Building My Dream Plane (Sportsman)

My Dreams of Flight

When I was a boy, I didn’t dream of what I wanted to be someday, I dreamt of flying.  Ever since that time, I’ve been deeply interested in LUCID DREAMING because in a lucid dream, I could hold my arms out like Superman and take flight.  The sights I’ve seen in my dreams were and continue to be astounding.  It’s what originally inspired me to wonder how my brain could know what things might look like from above before I ever had my feet off the ground.

Since my career was in the music industry since I was about 14 years old, and even though I’ve been lucky enough to find my name on gold records and movie soundtracks (See The Playground), there was never any certainty of any income beyond the present project I happened to be involved with.  Even then, getting paid by a record label, isn’t always an easy task.  So, I was never able to afford to get my Private Pilot license.  My dream got tucked away in the back of my mind for that “someday” when I’d magically have enough money (even on a credit card), to make that dream a reality.

That all changed in 2001, when, after starting a forum on my rapturous spiritual experience of nonduality in 1999, I started a series of online shops offering mediation supplies, incense, and shamanic plants.  Little did I know how vastly my life would change as a result of that choice.  It took 3 years, but in 2004, my shop got to a point where I had enough room on credit on a credit card to charge flight lessons.  Like everything else I’m passionate about, getting my pilot’s license became my life.  I would get up at 6:00AM, work until 9:00AM, drive an hour to the airport, take an hour lesson, drive the hour home, and then work until 7:00PM on my websites.

In just a few short months, I found myself with a freshly-minted Private Pilot license.  I rented planes consistently ever since then, building up hundreds of hours in single engine aircraft, mostly Cessnas.  The initial rush of flight never wore off, and it’s actually only gotten better.  As I grew more confident in an aircraft, working constantly to improve my skills, much of my fear turned to a healthy respect for flight, and my newbie trepidation transformed into a confidence in the air that brought me sights and people and places I never would have experienced otherwise.

The final stage of realizing that dream was to build my own aircraft.  And this decision was made possible by an incredible aircraft company who offers kit-built aircraft that I feel are way ahead of their time.  I was looking for almost a year for the “perfect” airplane; I wanted one that could carry all my camping gear as well as another person so I could visit all the camp sites, grass strips, and of course; Burning Man in comfort.

I also wanted a high wing aircraft since much of my joy when flying is looking down at the Earth passing under my wheels hundreds or thousands of feet down.  I wanted a fast aircraft; one that I could take long trips (like to Burning Man) without it taking me a week.  I wanted something I could work on, modify, and experiment with myself.  I wanted a plane that could be fully IFR (instrument flight rating…can fly into almost any condition), and had a modern, all-glass instrument panel.  I also wanted a plane that could fly slow enough to enjoy the California sunsets I’m so spoiled at watching from the air.  Unfortunately, that aircraft didn’t seem to exist, and I was going to settle for a Cessna 182 Turbo.  It went 135 knots, but it could carry anything and everything.

Right when I was about to put a deposit on a 182 Turbo, Ron Attig, one of the long-time pilots (and builder) turned me onto the Sportsman 2+2.  It seemed too good to be true.  It was a plane I could build myself, it went faster and could carry more stuff than a Cessna 182…I was looking for the catch.  Fortunately, there wasn’t one, including the incredible safety record of not a single fatality in this aircraft due to the aircraft since it was first introduced in 1995.

My Build Log

So, this will document my process, as I got from the very beginning to the end of the build, onto the first flight, and when I get the aircraft back into my hangar.  It can take people up to 10 years to build an aircraft, but with the help of Glasair’s “Two Weeks to Taxi” program and a few friends, I will be building my aircraft in 2 weeks, flight testing it for 2 weeks, and then sending it off to be painted for 5 weeks after that.  This happens at Glasair’s facility in Arlington, WA, which is a perfect cross country flight back to my home airport at Gillespie Field.

After receiving my “welcome package” from Glasair, there were some extremely intimidating parts, especially one called the “Tough Talk” section of my welcome package.  It talked about the mountains of paperwork and countless decisions that needed to be made, it warned of very strenuous 10.5 hour days, with just one 30 minute break for lunch.  It spoke of a checklist a mile long that’s got to be tended to with rapid, assembly line-like precision.

It told me that I needed to take metal and fiberglass fabrication classes, since I’d be doing riveting more than anything else when I build my plane.  And the decisions that needed to me made were extremely challenging, terrifying, but incredible fun:  I had to decide everything from whether I wanted my aircraft as a taildragger, float plane, tricycle gear, or all three.  I had to decide on what size engine and prop, whether I wanted LED lights or standard lights, if I wanted old fashioned steam gauges, a modern glass cockpit, or a combination of the two.  And the list went on.  This is a homebuilt aircraft, which means me, the builder, has to make every decision that can be made for my new aircraft.

So, after the initial panic wore off, I got to work “building” my builder knowledge.  My initial task list included:

– Speaking with several of the amazing builders and pilots at Gillespie Field’s Skid Row.

– Joined the Glasiar Builders Forum to start getting advice from builders.

– Purchased the FAA’s “Standard Aircraft Handbook for Builders” for my iPad.

– Purchased the Toolbox Kit from Van’s Aircraft, whose sole purpose is to help teach riveting.

– Purchased “RV Builder Basics” by Les Bourne

– Purchased “Aircraft Sheet Metal Tools” by GeoBeck.

– Borrowed riveting tools from my pilot-friend George.

Then, George showed me the basics of riveting.  For some reason, I thought it would be a simple skill, much like hammering nails.  Little did I know that it’s an art form, and one that requires both skill and precision.  It’s way, way, way too easy to get an imperfect rivet, and it’s just as easy to create a “smiley face” on your aluminum aircraft skin.  After my first few rivets, I understood why Glasair, in their “Tough Talk” section, warned to not expect a showroom plane.

I started to panic all over again; I’d riveted well over 100 rivets by this point, and the closet I could get was the third photo above.  That is absolutely not acceptable on my aircraft.

But, with some more patience and three Toolbox Kits later, I was finally getting a feel for this.  I had a long way to go, but at least I didn’t feel completely incompetent:

Once I got a feel for riveting, I went to Aircraft Tool Supply and looked through their WIDE inventory of rivet guns.  After much conversation and research, I decided on three guns; a 270A-2 Sioux 2X Rivet Gun, an ATS-2XVR Shock Reduced Rivet Gun Kit, and an ATS-E2X ATS Pro E-Series 2X Rivet gun.  My least favorite ended up being the Sioux (which was also the most expensive by far), and my favorite was the Shock Reduced Rivet Gun.  Although the gun was a little on the heavy side, it had a very sensitive and easily-controlled trigger.  To me, the trigger is everything on a rivet gun.

Anyway, that’s it for now.  I’ll be bringing my video rig with me and hope to take stop motion shots every 10 minutes over the course of the 2 week build, as well as some interviews with some of the team members who will be helping with the build.  If all goes as planned, my maiden flight of my shiny new Sportsman 2+2 will be on the 12th of February 2012.

I couldn’t be more excited and couldn’t feel luckier that another dream is being realized as 2012 begins.  The music industry drifts further and further from my mind as flying and surfing and studying shamanism becomes my whole world.  Flying to Burning Man in 2011 in my Skycatcher hooked me wholly and completely on the joy and thrill of cross country flying.

I have every intention of flying back to Burning Man with a unique aircraft that I can gift as many rides as I can handle.  Between now and then, suddenly the world got just a bit smaller and more beautiful.  My Sportsman 2+2 will be able to fly into just about any place that has a flat enough surface to set a plane on, including riverbeds, beaches, and the Alaskan tundra.  In this moment, January 30th (Day 01 of my build) seems a thousand years away, but I know it will be here before I know it.

The next article in my build diary is Building My Dream Plane – Day 01 next…

Keith Cleversley

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