I Came, I Saw, I Lost
At Oshkosh, pride goeth before a fall.
- By Stephan Wilkinson
- Air & Space magazine, March 1993
(Page 3 of 4)
“You’d be surprised how chickenshit we are when it gets down to the serious stuff,” Bob Herman says. “Several years ago we had two airplanes in the Antique/Classic division with the exact same score. What decided the Grand Champion was that the slots on all the screws around the windshield and windows on one of them lined up.”
Herman leads me to some nearby homebuilts to demonstrate the standards on which he insists (he obviously can’t find them on mine). Absolutely parallel gaps on control surfaces. Paint jobs with no discernible ridges where masking tape has separated colors. Bellies as clean and smooth as the upper surface of the wing. (“A lot of builders will do a beautiful job up top, where everyone can see it, but I like to look under the wing and in the engine compartment,” Herman confides.)
And, most important, keeping to a minimum the use of body putty to smooth inconsistencies before painting. “The most difficult thing to do fairly is determine how much bodywork somebody might have done before they painted,” Herman says. “If a pilot brings a metal airplane and it’s polished but unpainted, we can tell he didn’t use any filler. But we’re not seeing many metal airplanes anymore, because they’re so labor-intensive.
“This airplane I’d B-sheet [eliminate from contention] just on a walkaround,” Herman grumbles as we pass a handsome blue and white biplane. “He hasn’t even bothered to clean the exhaust stain off the gear leg. And look at this,” he says, pointing into the cockpit of a two seater so clean it looks like it should be wearing a “Sanitized for Your Protection” wrapper. “I don’t like the way this builder has stuck that little bottle of windshield cleaner between the cockpit sidewall and a control cable. If he takes it out before he flies, I guess that’s fine. But I don’t like the fact that he’s got it in there while the airplane is on display.”
Builders who are seriously contending for the championship bring not only their airplanes but detailed logs and photo presentations of the construction process to help prove they have done the work themselves. (I’ve brought a snapshot by my 13-year-old daughter, but it seems to make little difference.) It’s not uncommon—though strictly speaking, illegal—for wealthy sports to contract with professionals to assemble their kits. “That’s not what we’re looking for,” warns judge Barry Basse. “Even some guy who puts $150,000 into the instrument panel but has an avionics shop build it, that’s an automatic downer for me.”
“You look at the photos and ask a builder how he’d built the ribs,” says Herman. “If he starts bumbling around, you know the hardest work he did was signing the checks.”
Some builders wear matching husband-and-wife jumpsuits in the colors of their airplane, with caps embroidered with its registration number—a move that should have no bearing on their score. “Theoretically it’s not supposed to,” Herman says. But, he admits, “If the builder is running around in a shirt he hasn’t washed for three weeks—well, different things impress different people.”
It’s soon clear I’ll never win a thing at Oshkosh, but the crowd loves the Falco for its classic shape and feisty paint job. I’ve placed a rude placard on the propeller warning spectators not to manhandle the airplane: “Kippa u hens off, doan wokkonna wings, doan opinnacowl,” it begins. “U messwiddit, mei brekka u bonz.” One friend, when asked whether she thought the sign amusing or tasteless, said, “Can’t it be both?”