Taking Stock

Posted August, 1996

I bought my new Fly Baby at a very poor time.  I took delivery on the 31st of July, but was flying back east for a week's vacation just two days after that.  After arriving at the hangar with the new plane and getting it settled in, I just had one more evening to work on it.

However, I was disinclined to tackle any work on the plane.  I had packing and other activities to do that last night in town.  Besides, if I ran into trouble working on the plane, I would end up fretting about it all during vacation.

So, instead... I spent all week planning what jobs I'd tackle when I got back.  Anyway, I just got back from a full day at the airport...snooping,  reading, hacking, dreaming.  Just taking stock of my new airplane.

This posting is divided into three parts:  History of N45848, My list of problems, and how I did on them so far.

Before I go on, let me summarize the airplane for those unfamiliar with the type.  Fly Babies are single-seat low-wing wire-braced monoplanes, powered by aircraft engines from 65 to 115 HP.  The design won the first (and so far only) EAA design contest in 1962.  Peter M. Bowers has sold about 5,000 sets of plans, and over 400 'Babies have flown.  Until the modern kit era, the Fly Baby was considered one of the easiest planes to build.

Anyway, back to the new purchase:


The logbooks are in real good shape.  I'm the fourth owner of Fly Baby N45848, and the last two owners were real meticulous about documenting the history of the airplane.

Construction started in 1971, and the plane was first flown in 1982. The plane is built almost exactly to Bowers' plans.  The only real exception is the use of three 1/8" wires for the forward flying wires rather than the book's two, 700 x 6 wheels and tires instead of the Cub-type 800x4s,  and the builders' use of 1/4" plywood to skin the fuselage rather than 1/8".  The first change is an excellent idea (though I'd prefer two 5/32" wires instead), the second one is reasonable from the parts-availability viewpoint, and the last one is just pure unnecessary extra weight.  Bowers skinned the entire fuselage with plywood to eliminate having to fair-in gussets; many builders even rout out the plywood away from intersections.  1/4" plywood is easier to find and often cheaper (non-aircraft-grade, of course), so that's probably how 848 ended up with 1/4".

One of the curiosities of the aircraft are the Nicopress sleeves.  As most of you know, Nicopress sleeves on 1/8" cable are to receive three compressions.  All of the sleeves on N45848 have only two.

I raised my eyebrows at this when I looked at the airplane before buying.  Turns out the guy I bought it from had the same worries.   So he set up a test rig, duplicating the geometry and loading of the flying wires.  He used only two compressions on the sleeves...but it made no difference, the cable still failed before the sleeves.  Since I bought the airplane, an A&P that I know casually told me that he didn't use three compressions on homebuilts, either.  So it sounds like two are adequate (just the same, use three on your own airplanes, please).

The plane is very well constructed...a good friend, the A&P who has been annualing the plane for the last six years, even wrote in the logbook that this was the best-built Fly Baby he'd ever seen.

However, it sounds like the builder may have been better at woodworking than flying.  On the way to its first airshow in 1983, it suffered a hard landing and wiped the gear.  Repairs took only a couple of months, but the plane ended up being stored for a year or two, then sold. One might wonder that, perhaps, the builder got a little skittish about the airplane after the accident.  There's even a log entry obliquely referring to it being a bit difficult to land.  Fly Baby landing gear is rigid; there is no shock absorption capability other than that of the tire itself.  The plane *must* be greased-on for an event-free rollout.  The gear is  hell-for-stout, though...I watched one of the Fly Baby Club members really bang N500F way back when, with no damage.

Still, landings can be a bit rough.  Bowers specified Cub-type low-pressure tires to help absorb the landing shocks.  848, as mentioned earlier, was built with modern 700x6 tires.  A bit less margin for error.

Anyway, the builder sold the aircraft.  The new owner flew for about a year, then found ferrous material in the oil screen during the annual. The A-65 was breaking down.  He replaced it with a C-85-12; a Continental 85-HP engine with full electrical system and metal prop.  The new engine was heavier, of course, and the new owner installed a 12.5 pound weight in the tail to keep the CG in range.

The new owner discovered something interesting.  The airframe logs for 848 showed about 45 hours...but the A-65 had only 27 hours!  It is suspected that the builder may have fudged the time in order to fly the plane to its first air show...where it suffered the landing-gear accident on the way.  The new owner entered a correction in the logs.

He flew the plane for four years, then sold it to a fellow member of Chapter 26.  The new owner installed a transponder and LORAN.  He also moved the battery from behind the seats into an all-in-one radio box between the pilot's legs.  He reran the CG, and took the 12.5 pound weight out of the tail cone.

Don is a retired engineer and extremely meticulous, which means the  electrical system rework is neat, logical, and documented in a well-drawn schematic.  He thinks ahead, too...the battery is hard to get at in the forward center of the cockpit, so he added an 'APU' jack underneath the airplane.  One can charge the battery by plugging a charger into the port.

Everything's well documented.  He included all his receipts with the sale...it's interesting to note that almost all of his problems with the aircraft have been electrical in nature.  Burned out generators, broken starter switches, messed-up starter gears, etc.  It's interesting to note that the generator burned out while he was flying it home to Seattle from the Bay area...in the pile of receipts is a couple of days' hangar rent, plus a $50 bill *for helping him fold the wings*.  Sheesh.

Anyway, Don didn't fly it very much, but took good care of the airplane.  In the six years he owned the plane, he put about 40 hours on it.  The engine logged only six hours in the past year, all of it tied down in front of the hangar.  At the time I flew the plane home, it hadn't been off the ground for over a year.


It was fun flying the plane home last week...but frustrating, too. There are a number of things about the plane I didn't like.  Here's my list, and what I plan to do:

1.  The paint scheme.  I've got nothing against cream, but don't care for green all that much.  Plus, the scheme has a bunch of pinstriping and little trim touches that I find a bit, well, "fru-fru".  I ain't gonna  touch the paint job, though...it is *extremely* well done, and gorgeously shiny.  Others have termed it "show quality", and I tend to agree.  I'll live with it.
2.  The nose art.  The nose art is a "Far Side" cartoon, showing two airline captains sitting atop an enormous infant lying on a runway.  The caption (not included on the nose art) is something like:  "Props set...mags checked.  Let's get this baby off the ground!"  It's what Heinlein called a "funny-once"...it's funny the first time you see it, but gets kind of stale. I've got my own nose-art designed, and will probably apply it via the computerized vinyl graphics systems (can you say, "article bait"?).
3.  The pitch trim.  On the flight back from Arlington, I had to hold forward stick the entire way.  I worked on that today, more later in this posting.
4.  The aileron response.  The ailerons were a bit sloppy around the center.  My tech counselor told me that Fly Babies need gap seals.  More details later.
5.  The leg room.  848 is critically short of legroom.  I flew back from Arlington with my legs in a semi-squat-thrust position, and my legs hurt for days afterwards.   My knees were brushing the bottom of the forward bulkhead.  Fixing the legroom difficulty is a high priority.  More details later.
6.  The gol-darn clock.  One of my pet peeves is those stupid little stick-on digital clocks.  848 had one in the center of the VSI.  I took care of THAT right away... an easy twist got the clock off (self-stick tape), and a bit of work with a touch of gas and a putty knife got the remains of the tape off the glass.
7.  The mirror.  The plane had a 3" circular wide-angle mirror atop the glare shield.  I found it distracting while flying..."Hey, who's that cool dude in the helmet and goggles?" :-)  Besides, it's occupying the spot where the gunsight is going to go.  In any case, it was held on with more double-side tape, and came off easily this afternoon.
8.  The access door to the turtledeck compartment.  Bowers shows both a half-door and a full door on the plans, 848 has the half-door.  It complicates access just too durn much.  I'll alter it to a full door this winter.
9.  The shoulder harness.  It attaches too low in the aft fuselage. I'll probably run it higher, incorporating the change at the same time the turtledeck access door gets changed.
10.  The baggage compartment.  848 *has* a baggage compartment; essentially just a plywood shelf behind the seat that also holds the ELT.  It has a survival kit strapped onto it right now.  I plan on building a quick-release mechanism into the bottom of a nylon gym bag, to allow it to be quickly attached and released from the shelf.  The zippered bag will keep stuff from floating around.  Plus, I plan to put a net into the back of the area so that if anything DOES get loose, it won't foul up the controls or CG.   Another winter project.
11.  The headset jacks.  They're located out of sight under the panel, facing downwards, and tend to interfere with my right knee.   I'd just as soon have them in view on the panel and totally clear of my legs.  However, if I can get the legroom increased, my knee will be more out of the way.
12.  The radio.  Currently, 848 has an Escort 110 installed.  I like the radio just fine... but it's going to be illegal as of 1 January.  The cheapest solution would be a handheld... but after 18 months of using an ICOM in my Stinson, I'd much, much prefer a built-in.  I don't want to run a bunch of wires around the cockpit area for hooking-up a handheld, and I'd prefer an LED-style display since the area under the panel is a bit dark.  Plus, a conventional radio would be easier to handle while wearing gloves compared to the keypad of a handheld.  Still, the cost for a built-in is $400 more than the cheapest ICOM.  I may leave off the battery pack on the handheld and actually build it into the avionics box.  In any case, time to start writing a couple of articles to help pay for it....
13.  The Push-To-Talk switch.  It's the usual Velcro-mounted square switch, installed just below where my hand goes on the stick.  I'd rather have a thumb-operated switch (leaving the trigger finger free for the guns :-).  I may end up springing for a custom grip.
14.  Control Stick length.  The stick seems an inch or two too short; with my forearm resting on my thigh, I have to reach down a bit to grasp the stick.  Another excuse for a custom grip!  However, I think the problem is more due to my knees-up position due to the insufficient legroom.  Once the legroom problem is fixed, this issue may go away.
15.  The starter handle.  One thing I always liked to do with N500F was stick kids in the pilot's seat for Mom and Dad to take a picture (I even kept a spare helmet in the turtledeck).  I plan on doing the same with Son of Trigger.  However, 848 has a pull-type starter, and the power to the starter is *not* controlled by the master switch.  If the starter is pulled, the prop is gonna turn.  N500F had absolutely no switches or anything a kid could cause harm with.  I'm a bit leery about the starter handle.  Ideal solution would be to add a master-controlled solenoid to starter circuit.  Probable solution will be some sort of guard or lock to secure the handle.
16.  The Airspeed Indicator.  The plane stalls at 60 MPH indicated.  I think it's actually stalling quite a bit slower.  This may be the gauge or a problem in the pitot/static system.  A fellow EAAer is going to lend me another gauge, and I'll probably put the same sort of "static tripper" washer in front of the static port as I had on N500F.    See "Catchin' Static", KITPLANES, September '91.
17.  Landing Light/Instrument Lights.  Fly Baby N45848 has nav lights and a strobe, and is legal for night flight.  I've *always* wanted to fly an open-cockpit plane at night.  However, due to the delicate nature of Fly Baby landings, I think I want a landing light to help me grease it on at night.  There's room under the forward fuselage for a (heh, heh) retractable light.  Or I can strap a teardrop housing to a landing gear leg.  Plus, I'll need some sort of instrument lighting.  Wag-Aero has the eyebrow-style lights, or I might try to work in some post lighting.  A winter (and probably beyond) project.
18.  A lower-profile headset.  I flew N500F eight years wearing the same Banana Republic leather flying helmet, and am much attached to it.  Not only is the leather extremely soft and supple, but the sun has bleached the leather pale on the top, darkening gradually down the sides.  IMHO, it's very attractive.  One problem, though:  It has no provision for a headset, other than tiny 1/2" holes that are normally covered by small snapped flaps.  Wearing an ordinary headset clamps the leather down on my ears; not too comfortable.  In addition,  I'd like a headset system that doesn't show (much) externally.  I looked at several candidates, but they aren't really designed for high-noise-level open cockpits (more for airline pilots).  I didn't want to risk wasting my money on a $200-$300 system that may not have met my requirements.  For now, I've bought a Flightcom 5DX.  So far, the leather-clamp effect hasn't been too bad and the performance seems to be good.


Back for the first full day today, I planned to spend the entire day out at the airport.  My primary goal was to make the airplane more comfortable to fly, in other words, 1) Getting rid of the tail-heaviness, 2) Adding gap seals, and 3) Increasing the leg room.  Leg room is actually of prime importance, but I know there won't be a quick fix for it.

Back when I was fiddling on N500F, I had my airplane-working tools close to hand.  Not so, any more.  I wasn't sure what tools I'd need today, so I decided to load up on everything.  I backed my beat-up yellow pickup (AKA "Ol' Rancid") up to the garage and started to load.  I found my "airplane tools" box, and loaded it.  Plus my mail tool box from atop the rollaway.  Power drill, power screwdriver, power cords, camera, gas can, gas funnel, files, tin snips, a scrap sheet of .040 AL, an old seat, flashlight, trouble light, and atop the stack went my summer flying jacket and my flight bag with helmet and headset.

First priority was the tail heaviness.  The previous owner is quite a bit lighter than me, and my Tech Counselor warned me that I might be getting near the aft limit.  I used the last Weight and Balance report and worked in my weight, using the same moment arm as before.  The recommended range was MAC of 18.1% to 31.5%.  With full fuel and 25 pounds in the baggage compartment, the CG was at about 24.25% MAC; at empty tanks, it was about 26.15%.  Right around the center of the range.

We'd had a tail-heaviness problem in N500F, back when the club first got going.  The horizontal stabilizers are held in place by two U-brackets.  On N500F, the forward U-bracket had a series of holes that allowed simple adjustment of tailplane incidence.

However,  a look down the inner edge of Son of Trigger's horizontal stab showed *two* bolts, instead of N500F's one.  The Fly Baby construction manual shows two bolts, so apparently, the change was made in the plans without instituting the change in the prototype.

Two bolts would complicate adjustment...the leading edge of the stabilizer moves in an arc, and I'd be stuck with trying to drill a pair of holes along the arc, while trying to maintain edge margin.

My Tech Counselor (who restored N500F in 1982) felt that only one bolt was really needed (as N500F had proven for thirty years).  So I planned to remove the stabilizer/elevator assembly, unbolt the bracket from the fuselage, and reinstall the bracket with a single bolt from the lower hole in the bracket to the upper hole in the windshield.  I calculated a ~2  degree increase in incidence.  If it wasn't enough, I'd add a fixed tab (hence the scrap aluminum).

I removed the right horizontal stabilizer, to discover that the *nuts* were on the outside of the fuselage.  I had assumed the builder would have put the heads on the outside and used anchor nuts inside (the plans didn't specify).  I bet that the bolt heads were somehow restrained inside the fuselage...and lost.  One nut came off just fine, but the whole bolt turned on the other.  I needed to get a wrench on the bolt head.

The 'Baby has an access panel on the left side of the fuselage near the tail post.  The original builder of N45848 must have been a big-airplane type...this 5 inch by 6 inch access panel had *15* wood screws holding it on.  Plus dimpled washers.

Using the flashlight, I could see the bolt heads on the right side.  Unfortunately, my arm was too big to reach all the way into the access panel and clap a vice-grip on the head.  I debated cutting the hole larger... but there'd be a lot of fabric taping, etc, I'd have to redo, not to mention building and painting a new access panel.  I considered holding off until my Tech Counselor could come by (he's on the wiry side and could probably reach the bolts).  But in the end, I decided to remount the stabilizer and see what a fixed tab would do.

I cut a 4" x 6" tab from the aluminum, and cleaned it up using the file I brought along and some emery cloth I still had in my airport cabinet.  Then I  went to dig through the parts containers in my airplane tool box to find some mounting screws.  But they weren't there!  I'd used to keep a variety of parts in old film containers, but apparently had returned them to the main containers in the garage.  Fortunately, a friend was working on his Volksplane and I was able to cadge some #6 x .25" stainless steel screws.

The plane needed nose-down trim, so the tab would be deflecting upwards.  A while back, I read that, in this case, the tab should be installed on the bottom of the elevator to reduce the bent it'd have to take (since the elevator already tapers up from the bottom).  I drilled the holes and installed the tab...but then got worried.  The tailing edge of the elevators is pretty blunt.  It looked to me like the tab wouldn't be very effective on the bottom, since it was kind of in the "shadow" of that blunt trailing edge.  I unscrewed the tab from the bottom and set it on top...then changed my mind.  I didn't want to drill any extra holes.  I decided to try it on the bottom, switching it to the top if it needed more effectiveness.

Next up:  the aileron gap seals.  Nothing very complex here...just deflect the aileron full up, and apply some duct tape between the aileron and the wing (the hinges are on the very top of the ailerons).  While on vacation, I wandered into a surplus store, and found some very nice white duct tape.  I first tried to block the stick hard to one side, but it turned out to be too tough.  So I disconnected the pushrod at the aileron, held the aileron full up, and applied the tape.  A ten-fifteen minute job, no more.

Finally, it was time to look at the legroom.  N45848 has toe brakes; IMHO a Satan-spawned innovation as far as taildraggers are concerned.  Heel brakes give definite separation between rudder action and brake action...you might run off the runway with heel brakes, but you're less likely to nose over.

Anyway, I suspected the rudder/brake pedals of being "deeper" than the simple rudder pedals N500F had, reducing the effective legroom.  When looking at N45848 before buying it, we'd taken off the inspection panel under the rudder pedal area.  Son of Trigger has metal plates connecting the rudder cable to the pedals; it looked like simplicity itself to make longer plate and add some legroom.  However, there wasn't much pedal travel left.  With the past owner pushing the pedal down all the way, there was only about 1/2" clearance from the brake linkage to the firewall.  I figured I could make a set of plates with the holes 3/4" farther apart, and use a Moto-tool to rout out some depressions in the back of the 3/8" plywood firewall to clear.

But I didn't like the solution.  There wasn't really any hazard involved, since the firewall has stainless steel on the engine side.  But it just seemed too klugy.

The other solution involved the seat itself.  848 has a nicely upholstered, very comfortable seat.  The seat definitely took some room, but the past owner had modified it for me to win back an inch or so more legroom, and just eyeballing it, I didn't see how it could be contributing much more to the legroom problem.

I sat in the cockpit, pushing the rudder pedals back and forth.  One thing I noticed...it felt like the pedal was ALREADY hitting the firewall...the previous owner may not have been bearing down all the way.

On the other hand...the tip of my toe was also hitting the firewall.

I thought long and hard on that.  In N500F, my toes barely reached the firewall at full rudder extension.  So maybe Son of Trigger's verdamnt toe-brake pedals WEREN'T that deep.  Maybe the seat WAS the problem.

Back when I was desperately trying to make the Nieuport cockpit comfortable, I had bought a variety of commercial stacking chairs with fiberglass seats bolted to welded-steel legs.  I had brought the most erect-back one to the airport today.  I pulled out the current seat, and dropped the commercial seat in there.  It had no base, no way to lock onto the seat rails.  But I just wanted to see what the absolute lowest-profile seat could give me

I climbed into the airplane and slid down, down, down.  It was like sitting down on the john after leaving the seat up.  Fully down,  the legroom problem had disappeared...and I had at least two inches from the top of my knees to the bottom of the panel.  The previous owner had installed pads on the cockpit sidewalls to rest his knees on...and my knees were on them.

So my next step is obvious.  I'll leave the rudder pedals alone for now, and work on building a low-profile base for that fiberglass seat.

That was enough work for today.  I had been watching the wind all afternoon, debating whether to try out the elevator tab and aileron gap seals.  It was a bit gusty, and a bit cross, but I finally decided the wind wasn't that bad.

Both mods worked.  At cruise, the plane was now slightly nose-heavy (which I prefer) and the ailerons were a crisp as N500F's.  For the short duration of the flight, the short legroom didn't bother me as much, and the belief that a solution was in sight made the cramped quarters tolerable.

Things are shaping up.  There are still a few airshows coming up, I might be able to make it to some of them.

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja.

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