Dumbo's Donkey

My engine is too beautiful to hide away under a cowling. Perhaps I should fit a Perspex section in the bonnet, like the see-through panel that Ferrari fits on its mid-engined cars so that the engine can be admired by onlookers?

Words: Colin Goodwin  Images: Philip Whiteman

My engine is too beautiful to hide away under a cowling. Perhaps I should fit a Perspex section in the bonnet, like the see-through panel that Ferrari fits on its mid-engined cars so that the engine can be admired by onlookers? Currently it is sitting on a stand in the corner of my shed. Its builder, Neil Andrews, delivered it last week ? right in the middle of an extremely busy day’s scribbling. Immense willpower was required to finish the road test of the new Volkswagen Up without constantly nipping out to the shed to have another look at the motor.

The engine is a bit like the elephant in the room for a kit plane builder ? especially the Van’s RV builder, who will be requiring a Lycoming for his machine. You know, when you are busy riveting away in the early days of your project, that one day you will have to hand over an immense amount of money for an engine. More money than the whole airframe cost. I have spent the last four years mulling over the different avenues that one can go down to procure an engine for sensible money. Early on, a second-hand engine from America was investigated. Have a look on Ebay and you’ll see plenty of Lycomings for sale. Many of the sellers come clean and say that the engine is only suitable for use in an airboat. Some say nothing at all, but the photographs show an engine that looks suitable to be an anchor. The risk of buying a lump of scrap, I decided, was too great.

Plan B was a second-hand engine sourced in the UK. Several RVers I know have gone this route with some success. Some have come unstuck and ended up spending money that would have bought them a brand-new engine through Van’s. I toyed with the idea of buying an old Cherokee, using its engine and scrapping the airframe. This isn’t as daft as it sounds, when you have a look at how cheap some of these aircraft are today. Also, you’re then able to fly around for a bit behind the engine, finding out whether it works or not, before you bolt it to your new pride and joy.

However, several builders have warned me about going off-piste with engines. If you stick to the specification that Van’s sells, they said, everything will fit as it should. Bits such as the cowling will neatly surround the motor without months of filing and sanding. And the pieces in Van’s ‘firewall forward’ kit will all fit, too.

So I eventually decided to buy a Lycoming from Van’s: an Experimental one, rather than certified. One thing I had set in stone from day one is that the engine was going to be fuel injected and rated at 180hp, which in Lycoming-speak means an IO-360. Yours, sir, for $26,500 ? at least that’s what it was in the autumn last year. By the time I got around to ordering it in December, the price had shot up to $28,700 ? and that doesn’t include shipping or VAT. Even now I can barely bring myself to do the sums for you, but it works out at just over �22,000, not including delivery to the UK.

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A breakthrough

And then, just as I was about to send off the cash, a breakthrough. While talking to my pal Peter Reid, whose RV-7’s specification I have shamelessly plagiarised, he suggested that I look into buying an engine from Superior, the company that makes Lycoming clones. Superior had gone pear-shaped but was now, said Peter, back in business. Its version of the Lycoming is said to be much better than the original. So I rang the company in Texas. To cut a long story short, it could sell me an engine to the correct spec in kit form for $25,500. “But,” said the man at the factory, “why didn’t I contact its agent Adams Aviation in Croydon, UK?” I did and the very helpful chap there said, “why didn’t I talk to Neil Andrews at Aero Engineering and Powerplant in Wokingham, who could build up the engine from a kit?” So I called Neil and I’m damn glad I did.

After a few emails we settled on a specification and a price. AEP was able to undercut the Van’s price by a couple of thousand quid ? and with no shipping costs. Best of all, Wokingham is only about half an hour away from me and when you’re spending this amount of money on something it’s reassuring to meet the person you’re giving it to. Over a cup of coffee Neil and I discussed specifications, even down to the colour I wanted the engine painted.

Andrews is fantastically enthusiastic as well as knowledgeable ? and a good bloke to boot. He reckoned that the kit would take a few weeks to arrive and that he and his crew would then spend about a week fitting the engine together. If cost is no object, then AEP can build you a replica of the engines it built for Red Bull air racing, but for me it is an object, so I made do with the standard service. Even then, Neil and his team carefully match components and balance all the moving parts. As planned it is injected, with horizontal induction and a cold air sump ? as good as it gets for Lycomings.

It also has black crankcases, silver cylinder barrels and black cylinder heads. “You don’t want to paint it black because you won’t be able to see the oil leaks,” said one mate. “Good,” said another.

Seeing it run for the first time

Another no-brainer for going to AEP is that it was possible for me to drop down to see my engine run on the dyno. Neil took it well that I turned up with a posse of pals. Neil has built a very impressive test cell and control room, with heavy sound insulation. Although I’ll be running a constant-speed propeller, Neil runs the engine with a cut-down, fixed-pitch Hartzell to give it some work to do. I’ve always loved the internal combustion engine, right from when as a four year-old I used to watch my dad wrap the starting rope around our Suffolk Colt’s starter pulley. I remember the excitement of whether it would start or not. The thrill of that moment has never left me.

Naturally, the 6.0-litre Lycoming ? an engine that costs practically double the price of a replacement 500bhp V10 for a BMW M5 ? starts on the button. The rig to which the engine is bolted is mounted on trunnion bearings. By measuring the torque and carrying out the required calculation using the rpm, Neil can come up with a horsepower figure. And I like what he tells me: running at 2,700rpm the engine is producing just under 195hp. When it is run in, we may see even better performance.

So, perhaps we are getting somewhere with this project. The instrument panel is all fitted and everything is working. Sometimes I sit in the cockpit on my lovely leather seats with a bottle of London Pride and scroll through the screens on the Dynon FlightDek 180 and twiddle with the radio. I can’t believe how much I’ve enjoyed doing this part of the project. Like many of us, I have a phobia of electrics, but there’s a big difference between grabbing hold of a fistful of forty year-old wiring and gazing worriedly at an ancient diagram, and planning a system from scratch. I know where wires are going because I put them there.

As with most kit building you’re bombarded with suggestions, advice and information on how to do things. For example, circuit breakers versus fuses. Many people don’t like car-type fuses because if they go pop in flight you can’t change them without doing an involuntary Immelman turn. But hang on, I thought a popped circuit breaker is telling you that something is wrong? So I’ve gone for blade fuses that I certainly can’t replace in flight because they’re hidden behind the panel. (One of the advantages of cutting your teeth on a basic aircraft such as a Luscombe is that you aren’t paranoid about losing systems because, generally speaking, they’re not fitted in the first place. As long as the prop is still going around and you have fuel you can land as soon as it’s convenient and investigate the problem.)

The same philosophy applies to the amount of kit that you fit. You probably saw the ‘Pilot Notes’ item in the last issue: research has shown that glass-cockpit aircraft aren’t any safer than those fitted with steam-driven instruments. The reason that I’ve fitted a Dynon system is that it’s fantastic value for money, is light and contains a package of information that there wouldn’t be space to display on analogue instruments. That you can add a simple autopilot system for very little money is another bonus. I don’t intend to fly great distances on autopilot, but it’s handy to let it do the flying while you sort out a chart or flick the Pooleys onto a new page. I suspect that most of my flying will be done using the compulsory analogue air speed indicator and the analogue altimeter, with the Dynon showing me manifold pressure and rpm. It’s easy to scroll quickly to the page for fuel information ? and it’ll tell you automatically if something’s amiss with the Ts and Ps.

I’ve bought all the avionics in the UK. Yes, buying in the USA might have saved a few quid but I reckon it’s a false economy. I know that Mendelssohn’s keeps a batch of spare units handy so that if yours goes phut just when you were hoping to take a flying holiday, you can borrow a replacement. You can’t do that if you bought the device in California. So far I’ve had excellent service from all the companies that I’ve used.

Next job: mounting the engine

The next job is to hang the engine on the front of the fuselage. And here comes a problem: my tiny workshop isn’t big enough for an RV-7 fuselage with an engine on it. So I’ve made a doorway in the back of the shed that the tail can be shoved through. I’ve just bought a block and tackle on Ebay for thirty quid, which is man enough to lift the Lycoming high enough off the ground for it to be mated up to the firewall. Once attached we can fit the undercarriage legs to the engine frame and let the kite down onto to its own wheels for the first time. That might require a toast with red wine, because surely it is some kind of landmark.

With the motor fitted it’ll be time to crack on with Van’s notoriously awkward-to-fit cowlings. With that done it’s time to do the plumbing. There is of course that firewall forward kit, which contains all the expensive bits such as the prop governor: I’ve assembled most of it part by part because I didn’t have the cash to buy it all at once. I think that I’m going to enjoy this bit even more than the making the panel. Gordon Hill, my trusty inspector, is going to have to be brought in to check the engine bay. Pals joke that the wings might fall off, but they won’t. Trouble will more likely come from something simple such as a fuel union coming undone or a throttle cable jamming at a crucial moment.

I took a handy shortcut the other day and got Roger Targett at Targett Aviation to fit the GRP wingtips. I don’t like working with fibreglass and it’s an important job because if you put them on crooked you spend a lot of time trying to trim the aeroplane. Slightly cheating, but I think I can claim to have built (with lots of helpers) most of the aeroplane myself.

Finally, my RV now has an identity: it’s G-DMBO. I’m not one for personal plates on cars, but since it doesn’t cost much to choose your own reg on an aircraft, I thought I’d go for it. DMBO of course stands for Dumbo. My dad flew in a Wellington called Dumbo and I recently found a photograph of him standing in front of the painted-on drawing of the flying elephant and its name. The old boy didn’t live to see me learn to fly: he only saw the cars and motorbikes, which ? because he never learned to drive ? he neither cared about nor understood. He’d have loved DMBO.