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My Favorite Homebuilt Story

A Different 9/11

For AVweb.com editor Glenn Pew, five years of building and many more years of scheming to complete his one-of-a-kind, (almost) 200-mph, 3000-fpm, fully aerobatic kitplane would prove its worth in one day -- first flight. Unfortunately, some things don't work out the way you hope.

By Glenn Pew
Editor/Newswriter at avweb.com

I spent all day -- it was a Monday -- with my plane, poring over each system part and preflight check until I was satisfied the only tests left were those that must be answered in the air. It was late when I got home, and at least 1 a.m. before I finally made it into the shower at my Manhattan apartment to wash away the day's grime. I'd checked online, and the weather was going to be excellent. Later that morning, after some sleep, I would very likely fly my homebuilt -- a five-year project -- for the first time. So there, in that first hour of Tuesday, with the water washing over me, I knelt down and prayed the day would see me safe. It turned out to be an awfully selfish prayer. It was the 11th of September, 2001.

I've been in Manhattan for the better part of the last 13 years now. I went to college here. Even then, I knew I wanted to fly, and I knew I wanted a plane. I just didn't have the vaguest idea of how I'd get it all. So back in those days, I'd often wander downtown to Rockefeller Park and sit on the grass by the Hudson River. With pen and pad, I'd budget my plan to a license and aircraft ownership. The park down there was a magical place. The Twin Towers rose just bocks away, and the Statue of Liberty stood in the distance. Behind me was the Empire State Building. On nice evenings the sunset would bathe them all in a gold glow. It was one of those days when I walked to the cove just west of the Towers, looked up, and thought, "If people could do all that, I can sure find a way to afford my license and a plane of my own." That's where it all started.

By 1991, I had joined the two-tenths of one percent of the American population who are pilots. In 1996, I had joined the small portion of that percentage who try to build an airplane. By September 6, 2001, you could count me among the relative handful who finish. It's true that many don't finish and there's a reason for that. Actually, there are thousands of reasons.

Building an airplane from a kit -- especially when the kit company is young -- is a daunting process, but it can also be a complex social challenge. My experience with Spam-can drivers (and even the general public) is that they seem to offer homebuilders their envy just as often as they offer their ridicule. The one unchanging factor is that they all ask a lot of questions. My favorite was, "When's it going to be done?" I don't know how many times I've been asked over the years, but I do know that by late '99 I'd developed a standard reply: "Tuesday. Bring beer." Of course, I never said which Tuesday, and the guys quickly caught on, but in the delivery I found a moment's peace ... and sometimes finished off the following weekend's work with a tall cool one, compliments of a somewhat disgruntled friend.

In short, building isn't always all that fun. Sure, there's plenty to be said for developing the manual dexterity of a skilled craftsman, learning the thoughtful mindset of a diligent methodical and creative thinker, building your dream, blah blah blah. But the learning curves can be as long as they are varied. As good as you are, parts don't always come on time. When they do, they're not always the right ones. Certain entities you rely on will fall short. (For my kit, the manufacturer included instructions -- all of 32 pages worth -- that were a bit ... what's the word? ... lacking.) Parts don't always match blueprints. Parts don't always have blueprints. And building can guarantee you won't have any spare money, which isn't all that bad because you won't have any spare time to spend it. My alarm clock went off early every weekend for the better part of five years, so I could work on the plane and still have time for friends and family. And, well, "The best laid plans" ... Murphy's Law ... "When's it going to be done?" ... the list goes on. For the most part, the kits are much better these days, but good kit or bad, you learn to cherish the little moments.

Through building, I was blessed with many completely new experiences. Building had already put me through a lot of twists -- physical and otherwise -- but I was woefully unprepared for what waltzed through the hangar one afternoon. Marty (I rented space in his hangar) told me this guy flew Lears for a living. As the fellow walked over to my fuselage and looked inside, I wondered what wisdom he might impart, given his extensive flight experience. "Your throttle's on the wrong side," he said.

"Huh?" may have been a better response, but instead I asked, "What do you mean?" Was there some geometric impossibility I'd built into my aircraft? "This is a single-seater: The throttle should be on the left," he said. The problem was getting even less clear. "OK ... and why, now?" I asked. "It's always on the left in a fighter," he said. My confidence was restored. "Right," I said. "Well, I'm looking to save weight, so I'm leaving the missile control system out." He wasn't amused. "It should be on the left. You did it wrong." I closed my eyes so they wouldn't roll right out of my head.

Truly, the rich social experience of building is something too often overlooked when the topic of kitbuilts is discussed. Believe it or not, that conversation lasted right on through the part where I explained that it was my airplane, I was building it for me, I would be the test pilot ... and I was also head of design ergonomics for the project. I did manage to end it, rather abruptly, when I pointed out that his hair was parted on the wrong side. With that, things returned to normal: He looked at me like I was crazy, and walked out. It wasn't the ideal ending, but as a homebuilder, at least it was something I was used to.

You can miss a lot of quality time in five years of weekends working on the plane. I found it a hard balance -- between my private dream and my desire to see family and friends. But then, just like life, airplanes are all about compromise, perhaps never more directly than when you're building your own. You want to get things done in a timely manner, but you don't want to give up the rest of your life. For me, three grandparents did not outlive my task.

When I was building, one of the things I used to keep myself going was the thought, "When I'm done with all this, I'm going to be the coolest person I know. I'll be 30 and I'll have my own plane. I'll have made my first dream come true and I'll have done it with my own hands. Who else can say that? How cool am I?" It was a mantra. "I'll be the coolest person I know."

After getting official FAA approval on September 6, I methodically (perhaps maniacally) checked everything over the next four days. It was part of the philosophy I hoped would help keep me alive. The questions I asked myself now never changed and always came in pairs: "What could go wrong here?" and, "What will you do about it?" With the plane looking ready, the questions other folks asked had changed. An airplane looks finished long before it's done, and so "When is it going to be done?" had long since progressed to, "When are you going flying?" They meant it as encouragement, but no one had ever flown my plane. There was no identical flying example. The whole thing was a lot more serious for me. Though I tried to keep my humor, sometimes they'd catch me in a moment of serious contemplation and I'd let fly with a reply I usually kept to myself: "I will fly my airplane when I am damn good and ready. You got that?" Now, I was ready. I was about to become the coolest person I knew.

With paperwork in hand it was time to fly, and on the night of the 10th, I was full of apprehension. The next day I'd face first flight. It was daunting. With no other flying examples, I accepted the very real possibility that the day might end quite badly. But to fly or not to fly would resolve whether I'd spent five years of labor and sacrifice crafting a flying machine or a fancy lawn ornament. My expectations are best summed up in this e-mail exchange. An acquaintance wrote, "You built an airplane, Glenn?" All I could think to reply was, "I sure hope so."

But shortly after I woke up on the 11th, my whole outlook changed. I saw very clearly that I wasn't anything like the coolest person I knew -- there were thousands more in my city alone. I saw plainly how trivial and self-indulgent my pursuit had been. It gave my obsession -- a lifetime's scheming and five years of building -- something it never had before. It gave it complete irrelevance. But honestly, it made taking the first flight a hell of a lot easier.

When they reopened the bridges and tunnels, loosened traffic restrictions and lessened the TFRs, and I was finally able to head out to the airport, it was early October 2001. I wish I could write the rest of the story completely independent of 9/11, but it wasn't like that. The drive gave me my first view of the city's new skyline. On every overpass there was a policeman, and on every fencing at least one homemade banner: "God Bless The F.D.N.Y." or "Never Forget" or "We Miss You ..." I cried on and off through most of the drive. But crying was pretty much a normal part of the day back then. I still had things to do.

Long before the first flight, I'd steeled myself to the notion that if the perfect day came, but I didn't feel right, I wouldn't go. I would not hire a test pilot. I'd performed high-speed taxi tests and two crow hops -- and there were no egregious aerodynamic problems. Sure, there were more complicated questions, but for me it boiled down to a simple few. What could a test pilot tell me that I wouldn't have to find out anyway for myself? If the engine died and he managed a controlled crash, how would I forgive myself for not piloting its only flight? If a wing broke off and he never came back, how would I live with myself? It wasn't the most prudent choice, but it was mine and, really, it wasn't all that dramatic.

I'd done the math, I knew what the speeds should be, I knew every inch, and I would be the one to go. If there were problems, they would be my responsibility. I would tell no one of my intentions to go in advance. I would tolerate no external pressure. If I was going to get killed or if I was going to fly -- either way -- in context with recent events it wasn't going to be a big deal. I just wanted to make sure it was on my time. As it turned out, that day in October was as good as any to find out which it would be.

After another thorough preflight check (previously known only as pre-taxi check), I strapped in like I'd done a dozen times before: bottom lap belt to submarine belt, shoulder harness to the top lap belt and ratchet it down. I remember taking off. I'd never pushed the throttle to the stop before -- the plane would just get moving too fast, too soon. It wasn't practical even during high-speed taxi tests. That day, it went to the wall. I had 180 horsepower strapped to a little more than 1200 pounds. The acceleration isn't steady; it starts out "reasonable" and once the manifold pressure gets the prop through about 2200 rpm, it shifts more toward "Holy cow!"

Flying Lesson #1: My airplane does not fly off the ground. It's a function of the aerobatic (read: symmetrical) airfoil and conventional gear. There are no flaps. Once the tail is up, the airplane will stay on the ground until you pitch for lift. I pulled back and was surprised. The first angle I picked wouldn't make the airplane fly. Reaching 69 knots, I pulled back some more, and the tires finally left the runway. ("Finally" was about 700 feet down the runway and maybe six seconds from the word go.) My mind shifted into warp drive: Track the runway peripherally ... check the instruments ... numbers are good ... eyes left ... eyes right ... smell anything?

I wasn't nervous, but I was definitely in a heightened state of awareness -- hyper-aware. I was processing everything fast. I scanned the panel: Air data numbers are going up, engine data steady. I saw the geometry of motion outside and it matched. "This is good," I thought. It was a bizarre, understated elation, like I'd momentarily turned British. There was a frank sobriety behind it all. It's that sobriety that made it so easy to do. I'd spent five years' effort on something that -- for all historical proximity -- was completely self-indulgent and largely insignificant. It really was no big deal. Still, I thought, "This is the one little thing you've done in your life and, so far, you've done it well." I was about 50 feet over the runway and it was good. Then, something happened.

The left wing was low. Stick right. It didn't move. The 100-knot climb was holding the full-span ailerons firmly in place. The neurons flashed, "Push harder." The airplane rolled gently to the right, but now the nose seemed high. Educated by the ailerons, I pushed hard forward. The nose came down immediately and fast. I could see the remaining runway clearly and I didn't want to. The airplane was uncontrollable! But it only took a second for my brain to do the math. Flying Lesson #2: "Welcome to the disharmony of your control system. You need spades on those ailerons ... later. Right now, you need to pull back ... gently." And just like that, I'd learned the new math: Push hard left and right; but up and down, not so much. Got it? Hell yes, I got it. The good news was that -- in less than a second -- I'd learned a lot about how to fly the plane. I also learned what absolute terror feels like.

With 800 feet under me I was at the end of the runway, and the left turn to crosswind had me confident that I knew how to fly the thing. More important, all those collective parts I'd stuck together appeared to agree they were an airplane that knew how fly. Again, this is good. Unfortunately, neither the airplane nor I had proven we knew how to land together. If I hit hard and the gear buckled ... or the landing-gear bolts sheared ... or the bulkhead failed ... I'd be on my belly. If the belly hit, the fuel line could crack as the gascolator was stressed or possibly even struck the ground during impact. I'd be sliding along the runway on fire. And I'd be feeding that fire with fuel from the header tank above my legs. It wasn't a pleasant thought, but then neither was the idea of engine-mount, wing-bolts or bond-joint failure. The thoughts conspired to create one that rang as loud as it was true: "This might not end well."

Oddly, that realization brought me an indescribable sense of calm. I guess it doesn't make sense, but in full realization of my mortality, the overwhelming gray matter response was, "You damn well better enjoy this while it lasts." And just like that, I did.

People ask me what it felt like to make that flight. I'm not sure most can understand, but I'll give it a try. When I was young, my parents divorced. We left the house where I spent the first eight years of my life and moved a state away. It affected me for a long time in ways I didn't realize. When I was 20, I took the car and drove myself back there. I wasn't even sure I knew the way, but I found it.

The flight was like that. It felt both familiar and brand-new. It felt like coming home when you've been gone so long you don't know if you'll even recognize it, or that it will recognize you. But you do and it does and -- just like that -- all the pieces fit into place. I was whole. It was very personal. It was very simple. It was pure magic.

Since that day, I've had more fun than I could imagine. I've chased down a B-17, I've flown high over the Concorde (a soon-to-be-impossible treat) and I've sped my rainbow-halo'd shadow over the wisps of cloud. Even on the ground, I pass people and honestly think, I've "done a hundred things you have not dreamed of ..." It's not conceit; it's just true. And, man, does it feel good.

I had about 40 hours on the plane when I was tucking the plane back into the hangar one day. One of my hangar mates was there. (I keep the plane in a big FBO hangar, so I share space with a lot of airplanes.) This was the fellow who owned the Bonanza. Airplanes are meant for flying, and Sal's airplane was out just as often as it was there, so he already had my respect. Anyway, Sal owns an Italian restaurant and as we got to talking he said, "You're Italian, right?" It was clear to me that he meant it as a compliment, so I said, "Unfortunately, no." I told him my name and when I asked for his (I knew him only through third parties) all I heard was Salvatore something something. To this day, I have no idea what his last name is, but it sounded like opera.

The day we met, Sal moved past me to the canopy and leaned over it. He asked some questions, but then he got "the look." That look reminds me of when a child sees something they've never seen before and it excites and fascinates them, but at the same time it's something they don't understand. Recognizing the symptoms, I pressed "Play" on what has become my standard narrative when someone takes an interest in the airplane. I like to think it's a somewhat informative discourse, but I also understand that no one's really listening. They're just poring over my plane with this welcoming expression. I talk politely, figuring the background noise probably makes them feel a bit more comfortable.

Sal wasn't listening to a word I said, as evidenced by the question he asked about my panel that I'd already answered. I smiled and explained the instruments, and told him it was all-digital and I liked it that way. But he was off again with my airplane in his own world. I smiled and took two steps back, watching as he cupped his hand over the canopy to peer deeper inside. As he stepped away, looking up and down the span of the wing he turned to me, and in three words brought my life full circle. I was expecting another question, but he looked at me and said, "You're so cool." Then he turned and walked away.

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