Kevin O’Halloran is a dentist who rebuilds Beechcraft landing gear motors in his spare time. Well, that’s not exactly true. He does so for Bonanzas. Not Barons. And only if that motor is a Lamb, not an Electromech. Oh, and 12V electrical systems, not 24V. Before I dropped my 1973 Bonanza off in Greeley, Colorado, in January to begin a long period of repairs and improvements, I thought I knew what the word “niche” meant. Not so. In the past few months I entered a world so specialized that it felt like looking at a honeybee’s eye through an electron microscope — I only thought I knew what it looked like.
Initially, the idea was to simply switch over the interior, avionics and those fancy anodized-aluminum vernier controls from my salvaged airplane that I totaled in Telluride, Colorado, last spring. But — along with what’s left of the damaged fuselage of N4984M — that plan was scrapped. Instead, I began a journey to test a hypothesis: For a fraction of the price of a new airplane, one can bring a legacy piston aircraft up to a standard so high it not only matches its new counterpart in many parameters, but even surpasses it in a few. If I am right, at the end of the process N1750W will be transformed into a thoroughly modern, notably fast and unquestionably safe airplane.
Enter O’Halloran. If something goes wrong with your Toyota, you go to the dealer and they handle it all. Soup to nuts. New windshield. New camshaft. New airbag sensor. All Toyota. As a legacy aircraft owner, you can’t drop your airplane off at the dealer. I have yet to call Textron Aviation, the parent company to my Beechcraft, because frankly they’re not at all interested in helping me keep my airplane flying. If you look at the prices Beech charges for parts this quickly becomes obvious. They have bigger “fish to fly.”
In their absence, a community of artisans and experts have sprung up to carry the load. So, while the basic technology in my airplane is decades old, the community that supports it generates modern solutions using state-of-the-art manufacturing and materials. Like Emerson said, build a better mousetrap and people will beat a path to your (hangar) door. It is the nature of these people that surprised me.
And yes, there are zealots hiding in suits at Garmin, Hartzell, Whelen or Bose. The individuals I spoke to at these corporations are similarly invested and enthusiastic about their better-built mousetraps, but by and large it’s the cottage industries where this type of personality seems to thrive. I am a screenwriter by trade and my job requires my interests to be wide but shallow — I must cover a lot of ground. But the people I am drawn to have interests that are extremely narrow and Mariana Trench-deep.
Aviation folks have a laser focus and a patient dedication I do not possess, but admire greatly. Over the past few months I have personally contacted the appropriate vendor of every part and system that I need for N1750W. Often I find myself talking to the owner of the company when calling the listed phone number. Volume dictates much of this — it’s a small fleet and therefore a small community. In the meantime, Akio Toyoda has yet to take my call regarding those new wipers I ordered for my Camry.
When you drop your car off at the dealership, you will most likely talk to someone who, like me, has a knowledge base that is shallow and wide. They can get through a conversation about most parts on your vehicle — but if you ask enough questions, the detail thins. A specialist is paged to the service counter.
In the aviation world, the jack-of-all-trades is a similarly rare find. Bob Ripley, a mechanic who focuses solely on servicing Beechcraft Bonanzas, Barons and Travel Airs, is that exception, and he would be the first to admit where his expertise ends. When necessary, with no ego, he will pick up the phone and ask a question.
This explains why each inventor and craftsman I spoke with carved out a niche for themselves. They are Experts with a capital “E.” They know one thing and they know it like no other. They are knowledgeable and fascinating to talk to. Some are verbose. Others succinct. They live all over the country and come from every possible background. Some are eccentric while others fall into the plain-vanilla variety. But they all share the same passion for aviation, and this manifests in one common way. Specifically: specificity.
Some of the people I spoke with sell products mired in great debate. Doug of Tanis Aircraft Products, a firm that makes preheat systems, must constantly beat back the misinformation about preheating engines and corrosion. Others have proprietary secrets, such as Kurt from Eagle Fuel Cells, who would not reveal the composition of his replacement fuel bladders, evolved to handle the newer fuels on the horizon and their corresponding aromatics. Others still sell a product you hope to never need to use. BAS makes a 4-point shoulder harness that might be the most important thing you can put in your airplane. It’s easy not to think about this until you consider how little a lap belt — or even a 3-point system — will do for you if you have an unplanned meeting with the ground. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
What all these people share in common is a desire to improve the breed. They continually ask themselves how an item can be made lighter, more reliable and more effective. This is not unique to aviation.
Peer into any other industry and you will find the tinkerers trying to wring out that last bit of ingenuity from a dated design. It is constitutional to who we are as a species.
Examples of such “tinkerers” include B&C Aero, which sells a lightweight standby alternator system, now crucial because our cockpits rely heavily on electronics and the power required to run them. Another is D’Shannon, which makes a baffle kit that cools an aircraft engine to the point where it demonstrably lowers the CHTs. Or Superior, which makes cylinders that sometimes go twice the distance as their OEM counterparts.
This care and expertise is found in even the smallest places. There is a tiny company called Cover Ups by Denise that makes canvas gear-and-flap actuator covers. I spoke to Denise Kriegsman, who is the namesake, CEO and head of human resources, who hand-sews all the covers herself.
She has a unique accounts-receivable system. At the end of our call, I placed an order and asked her where to send the check. She explained that she would ship the covers first and I could send her a check once I received them and made sure they fit correctly. Right. I was equally surprised.
As a “broad-and-shallow” guy, what I have come to value most about meeting these niche tinkerers is that they are willing to share their knowledge and spend the necessary time to do so. This passion and specific expertise matters. If the car dealership gets something small wrong, you bring your vehicle back, drive away with a loaner and wait for the call — annoying at worst. If something goes wrong with an airplane in flight, you can have a very different experience.
O’Halloran excitedly called me this week to tell me about the amount of carbon dust that was built up in my landing gear motor. “This thing has never even been opened!” he said, as if he had just unearthed some rare archaeological find. He has a homemade test bench where at night he runs the motors after repairing them. He sent me a narrated video of my motor lifting 200 pounds of lead weights. From the sound of his excited voice, I can’t tell if he’s 70 or 7.
This cocktail of love, responsibility and obsession is pretty great to be around.