What I learned from building an airplane (yes, you can)....
On Thanksgiving Day of 2002, after 3,400 hours of work over two years, the airplane that I built took to the sky. This wasn't a model airplane. This was a two-seat, 220-mile-an-hour, fully aerobatic Ferrari in the sky. I had managed to turn 700 pieces of aluminum, several thousand rivets, and 347 foot-long Subway turkey sandwiches into an airplane that I could fly. Needless to say, I learned a lot about building an airplane – I learned how to build with aluminum, fiberglass, Plexiglas, how to take apart and rebuild an engine, how to build an aircraft electrical system, and hundreds more skills. But what surprised me was how much I learned about myself, lessons I still use every day.
When I was 30, both of my parents died within nine months of each other. It was a dark time in my life, so I decided to follow a lifelong dream — learning to fly. The first thing I discovered is that flying is super expensive. The cheapest way to fly is to own your own airplane. And the cheapest way to get your own airplane is to build it. Seriously. Supported by that flawless logic, I bought a kit from Van’s Aircraft and set to work. Think of a giant Lego set but with a few more parts, a longer build time - and slightly higher stakes.
The first thing I learned is that "figure it out" is a skill that can be developed - and boy did I develop it. An airplane isn't one huge project – it's dozens of small projects. Unbeknownst to me, the manufacturer of the kit designed the entire kit to gradually increase the difficulty and complexity. Specifically to build this muscle of “figuring it out”. The kit comes in four pieces – the tail, the wings, the fuselage, and the finish kit. The tail is the simplest with only a few dozen parts and only one real skill (riveting) required to finish. The wings are next, which require riveting and dealing with Black Death, the fond name for the sealant required to construct the fuel tanks. By far the most complicated kit is the finish kit, which assumes that you both designed and installed the instrument panel and the engine hookups. But by then, you’ve built every other piece and built both the confidence and competence to solve the more difficult parts of the plane.
The second lesson I learned was how important a Teacher really is. My Teacher was named Pat Patterson and despite never finishing the 10th grade, he owned three construction companies, his own airfield and he’d built 14 airplanes. Pat was the first teacher I’ve ever had who understood exactly how to teach me. Time after time, he would wait until I was ready to learn before strolling by to drop some nugget of wisdom. My first oil change was a perfect example of how he operated. I had no idea what I was doing but I knew the engine needed new oil and I was determined to figure it out. So I grabbed a bucket, a towel, and new oil and set to work finding the oil drain plug. He strolled in about that time and I think he noticed that my engine contained 7 quarts of oil and that my bucket held 4. He must have seen the look of determination on my face, so he said good luck and turned around. You can guess the conclusion-it’s utterly impossible to get a drain plug back in the engine while warm oil is flowing out. By the time I wandered back to his hanger 30 minutes later, I was covered from head to toe in motor oil and the hangar looked like the Valdez had run aground. He wasn’t laughing, but he was working curiously hard on some project facing away from me. He had the parts catalog open to the page that described the drip-proof closable oil plug. At that point, I understood its value. This process repeated itself over and over. Pat always let me make enough mistakes to appreciate the lesson that was coming. But never enough to hurt me or the airplane.
Kenny Rogers described my final lesson from the airplane in The Gambler: “You have to know when to walk away, and know when to run….”. My problem-solving process seems to involve wild swings of emotions as I run out of ideas to solve whatever problem I’m facing. On the airplane project, rock bottom emotionally was usually approaching tool-hurling frustration and a few minutes after my dog, accurately discerning my mood as always, scampered out of the hanger. I learned to just walk away. Pat’s airfield was a beautiful bluegrass runway in central Kentucky. I usually made it about halfway down the field before cooling off enough to come up with more ideas to try. It made me realize that “figuring it out” isn’t just competence on the problem, it’s also being able to manage your emotions through the inevitable highs and lows of the process. Practice doesn’t make perfect on this, but practice certainly makes the process easier.
But I didn’t know all this Thanksgiving day. I just knew that one phase of my airplane adventure was ending and another was beginning. Over the next year, I flew that little airplane all over our beautiful country from Maine to Florida, all through the Bahamas, to Oshkosh, Chicago, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, and from Orlando to San Francisco. While I hope to use the building lessons again, I use what I learned about myself every single day. It’s shaped many of my choices since.