A visit to Keith Plemmons’ shop

First of all, a big Thank You to Keith for his presentation on July 13th. I’m a flyer, not a builder and to see and hear about someone else’s project is a bit like trying to fathom what goes into building a Golden Gate Bridge. The detail, the commitment, the skill sets that must be mastered … all that and more would be a real challenge for me. I’m glad there are builders. Jerry Tice, Mike Cola and I drove (thanks, Jerry) to Keith’s workshop west of Asheville on July 2 to see for ourselves what others have described as a truly professional shop.

Once he decided to build his Skyote, Keith equipped his shop for the tasks ahead. He found some old-school machinery (the best kind) to make the wide variety of parts that eventually found their ways into what he describes as something resembling an airplane. Here, Jerry and Mike are being shown some of the machine tools Keith has acquired to do the precision work required to make each part.

The first thing I saw on entering the workshop was a stack of 40+ sheets of dimensional drawings laid out on a perfectly level table. Keith explained the designer put everything on these sheets of diagrams that a manufacturer would need to build the airplane. Since every part is fabricated individually, some diagrams are here, some are there, but they’re all included and they all go somewhere.

The drawings were originally intended for a production version of the airplane. There are no instructions per se and no step-by-step plans such as are found in modern kits. Keith’s plans are set number 117. To give an idea of the complexity and level of commitment needed to build this airplane, only a few are actually completed and flying. Occasionally a prospective builder can find a partial project where someone or several someones simply gave up.

All these bits and pieces eventually find their place as the construction takes shape. There’s no such thing as going to the airplane store to buy a bracket or a gusset or a thingamajig common to thousands of other airplanes of the same design – every one of these has to be made individually in somebody’s shop.

Once enough parts are made and re-made to meet Keith’s requirements, they are moved to the airplane component to be assembled into the whole. Wings, for example, are put together on perfectly level, perfectly flat tables which Keith also had to make. Each task has many sub-tasks which have to be accomplished in order for the airplane component to come together. Note in this view the very slight left aerodynamic offset of the vertical stabilizer.

The Skyote is a design reminiscent of a Bucker Jungmeister – the Skyote being sleeker and smaller. It’s fully aerobatic and does its magic on 100HP or less. See Budd Davisson’s article at: http://www.airbum.com/pireps/PirepSkyote.html

Skyote (L) is typically powered by an 85-115HP horizontally opposed aircraft engine. The Jungmeister, first produced in 1935, was powered by a 160HP Siemens radial in its most widely produced variant which. along with “astonishing maneuverability”, led to its domination of aerobatic competition for many years. Note the Skyote landing gear legs are not fabric covered … see the photo captions below.
Keith’s engine choice is a C-85-12 fitted with O-200 components, an oil filter, lightweight starter and a small alternator, yielding a package that will provide about 105HP and enough electricity to run his VFR avionics.

Keith has spent the past 4+ years, at this point, living with his Skyote. He says it surprised him to learn that the building process gave him the patience to accept that every part might not be perfect the first time; when parts might be “good enough” for some, he simply starts over and tries again to make it as perfect as it can be.

Keith, pointing out where wooden gap seal blocks will go as the leading edge meets center section. In his hand is an invaluable reference: “Aircraft Maintenance”, printed in 1940 as a guide for mechanics dealing with all manner of biplane mysteries, such as wing rigging. This is a fairly good view of the gear legs mentioned above: the leading part of the ‘Vee’ meets in the center of the fuselage and the trailing part further outboard … see also the next picture. If those ‘Vee’s were fabric covered they would “snowplow’ and induce considerable drag.

I could have spent many more hours listening to Keith and watching him work. I confess to feeling a little guilty taking him away from his work but he didn’t seem to mind taking the time to explain things in a way I could understand.

In summary, this is the state of the airplane as Jerry, Mike and I saw it on July 2, 2021. It’s on the gear, a milestone, accepting parts one at a time, the engine (background, left) and cowlings have been fitted and removed in preparation for final assembly, and the myriad of parts yet to be fabricated or assembled are almost ready.

I didn’t ask the inevitable question: “When will it be finished”? I knew the answer: “When it is as perfect as I can make it”.

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