noel: August 2013 Archives

Turn and Burn

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On Wednesday, Jay and I had about two hours to work before it got dark. Loading the engine turned out to be a breeze, since Jay had a reasonably large tractor on site -- we attached a few straps to the engine, hooked the straps to the tractor's front bucket, and used the machine to pick up and load the engine in the back of the trailer. Before it got dark, I tossed a tarp and strap over the engine (I didn't want it to rain and end up with water inside).

We moved the fuselage by hand, and it wasn't difficult to lift it into place on the trailer. I then trimmed down the vertical members so they were just tall enough to clear the fuselage, which turned out to be tall enough to provide attachment space for the wings (I measured before cutting, of course). Then Jay and I installed cross-pieces to help resist any side-to-side motion, and reinforced the joints by installing gussets.

Here's how things looked when I arrived on Thursday morning:

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The engine is hiding under the green tarp on the left-hand side of the photo.

Jay told me that he thought all of the pieces probably wouldn't fit into the car. After surveying the collection of items, I had to agree. Before doing anything else, I spent an hour and built out the rest of the "floor" of the trailer in order to have a place to stash everything.

I then spent a few hours walking to and from the barn, puzzling through the best arrangement of all of the parts. The hardest ones were those odd-sized ones, like the landing gear (with brakes and tire still attached to each) or the metal cowling panels (not quite flat pieces of sheet metal). In the end, it all fit, and I used plenty of padding to make sure that nothing would get damaged or vibrate its way off the trailer on the way home. I used some extra plywood and made a "front" and "top" for the box to protect the parts from the wind and possible rain on the way home.

The wings were next. I had done a lot of reading of various web forums where people talked about transporting wings. Everyone agreed that the wings were best supported at their attachment points, specifically because those points are engineered to support the weight of the plane during flight. The following description by Bob Turner made the most sense to me:

Get six 2x4x8 studs, four rather large carriage bolts, washers, and nuts, and four relatively small eyebolts that will go through the 2' part of the 2x4.

Also get a drill and some 1/4" spade bits.

Lay the wings on the ground upside down, and mark a couple of 2x4s so the holes will match the lift strut attach bolts, which you leave in the wing. Slide the eye bolts into where the lift struts used to go, thread them through the 2x4, and tighten with nuts and fender washers. Leave enough 2x4 hanging off the LE & TE to protect both.

Then move to the butt end, and on each wing, turn the remaining 2x4s into a giant clamp - one on top of the spar and one below it. Arrange the giant carriage bolts very close to the spars and very close to the butt rib. Tighten until you are sure the 2x4 clamp will not slide off. You could get clever and put some rope in there to ensure that it will stay on, but I have never had one fall off. The pair of 2x4s acting as a clamp should extend beyond LE & TE just like the one at the lift struts. Then you can haul the wings either vertical or horizontal. I have gone coast to coast this way with no damage. Good luck.

So that's what I did. This picture shows the left wing hanging from the trailer, with the 2x4 "clamp" at the butt end of the wing:

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I used a 2x8 for the mid-wing board in order to have enough overlap with the vertical member of the trailer:

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In relatively short order, and with a little lifting help from Sam, both wings were on the trailer. I attached my remaining 2x4's to the top of the trailer to increase the rigidity of the upper part of the structure, which worked wonderfully.

Then everything got strapped down. The fuselage got connected to the metal of the trailer via one big strap at the nose end and one smaller one at the tail. The engine got held down against the floor of the trailer via two straps, crosswise. The wingtips got lightly strapped to the front vertical members of the trailer (I protected the wing surface with a few layers of old carpet), which I hoped would prevent any outward splaying while I went down the road and therefore prevent extra load on the wing attach points.

After it was loaded up and ready to go, Jay posed for his picture with the plane:

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I'm really happy to have met both Jay and Sam. They were both enormously helpful and accommodating over the two days that I was there. I feel a bit guilty taking the plane away, but Jay tells me that he's got an Avid Flyer on the way soon!

After saying our goodbyes, I hit the road...

Going East

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I'd hoped to leave on Wednesday, but by that afternoon I was unwell, having picked up a stomach bug somehow. I stayed in bed for a few days until I got over the worst of it, and finally got on the road on Sunday evening.

I made it midway into Nevada the first evening. It was a clear and beautiful morning at the Beowawe rest stop:

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By the time I reached Park City, Utah, it had started to lightly rain:

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Echo Canyon is pretty, no matter what the weather:

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The rain continued as I drove into Wyoming:

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But it cleared up by the time I hit Sinclair:

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I drove until I couldn't keep my eyes open any more and slept fitfully at a rest stop. I woke up to a view of the few remaining trees near Sidney, Nebraska:

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It wasn't long before the trees gave way to the open prairie:

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The sun was setting as I drove into Illinois:

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I arrived at a friend's house around midnight, fell into the guest bed, and was instantly asleep. The next day, after a home-cooked breakfast of French Toast (thanks, Karl), I had a leisurely drive to my destination.

It was about 35 hours of driving time from my home in California to the seller's place in Indiana. I did that over 4 days. The 2300 miles required 6 tanks of diesel ($288), getting me there at 30mpg.

On arrival, I met the charming Jay and Sam, the pair selling the plane. We did the minimal paperwork, exchanged the cashier's check for the balance of the sale, and got right to work.

By the time the sun was going down, we'd pulled both the engine and fuselage out of the barn and put them on the trailer:

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We'll finish loading tomorrow...

Trailer Preparations

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When I started shopping for a boat trailer, I needed to find one which would be long enough to support the length of the longest piece of the plane (the fuselage, at 14.5 feet). I didn't yet know how I was going to mount the wings, so I wanted to find a trailer at least as wide as one wing (5.5 feet) to give me maximum flexibility as I worked out my design for the support structure.

I looked around at my local craigslist and found a half-dozen candidate trailers over the course of a week. After corresponding with the sellers who helped me measure and provided pictures of the critical bits, I narrowed it down to one trailer -- a mid-90's Calkins trailer designed to carry boats up to 16 feet long.

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The owner knew I wasn't interested in carrying a boat, so knocked $50 off of his asking price in order to keep the ratcheting winch to use on another project. That, combined with the current registration and working position lights made for an easy decision to buy. $375 and one DMV form later, I drove it home.

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One of the nice things about the trailer is that the boat-mounting hardware was all bolted in place, meaning that I could unbolt it and have a minimalist structure on which to build my "airplane rack." I spent several hours with a hammer, wrenches, penetrating oil, and a significant amount of elbow grease. Some of those old bolts were really rusted in place!

The trailer had an interesting feature -- the horizontal cross-members pivot along their long axis in order to distribute the weight of a boat as it is loaded onto the trailer. I wanted the trailer to be a bit more rigid, so I removed the large three-quarter mounting inch bolts. I then enlisted the aid of my friend Dan to help me mount and weld them in place. (Dan is a fellow home-restorer -- check out his blog.)

That done, I went back to the drawing-board and sketched a few designs for the trailer's superstructure.

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In the end, I decided to mount the wings vertically rather than horizontally. That allowed me to have an enclosed space in the "center" of the trailer, into which I could place all of the other parts of the plane: engine, landing gear, panel, etc.

I built a long, narrow box. Here's the beginning of one side:

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I bolted the side to the horizontal cross-members with some brackets I salvaged from the boat-carrying hardware.

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I connected the sides with some horizontal members, on which I planned to set the fuselage:

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I then extended the sides of the boxes to be a full 14 feet long. Near the tongue of the trailer, I bolted the box to the frame with two U-bolts. I also built a platform across the low, steel, horizontal members, centered on the trailer's axle, to which the heavy stuff (like the engine) could be strapped.

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I left the vertical pieces long, planning to cut them to the appropriate length once the fuselage was on the trailer (it would be lousy to drive across the country and realize that the structure was too short). Gussets were added at the various corners to add rigidity to the structure.

As you can see, most of the 2x8's are installed in their best weight-bearing configuration: horizontally with the narrow edge up. The vertical members are not, but I'm not overly worried because they only need to support the wings. The wings are are relatively light (a bit over 100 lbs each), and they contain a rigid internal structure which will help them stay in place and add structural stability to the vertical members when they are hung in place.

Now to get on the road...

The Cost of Transportation

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If you purchase a plane which is in active service, it's relatively easy to get it from place to place -- just fly it back to your local airfield. If the plane is in pieces, however, it's an entirely different matter.

The plane needs to move from Indiana back to my home airport in Oakland, CA, some 2300 miles.

The plane weighs 700 pounds without fuel or passengers. That amount of weight can be easily carried by many vehicles. The thing that makes it difficult to ship is the size of the big pieces -- the fuselage and wings. The fuselage (the "frame" of the airplane, in which the passengers sit) is 14.5 feet long, 4 feet tall, and 3.5 feet wide. The wings are 13.5 feet long, 5.5 feet wide, and a little less than a foot thick.

I researched various modes of transportation, which broke down roughly into two groups: full-service and self-service.

Full-service options included air, rail, and truck. Air and rail weren't practical because the entire plane would have to be crated, short-haul trucked to a transit hub, shipped via air/rail, then trucked again at the delivery end. Direct point-to-point truck transport ended up being the cheapest in this category. I got quotes from two shippers: $2,500 and $4,000. Ouch.

With those prices, I knew I was going to have to do something myself. One-way box truck rental was $1,500 using the cheapest national chain. While that rate had no per-mile charges or mileage limits, it didn't include the cost of fuel. For the 12mpg stated on the truck information page, and assuming about $4 per gallon of fuel, that's about $770 to get from there to here. $2,270 is better than $2,500, but not by much.

We own a big 4-ton truck which I considered using. But that wasn't a great idea beause the plane wouldn't be a good fit -- the truck bed is only 12 feet long. Like the rental box trucks, our truck gets about 12mpg, so fuel charges for a there-and-back journey would be $1,540. That's better than $2,270, but I suspected I could do better.

I did a bunch of searching online, reading airplane forums to find out how others moved planes around. For long-distance moves like mine, the vast majority employ a vehicle plus trailer. One-way trailer rentals were anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000. Buying a new trailer was quite a bit more than that, so I started poking around for used trailers to see if I could come up with a solution where my total transportation costs could be minimized.

Flatbed trailers weren't a good fit, because those which are large enough to accept an airplane are designed to carry many tons of cargo (they're called "utility" or "car" trailers). Many of these trailers have more than one axle, require an electronic braking system (which neither of our vehicles have), and need something large to pull them (a pickup truck or larger).

Many online denizens recommended finding a boat trailer and modifying it to accept an airplane. This made sense to me. Boat trailers have a minimal structure (quite light in and of themselves) yet are designed to carry an amount of weight which can easily accommodate a small plane. Furthermore, the price was right -- looking online, I found many candidate trailers in the $300-600 price range.

Such a trailer needs a structure built atop it to support the airplane. As it happens, there's a big stack of 2x8 lumber sitting in my driveway. My wife and I puchased this wood with the intention of framing out two ceiling spaces in our house, but didn't realize that it had the beginnings of decay (brown rot). We therefore didn't want to use it inside, so it's been sitting around waiting to be used on something utilitarian. The year previously we'd built a deck on the back of our house, so I figured I had enough skill and experience to build a structure in wood that could support an airplane.

The overall weight of the resulting trailer would be small enough that it could be towed by a car with a Class I hitch. Our diesel VW Golf has such a hitch, and gets 50mpg on the freeway. Conservatively estimating that I'd get 35mpg when pulling the trailer, that works out to about $600 in fuel costs.

So the plan came together: buy a used boat trailer, build the airplane support structure out of wood, and tow it with our diesel car. Estimated total transport costs: $1100.

So I set out to buy a boat trailer...

A Flying Dream

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Ever since I started my flight training, I've dreamed of owning an airplane.

Everyone assumes that owning a plane must be really expensive. This doesn't have to be the case. Consider the automobile market: one can purchase a tiny, fuel-efficient city car; a gas-guzzling sports car; a high-capacity pickup; or a luxury sedan with every bell and whistle imaginable. These vehicles range in price from several hundreds of dollars to several hundred thousands of dollars. It all depends on which features you desire.

I don't want anything big, fancy, or fast. I value fuel efficiency over performance. I want a low price-point, and am happy with a vehicle that others might consider "minimal." I believe that simple means reliable.

This list has informed my car-buying over the years. My most recent vehicle is a Geo Metro. I bought it new in 1994 for $8,000 and have put 270,000 miles on it so far. I've taken at least a dozen cross-country road trips in it. It's extremely fuel-efficient (it still gets 50mpg after all these years) and has transported me from place to place without any major mechanical problems.

I want something similar in an airplane. I'm not in a hurry to get anywhere fast, I don't want to burn exorbitant amounts of fuel, and I don't mind something "basic" or "bare-bones." I don't want to spend a huge amount of money.

These constraints all point toward airplanes manufactured during the heyday of general aviation. Back in the 1930's and 40's, several companies like Piper, Aeronca, Taylorcraft, and Stinson built and sold small planes in large numbers. They were all of very similar construction -- fuselages of welded tubes, wings of wood or aluminum, and everything covered with lightweight and airtight fabric. They were very simple machines both to operate and to maintain.

Owing to the fact that the aviation industry has always had a very close eye on safety and reliability, many of these planes still exist today. Many are still flying. Compared to planes being built these days, they're smaller, slower, and more minimal. But that's fine by me.

As an engineer, I also have a desire to understand how things work. The idea of buying a plane and actively participating in its restoration is very enticing.

All of this in mind, I kept an eye out for an airplane to buy.

Everything finally came together in late July, and I entered into a contract to buy a Piper PA-15 Vagabond -- a small, two-seater plane built in 1948. It is in good shape, and has been in storage for the last 30 years. It needs to be reassembled and refurbished, and the plane's $6,000 price tag reflects that. However, I want to learn those restoration skills; I'm much more interested applying elbow grease than than money. (Plus there's a great support network of people out there who are generous with advice and support.)

Now I've got to figure out how to transport it from Indiana to California...