When I was 24, I decided to try to get in shape by jogging. There was a 7K road race coming up in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was living at the time, so my friend Kirk and I decided we'd set ourselves the goal of getting in shape for the run. Kirk was a pharmaceutical sales rep — which is to say, persuasive and relentless. Which turned out to be a good thing, because for all my good intentions, sticking to a training schedule proved really tough.
I wanted to be in shape, of course, but getting there was a chore involving monotonous pounding of feet on pavement, mile after mile after mile. None of which sounded all that appealing after a long workday and commute. And the shining end goal was still far enough off in the distance to be of little comfort.
If I didn't give up in those hard, discouraging, I-can't-see-any-improvement early days, it was mostly because Kirk figured out that what I needed was a running buddy. Almost as soon as I'd walk in the door from work, the phone would ring and I'd hear his voice. "I'll be there in 15 minutes," he'd say. "Get your running shoes on." Click.
It was almost impossible to rationalize my way out of a workout with Kirk around. I also pushed myself harder, and the runs themselves were a lot more fun — even when the going got tough. And when we did the race three months later, I came in third in my age group.
I share that story because, as with running, so with many other sometimes-tedious, long-term projects in life. Including building an airplane. Back in the days when my airplane ownership consisted of an always-needing-something 1946 Cessna 120 and a Stearman biplane project, I spent many long and lonely days and nights working in a corner of a hangar, wondering if this was really as much fun as I could be having.
My then-boyfriend and partner in the airplanes, Jim, was sometimes there with me. But he had to split his time between our projects and air museum and race projects he was working on. And any time we needed parts or supplies, he was the one who went off to track them down.
I'm a pretty self-motivated and goal-oriented person, but it was tough to keep my productivity and enthusiasm going, all alone in that hangar. So it doesn't surprise me that a vast number of "homebuilt" aircraft projects are completed by someone other than the original builder. Or that some are never completed at all, while others languish for so many years in the process that "first rivet" photos show toddlers who are fully grown by the time the airplane actually takes flight.
Some EAA chapters have organized group hangars for member projects, but builders at most airports still work alone — either in a hangar or in their home garage. With all the accompanying challenges that a pilot or builder only truly appreciates after experiencing them firsthand.
Take Rick Lindstrom. In 1996, he wrote an article for Kitplanes magazine about a builder of a Lancair 320 whose wife moved out and filed for divorce when he began Pro-Sealing the tanks and filled the house with toxic-smelling fumes. So Lindstrom was well aware of some of the hazards a homebuilt effort posed. But it wasn't until he began his own building project — a Zodiac 601XL with a converted Corvair engine — that he got passionate about the fact that homebuilders needed a better place to build their airplanes than an isolated hangar or the family garage.
"Zenith had this new 'quick-build' kit that was supposed to take only 300 to 400 hours to build," Lindstrom explains. "So I had this fantasy that if I went down to Gus Warren's shop in Edgewater, Florida, and worked straight for four weeks, I could finish the airplane."
The fantasy didn't pan out as imagined. "I had constant interruptions, going to get parts and things like that," Lindstrom remembers. "And the shop was only open certain hours." In the end, it took six separate trips to Florida and almost a full year before he completed the project.
"I vowed to myself then that, if I ever got the chance to do something that allowed people to build more efficiently and in a better environment, I was going to do it," he says.
That opportunity finally presented itself a couple of years ago, when he had to move his aviation video business out of Hayward, California. He decided to look for a space around the nearby Livermore airport that would also have room for a collective builders' facility. The result is First Light Aviation Group (FLAG), located in an industrial warehouse just a few blocks off the end of 07L at Livermore airport.
In a large industrial space at the back of the building, FLAG has individual bays builders can rent for their projects. Each bay is plumbed for electricity and compressed air, and machine-shop equipment such as vises and press brakes are located off to one side. Each bay also has a desk and industrial shelving to hold parts.
Builders get keys to the facility so they can work whenever they want, and there are kitchen supplies and an honor system for frozen, microwaveable food that Lindstrom keeps stocked so that builders don't even have to leave to eat. And they have other people close at hand to help lend a hand with riveting, holding the tip of a wing, or other tasks that are easy to accomplish with help but maddening to try to do on your own.
As for all those supply and parts runs … Lindstrom has a pilot shop at the front of the building that he's stocking with an increasing inventory of aircraft maintenance and building supplies. There are also two lounge areas — one with a pool table and Tiki bar — to encourage socializing among builders and pilots as well.
Rich Vitterli, who said, "Three years ago, I didn't know what a push rod was and had never changed the oil in my car," quit his Zodiac 601 building project three times before finally moving it over to FLAG, where he completed it in less than a year. "I would have finished a lot faster if I'd been here from the start," he says. "I can't say enough good things about a place like this."
The other impressive part of FLAG, though, is that Lindstrom has also thought through one more piece of the puzzle: helping builders through the critical and potentially hazardous initial flight testing of a newly completed aircraft.
"By the time most builders finish their project, their flying skills are pretty rusty, because they've been focusing on building for some time," Lindstrom explains. "And I'm very serious about making sure that when people do their Phase I flight test, that they don't kill themselves."
So another piece of FLAG is a flying club that has both FAA-approved Elite flight training devices and aircraft for rent — a Varga Kachina, two Grumman Tigers and a two-seat Grumman AA-1C. The company also has relationships with Earl Hibler, a longtime Reno Sport Class race pilot who is available to help with flight testing new aircraft, and John Diegoli, who specializes in Grumman flight instruction.
As a Grumman pilot myself, my ears perked up at the mention of so many Grumman cats under one roof (the airplanes are in a hangar at Livermore). Why Grummans? Because the light stick forces — especially in the two-seat AA-1C — apparently make it one of the best trainers around for a would-be homebuilt pilot. Who knew?
I'm not sure whether the FLAG concept would work everywhere. But I think it's a wonderful idea that, in an ideal world, would be everywhere. After all, a good running or building buddy can make all the difference in what you end up achieving. I have the trophy to prove it.
Apologies and Corrections
In the December issue of Flying, I wrote a column about an effort to rebuild the Unlimited race plane Tsunami. A gorgeous photo of the airplane accompanied the column. A photo credit was supposed to accompany that image as well. In the magazine's production process, however, that element ended up being left out. That kind of omission might seem like a small thing to some, but to my mind, it's not. Especially because the photo was taken by Gary Watts, one of two amateur but incredibly dedicated and talented photographers who were responsible for the fact that Tsunami's life was as well-documented as it was.
For all the years that I was involved with the Tsunami project, Gary Watts and Jerry Wilkins were an integral part of the volunteer team. They were good guys who cleaned and polished with the rest of us, but they also took photos. Thousands of photos. With top-notch equipment purchased out of meager personal funds, and skill honed on the side, out of a pure love for the art of photography. They paid their own way, and they were often up long past midnight and again before dawn to capture the long nights of effort the airplane required. Gary and Jerry also shared the fruits of their labors willingly for the enjoyment and good of the team. They never asked for a dime. All they asked for, if a photo was printed, was a photo credit.
Even professional aviation photographers have a tough row to hoe. Equipment is expensive, the hours are long, and the pay is neither steady nor, in most cases, all that high. Those who take on all the expense without the support of a magazine or paying clients, just for the love of the planes, are a special breed. So to omit the only bit of reward they request for all that effort — credit where credit is due — is no small thing. Unfortunately, I can't go back and fix the issues. But I want to offer Gary my sincere apologies. His efforts and the resulting pieces of art he created were, and still are, deeply appreciated.