I Came, I Saw, I Lost

At Oshkosh, pride goeth before a fall.

In summer, musicians trek to Tanglewood, psychiatrists converge on Cape Cod, and social X-rays head for the Hamptons.  People like me, however, who have built their own little airplanes, set course for a small Wisconsin city once best known for manufacturing fire trucks and overalls: Oshkosh.

There, amid an enormous T-square of concrete that for a week in August becomes the busiest airport in the world, we find adulation and occasional scorn, comradeship and infuriating crowds, good advice and bad, friends to be made and fools to be suffered, and just about every rare airplane in the country that isn’t ensconced in a museum.  This is the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual fly-in—the world’s biggest airshow, aviation flea market, and love-in for unusual aircraft.

Oshkosh is the one place we aircraft builders are adored, admired, understood, and safe among our own wacky kind.  At Oshkosh I’m not subjected to questions from people like my wife’s boss, who seems unshakable in his belief that I’ve built a model airplane.  Or my neighbor, who smugly turns away when I admit that yes, strictly speaking, my airplane did begin life as “a kit,” as though it were some kind of bolt-together Sears barbecue grill.

My airplane is a thoroughbred.  It is an Italian design, a Falco, and has two seats, the strength and agility to fly aerobatics, and a purity of line that makes it faster than any factory-built machine of the same 180 horsepower.  The credit goes to Stelio Frati, a shy, elderly Milanese with an equine face hidden behind thick, heavily tinted eyeglasses, who designed the Falco in 1955 and went on to create many other propeller-driven and jet trainers, utility and sport airplanes, and small transports.  The Falco remains his favorite.

What I get credit for, however, is the decision to paint my little wooden Falco in a mock Italian Air Force color scheme of lurid red, industrial gray, and red-white-and-green rondels of the sort generally seen on pizza shops.  It is the aviation equivalent of buying a Fiat and decorating it like Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari, but I have no shame.  (Well, almost none.  My 83-year-old mother, bidding me adieu recently, shouted across an airport ramp crowded with passengers awaiting the local commuter, “It’s darling, Stephan!  It looks like the models you made when you were 10!”  I could have died.)

Since I last wrote about my airplane’s journey by jitney-and-truck caravan from an upstate New York barn to a nearby airport, the Falco has matured into an entirely reliable traveling machine.  It has taken me on business trips and pleasure journeys.  It has been hosed by rain, hammered by turbulence, chased by summer thundershowers, and had its wings iced over.  It has flown into major airports and grass strips, has landed both on its wheels and on its belly (the latter when a friend who borrowed the airplane neglected to put the landing gear all the way down), and has carried me to and through a variety of adventures.

At Oshkosh, the biggest adventure is simply landing, which is something like approaching a tipped-over beehive without getting stung.  Airplanes wheel, dart, and bank onto short final while the tower gleefully stirs up a swarm of business jets, biplanes, World War II fighters, and Cessnas.  “Silver and red Navion, keep it comin’,” a controller radios.  “Turn final now.  Now, Navion.”  Suddenly I realize he’s talking to my gray and red, vaguely Navion-shaped Falco.  Apparently there are no paisanos in the tower who can tell the difference.

I’m in the middle of this madness because I’ve been rash enough to enter the Falco in the Best Homebuilt judging, competing with airplanes so finely crafted that the insides of their wings and bilges are more perfectly finished than the exterior of my entry.  To be named a Custom Built Kit Grand Champion at Oshkosh is the homebuilder’s equivalent to getting your bedroom on the cover of Architectural Digest.

My first mistake: I fail to thoroughly re-polish and detail the Falco before trotting, panting like a puppy, to the judges’ shack to register it.  Three judges with clipboards swarm over the airplane before I’ve even unloaded my bags.  “if the engine’s still warm, guy’s just flown in, we’ll ignore a few bugs on the leading edge,” on judge confides.  “But otherwise, the airplane has to be absolutely clean.  Other than maybe dust from spectators walking past.”

Swell.  The Falco has harvested most of the gnats between Poughkeepsie and Oshkosh, there are fingerprints on the wings where passersby have fondled them, a thin film of crankcase-breather oil coats the belly, and the cockpit is a clutter of charts.  At least I threw out the half-eaten Egg McMuffin.

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.”

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?”

But the spectators buy into it, and soon people are dragging their friends over to read the placard, laboriously translating the pidgin Italian.  And despite my ethnic incorrectness, the Falco soon becomes the Little Italy of the fly-in.  Pilots, engineers, and enthusiasts from Roma and Modena, Torino, and Firenze gravitate to the airplane, clap me on the back, get their pictures taken shaking my hand, peek up the Falco’s skirts and down its throat.

Some reminisce about their old friend Stelio Frati, a national hero in the Italian aviation community, and one tells me in broken English I am “man with golden hands.”  (“Yeah, and a golden pocketbook,” grumbles a nearby homebuilder who seems to resent the money I’ve lavished on my toy.)

But then one of the Italians gently takes me by the arm and leads me to the Falco’s military-legended vertical tail.  “No ‘i’ in MILITARE,” he says.  “You have French—MILITAIRE.”

I wonder: if my airplane had been otherwise perfect, would I have lost the Grand Championship because of a typo?  What a fate for a writer.

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