DOODLE DESIGNS. All his life, author Budd Davisson has dreamed up his own designs for airplanes, including this sketch of the “Lazy Hawk,” which he has no intention of ever bringing to fruition but loves to dream about. It makes him smile.
Anyone who has flown for more than 10 minutes has developed an idea of what defines the perfect airplane. Many people have determined that out of the hundreds of different airplane types, there’s not a single one that exactly scratches their particular itch. This is why so many of us doodle airplanes on napkins and in the margins of the business reports we’re supposed to be reading. This also is why a few rare souls actually do put pen to paper to design their own airplane before bringing it to three-dimensional life. I’m not one of those souls—and I never will be. For a couple of very specific reasons, I’d never design nor build my own airplane.
Note: We’re talking about designing and then building an airplane—not just building it. Lots of people build airplanes. Most of them build from kits, but the more ambitious builders take a few sheets of paper and a pile of tubing, aluminum or Fiberglas, and rearrange them into an airplane. These are the scratch builders. Just building, however, is a world apart from designing and building.
Is designing an airplane really that difficult? That depends on an individual’s background, experience and tenacity. When designing an airplane, tenacity probably is the most important element: With an oversupply of tenacity, an individual can learn everything necessary to design an airplane from scratch. And a lot of more or less “normal” folks do it.
In theory, my engineering background (ASE) and half century in building airplanes should qualify me as an ideal candidate to come up with my own design, but I want to make it clear—that ain’t gonna happen. Ever.
I don’t design and build airplanes for the same reason I don’t design and build my own acoustic guitars. Like so many other people, I have very specific tastes about what I like. Back in the day, when I was still a newbie to both flying and music, I surrounded myself with my own designs for airplanes, cars, guitars, etc. These designs were like graffiti on everything I owned. But as the years flashed past and my experience multiplied exponentially, the drawings—casual at first but very formal later—took on a different flavor. Guitars disappeared altogether, and the airplanes became replicas of known racing airplanes, or serious modifications of existing airframes. The original designs disappeared from sight for what I consider to be very good reasons.
Acoustic guitars and airplanes share a basic secret that has dogged their designers from the beginning. Beyond the basic physics, beyond the nuts and bolts, spruce and rosewood, on rare occasions, there’s “something” in a given airplane or guitar that makes it just different enough that it has a distinct personality of its own. And that personality can be neither predicted nor defined by numbers or calculations.
No matter what any designer tells you, until the drawings on the paper have come alive in the form of the final product, the person doesn’t actually know how the project will come together. The designer can’t predict whether it’ll have that “something” or not. Generally, the design may come close to nailing performance specifics—and yes, the airplane will fly fine, and the guitar will make the appropriate noises—but will “it” be included in the package?
What we’re talking about is the art and the magic that’s an intangible but nonetheless important ingredient when creating inanimate objects that gain life through the excitement they inject into our senses. Case in point: I’ll forever remember the first chord I played on a friend’s 1927 small-body Martin guitar (000-42 for those who care). I was stunned! Absolutely stunned! Although it was the same size and shape as a number of my own instruments, it was so much more alive and had so much more voice that it crawled inside me and vibrated in a way that I’ve never again felt in my more than 50 years as a serious musician. Now every instrument I handle seems dead and dreary by comparison.
The same thing happened 30 seconds into my first flight in an F8F Bearcat: This wasn’t just an airplane that behaved like a projectile; this was a piece of aluminum art. Every aspect of its being dovetailed with those receptors within me that I use to judge airplanes, and literally screamed, “Perfect fit!” Leroy Grumman’s boys had somehow managed to transcend the numbers and the hardware to create an aeronautical device that was part airplane, part flying carpet and all magic. It was, to my taste, the perfect airplane, and I was in awe of it. I still am.
As I was in the process of gaining the skills that would be required to design and build my dream airplane, I had several experiences like the foregoing. Each reminded me that my tastes are so specific, I’d be dead wrong to think I could bring my dreams to life through a design of my own. I’ve seen the art others have incorporated into their creations, either by design or luck, and I know for a fact that it would be a cosmic accident if I were to hit the mark with my own design. I don’t want to invest the time designing and then building to come up with anything short of perfection.
I still doodle airplanes, but now I’m just doodling—not seriously dreaming. It took a while, but I now realize that when designing living entities such as airplanes and guitars, the art and black magic involved easily humble the supposedly immutable laws of physics. No one knows exactly why, which is just fine with me. I don’t think mankind is supposed to have all the answers anyway.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII and CFIA, and aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Visit his website, www.airbum.com.