Experimenting Out of Need

By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848

This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the January 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

Since I’m in the “experimenter” section of the magazine, I thought I would tell you about a little experimenting I’ve done myself lately.

A few years ago, I attended one of the SportAir Workshops on TIG welding. I found it really enjoyable. By the end of the weekend, I was able to achieve some acceptable welds on both steel and aluminum. It was fun to learn new skills, but I also reminded myself that a man has to know his limitations. I decided that if I really needed welding done on an aircraft, I should have it done by a more experienced welder. That’s exactly what I have done through the years.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, it’s not an invention but more of a problem-solver. When I fly my helicopter to the shop, it ends up sitting outside all day in the brutal Georgia sunshine and heat and the occasional afternoon thunderstorm, which annoys me. I can’t move it into the shop because the silly wheels on the hydraulic cart that came with the helicopter so it can be moved around don’t work well anymore. Half the time I can’t figure out how to get them to work at all. The cart is no longer in production, but it’s a pretty simple device, with three wheels and a hand-operated hydraulic ram that raises the helicopter off the ground. I even adapted it for use with my AC Air Technology tug, which makes moving the helicopter around really simple.

I spent a lot of time trying to find a reasonably priced replacement cart. The company that made the original cart was no longer interested in making it. It has a newer version with hydraulic motors that moves by itself. That cart plus shipping was close to $15,000. That’s a little hard to justify for something I would use once or twice per week. Other companies were in the same ballpark price-wise, or even more. I started looking at platforms I could land on and then pull into the hangar, even though I don’t think a platform would be a good solution, since I would have to land, shut down, get the platform out of the hangar, and then start up again to reposition on the platform. Quite shocking was that the platforms were priced between $12,000 and $20,000.

One day I found myself staring at the cart and wondering why I couldn’t just duplicate it. As with any large project, it is usually just a bunch of small projects. I started looking at what I might need to build it. Right away I realized there was a lot of welding, but since the cart was never intended to fly, perhaps I could dust off those welding lessons and see if I could do it. I had wanted my own TIG welder since I took the class, but I never could justify the cost of one. I only welded something for myself about once a year, and a cheap MIG welder seemed to do the trick, albeit sloppily. Now I had an excuse to get a real one.

Trying to decide on which TIG welder was right for me was about as difficult as wondering if I could even do this project. Just like anything else, researching welders on the internet can get really confusing. After about a week of getting burned out on the research, I made a decision and ordered an Eastwood TIG 200 AC/DC welder. This welder would allow me to weld both steel and aluminum. Amazingly, it showed up in three days. Now that I had the welder, some scrap 4130 steel I had at home, and some stock I purchased from Aircraft Spruce, I was almost ready.

Just as I’ve found in building aircraft, just because the kit shows up doesn’t mean you are ready to start building. It’s the ancillary support stuff, like tools and worktables, that are needed first. In this case, I needed to get a tank of argon, the proper tungsten electrodes for the TIG torch, some filler rod, new welding gloves, a decent auto-darkening helmet, some protective clothing, and a welding table. Luckily, I had a cut-off saw from doing a deck railing project, but now I also needed a plasma cutter to cut the 1/4-inch steel plate. Boy, even if this didn’t work out, I was going to have some nice new toys.

About a week later, I was finally ready to try my hand at welding. Amazingly enough, after trying a bunch of different welds on a flat plate, tube, and rod, I was pleasantly surprised. I now had enough confidence I could do it. Since the cart lifts the helicopter only about 3 inches off the ground, I figured I couldn’t do any real damage if a weld broke. I proceeded to order the rest of the steel and everything else I needed to complete it, such as wheels, hydraulic ram, collars, etc.

It turned out to be a longer project than I anticipated. Measuring, cutting, and drilling all of the steel parts took almost a week. Hours were spent behind the cut-off saw and the drill press. Since I didn’t have a CNC machine to make sure all of the holes were in the same spots, I stacked the steel pieces together on the drill press, which sometimes made for 2 inches of stacked steel to drill through. It was slow going, using lots of Boelube to keep the drill bit lubricated.

Now, it was finally time to start welding. Guess what — I needed some more tools, just like building airplanes! When I started thinking about how to keep everything nice and square, I realized what all of those big red magnets and clamps were for. Just like Clecos, it seems you can never have enough of them. Squaring things up with the magnets and clamps, followed by some tack welds at various locations, did a nice job of keeping the frames square. Those magnets became my friends.

The first time I got the torch tip stuck in the weld, I remembered another tool I needed — a dedicated grinder to resharpen the tip. It is important to not contaminate the tungsten tip, so you can’t just use the shop grinder on it. A diamond-studded wheel attachment for a Dremel is a nice way of doing it. It creates the correct angle on the tungsten tip.

Once the tack welds were in place, it was time to get down to business. The materials were of different thicknesses, so I had to pay attention to various settings on the welder. After a few welds, it seemed to be second nature to remember to change the settings, and things progressed rather fast. It was still the dog days of August with temps in the 90-degree Fahrenheit range. Being all wrapped up in protective clothing made it feel even hotter. I did learn a hard lesson about using protective clothing, as I did forget to put a long-sleeved shirt and jeans on one afternoon and started welding. My arms and legs got pretty badly sunburned from the arc. The other thing that bit me a couple of times was to remember that the pieces stayed hot for a very long time. More than once I stupidly tried to pick up a piece to move it and couldn’t get it out of my hands fast enough.

Once I got it all welded, I took a leap of faith and painted it first, hoping it would all fit together and work. It did! It actually works as well as or better than the original. I am quite pleased with both it and myself. It felt good to use a skill I had learned quite some time ago and end up with a useful device at the end of the process.

The total cost of the project was a little more than $2,500, which included all of the steel and the tools. I had very little scrap left over, so I did a good job of measuring and ordering the right amount of steel. Truth be told, I had fun. It was nice to create something again, rather than fix something.

Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848 and chair of EAA’s Homebuilt Aircraft Council, is a commercial pilot, A&P/IA, DAR, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more 9,500 hours in 72 different types. Vic also founded Base Leg Aviation and volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot and an Angel Flight pilot.

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