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You Can’t Build Your Own Airplane

Well you didn’t think EVERYTHING in this blog was going to be about digital animation and visual effects did you?

Being a Visual Effects Supervisor is a demanding job. Building a school for high end visual effects is brutally intense at times. One learns quickly to have other interests and activities. One discovers that a life consisting only of production is very, very unhealthy. First priority is your family. Then, if you are anything like me, you need something ‘real’ to feel passionate about. I, for example, love airplanes. I have always loved them. I attribute this to my Dad who was an airforceman and a tailgunner in Lancasters during WWII. He loved airplanes too and as I grew up, I guess his love of flying just rubbed off on me. As long as I can remember, I have watched with longing as aircraft criss-crossed the skies of my youth.  So I did what any airplane nut has to do, I became an aviator myself. And now I am building a 2-seater open-cockpit Hatz Classic biplane.

“Why?” That’s a pretty common reaction.

There are many reasons. But before I get to them let me clarify. This is not an ultralite or a hang glider. It is not made with duct tape and lawn chairs and it is not a kit. Kits are aircraft you assemble that were built by someone else. Kits are for little girls and old ladies. (Apologies, kit-builders) This is a from-scratch full-scale aircraft from the 30’s era; the ‘golden age’ of flying as it were. I fabricate most of the parts from materials, including a fuselage weldment made of thin-walled 4130 chrome-molybdenum steel tubing, wings whose primary material is aircraft-grade sitka spruce and all the fittings and attachments necessary to accommodate the various control systems instruments and avionics, not to mention comfort systems like cushy seats and cup-holders. I don’t fabricate engine, instruments, wheels, brakes, avionics or safety systems like the ballistic parachute. But I make nearly everything else. I cut, drill, shape, weld, sand, glue, thread, bolt, prime and paint. Each day I work in my shop, I commit to either fabricate or attach at least one thing. Eventually I will run out of things. When that happens, I will have a finished aircraft.

But back to the question, “Why?”

Initially, I wanted to build it because I thought it would be a less expensive way of acquiring a classic 30’s era aircraft that I didn’t think I would ever be able to afford otherwise. Then, after I told a few people about my hair-brained idea, I wanted to do it spitefully, because so many people told me that I would never be able to do it. “You can’t build an airplane. You’re just one person.” This left me wondering if they realized that all airplanes are built by people. So then I was determined. I’m stubborn that way. Then, when I started having children, it occurred to me that if they grew up with their Dad building an airplane, a side effect might be that they would take it for granted that if someone wants to build an airplane, they build an airplane. This way of thinking, this knowledge that we each have nearly no real limitations, is a gift I wanted to impart to my children, so that maybe one day they would decide to cure cancer or to be the first person to step on another planet, or to design a totally clean engine. And they would do it, because nobody told them “you can’t”.  Because they know that if you put your mind to something, you absolutely can achieve it; that the main thing preventing most people from succeeding is the statement “I can’t”.

What began as a side-effect of building an airplane quickly became a prime motivator as I continued my airplane project. I encourage my children to join me in the shop. Often they do. Often they contribute to the fabrication of parts, because they have learned to use the drill press, the grinder, the drill gun, the bench sander and the sand blasting cabinet. The days they choose to work with me in the shop are awesome.

Nowadays, though, I build my airplane because so many years working in Visual Effects have taught me that attention to detail is not only necessary, but it is extremely zen. It is really enjoyable to reach that calm state where nothing moves too fast, where you have time to consider, plan, appreciate and execute with precision. It is a beautiful day when I start in the morning with some raw materials and by afternoon have a new series of parts that serve an important function, not least of which is to prevent my aircraft from falling out of the sky. I look at every single part in this way. If the part isn’t perfect, I throw it away and build another one. I can’t tell you how many times I have done that. Sometimes it’s depressing. But the old saying goes: “There are approximately 100,000 operations in the course of building an aircraft. If you are 99% perfect, there are 100 things wrong with your plane.”  I love the zen of building an airplane.

So I build my plane for all those reasons. And as I am building and zenning out, my subconscious thinks about work. I solve problems and hatch new ideas all the time in this way, sometimes without even knowing it until I am done for the day and the tools are all put away. Then I realize that while I was focusing on the precise position of a ¼” bolt hole, I was also working a problem from the job, and oh BTW, I solved it. That’s cool.  But sometimes I have a eureka moment.  Sometimes a solution to a prickly problem just seems to appear magically right in front of me.  it is because I have relaxed my mind and let my subconscious chew on it.  My subconscious is much more powerful than my intellect.  So is yours.

And when I am done my plane someday, and after the flight testing is complete, I am going to strap on my leather helmet and goggles, zip up my sheepskin coat, swing my scarf over my back and take off in search of adventure. And that, my friends, is the real motivator.