I Came, I Saw, I Lost

At Oshkosh, pride goeth before a fall.

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I’m torn.  If I hover anonymously in the background, none of the spectators will know that I am the Falco’s proud builder.  But if I make my ownership obvious, the crowd will inevitably produce at least one misguided soul who’ll dog my footsteps, asking stupid questions and announcing that he too plans to build a Falco someday, but with a turboprop engine, perhaps, and maybe an open cockpit.

What the hell.  It’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to be envied, videotaped, and interviewed, so I find every excuse to mount the wingwalk and rearrange the seatbelts, refold a chart, wind the instrumental panel clock, ponder the engine logbook, confirm that my oxygen bottle still holds the 2,000 psi it did 10 minutes ago…“Hey, didja build this?  Nice.  I’m gonna buy the plans one of these days, but I’m gonna make mine out of fiberglass, not wood.  Yea, that’s the ticket.  My brother-in-law knows a guy who’s got an old helicopter engine…”

Within hours I see that had I been serious about winning a prize at Oshkosh, I should have built three Falcos in order to come up with a single flawless example.  The average Grand Champion, judge Robert Herman tells me, is “the guy [who] has built three of every part.”  This is no exaggeration.  Recently, two homebuilders pawed through the castoffs of a friend who was building a Grand Champion and were able to build two perfectly good airplanes from the leftovers.

I’ve never quite understood such compulsiveness, for it seems ultimately to result in airplanes that are sorely underused.  The owners of such jewels hardly dare fly them for fear they’ll get dinged, chipped, and dirtied.  A carelessly dropped seat belt buckle can nick meticulously applied cockpit paint.  A neophyte passenger can take a wrong step and scar a wing panel.  A preoccupied lineman can scratch the finish with a fuel nozzle.

Like newlyweds with white wall-to-wall carpeting, the reality of muddy shoes in the cockpit is too much for such builders to bear.  Their airplanes become showplanes and are flown from one exhibition to another, then put back in gilded cages.  One frequently sees former “Oshkosh Grand Champions” for sale in aviation trade papers at inflated prices and with so few flying hours logged that it’s obvious they haven’t done much more than fly to Oshkosh and back home.

Peeking over one judge’s shoulder, I see on his pad the “Scoring Decision Tree,” a flow chart that leads to basic conclusions ranging from “deficiency is a safety item with potential catastrophic failure” (zero points) through “workmanship skills totally lacking, poor regard for aeronautical standards” (two points) and “could easily be improved with only slightly more work” (five) to ultimate “flawless in all aspects” (a perfect 10).  I flatter myself by imaging a six—“minor flaws are easy to detect”—but realize I’m parked amid a squadron of nines and 10s.

“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.”

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