Wall o Lessons Learned

Blind dates, fly cutters, and dreaming big

A FEW MONTHS AGO, I had a blind date go bad.

First let me define blind date. One perk of being a rookie homebuilder is almost every week for the past year I’ve been introduced to a new tool or gadget in the shop. Each time I encounter one of these unfamiliar tools, I experience a range of emotions—a concoction of excitement, nervousness, and anxiousness. That’s why I affectionately call these first encounters blind dates.

My date on this night was with the most intimidating tool yet.

After researching several options for cutting lightening holes in our aluminum ribs, Caleb, my building partner, and I chose a strange, off-kilter, finger-hungry tool called a fly cutter. Fly cutters can be purchased locally for only a few bucks and can be adjusted to make whatever size hole you need. Other methods for making these holes were much pricier, which was all the motivation we needed to give this awkward contraption a try.

Caleb strapped the fly cutter into the drill press, set the radius for our first hole, and flipped the switch as I took three giant steps back. The tool was even more freaky-looking in motion.

Holding my breath, I waited for the explosion. Caleb cautiously lowered the spinning beast toward our first wooden jig.

“Is it supposed to shake like that?” I asked, taking another step back. Caleb didn’t answer—he was holding his breath, too.

The blade belted out an ear-piercing squeal as it made contact with the wood. I leaned forward to see the fly cutter cutting the wood quite nicely, despite the shaking. I exhaled and that’s when my nostrils caught a strong burning scent coming from below. Caleb slapped the switch, and the twirling monster wound to a stop.

The charred interior of the hole revealed the blade wasn’t just cutting the wood, it also was burning it.

They say every accident is a chain of events, at least in hindsight. We weren’t quite to hindsight yet, so we continued.

I went upstairs to grab some munchies, and when I returned, the basement was full of smoke—not the cumulous variety, but the thin, hazy kind that fills a room slowly without notice. It’s common in the kitchen when I attempt to cook, but this was the first time I’ve seen it pour out of a power tool.


We stopped production and consulted the community. Every Tuesday night while Caleb and I work on the plane, we invite folks to watch via a live video feed and participate in an accompanying chat room. We get a nice mix of experienced builders, new builders like us, and viewers who may never build but just want to see what it’s all about.

The chat room was a buzz of activity as we opened the basement windows to clear out the smoke.

One of the viewers (obviously from the “experienced” camp) asked what speed the drill press was set to. We looked under the hood and discovered the belt arrangement was set to 3600 rpm. Immediately the chat room erupted again.

We learned our fly cutter should turn closer to 300 rpm—quite a difference from 3600—so we adjusted the drill press to 290 rpm. Not only did the machine stop its violent wobble, but the blade started to cut as it was intended (without flames). Whew. Accident averted. Lesson learned.

With the stench of burnt sawdust still in the air, we finished cutting that first hole, then searched for a Sharpie. It was time to begin our “Wall o’ Lessons Learned.” On a small section of drywall in the corner of Caleb’s basement, I wrote our first entry.

A dozen more “lessons,” each memorializing a similar story, have since been added to the wall. We approach the wall with reverence and scribe each new entry with humbleness. On the surface, it is a collection of wisdom and tips, but the wall represents much more.


Until a year ago, I never considered building my own airplane because I did not grow up tinkering in the garage and had never taken a single shop class. The birdhouse I built as a Boy Scout didn’t even pass the birds’ building code. They opted to sit in the cold rather than brave the walls I built for them.

I was grossly unqualified to be an airplane builder and knew it. However, I also was grossly unqualified to be a pilot before I began flight training. All I had in the beginning was a dream.

I acted on the dream of being a pilot, and the aviation community met me where I was. Teachers came along to mentor me. Experienced aviators offered their wisdom. Seasoned pilots encouraged me with their humbleness and generosity, and before long I was deemed qualified to fly a plane.

Learning to fly requires practice, teaching, mentoring, mistakes, and more practice. I eventually came to the conclusion that learning to build is no different.

There’s only one way to learn in aviation—and that’s to get in the game. Knowing everything ahead of time is not a prerequisite for learning to fly or learning to build. In fact, it’s okay to know very little on the outset if you’re willing to learn.

The aviation community is addicted to big dreams and rallying behind folks who dive into them. Whether it’s a fleet of volunteers at Oshkosh, a group restoring a vintage bird, or a chapter cheering on a student pilot, I’ve been impressed with the aviation community time and time again.

If you think building an airplane is impossible because of your lack of knowledge or abilities, it’s not. You no doubt need a dream embedded deep in you, which yields the much needed dedication, devotion, and drive to succeed, but even the aviation community can help foster that.

Watch our live video feed on Tuesday nights to get a taste of this community and see how doable building your own airplane can be. Or better yet, enroll in a SportAir Workshop, watch one of the hundreds of free Hints for Homebuilders videos, or talk with some folks in your local EAA chapter. There is an endless amount of resources, information, and support available.

We approach the wall with reverence and scribe each new entry with humbleness.

A quick glance at some of the other entries on our wall reveals just how diverse and broad the community of support is.

We are now a year and a half into this project, and I can say with full confidence, the aviation community is deeper, richer, more vibrant, knowledgeable, and generous than I ever imagined on the outset.

There are endless articles, videos, workshops, newsletters, chapter members, online forums, technical counselors—all available to you.

Is it possible to walk on water? You bet—but only if you have the right people by your side. As an EAA member, you have the right people beside you to accomplish just about any aviation dream. So, what’s your dream?

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