Being Raised by a Builder
My grandfather constructed an all-aluminum aircraft in the basement of the house I was raised in. He was a farmer by trade, a pilot and engineer in his heart, and a maker with passion long before it was a movement driven by social media advertising. He had designed the addition to the house we lived in around the dimensions of the plane he planned to build in the basement — laying a doorway in the blocks so he could easily remove a section of wall later to carry out the fuselage and wing. Lots of people thought he was a little nutty, building a plane in the basement.
After 23 years he had a wonderful, flying aircraft (N22LG), and we saw the countryside like few people get to see it.
The next year he took half of the instrument panel out and rebuilt it to be more user-friendly. Mind you, he was the only “user.” This took several months in the basement and a lot of work. The next year had me crawling into the tail to buck new rivets as we installed the antennae for one of the first civilian GPS systems. I asked him, after he described the next thing he was going to change, why he seemed to keep taking the plane apart rather than flying it? After all he’d built a plane — he could finally fly — wasn’t that the point?
“Well, I guess after all these years, I like working on it more than anything. Don’t get me wrong, I love to fly, but there are always ways to make the plane better, and peace is often in the work. Hand me that wrench.” Like the land we worked and the machines maintained, there was always going to be work to do, and improvements to be made.
Small farmers in that generation … ‘jack of all trades’ beyond compare. Operating multiple pieces of heavy equipment to work the crops, trading commodities and futures, rebuilding an engine, understanding the weather with a barometer and a notebook, welding, carpentry, managing hired help, managing capital and depreciation schedules on equipment … these were the basics during the day. Things were always breaking, and there was always a solution.
There has to be a solution because whatever we’re doing is stopped, and time is money.
At night and weekends … well, that’s when the fun began. It was time to go “to the airplane room.” My earliest memories are of a largely assembled rough aircraft frame in the basement, surrounded by all the tools required to build it. We had a metal lathe and a milling machine and a band saw and a brake and a press and so many wonderful tools … “safety wire twisting pliers” alone are worth a solid 5 minutes of admiration at their simple engineering elegance. He never went to college but had a more impressive library than most people, and his ability to hunt down and interpret reference tables in engineering books was something to behold. We went to the library and he taught me to search for answers in one book, and then how to look up the references from there. We did isometric projection drawings at the kitchen table on napkins … and then we went and built what we’d drawn.
“Is that a long-distance call?” you’d get asked in my house growing up, so most of his communication was with letters and drawings. It was rare a conversation with him didn’t eventually get to “Here, let me show you,” and he’d whip out his notebook and a pencil and start sketching some system or idea.
At maybe 7 years old I asked, “How do you know how to build an airplane?”
“I don’t, exactly,” he said. Then he walked me over to his big desk, opening the lower drawer and gesturing at the block of paper in it.
“What’s that?” I was confused that he said he didn’t know how to build it … it was sitting right there, 80% complete.
“This is the secret to how to build something. These are blueprints.” He reached in and pulled out what turned out to be large, folded pages — bigger than the desk! Spreading it wide in his arms he looked down, “See there, that’s the instrument panel.” He laid it on the wing and I climbed back into the cockpit, glancing at the panel before me and the drawing just to my side.
“See?” He asked. Not only could I see, but I was fascinated that some guy, years before, had drawn this on the other side of the world. They’d never met, never would, yet my grandfather could build exactly what was designed.
My grandfather taught me that if you want to build something, even something really big and complicated — it’s just a matter of getting and making plans, getting some books, some tools, and getting to it. It might take years. The plans will certainly need modified, but you can hold a vision through untold challenges.
You will have to learn portions of whole new disciplines.
You will buy and learn about new tools and make your own.
You will re-plan and realize that it’s hard in places you didn’t anticipate.
You will break things, fail, and learn the easier way a week too late.
It will be very hard at times, and there will be few easy answers.
But — you can build an airplane.
You can fly.