Barry's engine as well. It was as much of a stretch buying the factory-new Lycoming as it was when I bought the 912 Rotax for the Karatoo back in 1993. It was living up to my prediction that this project would be double everything… would go twice as fast, burn twice as much fuel and cost twice as much as the previous one. At least I did not have to design, build and pay for a structural analysis of the engine mount. It came already set up to take the 160 horsepower Lycoming (pronounced Lycumming, after the local Indian tribe)) so it was a relatively simple matter to mount the engine and fabricate and fit the various controls and hoses. By using the recommended engine, things like the induction system, exhaust, wiring - even the prop options - were all straightforward.

Fibreglass on the other hand was the worst part of the project. Even though I had designed and molded a new glassfibre cowling for the Rotax 912, as well as a Kevlar fuel tank and seat for our race bike, I detested having anything to do with the stuff on the RV. Maybe I was spoilt by fabricating in alloy, where you cut, shape and rivet the part as per the drawings, and it is finished except for painting. Not so with fiberglass. I am constantly amazed by what you can do with it, but it is smelly and the dust gets everywhere -- I cannot believe I have friends who actually built whole aircraft from the stuff. It is also the reason why I didn't fill the rivet lines before painting. I wanted this aircraft to look like it was made from hand crafted aluminium -- not smooth and flawless as one expects in a new car or fridge, but something with character where every blemish tells a story.

When you build an aircraft, you try and research each new aspect before you tackle it, but you really only become proficient by doing it. This means that by the time you have got a handle on the particular skill in question -- riveting, soldering or painting -- you have probably completed that component or mini-project for which you needed that skill. This is why so many builders are repeat offenders. They are bursting with all these skills, and need another project that will utilize them, making the next one quicker and maybe better... I found painting one such area. I was very happy with the paint job on the Karatoo, especially given its rag and tube construction, and this had led to being asked to help paint a friend's antique aircraft, and later a warbird. But each time it was a lesson in crisis management. If you wait too long you just lose the edge, so when I came to paint Harvey it was like having to learn all over again. I can see why paint shops ask upwards of $6000 for a spray job. Anyway, I managed to come up with an acceptable finish without using too much paint, an important consideration in keeping the weight down. Despite lining my garage in plastic sheet and wetting the floor down, I still got dust in the paint, and ended up doing the wings out in the open. Just had to make sure I didn't spray when the bugs were out, or if it was windy, or leave the parts out overnight -- don't ask how I know.

The interior was about the last of the mini-projects. Once I had decided on the type and color of material, I sent the seats off to be trimmed by an expert, but only after I spent many hours testing various foam shapes and densities. I found that the seats need to be firm, with at least one layer of a visco-elastic foam such as Temperfoam, and the seat back must have a well placed lumber support. Then you can be assured of many comfortable hours in the saddle. The most common method of lining the cockpit seems to be sticking a lightweight fabric directly to the inside panels. Simple, effective and lightweight. I used a material that already had a thin foam backing, and then wrapped this around thin paper-backed foam art board, cut to fit the interior panels. Any sort of lining is going to cut down on noise and vibration, but watch the weight.

So, three years down the track, Barry gets a call to come and collect his old 'plane and truck it up to the central Victorian airfield of Mangalore, where the wings are mated to the fuselage, and the associated wiring and fuel system is plumbed for the final time.

Once fully assembled, Alan Searle come over from Mansfield to undertake the Weight & Balance procedure in order to determine the aircraft's Centre of Gravity, and then Darren Barnfield, an SAAA and CASA Authorized Person, dropped in to do the Final Inspection for the issue of a Certificate of Airworthiness. Ten years earlier, a gentleman from the then CAA, and the local Licenced Aircraft Mechanical Engineer (plus another two LAMEs having a look) went over the Karatoo with a fine tooth comb as part of its Final Inspection, including all the relevant paperwork. It took about 4 hours and was quite stressful, because it was built under the much more rigorous CAO 101.28 regulations of the time, including Stage Inspections throughout the building process. Now we have the US - style Experimental Category, where the builder accepts total responsibility for the airworthiness of the aircraft - not the government or CASA, hence the inspection was more to do with the correct placement of the various placards and registration letters than looking for missing cotter pins or two left wings. As long as you do the right thing, it is a great system. With only a few minutes of stick time in an RV, I certainly wasn't about to undertake the first flight, which coincided to the day with the first flight of the Karatoo a decade earlier.

Rather, I left this task to experienced RV pilot and builder Chris McGough. His skill and experience certainly paid off, not only with assessing the flying qualities of the new aircraft, but managing the new engine during the critical running-in period.

After wringing it out and getting through the assigned 25 hour test period, Harvey was again mine. The next step was to do some navigation training in order to finish off my PPL -- fortuneately in the RV, except for the actual flight test, which was done in a Cessna 152, something I had never flown before. The training wheel at the front made it pretty easy though. Since then, we have done a number of cross country flights, reveling in the RV's speed and agility. It will cruise comfortably at 160 kts, and easing back to around 140 kts has the 320 cubic inch (5.1 litre) engine burning around 23 litres per hour.

Handling is delightful - aileron rolls, loops, spins and wing-overs are easily executed but you need to keep an eye on speed build-up when pointed downhill. Normal flying can be accomplished with minimal rudder input except for take-off and landing. Most of this is due to good design, and partly due to paying close attention to saving weight whenever possible, or rather, not adding weight where it wasn't necessary. If you want the flash leather interior, the electronic gadgets, custom paint scheme etc, there is a definite trade off in performance.

Actual operating costs are about three times that for the Karatoo. Speed costs, so how fast do you want to go ? In my case, with the Lycoming O-320, fixed pitch metal Sensenich prop and 'steam gauge' VFR panel, I am looking at $100 per hour. That is based on 100 hours flying per year, and takes into account fixed costs, such as hangarage, comprehensive insurance and annual airport fees, as well as operating costs such as fuel, oil and an engine TBO (complete re-build) at 2000 hrs. Cheaper than motor racing, but doesn't stack up well when compared to hiring a regular GA or owning an ultralight. On the other hand, what value do you place on having a high performance aircraft, ready to go in minutes, built with your own two hands..? I'd suggest priceless. As of the end 2004, there were 4000 RVs flying. That's 4000 aircraft completed and flying, with around another 6000 under construction. No other homebuilt aircraft comes close to this number, and the reasons are simple - ease of building, performance and affordability.

Whenever I started to feel overwhelmed, I figured as long as I drilled one new hole and stuck a bolt or rivet in it every day, I would sooner or later end up finishing the project. Make that much later, but you get my point. As long as the various sub-assemblies are tackled one at a time and treated as mini-projects, you will eventually run out of things to do and be faced with that first flight in your own, hand-built aircraft. And having built it, CASA recognizes that you are also the best person to maintain it, which will save you a lot of the expense and frustration come the Annual or 100 Hourly Inspections. You don't need anything other than determination. All the hand and tool skills are learned on the way, and if you are worried about how long it will take, stop wasting time looking at TV. Three or four nights per week after work plus one day on the weekend is enough to build any of the current pre-punched RV kits in less than two years.

But some words of advice - do your home work, don't believe the glossy brochures unless it is from Van's (manufacturer of the RV kits), join your local Sport Aircraft Assoc of Australia Chapter (or the RAA if building an ultralight), get your partner involved, and - finally - build it light.