Snaphots of an Experimental Aircraft Mechanic

15 01 2013

[ALL pictures can be EXPANDED by clicking on them]

I often wonder what people imagine when I explain what I do. There’s always the easy answer, “I’m an aircraft mechanic”, but often times the inquiry expands. “I work on experimental homebuilt composite aircraft…” and stop. It’s quite the conversation killer, though I suspect more out of unfamiliarity than disinterest. So what about that split-second of attention? I always imagine this mental progression, “I work on:

experimental…linecraft-tr-a-futuristic-aircraft-01

Homebuilt…

catplane

Composite Aircraft”

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My job however is much less glamorous than some futuristic design, a lot more technical than piecing together a model plane, and much safer and innovative than duct tape. Because aviation is heavily regulated and tested to ensure the safety of the flying public, expenses skyrocket and developments are hindered in the process of FAA approval. The experimental category was created to allow for the flexibility needed in research, air racing, and expanding the knowledge of the community through the process of building a kit. An interesting legal caveat is that 51% of the building has to be done by amateurs.

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The more-often-true-than-not joke is that when you finish 50% of the plane you only have 100% left to go. That’s where my shop comes into play. We finish that 49%, or inspect and repair degrading parts, or modify other aspects of it.

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The shop is pretty small, spans 3-4 medium hangers, and is always being re-arranged. (FYI: you can click all the pictures for an expanded view)

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The four aircraft I have been working on are (left to right): The Lancair IV (carbon fiber/fiberglass), Glassair III (fiberglass), RV-6 (sheet metal), and the Seawind 3000 (fiberglass)

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Although they are homebuilt, these are ALL high performance (200-300 mph) piston aircraft. The Lancair has a fully pressurized cabin and a twin turbocharged engine. The Glassair is sleek and nimble. The RV-6 is simple and solid, and the Seawind is amphibious.

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Common tasks can be as simple as creating an oil door for a cowling (engine cover):

Or as complicated as re-doing poor quality jobs on structural components:

Such as the left tail skin:

And the reinforcement supporting the pressurized windows:

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Sometimes my tasks are fun

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Anything shiny, related to fire, or requiring the on-board power of the Aircraft has a better chance of qualifying as ‘fun’

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More often they are tedious

Microscopic balls of glass is mixed with epoxy resin to produce a lightweight filler that has to be laboriously sanded down. This process is repeated until every transition is blended together.

Microscopic balls of glass are mixed with epoxy resin to produce a lightweight filler that has to be laboriously sanded down. This process is repeated until every transition is blended together.

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But ALL of them have potential to make for a very bad day

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95% of my job requires some sort of safety gear; It’s just a matter of what combination for the task at hand

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100% of my job however, requires me to make EVERYTHING look fabulous.

Many different toxic combinations to spread on good looks

Many different toxic combinations to spread on good looks

There is no length we will not go through to get the proper gaps, straight lines, and right angles...

There is no length we will not go through to get the proper gaps, straight lines, and right angles…

Even sloppiness that cannot be seen, is perfected.

Even sloppiness that cannot be seen, is perfected.

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Composites is the art of piecing together irregular components in irregular shapes, painting toxic glue all over it in just the ‘right’ amount, cutting & grinding & sanding by sight layers that are 15 thousandths thick, and blending something horrific looking into a masterpiece of structural integrity that looks like the work of machines…I feel like a toddler using finger paint to attempt the Mona Lisa …

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Regardless of the rate of pay, frigid temps, tedious work, hazards to my health, the possibility of screwing expensive shit up, and anything that has ever affected my desire to work – I love aviation and the uniqueness that the experimental category brings to this field.

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