Build It Better

Hope is not a plan.


Have you ever had these thoughtsrun through your mind while getting ready to fly an airplane?

“I hope this thing flies.”

“I hope I will be able to handle this thing when I get it off the ground.”

“I hope I’ll be able to land it.”

Have you ever had these thoughts in flight?

“I hope that fog bank doesn’t roll in before I get there.”

“I hope that I can find a hole in these clouds.”

“I hope those thunderstorms don’t get any worse.”

I see the heads nodding out there, at least among the long-time pilots.

The truth is that everyone involved in aviation has had, at one time, a fleeting hope that things would turn out all right. It is human nature to get into something just a little beyond our comfort level, just a little beyond our experience, and hope that things will be OK.

Well folks, let’s be honest: Safe aviating begins with a plan; good aviating entails following that plan. And the truth is, hope is not a plan. We’ve all heard the saying, “It is far better to be on the ground, wishing that you were in the air, than to be in the air, wishing you were on the ground.” Anytime you start a flight hoping that things will turn out, you are probably about to experience that “wishing you were on the ground” part.

Flight Planning

Planning a flight (or a build, or a flight-test program) is a way to figure out if you have all of your ducks in a row. Do you know that you have all the information that you need to complete the flight safely? Do you know that you have the necessary skills required to come back down in one piece? Do you know that the airplane is sound and sturdy—ready to accomplish whatever mission you have set for the day? During the planning process, we walk through every step of the flight, before leaving the ground, to make sure there are no holes into which we might fall.

I remember a local Saturday morning flight in my old Grumman, many years ago. I was still enjoying the glow of first airplane ownership and was new to the fact that I didn’t have an FBO’s mechanic taking care of the rental airplane (that I was about to fly) to give me some confidence that it was airworthy. Going through my preflight, I noticed a ding in the prop leading edge. Not big, just enough to snag my finger as I slid my hand down the blade. Of course, I knew all about props and preflights—you check them to make sure that there aren’t any dings that could grow in to cracks. But no prop is ever perfect; there are always tiny imperfections that we accept. What is “good?” What is “bad?” The ding was small, probably a chip from some gravel. The prop blade was pretty big and beefy; this looked OK to me—at least, I hoped it was. I really didn’t have any money for a prop repair, so it must be OK, right?

I finished my preflight and started the engine. I noticed no vibration. As I taxied out to the runway, I kept thinking about that little ding. What does it take to propagate a crack? How much centrifugal force is pulling on that blade? Is there a crack forming? I reached the end of the runway and ran the engine up. I noticed nothing out of the ordinary and pushed that little worry deep into the recesses of my mind. I hoped—I was sure—it would be OK for a little local flight. I taxied onto the runway and added takeoff power. And then I thought about what would happen if the prop blade failed. I thought about the engine coming off due to the severe imbalance and vibration. I pictured the uncontrollable flutter of the airframe as it descended without that big chunk of Lycoming. And as I passed through 40 mph, I decided that hope was just not a good plan, pulled the throttle back and aborted the takeoff.

As I taxied back to the hangar, I noticed a local mechanic working at his shop. After shutting down the engine, I walked over and asked if he’d have a look at the prop. He was happy to do it, and sure enough, he said, “Oh, that little ding? No problem. But let me grab a file and dress it out, just so it doesn’t bother you or grow into anything later.” He was very nice about it, understood my concern, and didn’t charge me a dime; I bought him a Coke and we called it even. It was a nice day to fly, and I only lost a half hour of it. I had hoped it was going to be OK, but the mechanic knew it would have been OK. I was worried, and he was confident—but he understood I needed that same confidence, a confidence brought on by knowledge.

Know What You Don’t Know

In Experimental aviation, we rely, to a great extent, on our own mechanical ability to assemble and assess our aircraft and systems. Especially during the flight-test phase, our airplane is unfamiliar, as are its random noises and characteristics. Is that vibration normal? Should the cockpit really sound like this? These are questions that we can address by asking others with similar experience, or by being very ready for problems if they arise. Modern kit designs are pretty good when it comes to the “big stuff”—generally the wings and engine will stay attached, and the pointy end will want to continue heading forward. But what about that special oil system that you designed? Or the modifications you made to the fuel system? Are those surplus circuit breakers that you got at the fly-mart really going to trip if there is an overload, or do they just look cool? These and a thousand other questions might go through your mind when flying your new homebuilt, and it is important to be honest with yourself about the difference between knowledge and hope.

Aviation is full of unknowns. We are never going to know exactly what the weather is going to do, for instance. But we can use our knowledge of trends to give us an idea of what it might do, and then build a plan to deal with it if it stays nice, or if it turns ugly. It is one thing to say, “I hope the weather stays nice,” and another to say, “I have a plan if the weather doesn’t stay nice.”

Reduce the unknowns to a small handful, and have a plan to deal with them if they don’t go our way. Plans need to be realistic, and we need to be honest with ourselves about what we don’t know and about our own skills. When you taxi up to the hold-short line, ask yourself, “Am I relying on hope today?” If the answer is yes, then maybe it’s time to turn around. The odds are rarely in our favor when we rely on hope to get us through. That’s just gambling, and in the end, the house always wins.

Paul Dyeis an aeronautical engineer and multi-time builder. He flies a Van’s RV-8 and, along with his wife, Louise, recently completed an RV-3.
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Kitplanes magazine.