Finishing Kit

August 4, 2011

Canopy Cracked - HUGE BLUNDER - 2.5 hrs.

Hi. My name is Bruce and I cracked my canopy.

I don't know any other way to start this posting that seems more appropriate. I feel like I'm standing up at an AA meeting and making my confession, but in this case it's the CC club. Not a club I ever wanted to be a part of. A few days ago, I committed the biggest blunder in this whole project. This is every builders' nightmare. I'm writing this quite a few weeks after it happened, since it has taken me this long to be able to write about it and spill all the details without getting sick to my stomach all over again. But I'm finally at a point where I can do this. My website desperately needs updating, and in the end, I hope to spare someone else the grief and expense that I have suffered as a result of my stupidity. That's right. It was my own damn fault that this happened. So if you're building an RV and getting close to working on your canopy, you might want to pay particular attention to this. All I ask is that if you get anything at all out of this, please do me the honor and courtesy of sending me an email and letting me know. It would make all this worthwhile and lesson the pain of spilling my guts about it. If I can help somebody, it will help me get over this.

Okay, so here's what happened. As I have reflected back on this, over many hours and many days, it's clear that it was a combination of things that led to this disaster. I really want to spell them out because there are some real lessons here that apply not only to canopy building, but to flying. First of all, I have been impatient. My impatience had been building because the summer weather around here sucks this year. We have had almost NO summer, in terms of warm temperatures. And here it is, the first week of August! While Texas and much of the southern and middle parts of our country have been sweltering in many, many days of over 100° of heat, we have hardly broken into the 70's around here. It rained all spring and for a while there I wondered if it would EVER stop raining. I can maybe count on one hand how many 80° days we've had this whole year. So I've had this prep work going on, and it was the middle of April when I picked up my finish kit, so I've been a long time waiting for that magic 80° summer weather to come around so I could cut on my canopy in confidence that it was warm enough. I'm not about to dig my heaters out of storage in the middle of August to heat up my shop. Isn't this crazy? So that's factor number one. I have been impatient about the weather.

Next, it was a Sunday afternoon. I really like working on my RV on the weekends, and I really look forward to being able to make some major progress on the weekends. But it was already Sunday afternoon and I hadn't gotten a thing done on the project yet this whole weekend. So I was chomping at the bit to get SOMETHING done. To make matters worse, we had a social engagement later that evening. Some people were coming over for dinner. I always look forward to having friends and family over, and frankly, I was looking forward to a bit of "show and tell" and having something exciting and new to show off. A freshly trimmed canopy was high on my list. I HAD to get this done, and time was wasting away. So factor number two was more impatience driven by "get there-itus" and some of my own vanity. Or call it foolish pride. Either one is accurate enough.

Next, the temperatures on this particular day, while not in the 80's as hoped, were in the mid-70's. I decided that I wasn't going to wait forever, and it was warm enough if I was careful. I was beginning to believe that 2011 would probably go down as the "summer of no summer" in this part of the country. So factor number 3 was, perhaps it was not quite warm enough.

Next, I had no help. I was acting alone. People around my house were out running errands preparing for the evening, or just not available to help me. I decided to go ahead anyway. I'm used to working alone, I figured. I'll find a way. So factor number four was, no help. I wrestled the canopy outside to the sawhorses that I had set up to support it while cutting, and managed to get it in place all by myself.

So by the time I started cutting, I already had at least 4 things going against me. Nevertheless, I proceeded and got my compressor fired up and the die-grinder in hand. I started cutting on the right side of the forward end, working my across the front of the canopy toward the left side. I got about a third of the way across, right in front of what would be the passengers face, when it hit me. I realized that in my masking tape job earlier in the week, I had prepared the outside of the canopy by peeling back the protective plastic covering, trimming it, and taping it down with a layer of masking tape. But I hadn't done anything with the inside! My cutting disc was blowing all kinds of plexi dust and small chips under the protective plastic covering on the inside of the canopy as I cut through it. So I stopped cutting immediately to figure out what I was going to do next. In my haste, frustration, impatience, and with the clock ticking until I would have to quit for the evening, I made the wrong decision. I decided to flip the canopy over, hurry up and peel the protective plastic back, trim it, and tape it down. Then, flip it back upright and finish the cutting. "If I hurry, it will only take me a few more minutes"

Now, if you've read anything at all about cutting the canopy, you know you don't move it until your cut is finished and the cut line has been deburred to relieve the stress risers in the plexiglass. The crazy thing is, I knew this. I knew better. And I especially knew that if I insisted on moving it anyway, I shouldn't do it all by myself with no help! But I charged ahead anyway. I had read on someone elses website how they made a "handle" out of duct tape, so I grabbed my roll of tape and quickly made a duct tape handle and taped it to the side of the canopy. When I lifted the canopy up off the sawhorse to turn it over, it was awkward and floppy, made even more so by the partial cut I had just made. I couldn't keep it from flexing around working all by myself. In my haste, I didn't even put some tape pieces over the cut line, to help stabilize things. So as I turned it partially over, it briefly came down on its side on the sawhorse and for the briefest moment as I struggled with it to figure out how to best hang on to it, the weight of the canopy came down on the side where I had started the cut. This might have been okay if I hadn't cut about a foot or so into it, but as the whole thing flexed and bent slightly under its own weight, all that bending pressure bore directly on the point where the cut line had stopped, about a third of the way through the cut. I heard this ugly "pop" sound and then laid the canopy on it's back and looked at it. I couldn't believe what I had just done. I stared at it in disbelief as it sank in. "Did I really just crack my canopy?" There was this ugly crack at least a foot long, extending right up in front of what would be the passengers face. At that point, you know, there's no going back. There's no fixing it. I just got sick to my stomach and I was speechless. Then I got angry. Mostly at myself for being so stupid.

At this point, I finally slowed down and started to evaluate my mistakes. On the one hand, I wanted to just smash the whole thing to smithereens and walk away. Honestly, the only thing that held me back was the thought of my guests coming over that evening and asking "hows the airplane coming along?" and I show them a broken pile of plexi. Not a pretty picture. So I restrained myself and grabbed my drill and quickly stop-drilled it at the end of the crack. I don't even know why I bothered, but I did it. Here's a picture of the hole I drilled. It's kind of hard to see, but the crack extends toward the left in this picture.

I figured I might as well finish this cut. If nothing else, I could use the practice. So I trimmed the protective plastic back and masking-taped it down, as I should have done earlier in the week. Then I finished the cut along the front. Here's a picture of it on its back.

I also put a short piece of duct tape along the crack to help support it, and this time, I got some help to turn it back upright (isn't this crazy? Why bother at this point?). I deburred the cut edge and then measured. The crack extended roughly 12-1/2" from the forward edge right up in front of the passengers face. It was completely ruined.

Lessons to be learned from all of this? Allow me to summarize:

1. Don't let impatience influence your decisions! As much as it frustrates you to wait, for whatever reason, sometimes it's best to just put things on hold.

2. Don't let vanity, or the temptation to show off influence your decisions either.

3. Don't let frustrations over the weather, time of day, or time of the month or weekend drive your decisions either. I had a bad case of "get there itus".

4. Get some help! If you don't have any warm bodies nearby to help you when you know you need it, put the tools down and walk away and wait until you do!

There are probably even more lessons to be learned here, but the point I'm also trying to make is this: do you see a parallel between what happened to my canopy, and what can happen when we're out flying? There have been some important discussions lately about safety and the behavior of some pilots out there in our little community. Over the following days, I had some heart-to-heart discussions with Jamie. I told her that I realized that what I had done here, if these mistakes had been applied to flying, could have gotten us crashed. It's serious business. I asked her to promise me that if she EVER sees me getting impatient, frustrated, vain, or too anxious to get somewhere when conditions aren't the best, and we're out there somewhere on one of our future traveling adventures, to remind me of this moment. I promised her I would put the keys down and walk away from the airplane until things improved.

This hasn't been easy to write about. I truly hope this helps somebody. If the lessons learned from the cost of a canopy save my life, and perhaps the life of a passenger, it's not such a big deal after all.

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