Leap of faith An RV airplane project is an apt metaphor for the lives of this Wisconsin family. You might say it's just what the doctors ordered. by Bob Collins
(August 16, 2008) --What's that old saying? If you wait to have kids until you can afford them, you'll never have them. In many ways, building a Van's Aircraft RV airplane is like that. A lot of dreams go by the wayside waiting for the cash to suddenly appear. For some builders, it's a leap of faith. They start on faith that the money will somehow appear; that providence will dictate a finished airplane. This is one such story.
Jack Beck and Marmy Clason of Germantown, Wisconsin were married in 2004. It was the only good thing that happened that year. Shortly afterwards, the professors were fired from their jobs at a university on the same day. And Marmy's father was killed in a car accident the same year.
It was not the best time to begin a project to build a Van's RV-9A airplane. They started the project anyway.
"Before we'd gotten married, I'd been waiting for more than two decades to put together a homebuilding project," Jack told me during an interview at Oshkosh in July. " And it wasn't until we were married that it actually happened. I was waiting for the very best moment -- the right moment -- for us to do this and the reality is we chose the very worst moment in our financial legacy to begin the project."
With the stress of unemployment and a new marriage, Marmy, now the chair of the communications department at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, made an important decision. Her father left her a small amount of money. "It wasn't a windfall and being cheap Midwesterners, we put it away for our retirement," she said. "But I took a little bit and I wanted to surprise Jack for Christmas with the empennage. But once I went on Van's Web site and I looked at the order form -- manual trim, electric trim etc. -- I thought, 'OK, I'm not going to guess here.' And he was trying to decide between a 7A and a 9A and I wasn't going to make that decision, so around the middle of October I said, 'Look, this is what we're going to do.'"
"Along with this gift," Jack points out, "came an absolutely clear declaration of non-participation."
But Jack said he wanted Marmy to be "invested" in the RV-9A project, too. So he asked her to take notes when he went for his first meeting with an EAA technical counselor, the late Chris Good. "She came along but affirmed in the car ride that she would have nothing to do with this," he says."We sat down with Chris. He spent a good three hours in the hangar with us where Marmy said we were going for an hour and a half, tops. She was the one that wasn't ready to go. She was absolutely bitten and from that day on we've spent every day for two hours a day working on the plane. There's no task she cannot do. She has bucked every rivet."
It surprised Marmy, too "I didn't grow up turning socket wrenches," she notes."I still have to say 'lefty loosey, righty tighty.' It doesn't come naturally to me so I'm hand-checking myself all the time. I didn't know how fun it was to play with tools. There's tools for every frickin' thing you want to do. I had no idea. I didn't know you guys had all those secret tools."
Who's the better builder? Don't bother asking. Both say the secret to their success has been the complete lack of competition. Each complements the other. "When we're looking at an issue, we're pulling in two different directions, but we end up on the right course," says Jack.
Case in point: When Jack was bending and twisting the aluminum angle that forms the side longerons for the front of the fuselage on their 9A, things were not going well. "Jack had one of the bars in the vice and he has a big mallet -- we call it 'The Convincer' -- and it's not conforming to the shape of the airplane we needed," Marmy recalls. "Jack goes, 'Step aside, I'm just going to wail on it.' I said, 'No, this needs more of a finer touch so I told him to go away and I used some different tools to bend it instead."
The wings and fuselage are completed. The canopy has been cut, the frame riveted and installed, and there's even stuff on the firewall. The next step is "to put it up on the wheels, engine, panel, fiberglass. We're 1,250 hours into the process and still talking to each other," Jack says proudly.
"There was never a time when we received a subkit that we were confident we would get the next one," he says. "This past six months was the first time when I confidently felt we would complete the airplane ourselves and not have to sell it to someone else."
What's the secret for other couples who may wish to build an RV together? Begin together. Learn together. Stay away from the teacher-student relationship. Also, stop watching television, and don't go out to movies.
"How much do they cost?" Jack jokes.
"At every step along the way it was, 'Alright, let's take one more step.' We don't have a savings account; we have an airplane trust fund. We were blessed to have the income to meet our living expenses and just enough -- to the penny almost -- to pay for the next subkit when it came time, even though it never looked like it."
Peter Beck shown with some of his charges while working at an orphanage in Nepal. (Photo courtesy of Peter Beck.)
The plane project became -- and one hears this word a lot among homebuilders -- therapy "People who get married don't lose their jobs right away and that's really stressful on a marriage," says Marmy. "Our marriage was in danger right away. This was like therapy. I didn't anticipate jumping in the way I did, but it really was therapeutic. We always had the option, 'let's go build.'"
It's become so important, in fact, that both are thinking about what they'll build after the 9A is completed. Jack thinks it might be a glider. Marmy thinks whatever it is, they're going to work on her plan to see every national park in America first.
At Oshkosh, two of Jack's children -- Jonathan and Peter -- were with them. Peter, 20, is an artist and traveler. He's made trips to Nepal to work in an orphanage. He's traveled through India, Kashmir and into Tibet and he's done that while trying to finish college.
Jonathan volunteered at orphanages in South America and has done volunteer work in support of those orphanages while working on a nursing degree at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
Both have been involved in building the plane. Jonathan has building an airplane on his list of lifetime "to-do" things
LIKE FATHER, LIKE...
There are plenty of similarities between father and sons.
"I was told by plenty of people not to go, including by Nepali people," Peter says. "I sat back and thought, 'Screw it, I'm going.' I spent two years between trips selling photographs and working galleries. I filled up a bank account that I'd planned on using to work with the kids and donating money to the kids in the orphanage. The only way I figured to do this cheaply enough was to fly directly to India, and travel the rest of the way over land. I don't speak the language or know the geography. After being scammed into buying train tickets and hitchhiking, I ended up in the far north of Kashmir on the Pakistani and Chinese border and being thrown off busses in the desert, before I arrived at the orphanage. It's exactly what I saved my money for and the experience I needed and wanted. Now I'm planning a trip to Africa."
Jonathan Beck on the island of Isabella in the Galapagos. "It was just before dawn when I finally decided to give up walking and spend the night on the island. It was a cold/rainy/mosquito- infested night of sleep. I used most of the clothing I had to cover up what skin was exposed, in an attempt to keep wisconsins state bird off of me. It was a sleepless night, but one that I will remember forever. " (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Beck)
"The way our lives are led," Jonathan adds, "our passion about the things we like to do and if it costs money, let's do it. We're not going to let that step in our way. Once you step over the scariness factor, it changes you more than you realize. Then having the support on both sides of the family and them saying 'Yep, if this is what you want to do,' it's the same thing with the airplane. I never thought I'd get interested in it, but then I got riveted and it was an addiction."
"Jack really does put his money where his mouth is," says Marmy. "He lives that and instills that in John and Peter especially."
That's not to say it isn't hard. Peter sent a message during a recent trip saying he was going into dangerous territory. Jack and Marmy didn't hear from him again for two months. Against that backdrop, how hard can building an RV be?
Jack Beck's advice to would-be RV airplane builders: "Don't wait for the right moment."
"People die waiting for the right moment to enjoy the life they want to live," he says. "We have chosen to put ourselves somewhat at risk by enjoying that life now. Temerity that sometimes becomes a boundary for living, becomes a boundary that must be stepped over."