Learning about RVs - How do I start?

"For people who build airplanes, education is powerful and essential."

-- Sam Buchanan on the Aeroelectric Connection

Just because I've put together a website automatically make me an expert on all things involving kitplanes. At this point, actually, I could still be categorized as something of a neophyte. However, something that I have managed to do so far is to get involved with the RV community, meet people, ask questions, and make new friends. Figuring out how to fit into a community like this isn't as easy as some people like to think it would be. If you're feeling a bit overwhelmed and trying to figure out how to learn whatever you need to know, the following advice is for you.

How do you learn about RVs and get involved in the community? Here's a series of sequential steps. It's probably not a good idea to take these hard and fast rules and the only way to do it, but it's what I did after a bit of trial and error and it seemed to work for me.
  1. Read books. Those that know me well know that this is my advice to just about anything. (Originally, this was going to be a column just on what books you should get, but it sort of got out of control.) What books are good? Here's a list, in some sort of order. We'll start with books that give a basic overview of all aspects of airplane construction and progress to more and more RV-specific books:
    1. Kitplane Construction by Ron Wanttaja. This is a good overview about what's involved in building an airplane, and includes what is basic to all the popular building styles. This book is a great place to start if you are thinking about building something but you're not sure what is right for you just quite yet. Lots of pictures and diagrams are included. It's a good place to start but it's not so detailed that you can stop with this one. Not a whole lot of RV information, but they are mentioned - I think that the RV-6/6A are the newest RVs mentioned in this book. Maybe it's time to come out with another edition of this book in the next few years? This one is still good, though.

    2. Tony Bingelis - set of 4 books. So which one should you get? I have all of them and have no reason to regret this so far. Two are written on engines and two of them have more to do with airframes. They were written in (more or less) the following order:
      1. Firewall Forward - first book written on engines, and the most well known.
      2. The Sportplane Builder - general advice on construction standards, setting up a workshop, some electrical basics, etc.
      3. Sportplane Construction Techniques - sort of a continuation of The Sportplane Builder. Either by design or by accident, there is more RV-specific information in this one then the other one.
      4. Tony Bingelis on Engines - an update to Firewall Forward that deals more with the Lycomings (and other traditional engines) that get stuffed under the hood of RVs, Glasairs, etc. Tony's own RV-6 is used to illustrate this.

    3. Aeroelectric Connection by Bob Nuckolls. This is both a book and a seminar, so it gets mentioned both now and later. If you're a whiz at wiring and circuit diagrams, get the reference materials off of the Aeroelectric Connection website. Otherwise, buy the book and/or go to the seminar, which will be mentioned in just a bit.
    4. Standard Aircraft Handbook by Larry Reithmaier. Unlike some of the other books on this list, this one isn't going to be interesting enough to just pick up and read in the evening, it seems like more of a reference book or shop manual for just about any all-metal aircraft. Therefore, this has lots of technical information about basic shop practices, riveting, drilling, etc. Interestingly enough, this is one of the few books sold by Van's, though you can also buy it other places, too. Note that this book is included in the Avery Kit of RV tools, so if you are somewhat lacking in planning skills you'll end up with two copies, just like yours truly.

    5. Lastly, and most importantly (since it has the most RV-specific information): 21 Years of the RVator by various folks at Van's Aircraft (and whoever else has submitted articles to the RVator). This is a compilation of all the technical articles from the Van's Company Newsletter from the beginning of 1980 until the end of 2000. Because of these dates, there are no articles about the RV-7/7A, RV-9, and RV-10. (There is apparently an article or two that include the RV-9A, which was introduced slightly before the RV-9, but I'm unable to find them so far.) This means that if you are building a 7, 9, or 10, its probably a good time to pick up a current subscription to the RVator newsletter. This is a good thing to do no matter what RV you are building, but it's even more important with a later model RV that's not covered as heavily (or at all) in the 21 Years of the RVator.

    Note that almost all of these can be purchased from the Kitplanes Bookstore. The only place you can get a current subscription to the RVator is (not suprisingly) Van's Aircraft. Pay a visit to The Aeroelectric Connection for Bob Nuckolls' book.

    Another alternative to buying and reading airplane books is to try to read all the online stuff you can find about RVs. Obviously, if you're reading this website, you've already done this step to a certain extent. The process of joining online RV groups is detailed in a later step, and although you can start puttering around online now there's a reason why it's not here: Lots of the information that's posted online or discussed in online user groups assumes you've already grasp the basics, so you'll be having to flip back to these books anyway for all the background information. Also (and this is just me), when I tried to just jump into the online groups, my brain didn't have a larger structure in which to put the information. If I don't understand the big picture and I try to start learning about details, I retain very little of the information. After I get the big picture I do much better. The majority of the information you'll run into online is very specific to a unique (or at least unusual) situation: "How to get blah blah blah engine monitor to work correctly with the Van's blah blah blah alternator" or something. For me, this information isn't really all that useful until later in the building process when you've got all the background information, and you're thinking about (for example) alternators.

    Note, now, that after you've read one or two of these books and done some research, you're not going to show up to your local RV group - see the next step - and ask the standard questions that show everyone within earshot that you haven't thought about this at all. This is good: if the people whose advice you're asking for know that you've put a bit of thought into it, they are more likely to be enthusiastic about helping you.

  2. Get involved with a local RV builder group. The builder group that is local to where I am is the TVRVBG. If you're in the North Alabama area, it's possible to get involved with them, but if you're not, then you should seek out whatever RV group is in your local area. If you don't know where the nearest one is, check the complete list on the Van's Aircraft website. If there is not a builder's group local to where you are, you might want to consider starting one. Most of the builder's groups that exist today (even the big ones) started as a few RV enthusiasts and one RV empennage meeting in someone's garage. The focus of the TVRVBG is still building airplanes (even though many of them are now completed), so the format is actually still pretty similar - except there are lots more people, lots more RV empennages between them, and lots more garages, hangars, and workshops. Other groups, such as Team RV in Atlanta, are known more for RV formation flying and traveling with their RVs.

    At this point it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to explain why I have recommended that you seek out local RV builder groups and have not yet mentioned your local EAA chapter. I do not intend to say or imply anything negative about the EAA - a fine organization of which I am happy to be a member. If you do not have a local RV builder group - or even if you do - it is well worth your time to look up your local EAA chapter and go to a few meetings in order to get involved. There are lots of things to be learned and fun to be had even in groups that aren't purely composed of RV folks.

    I suspect that the relationship between EAA chapters and RV builder groups really varies from place to place and chapter to chapter. For example, the well known RV group Van's Air Force: Home Wing (so called because it's located practially in Van's backyard) has recently merged with their local EAA chapter, EAA Chapter 105. This seems to me to suggest that these groups get along pretty well - but in other areas, the relationship between EAA chapters and RV builder groups isn't so cordial. I can really only give advice that is based on local experiences, which from a purely statistical standpoint probably won't be so relevant to you. I've found the local RV builders groups to generally be more helpful because you're building the same type of airplane. Also, they seem to be less structured. I suppose may have its pros and cons, but all I've run into so far has been pros. Meetings tend to be just a bunch of people milling around talking RVs or looking at someone's RV project.

    In any case, just be aware that it's possible to step on toes (especially if you're contemplating starting an RV builder group in a place that already has a good EAA chapter), and make an effort not to do so.

  3. Get involved with online RV groups. To an extent, some folks treat these groups serve as something of a substitute to local RV builder groups. They do some things better and some things not as well, and it's not a bad idea to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each. A (hopefully) brief summary:
    • If you have a specific question, online groups are more likely to contain someone who has seen that specific problem before, just because they contain more people. To quote the linux developers: "Many eyes make for easy bugs." What's obvious to one person may not be to someone else, and there are very few problems you'll run into that someone online hasn't seen before. These groups are huge.
    • Local groups are obviously better for getting RV rides, finding someone to help you hang the engine, and tracking down an EAA Technical Advisor. Personally, I think they are better for getting general advice, such as "Did you do electric or manual elevator trim?" They tell you, and then you can go look at it and try it out to see if what they are saying makes sense to you.
    • If you get advice from someone online, they may or may not know about what they babble. It's easier to tell if someone really knows what they are talking about if they are local.

    Where do I find these? Well, to my knowledge there's not a complete list, and you don't want to join all of them anyway. Start at vansairforce.net website and look there. Doug Reeves moderates a whole slew of Yahoo groups based on airplane type (RV7/7A, RV8/8A, RV10, etc.) Also there are Yahoo groups for everything else that you could want - Subaru engines in RVs, camping with your airplane, and you might even run across a group for your local RV builder group.

    Can you get involved with one and not the other? My advice is to do both. A large percentage of the people that you see posting stuff online are probably involved with a local RV group too.

  4. Get the preview plans. This is pretty straightforward. You'll need these before you start getting airplane parts from Van's anyway, so it's a good idea to get them beforehand, as that way you know what you're getting into. Sort of.

  5. Go to workshops. This probably is the least important step, and it's really not necessary for many builders. For me, though, it was. Whether or not this is truly necessary for you depends on whether or not you've worked on an airplane before, how much shop experience you've got, how quickly you want to get the project started, and the patience of the people in your local (or online) RV builder group. I haven't built an airplane before and I don't have much shop experience, so this is why I was involved with multiple workshops. There are many good RV workshops and builder's assistance programs out there that you can attend. A good overview of many aspects of airplane building can be learned by attending one (or more) of EAA's Sportair Workshops. I've gone to one and written a review. If you're looking for something in terms of builder's assistance programs, two of the big ones are the Alexander Technical Center in Griffin, GA (which I can personally vouch for as it's where I built my empennage - there's a review of this as well), and Jay Pratt's RV Central just north of Fort Worth, Texas. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Bob Nuckoll's AeroElectric Connection seminar. Many RV folks that I've talked to have attended his seminars, and I haven't yet met someone that attended his seminar that didn't use his diagrams and plans.

    Bob Nuckolls in action. Photo Credit: Bob Gibson.

  6. Give back to the RV community in some way. There are lots of people that do this in lots of many different ways. Probably the folks that are most well known in the RV community are those that help to spread information around - go learn about something nifty, take pictures of it, and then make a website. Names like Doug Reeves and Dan Checkoway are well known in the RV community because of the websites they run. Doug serves as the webmaster for the RV community at large, running what is the largest and most-visited RV news site. Dan, on the other hand, has constructed the most complete builder's log that has ever been posted on the web.

    There are other ways to give back to the community, too. Maintaining websites is probably the most visible way, but there are other important ways as well. You can also help organize local fly-ins, be willing to offer advice to other builders that aren't as far along as you are, help take pictures and write documentation, or spread around information via word of mouth about something new and cool you figured out that worked for your airplane.

    Contributing to the community is (most of the time) the last step - typically, you've got to do some amount of before you have anything to contribute. This is probably also the most important, though. The reason the RV community has so much to offer is because so many of its members are willing to put work into giving something back.

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