Bob Nuckolls' Aeroelectric Seminar


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"A beginning of the end is marked by replacement of experience and common sense with policy and procedures."

-- R. L. Nuckolls III



Background

Any time you get more than two RVers in a room, you'll probably be able to find something RV-related on which they disagree, perhaps violently. Variations of opinions about canopy styles, engines, taildraggers, what kind of prop is best . . . the list goes on and on. The disagreement about these topics and the resulting discussion that it generates isn't a negative part of the RV community - generally, it means that anyone that wants to can get multiple informed opinions on any given topic even if the people that they're listening to do not agree. Ideally, this helps people make informed decisions about the options on their airplane if they have the patience to listen to everyone else.

As great as that is, it makes life a bit intimidating for those that are new to the RV community. There aren't very many simple or clear-cut answers - any request for "what do you think about [some topic]" to an RV mailing list has the potential to touch off a firestorm of discussion. Given all that background, you can probably understand my hesitation in posting a message to the TVRVBG mailing list asking for opinions about whether or not I should attend the Aeroelectric workshop. To my surprise, everyone on the mailing list seemed to agree that I should go. Bob, according to everyone in the TVRVBG, really knows his stuff. Well, if I've found out the one thing that all RVers agree on, I certainly don't want to be left out. I'd better sign up.

Even before I went to the workshop, though, something interesting happened to give me insight into the character of Bob. I discovered that the Aeroelectric website isn't secure, so typing in your credit card number over the web carries with it a certain amount of risk. I emailed Bob and explained that I didn't want to take this risk, but I still wanted to sign up for the class. Bob let me get away with putting in a fake credit card number and then promising to pay when I got to the class. I also wanted to get the book ahead of time, so I asked if he wanted me to send him a check. Well, a couple of days later two books (my dad and I were both planning to go) show up on the doorstep. I guess that's my answer - he didn't bother to wait for a check. That impresses the socks off of me as I haven't given him a check or valid credit card number yet.

Okay, off to the class:

After a quick hotel breakfast, we meandered into a room that was unequivocally the correct place to be, at least judging by the proliferation of airplane-themed shirts. After a well-organized registration, we all found our seats and Bob launched into a discussion of his airplane laws. Since these ideas formed the cornerstone for the whole course, I'll repeat them here:

  1. Things break.
  2. Systems shall be designed so that when things break, no immediate hazard is created.
  3. Things needed for comfortable termination of flight requires backup or special consideration to insure operation and availability.
  4. Upgrading the quality, reliability, longevity, or capability of a part shall be because you're tired of replacing it or want some new feature, not because it almost killed you.

These all sound like obvious ideas that we'd like to think are design criterion for all of the airplanes that we rent, but unfortunately this simply isn't true. Simply from a design perspective, some aircraft don't have fault-tolerance built into the system, but just depend on better parts that are less likely to break. Not only does this make the system more expensive, but because the part is probably still going to break eventually, the reliability of the system hasn't really been improved as much as it could be with a better design. Just from a purely practical standpoint, if you noticed that the alternator in the rental C-172 died twenty minutes into the flight, would you feel comfortable flying the rest of the way to the beach? How long would it take you to figure out that it wasn't working anymore?

In addition, everyone that has hung around airplanes (or the pilots that they own) for any appreciable length of time has heard horror stories of maintenance on certified airplanes. (In case you haven't, here's a sample.) A pretty healthy chunk of the "I learned about flying from that" stories that appear in aviation magazines would be much less exciting for both the readers of the magazine and the participants in the story if the setting involved well-planned electrical designs in airplanes that didn't have goofy things done to them when they were being maintained.

After Bob outlined his laws of airplane design, the rest of the course detailed the specifics of what you get when you apply those principles to an actual electrical system design. I'll run through the very high points of the class, but don't take this as even a summary of what Bob says. I'm not detailing any of the specifics here; for that you'll have to see his website, buy his book, or get on the Aeroelectric mailing list. In any case, the high points:

  • To design a system that is fault-tolerant and has the attributes that Bob likes doesn't really cost much more than one that isn't as robust. It requires more thought, a bit more elbow grease, and maybe just a bit more money, but not much. There doesn't seem to me to be any good reason to build a "traditional" aircraft wiring system (what you'd get from Van's, for example) when building one that is so much better doesn't involve much more effort.
  • The most important thing about your electrical system, though, is the extent to which you understand it and how smart you are in operating it. Even a traditional system that you understand completely and know its limitations is better than a robust system that you don't understand at all.
  • Having breakers instead of fuses in an airplane isn't necessarily better. From Bob's perspective (and I'm inclined to agree), it's lots worse. The system should be designed to not trip the fuses, so you nusiance trips are minimal. If this is true, any fuse that blows has blown for a reason, and hence is not really something you want to replace. Do you really want to give it another chance to set you on fire when you're in the air?
  • Certification doesn't necessarily make airplanes safer. What it seems to do (to a certain extent) is to keep you from doing anything really stupid. Unfortunately, the same rules seem to keep you from doing anything that's smart, too. Therefore, if you have the legal ability to do smart things to your airplane (and you do it), the airplane that you fly is probably better than most production airplanes in many respects.

Before I attended this seminar, I had wondered about the relationship between the seminar and the book. If you had the book, is it still worth your time to go to the seminar? The answer is a definitive yes. Bob doesn't just teach straight from the textook in the class. What's convered in the class, in fact, is greatly dependent on what topics the participants in the class feel like asking about. There's a big advantage to reading the book ahead of time and coming prepared with questions about things that you don't understand or that you want Bob to explain in greater detail. The relationship bewteen the book and the seminar is such that you can read the book before or after the seminar and and still learn lots from both the seminar and the book. Obviously reading the book is much better than not doing either one at all, but even if you've read the book going to the seminar is still worth your time and attention. (Sam Buchannan has reviewed Aeroelectric book without the attached seminar. His review is worth a read. Sam, incidentally, is one of the people I have to thank for sending me to this workshop in the first place.)

It's amazing how many RVs out there are using wiring diagrams that have originated with Bob Nuckolls. I haven't met large numbers of RV folks (yet) but a healthy percentage of the builders I meet have either been to this class, read the book, or was influenced by someone who has.

Furthermore, it was neat to see how many folks in the class were building RVs - it was the majority of the people there. I got to meet Bobby Hester, who is the man behind of the first RV sites that I ran across when I first started looking for information on the RV-7/7A. Neat!


Things that were good:

  • "No unhappy customers" guarentee - Bob's guarentee is that if you weren't happy with the seminar (or book) and think that what you learned wasn't worth what you paid for it, you can pay him whatever you think it was worth. If you didn't learn anything, then you don't give him any money. From what I understand, he doesn't get many (any at all?) takers on this offer, which speaks both of the content of the class and Bob's determination to make you happy with his products.

Things that could have been better:

  • Nothing at all.
How you can prepare/what to expect:
  • Drinking from a firehose - Bob covers lots of information very quickly in this class. This certainly isn't a drawback of the class - there's just lots of stuff to cover and not very much time in which to do it. However, you can better prepare yourself by getting a copy of the book before the class and reading it through at least once. You'll have a better experience in this class if you come prepared with questions. Don't expect this to be a relaxing weekend, as it's over 12 hours of lecture in a day and a half. You get more out of it if you're ready to pay attention, take notes, and absorb lots of information in a short period of time.
  • Hands-on stuff - This class is not mainly hands-on stuff. There's some of that, but it's mostly lectures. The class is designed this way on purpose, and I agree with the philosophy behind this decision. If you understand the basic concepts, figuring out the specifics (especially with help via email and other builders in your area) isn't that difficult. The class is designed to introduce you to the basic Nuckolls ideas about electrical systems and explain the concepts and reasons behind them. It does a terrific job of that, but that's really all that can be crammed into that short a period of time. Don't come to this class expecting to be taught how to solder.

Conclusion: if you're building any kitplane, I strongly recommend you go to this workshop.

  • I have difficulty imagining a senario in which I wouldn't tell you to go to this workshop, or at the very least buy the book. While it's true that Bob has a reputation for killing a few sacred cows of aeroelectic design, it certainly must be noted that sacred cows almost always make the best hamburgers. Bob doesn't make suggestions without going into detail to explain why he thinks his idea is better and being willing to test the results. Go to this class! You'll learn things, which is fun just as an end in itself. However, in this particular instance the things that you learn help you make your airplane safer.
Contact Information and Cost:
  • Web address: http://www.aeroelectric.com/
  • Mailing address: 6936 Bainbridge Road, Wichita, KS 67226-1008
  • Cost (at time of review): $150 per person

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