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At Delta Heritage Air Park, in September of 2018. (image: author)

RV-6

A labour of love — and hate — 23 years in the making.

Terence C. Gannon
May 1, 2019 · 16 min read

“The baby is on the roof with an umbrella and he looks like he is about to jump.” My mother tells this story — undoubtedly embellished over the years — about a chillingly calm call she took from a neighbour to warn of the seemingly imminent, tragic death of her younger son. I don’t remember the event myself but if it worked for Mary Poppins, I must have reasoned, surely it would work for me. Besides, I had a backup plan: my satin-edged security blanket tied, Superman-style, around my neck. If Poppins didn’t come through then surely Superman wouldn’t let me down, would he?

Then, in my pre-teen years, there was the control surface from a full-sized aircraft — it was an aileron, I think — which somehow came into my brother’s and my possession. After evaluating a few alternatives, we ended up duct taping it to the crossbar of my mustang bike. I’m not sure how the fly handle bars and the padded sissy bar would have effected the aerodynamics of our new, boy-carrying flying machine. However, with its metallic gold paint and its five speed stick shift, it sure looked good. I couldn’t believe my luck when, unlike Orville and Wilbur flipping a coin at Kitty Hawk, my older brother strongly encouraged me to take the first flight. I quickly discovered severe controllability and structural problems with the bike-o-plane as I unsteadily weaved down the steepest road in our neighbourhood. The improvised wing was so long it had the potential to simultaneously take out cars on both sides of the narrow Vancouver streets which made up our temporary runway. However, to this day, I still believe if I had achieved rotation speed — around a thousand miles an hour, I think — and popped a wheelie at precisely the right moment, I would have had a shot at a spectacular but likely pretty short ‘first flight’.

Miraculously, I survived my childhood to eventually have the dream of earning my pilot’s license before I could legally drive. That dream actually came true when I soloed and eventually obtained my glider pilot’s license at Vacaville Gliderport, in California in 1977. I was just 16 years old, which was a clear year before my parents would permit me to get my road vehicle equivalent. At the time, flying full-sized gliders seemed like a logical extension of the radio controlled models I had flown for years. In fact, it was easier in some respects — you could see and feel what the aircraft was doing as opposed to trying to figure out what was happening while standing on the ground, hundreds of feet below, squinting at the fading speck spiralling upwards in the sky.

Another couple of decades would go by before my flying career progressed any further. After a frustratingly long period of part-time flight training while holding down a busy job, I finally managed to earn my private pilot’s license for powered aircraft at Calgary International Airport. That was back when they still tolerated General Aviation mixing with Commercial. The majority of my flight time was in Cessna 152s, the performance of which was really marginal. With slightly more than two full-sized adults—statistically speaking—I can remember returning to my sailplane skills and circling in thermals to get a decent rate of climb out of the clapped out Cessnas.

With my private pilot’s license under my belt in the early 1990s, the big question was “where do I go from here?” Ownership of a commercially-built aircraft, even one considerably older than me, was totally out of the question. I was trying to pay off a house, a car and finally claw my way out of debts still due long after I had forgotten what I had bought. Aircraft rental rates were sky high—in a bad way—and likely to continue climbing — also in a bad way. Then, a bright shining path appeared before me. Given a lifetime of early, experimental prototypes, tons of model airplanes and enough hand/eye co-ordination to at least save my life, I could have kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner.

I was going to build my own airplane.

Unlike many who undertake a ‘homebuilt’, as some call them, there was no agonizing period of comparing the hundreds of different models available. I wanted very conventional construction—riveted aluminum, ideally, just like the 152s I had been flying. I also wanted a real aircraft engine as opposed to something adapted from some other purpose. Two seats were mandatory and my wife Michelle had only one stipulation: she wanted to sit beside me, car-style, and not behind like the soundstage pilots of old World War II movies. Finally, I wanted mainstream, not exotic. The more examples completed and in the air, the better. When I ticked all those boxes, there was really only one contender: the RV-6 from Van’s Aircraft then of North Plains, Oregon.

Back then, you could still take a one week introductory course at Richard VanGrunsven’s home and hazelnut farm not far from the factory. I still had to convince myself I possessed the requisite intelligence and manual dexterity to build a plane, and for that the class seemed ideal. The shop where it was held was immediately adjacent to the grass airstrip where “Van”, as VanGrunsven is nicknamed, did all the development of his early designs. The builders’ class focused on getting the students through the construction of a generic control surface and in particular the setting of flush rivets of which there are well north of 10,000 in a typical RV. I stayed at The Barnstormer over in Scappoose for the week, which was a short, pleasant commute across the Cornelius Pass. It was truly avgeek heaven even if Sanka, the resident capuchin monkey who had the run of The Barnstormer, was a little too human for my liking.

Van’s Aircraft had always conservatively chosen to let their planes speak for themselves as opposed to doing any sort of expensive, full colour sales pitch. That said, the ride in the RV-6 included with the builders’ course was take-no-prisoners, slam dunk marketing at its finest. As lead course instructor and factory demo pilot Ken Scott wheeled around the overcast Oregon sky, with me in the right seat, he found another RV sharing the same airspace. In an instant he turned and wound onto it as if in a mock dogfight. When Scott made the ‘pockety-pockety-pockety’ sound of fake, old-fashioned machine guns as he locked onto the other RV’s tail, well, let’s just say I couldn’t get to the ground soon enough to shovel cash I didn’t have across the counter. I bought the first of the four kits which make up the full RV-6 package. That first kit, enough to complete the plane’s tail, was delivered on October 4th, 1995.

At the time, my wife and I had a detached one-and-a-half car garage. If we parked our Integra within a hair’s breadth of one wall there was just enough space left over to set up the building fixtures for the tail, wing and fuselage. Just not all at the same time. I would have to build one piece, move that into the house, build the next piece, move that into the house, and then rinse and repeat for as long as required. In theory, once all the pieces were finished, I would take them all to the airport for final assembly and shortly thereafter, hopefully, a flawless maiden flight.

I must have spent the better part of six months getting the garage setup for the project. This included a strip of wood glued to the floor carefully outlining the Acura like the chalk outline of a murder victim. This at least prevented the melted Calgary winter slush from running underfoot in the building area. That actually worked quite well. The space ‘behind the dam’ was hopelessly small for what I was trying to do, but I made it work somehow, at least for a while. After the setup was complete, there came the momentous day when I drilled through some angle iron, the first step called out in the builders’ manual. It’s easy to remember because the metal strip caught in the large drill bit I was using and the metal started to whip around like the propellor I hoped the RV would eventually have someday. Before I could get out of the way it took two chunks of flesh out of the meaty part of my left hand. Those battle scars, obtained on Day One of the campaign, I still point out with some pride. I began work in earnest on the tail of the RV early in 1996.

The tail kits were quite crude in those early days of Van’s Aircraft. Everything which required specialized equipment to complete was done, sure, but everything else—the hand work — was left to the builder. This included the laying out of rivet patterns. There were various gadgets to help make this quick and easy but I eventually eschewed all of them as not worthy of my self-imposed, near-obsessive demand for precision and perfection. Rivet spacing and layout were not left entirely up to the builder—in the drawings, they were precisely specified for maximum and minimum distance from adjacent rivets, material edges and other structure. I eventually resorted to measuring each rivet individually to ensure it met both the structural and aesthetic standards to which I aspired. Setting all modesty aside, the tail surfaces looked like they had been churned out by some sort of industrial robot—which is ironic, given they were built with endless hours of time and attention from loving, all-too-human hands.

After the tail, the wings proceeded fairly quickly by comparison. By then, Van’s was using computer-controlled punches to layout rivet patterns. It still left the builder with a ton of work, but at the very least the factory-made look of arrow straight lines of flush rivets was there for the taking by any and all, not just those with toxic perfectionism. It almost didn’t seem fair after all the work which had gone into the tail to achieve essentially the same effect. It actually didn’t make the work proceed as quickly as many might think, though. The pre-punched rivet pattern determined the dimensions of the structure below the skin. There were countless hours required to make sure everything lined up before committing to the first drilled hole through to the underlying framework. It was as if you were building the wings starting from the skin and then working inwards.

Setting the rivets is a two person job and for the second set of hands I recruited my wife Michelle. She proved to have an uncanny feel for the rivet gun, so I ended up holding the bucking bar. This is nothing more than a heavy, smooth piece of metal held firmly on the tail of the rivet while it’s being set. When the head is struck by the rivet gun, the bucking bar deforms the tail of the rivet into a pretty mushroom shape and tightly cinches the parts together. A general rule is the more simpatico the riveter and the bucker, the better the finished product. In the thousands of rivets Michelle and I set together there were no more than a handful which didn’t meet the almost unattainable standard we set for ourselves. A well set flush rivet is an exquisite thing to behold and ours were amongst the best I had ever seen — anytime, anywhere. This was due mostly to Michelle’s delicate yet deliberate touch with the rivet gun. When we ran our hands over our finished rivets, we could barely feel them. They looked for all the world like the ones found on a beautifully polished P-51 at the local airfield. Probably quite a bit better.

Piece by piece the RV-6 project progressed and the finished components began to fill up the nooks and crannies in our basement. Visitors who were assigned the twin beds in our guest suite would awake in the middle of the night to find pieces of aircraft nearly falling on them or at least within arm’s reach. It was either a dream or a nightmare depending on who was staying with us at the time.

I had cheated a little and set up the fuselage jig before it was really needed. There were still some control surfaces to finish from the wing kit, but in a time when it seemed liked I was working for weeks with virtually nothing to show for it, building the fuselage jig made it feel like something substantial was being accomplished. My father, in town with my mother to dry fly fish the Bow River, donated his time to help build the jig which was roughly the size of twin beds placed end-to-end. Dad, who had already survived a couple of open heart surgeries, provided a well-intended but oddly disconcerting comment: “all I ask is to live long enough to have a ride in this thing.” I don’t know what disconcerted me more: the thought of Dad not living as long as I hoped—obviously, a very long time—or his conclusion about how long he thought it might take to finish the airplane.

I was working too late one night and was determined to finish the final wing control surface—in an ironic nod to our childhood bike-o-plane flying machine—it was an aileron. In order to set a rivet flush with the surrounding surface, it’s necessary to create a little indentation in which the rivet sits. This is commonly referred to as a ‘dimple’. In this case, I was using a powerful pneumatic tool to effortlessly create the necessary indentations. It was so powerful, in fact, it was happy to dimple through the wafer thin aluminum skin whether there was a hole or not. Predictably, given a dangerous combination of haste and fatigue, I managed to dimple an extra, unwanted hole in the skin of the aileron. While cussing out my own stupidity, I managed to dimple a second extra, unwanted hole in the aileron’s skin.

I snapped.

Irrationally convincing myself there was no saving the part and the hundreds of hours which had gone into it—and accompanied by an incoherent string of shouted expletives which would easily have given insomniac neighbours legitimate cause to phone the cops—I began using the pneumatic dimpler to punch even more holes in the skin. That aileron had become a symbol of the accumulated frustrations of a mammoth project seemingly going nowhere and years of lonely nights in a drafty, dirty garage. In fact, on that night, I was actually going backward even before the intentional destruction began. What’s more, the parts I was making where never as good as I thought they should be. Eventually, I put down the pneumatic dimpler and reached for the only thing capable of doing more damage in less time—a ball peen hammer I think it was—and I began meting out blows with a primitive savagery which still scares me to think about. Rage of that intensity quickly burns itself out, though. When it inevitably did, I took what was left of the in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time aileron and in a grisly, gangland-style flourish left it sticking obtrusively out of the garbage bin in our back lane. Clearly, I wanted it to be found. At least by the rest of the airplane.

The assassinated aileron disappeared from the bin at the back of the garage before it had a chance to be hauled off to the landfill. Perhaps in a thoroughly ironic, ‘circle-of-life’ moment, some neighbourhood kid spirited it away. Maybe later—aided and abetted by an older brother—he would tape over all those strange extra holes, strap it on his mustang bike and convince himself, with the aid of a steep hill and a wheelie, his bike-o-plane contraption might just fly.

From the unconscionable episode with the aileron onward, I knew in my heart the RV-6 project was in deep trouble. The fuselage jig proved to bit too big for the old one-and-a-half car garage. In 2006, after what seemed like the 10,000th walk from one side of the fuselage to the other in the crappy, cramped space and seeing the toll it was taking, Michelle kindly made the suggestion to build a much bigger garage. I jumped at the opportunity mostly for the reasons she suggested. It also meant, for the better part of a year, the RV project would have to take a hiatus while the old garage was demolished and the new one constructed. I could finally watch TV in the evenings for a while without constantly being haunted with the thought of “I really ought to be out in the garage.” I carefully wrapped the jig and the emerging bare bones of the fuselage in a large orange tarp and moved it onto the backyard patio, where it stayed through the long, cold Calgary winter and quite a bit of the next year as I recall.

The day finally came when it was time to put the fuselage back into the palatial new garage with its pristine grey epoxy floor. I asked and received the help of some former neighbour kids of ours. “For the time being”, I said to them, “let’s just position it against the wall and I’ll move it into its final spot later.”

For about another three years, the fuselage and its jig never moved. I don’t think I even removed the protective orange tarp.

By the end of 2009, I had been at the RV-6 project for most of fifteen years and I began to think I was never going to start work on it again. I had actually begun to hate the sight of it as it just reminded me of the thousands of hours already sunk into it, and the thousands more it would take to finish. It was also a constant reminder of one of the gaping holes in my character: I am much better at starting things than finishing them. The project, which was seemingly everywhere I looked, did not seem like a symbol of incremental accomplishment but rather one of my abject and total failure.

While all of this was going on my nephews out on the West Coast had grown up and because they had expressed an abiding interest in the project, I decided to offer it to them. “Really think about it carefully,” I said. “If you finish and fly it, it’s yours as a gift. On the other hand, if all you’re going to do is store it, I can do that and I’ll keep it until I have more time for this type of thing.” After a couple of weeks they called me back and, somewhat to my surprise, they took me up on my offer. When they did, I may have already had mixed feelings. But if I did, they were mitigated by knowing the project was going to a really good home. There was the prospect of their two enthusiastic pairs of hands, along with very handy father with a great machine shop and my supportive sister making endless cups of tea and snacks. I believe it meant the chances of the RV getting finished and flown were better than they had ever been.

At least there was that, I thought. It was a classic example of a slight variation on the corny line attributed to Richard Bach: “if you love something, set it free.”

The weekend finally arrived when they all showed up, trailer in tow, to pack up all the pieces and haul them away. They were clearly thrilled with the prospect of the project they were taking on. While it was certainly a good place to be when starting out, as it was for me, there was a very long, hard road ahead for them ahead even after the tow to the West Coast was complete. Candidly, I had my doubts as to whether they would see it through. As we were tying down the last bits onto the trailer, I think I may have said “if you don’t finish it, I get it back, right?” They laughed, which was odd, because I really wasn’t joking and perhaps subconsciously, someday, I hope that might be the case. Which brought to mind the second, less well known part of the Richard Bach quote: “if it comes back it’s yours; if it doesn’t it never was.”

As they pulled away and eventually out of sight at the beginning of May, 2010, Michelle wept a little. One way or another, and for better or worse, 15 years of our lives were at an end. She was genuinely sad to see it go. I was a bit sad but mostly because she was sad. The rest of me was just glad to have the son-of-a-bitch out of my life so I could get on with other things which seemed important back then.

In the hands of its new keepers, the RV-6 soon emerged from the state of suspended animation in which it had been for something like five years. The nephews worked on in feverishly and sometimes not-so-feverishly but always steadily. They sent me lots of pictures. They even had me sit in on a live feed of them starting the engine for the first time. I received an invitation to the rollout party which occurred on their street. I passed on it. I simply couldn’t get over the feeling of once again having my nose pressed up against the airport fence like when I was a kid but, to make things worse, with a good dose of “that could have been me” thrown into the mix. The closer the RV-6 got to being finished, the more intense the feeling became and the less I wanted to be involved in the project or even kept informed of how things were going. For me, I just wanted to close this unhappy chapter of my life. But the pages kept flipping open, each time a few further on than the previous time.

I had always assumed I would be there for its now absolutely assured, just-a-matter-of-time maiden flight. However, as the day approached, I told them simply to fly it, excusing my absence with “you don’t need any outside pressure on that day.” On July 29th, 2018 the RV-6 which I had started 23 years earlier finally went from ground bound construction project to flying, registered aircraft under the steady hand of one of its five builders, Alex Doughty.

I’m not sure I want to go for a ride, if one is ever offered. Not now, at least. Maybe never. I’m happy enough to know those rivets Michelle and I set have now seen the earth from above. If reasonably well maintained, the RV-6 could easily keep flying into the 22nd century—long enough to someday be flown by my nephews’ grandchildren, perhaps. It’s a sign of having done at least something right and nothing can ever take that away.

I do have one profound regret, though. My father did live long enough to see the plane finished and to know it had flown for the first time even if he didn’t get to witness it first hand. He was close, though. There was an evening in early August where if he had opened the balcony door and the din on 56th Street had quieted a little, he could have heard the RV-6 doing circuits at the Delta Heritage Air Park. It was just a few miles away as the crow flies. Dad passed away about six weeks later. A few weeks after that, my nephew took a small container of his ashes on that ride he had always wanted.

I think Dad would have said she flies like a dream.

©2019 Terence C. Gannon

Thank you so much for reading. You can also listen to this essay as an episode of the Not There Yet podcast, read by the author.

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