The Question

I’m guessing this is true for building things other than planes.  For example, my next-door neighbor is building a beautiful wooden kayak out of strips of exotic woods.  It will be a true work of art when it’s done.  It probably holds true for hot rods and motorcycles, too.  It starts with a visitor stopping by to see what you’re working on.  I get a surprising number of people stop by to see my plane, quite a few of whom I’ve never met before, many of whom are from out of state, or even out of the country, but read my blog.  But for one reason or another, they, or a friend, or a neighbor, or some random guy who comes by to align the high-speed muffler bearings in my truck, wander out to the shop and start asking questions about the plane.  You can tell the people who have ever built something from the people who haven’t very easily.  Those who have built something, anything, but something they built by hand, not really ever quite knowing what they were doing, but enjoying the process as much as the end result are different from the non-builders.  They never ask The Question.  Everyone else does.  It starts innocently enough.  “Is it a kit?”  “Are there instructions?”  “How fast is it?”  “How far can you go?”  “How do you know if you’re doing it right?”   “How do you know how where to put that?”  “How do you know how to wire this up?”  And then the question that derails everything.  “When will it be done?”

Unless you’re a lot smarter than I am (and if you are, I’d love to hear from you), there is no possible answer to this question that satisfies anyone.  I’ve never built a plane before.  Every single task I perform is new to me.  I typically have to go read about it, ask questions at my EAA meeting, watch some youtube videos, read a few blogs and postings on the Internet, play around with trying it out on scraps, think on it for a few days, then finally work up the nerve to apply tools to expensive bits of metal.  There are things that I thought about and researched for a year before I touched.  There are things that after two and a half years, I still haven’t worked up the nerve to touch (building rudder and elevator cables, for example).  And there are other things that are familiar enough to me that I just jumped right in and got to work.  So no single task has any kind of reasonable predictability to it.

On top of that, I really don’t know what’s left to do on my “To-Do” list.  The list never grows shorter, only longer.  I’m constantly discovering new skills I need to learn, new parts I need to buy, new tools I have to find, or bizarre little fittings I never knew existed.  Each one of these problems needs to be researched and solved.  Many require trips to the book store, the library, the monthly EAA meeting, the airport (to corner unsuspecting mechanics – a trick I’ve used more than once), and often just plain ol’ general slogging through the aircraft parts aisles at Home Depot, West Marine, Harbor Freight Tools, Sears, and the neighborhood hardware store.  In short, I don’t even know what all my tasks are, much less how long each one will take.

So try to sum that up in an answer to the question, “When will you be done?”

Usually I try to skate by with, “Well, I’m two and a half years into it so far”.  Every once in a while, somebody lets that slide.  But usually, it’s followed up by, “Well, what percentage is left?”  As if I didn’t know how to do that math myself.  Well, I’m eighty percent done with the tasks that I know I need to do.  Which means I’m probably, at best, fifty percent done.  And that’s assuming that the list of tasks is accurate, and that each task takes about as long to master and complete as the tasks that have come before.  But that’s unlikely, given that I’ve deliberately left a lot of the harder tasks for later.  But people immediately jump to the conclusions that if I’m guessing I’m 80% done after 2.5 years, I should be completed and flying in less than a year.

“Maybe,” I say.  “Or maybe another two or three years.”  They don’t like that answer.  So I tried some other answers.  “When it flies.”  Or sometimes, “When I get the sign-off from the FAA”.  I’ve also tried, “Well, a project like this is never really done.”  I’ve even tried, “I really don’t know”.

Problem is, every single one of these answers is taken as being deliberately evasive.  People then insist that I guess.  Really, they’re not.  If I don’t know what’s left to do, and I don’t know how long each of those things will take (of which I don’t have a complete list to begin with), how can you seriously expect me to tell you when it will be done?  It’ll be done when it’s done.  Besides, this is a hobby.  It’s not like I build planes for a living, and have a track record of how long it takes me to build each one.  This is what I do to relax.  To have fun.  To learn new swear words, and creative ways to apply them to new situations.  I don’t know how long this is going to take.  Really.  I wish I did.  And my wife wishes I knew how much this project is ultimately going to cost, because every new expensive tool or part is “the last one I think I’m going to have to buy”.  It never is.  But that’s not on purpose, either.  I’m not trying to be evasive with her any more than the people visiting.  There’s a new surprise on every page of the blueprints.  And with every new skill comes a deeper understanding of the true enormity of the task still remaining.

I’ve finally taken to using some advice I read somewhere long ago, even before I ever contemplated building a plane.  I forget where, but I seem to remember reading it in a magazine somewhere.  Probably an old issue of Kitplanes.  “On a Tuesday” has become my favorite current answer.  At least this answer seems to convey a bit of humor, and a little less deliberate evasiveness.  It still really doesn’t work, as it’s typically followed up by, “No, seriously, when will it be done?”  But it’s the best I’ve got for now.

Once I master this problem, it’s time for the next.  I once read a story about Burt Rutan that said he had a sign in his shop that read (I’m paraphrasing), “Visitors Welcome.  After ten minutes, you will be handed a tool and put to work.”

God bless the people who build.  Whether it’s boats, cars, planes, or houses, they never ask The Question.  Ever.  You guys are always welcome in my shop.



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