Letter to a Friend

The following letter to a friend, written by Bob Collins as an article in the June 2008 edition of Kitplanes magazine.  Below I have included the letter in its entirety and unaltered.

This message resonates very deeply with me as many parts of it are very similar to my story.  Building an airplane is a journey that we choose to undertake.  For many it’s not easy, it’s not quick, and it’s often very expensive.  The journey that each of us experiences while we build our projects is unique and different from everyone else.  I love the journey and would not have it any other way.

My project has seen me grow and mature over the past 16 or so years.  There have been many wonderful people who I have been able to meet and have helped me.  There have been good times, and there have been struggles.  My project has moved across Canada with me as my career has evolved.

There are so many memories that I have experienced and this letter to a friend is spot on in describing the homebuilt aircraft journey, as well as the homebuilt aircraft community including family, friends and loved ones.

I sincerely hope you enjoy reading this letter as much as I do.

Letter to a Friend

Dear N614EF:
We’ve known each other for seven years.  I can feel your impatience and frustration with me every time an airplane flies overhead.  You want me to hurry up and finish you.  You want me to make a compromise or two if that’s what it takes for you to fulfill your purpose.

My friend Dan Checkoway feels as you do.  In April’s KITPLANES, he cited an email of mine and noted the illogic in taking so long to finish you and wanting to save the money for a fancy component. If you and I are ever to fly together, I need to “get real”, he said.

Maybe the kit culture is pushing aside builders like me, N614EF, but I don’t feel the value of what we’re doing together can be measured primarily by how fast it take us to be done doing it.

I loved you long before there was a you to love.  When I got up every morning to deliver newspapers for ten years, just to be able to afford the RV-7A tail kit that conceived you, I probably should have just sold my old airplane and written a check.  But I don’t have one to sell.  You’re a working man’s project.

The time I’ve spent taking classes on avionics and trying to engage my non-engineer head through AeroElectric Connection is time I could’ve saved just by writing someone a fat check to do the writing.  But money doesn’t flow that freely to me.

I knew when I started that it would take many years to finish you.  My kids were young, and I figured by the time you were completed, they’d be in college, and I could use you to finish them. It didn’t workout that way, of course. They grew up faster than you did.  Maybe you’re not done yet because I went to their baseball games when I should’ve been spending more time with you. That band concert in which I saw my oldest son as a young man and not as my little kid for the first time was sure something. I consider you family, N614EF, and maybe I should feel bad about spending money and time on the kids before you. But I don’t.

Remember when one of them was terribly ill, and we weren’t entirely sure he’d make it, and I was depressed by it all? You gave me a diversion from reality by letting me work on you a little bit.

How about when my dad died around the time I was working on your wings, and I went back home to clean out his workshop, and came back with a couple old tools that I used to build you? I told my mom that you were more than just an unfinished project whose worth could be measured in build hours and then flight time. You were going to be a little bit of him.

That’s also why I waited until the boys could help me rivet and then had them autograph the part. You were going to be more than just a plane. You were going to be a flying scrapbook of family memories, dedicated by the person who built you, to the people who built me.

I don’t blame Dan for wanting to set me straight.  He said on a message board that he’s not into friends and socializing. He’s into flying and tough love for people like me.” Just get it done” people like him say.

Being a homebuilder isn’t about friendship? Who knew? Last July at Oshkosh, when I could’ve been camping under you if I’d worked on you more, I was sitting in the back of a pickup with RV builders Glen and Roger, and Glen’s son, Michael, in the parking lot of Ardy and Ed’s, sucking on a root beer float, watching planes fly overhead, thinking “thank goodness for homebuilding.”

You may remember one of the tech counselor visits from Doug Weiler. He built an RV-4 over 12 years while working as a Northwest Airlines captain and raising a family. He retires in September, so he’s going to build another plane. He’ll build it quicker this time, but I bet he’s satisfied with the choices he made the first time around.  That’s what I like about traditional homebuilders.  They respect the choices we make building our airplanes.

You never met Tom Walsh. He suffered from Ankylosing Spondylitis, a painful rheumatic disease that causes arthritis of the spine and sacroiliac joints. He was an Ohio doctor who became a beloved heart surgeon and cardiologist. He had the money to buy an airplane, but he was determined to build his RV-8 from a slow-build kit. He had a family and kids and patients, and he didn’t ignore them anywhere near enough for some builders today, because when he was struck and killed by a car in January 2007, his airplane wasn’t finished.

So another RV builder, Tony Kirk, took over the project in his memory and is building it with help from Tom’s wife and contributions from great people like Jerry, Chuck and Sid at Trio Avionics. When it’s done – and it’s going real slow – they’ll sell it and use the money for the kids’ education.

I gave Tony some money, too, N614EF, money that I could’ve used to get you in the air faster.  I just figured homebuilding was about guys like Tom and Tony and, I have to admit, these days it’s a struggle to hold onto that notion.

N614EF, thank you for what you gave to my dear father-in-law. He’s one of the role models who helped me realize the importance of family and working hard. He’s accomplished a lot in life, but he’s got Parkinson’s now, and he’s frustrated at his control over the physical evaporates. But maybe you saw the life in his eyes a few months ago when I let him help drill the canopy latch lugs on you. I couldn’t tell him they were unusable when we finished drilling them. Seeing that proud look in his eyes, well, I admit I sacrificed you for that look. When I told him his work earned him a ride when you’re done, I heard what he said, even though I just went on putting the tools away as if I didn’t.  Later, I replaced the latch lugs; that took time and a few bucks.

It’s the same old thing I did to you for the sake of the boy down the street who doesn’t seem to have any friends and gets beat up at the bus stop on a regular basis.  I let him drill some holes in you a few years ago. I saw the same look in his eyes – and his dad’s – when he said, “I helped build an airplane!”

But, my friend, for those who ask, “Why aren’t you done yet?” I committed the greatest sin of all. I’ve paid for you in cash every step of the way.  Pay-as-you-go takes time, but I didn’t want to burden the family. The kids are gone now, as you know. One of them told me the other day he wants to buy a townhome, and I want to help him with a down payment, just as my folks helped me.  But that’ll result in more build time because I think that’s more important than flying right now.

The other needs some help with college expenses.  I’m not sure where all the money’s going to come from, but when you finally do fly, you’ll be paid for.

I know what you and others are thinking, N614EF: Just make a few more compromises the rest of the way and get in the air. Believe me, I know all about compromises by now, old friend.

For me, this journey we’ve made together has been about how you fit into my life, not how you became it. I found homebuilding to be a sanctuary from the judgmental world that exists in the rest of my day.

I found honor, nobility, even pride in taking my time and building you in just the way that suited me, regardless of what other builders said or how often they snickered at us.

I’ve loved most of the people I’ve met along the way. I’ve grown more confident in my accomplishments, which I don’t think were half bad for a kid who flunked shop class and I’ve never felt ashamed of all we’ve meant to each other.

And over these last seven years, N614EF, you’ve become a little piece of me too. That’s why there is an Experimental category.  We get to make our own choices, and at the end of the journey, we shouldn’t have to apologize for them.

I promise you that one day you’ll fly, and when you do, I hope you’ll be as proud of what I’ve given you as I am of what you’ve given me.

Your pal,

Bob Collins
Kitplanes June 2008

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