Monday, December 26, 2005

Another hare-brained scheme

I haven't even had the first session of the first class in the collection of 20+ classes required to earn an FAA Airframe & Powerplant certificate, but I'm already thinking about some of the opportunities that would arise from having it.

I went through a fairly lengthy internal debate about how aviation fits in with my current life, and how I want it to fit in with my future. This actually started a few years ago, and led directly to the swap from a 4-seat 100 knot "store bought" plane to the 2-seat, 150 knot RV-6. Over the years, it had become abundantly apparent that I don't do a lot of point A to point B flying, and when I do, it is often alone. Rather, I like to do day trips, or simply fly around the local area just enjoying the sensation of flight and the incumbent respite from the pressures of dealing with other people. When I really think deeply about what attracts me to flying, it seems to be a combination of mastering a relatively complex machine in a challenging environment with the ability to get myself away from the cloying aspects of city life. My favorite trips seem to be to places where can take a nice, quiet walk away from cars, people, etc.

What does this have to do with the A & P program? Nothing, yet. I'm still working up to that. As part of the self-analysis that led to the airplane swap, I remembered back to my early days of aviation interest, back when I was still a pre-teen. When I think back to the planes that I was truly fascinated with, I remember that most were either homebuilts or classics. I had dreamed of having a plane like the Mitchell U-2, or the even more unattainable RV-4. Even as recently as a decade ago, I wanted an RV-4. Prior to buying the Tampico, I kicked around the idea of buying an already built RV-4, but back then in pre-Google days, I wasn't able to research issues around the insurability and maintainability of already-built Experimentals. Between that and the fact that I still believed I needed more than a 2 seat airplane, I bought the Tampico.

Obviously, post-Google research was enough to demonstrate that there are no real problems with owning an Experimental if you aren't the builder and/or holder of the Repairman's Certificate (which allows the holder to do any type of work on the specific airplane for which it was assigned) and insurance, at least for planes as safe and popular as the Van's series, is easily available. That said, in lieu of the Repairman's Certificate, the owner of an already-built Experimental lives in a bit of a gray area in the regs. This, plus the fact that I live one mile from the school, got me to thinking about getting the A&P.

That, in and of itself, was not enough reason to enter a 3-5 year curriculum. I had to take a step back again and consider where I am in my career, and how I could leverage my interest in all things aviation into some kind of semi-retirement career change over the next 5-10 years. I can't do what I do now for too much longer - the kind of work I do is more of a younger guy's gig, and the positions that it morphs into for aging geeks are pretty unappealing. I'm finding that more and more, my job is to beg other, younger people to do the work that I would prefer to be doing myself. I'm realizing that I'm a hands-on guy, and I can't stand sitting on the sidelines coaching.

I had always thought I would move into something like flight instruction. I finally got serious about doing some analysis on that idea, and didn't like what I found. First, it would take tens of thousands of dollars to get the required ratings. It would also require the ability to spend a solid month at a time away from home/work to get the training at a reputable academy. One completed, my choices would be to either try to go it alone and train in a plane I own, or enter a relationship with an FBO and use their planes. In the former case, insurance would wipe out any potential profit; in the latter, competition from other instructors would drive my hourly rate down to $15-20. There are also currency requirements that have to be met, and I would have to get flight physicals twice as often as I do now. But what really changed my mind was the reaction of the CFI that I used for transition training in the RV to a flight he had scheduled after our lesson one day. To put it simply, he didn't want to do it. He had enjoyed flying in the RV so much, he couldn't bear the idea of spending another 2 hours in a tiny Cessna 152. I made a conscious decision 15 years ago that I didn't want flying to be my "work." There is a difference between flying because you want to and flying because you have to. I saw a lot of this back when I worked for NetJets - a lot of those pilots had the love of flying beaten out of them by 14 hour days, flying for unappreciative passengers, in weather you wouldn't want to be out in at all if you had any choice.

Part of owning the RV that I've enjoyed more than I expected to is working on it. I'm always leery of certain aspects of maintenance, though, for two reasons: first, I don't know as much as I'd like to about maintenance best-practices and standards, and second, there are regulatory issues around some of the things I might need to do that would require either an A&P or a Repairman's Certificate. The path to the Repairman's Certificate is to build your own plane, and even then you are limited to working on only the plane you built. The A&P program would take the same amount of time, and far less dollars, as building a plane, and it also would enable me to work on any airplane. Additionally, there are no currency or medical requirements; I'd be able to work on planes for the rest of my life.

Ok, that's nice but the reality is that there is no shortage of A&Ps, so it's not the case that I could open a shop and make a mint or walk into a job at another shop and get a high hourly wage. Nor would I want to. The day-to-day grind of working for someone else is what I'm hoping to escape.

No, the thing to do would be to specialize. Specifically, I would like to specialize in restoration of classic factory-builts, or classic-like Experimentals. The type of older planes I'm thinking about are typically steel tube fuselage, wood wings, and fabric covering. There is no shortage of fabric covered planes out there that could benefit from removing the old covering, fixing whatever problems have been hidden under wraps for years, and replacing the old covering with more modern fabrics and paint. There are also a lot of updates that can be made to the old engine to modernize it with newer, more efficient and reliable components.

This is all well and good, but it seems to me that book learning is only going to get me so far. Here's where the hare-brained idea comes in. I'm thinking that some time after the first year or so of A&P classes, I want to find a fixer-upper that could serve as my own on-going lab exercise, and hopefully at some point, also serve as a resume of sorts to convince other owners that I'm the guy they're looking for to update/restore their plane.

I've kicked around quite a few ideas as to what type of plane I'd be looking for, where I would be able to store it/work on it, and how much budget I should put into it. For now, the leading candidate is a Pitt's S1C. The S1C was a very early model of the venerable Pitts biplane line that went on to dominate international aerobatics competition before the highly muscular monoplanes came along and changed the nature of aerobatic competition. The S1C is extremely simple compared to the later evolutions, and by definition is an Experimental. As an Experimental, I could work on it before I complete the A&P program.

It is also quite small, and dissassembled should fit easily into the same hangar as the RV. It's construction is very simple and straightforward, basically being nothing more than wood and steel tube covered with fabric. Thousands were built, and many of those are gathering dust in the back of a hangar somewhere.

I would be looking for an unmolested plane; in other words, one that had not undergone a plethora of possibly ill-thought modifications. I wouldn't be looking for an absolute basket case, though. The best bet would be a plane that has been flying, but simply worn out the covering and the engine. I would estimate a plane like that would cost between $5-10k. Fabric and paint would cost $3-$4,000 to do it really well, and the engine could be overhauled for under $10k if I did the work myself. I have no idea what the resulting restored plane would bring on the market, but I'm also not sure I'd want to sell it. The Pitts is another of the planes I've dreamed about for most of my life. Fully assembled, it's possible that it might fit in the hangar with the RV. Of course, all of this is a few years down the road at least, so for now I'm just worried about whether I will have enough room in the hangar to work on it.

Interestingly, I was browsing to try to get a feel for the feasibility of this idea when I came across an ad very similar to what I've been thinking. The ad was run by a local guy, just graduated from Columbus State A&P program, looking for a $5,000 project that he could restore and sell. I dropped him an email to compare notes and goals. His idea is to rebuild the plane and log the hours he spends on it to further his pursuit of the IA authorization. The IA is required to be able to sign-off on major maintenance items. It's kind of a post-graduate program for A&Ps. This, to some degee, served to validate my idea, albeit with a somewhat different goal in mind.

Winter: not much else to do other than come up with schemes like this.

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