Learning to Build with EAA SportAir

OK, so I don’t really have any building to do right now.  In fact, I’m 400-some miles from home, writing this in my parents’ living room on my Christmas mini-vacation.  But this blog is in dire need of content, so I’m going to write a few posts about things I’ve done as I prepared to embark upon this RV project.
Anyhoo, one thing that I fidgeted about (probably like every other new builder out there) was the skill set I was going to need to build my plane.  I consider myself to be a pretty handy guy, but all this sheetmetal and rivet stuff was definitely outside my realm of experience.  Being a serial researcher, I did a lot of Googling, read lots of information, and watched innumerable videos on the subject of riveting.  I felt like I had at least a decent handle on the mechanics of the process…but of course, there’s generally a world of different between having the book knowledge and actually performing a task.
As such, I was thrilled when I got an email informing me that there were going to be EAA SportAir workshops in the Atlanta area.  It didn’t take much thinking on my part before I signed up for the Sheet Metal Basics class.  Basically, over the course of the class, I would construct a small wing section, and learn about riveting and various other tasks along the way.
So one cold November weekend, I got up way earlier than usual and drove myself to the Aviation Institute of Maintenance.  A couple cups of coffee raised my spirits while everyone got the general introduction and we broke into our individual groups.  The first part of Saturday was spent in the classroom, where our instructor covered such topics as tools, materials selection, fastener types, edge distances, and lots of other information. (I don’t have the booklet handy, so I’m going my memory here)
Then it was into the workshop, where we got our build partners and started on our first practice project.  This was a fairly simple thing, just a couple of bar stock pieces and an aluminum angle section that had to be marked, clamped, drilled, and riveted together.  Here, I learned an important lesson: The rivet squeezer beats the rivet gun any day.  The first rivets I squeezed were lovely; it turns out squeezing is pretty idiot-proof.  My first attempt at bucking, however…different matter.  Coincidentally, I also got my first experience drilling out rivets as well. (Along with my first time destroying a hole while trying to drill out a rivet. Oops.)
Well, that was educational.  On to the real practice project, the wing section.  For this project, we had to form a couple of ribs, rivet together the wing skeleton, then clamp/mark/drill/rivet the skins.  My partner and I succeeded in finishing the skeleton and getting the top skin marked before it was time to quit for the day.  The next morning, we went back to work with vigor, drilling the top skin, only to discover…crap.  Bad edge distance on one of the ribs, and I was sure I left plenty of room.  Well, that’s why it’s a practice project…we compensated by drilling an additional rivet hole with proper edge distance.  And you better believe I was way more careful with the bottom skin.
The finished product, all things considered, wasn’t too ugly.  Well, except for the control surface section, where it turned out our skin was bent incorrectly, and thus didn’t line up quite right.

Finished wing section

The fruit of our labor

I can say without reservation that this class was worth every penny.  I probably could have figured a lot of this out at home with the practice kits from Van’s, but I would have lost out on having an experienced eye to help out and offer useful tidbits.  I came home Sunday evening really feeling like I could build an actual airplane.  We’ll see how long that feeling lasts when I get real kits to work on…
I also gained a real appreciation for the prepunched kits that I’ll get to work with.  All that clamping, marking, and drilling provides a lot of opportunity for foul-ups; I’m glad that the vast majority of that work will be done by CNC machines at Van’s and not in my garage!
(Oh, and I got to take the wing section home.  At some point, I’m going to paint it and put it on my desk at work.  Should make for an interesting conversation piece.)

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