An Aircraft Engine From Scratch
This is the first in a series of articles wherein Andy Millin will relate the story of building his own aircraft engine from parts.
No one can argue that the power plant is a very important part of airplane. The task of choosing an engine was a daunting one. I’m not a mechanic. I have a decent understanding of how a reciprocating engine is supposed to work. I have never rebuilt anything larger than a lawn mower engine. Now I have to come up with an engine that I will trust my life, and the lives of loved ones to. Where do I start?
Money. Yep, MONEY. Frog skins. Green Backs. You really don’t have any idea how much money will play into this equation. It plays in ways you would not have imagined.
There are bunches of ways to spend money and get something that will make noise and push the fan around. Automotive conversions, aircraft engines (including turbines), even engines like the DeltaHawk that holds promise for the future but is not here today. Discussing the pros and cons of each could start a fight and could be summed up in a nice sized novel. The one common factor with all of the choices is they are expensive.
My brother is a ASE Master Technician. He is of the automotive world. He can deliver to me a brand new V8 from GM, in the crate for $1,400. You might be able to buy a new cylinder for your airplane for $1,400. Ah, well, this comparison is for entertainment purposes only.
I am building an XL/FG. You could rightly draw from the FG that I’m conservative when it comes to my airplane. It shouldn’t be any surprise that I’m going with a Lycoming IO-540 260HP. It was the original engine installed on the XL. The engine has a reputation as being highly reliable with a lower cost of ownership. I’m the guy that goes to the House of Flavors and gets Vanilla.
An aircraft engine is a bit of an enigma. Even the newest Lycoming engine is a refinement of something that was hot stuff back in 1935; decidedly low tech. We draw comfort and say things like “tried and true” and “reliable.” I still drop my jaw when I hear that a new IO-540 from Lycoming is north of $45,000. A freshly overhauled IO-540 will be in the $20-$30K range and may require a core. I don’t have a core.
Let me be clear. I will not be cheap on this. Lives are depending on this. If I can’t do it right, I won’t do it. I will be frugal. I want the most value for my dollar.
A run out engine (core) can be had, with a little hunting, for $6-7K. It can be overhauled. You might want to budget $10-15K for the job. Could be more and it could be less.
The point I am getting to is this: An aircraft engine is just too expensive to make a buying mistake. I don’t have to look very far to find someone that bought an engine/aircraft with pedigree and papers only to find they had been taken. The cost of making things right can easily be in the tens of thousands of dollars. I cannot afford to buy a $20-30K engine and find out it is junk. I just can’t.
Building the Velocity is a learning experience. I mean this in the very best way. You can’t help but learn. It’s cool. I don’t know much about engines, and I would very much like to know about my aircraft engine. It can only make me a better pilot and owner. If I build my engine, I’m sure I’ll know how it works. This idea holds great appeal.
An aircraft engine is not an automotive engine. I can’t call my brother up and say “come over and let’s put this thing together.” To even think of putting an engine together, I need to have someone with a great deal of experience and a willingness to share and teach. I need someone willing to put up with a big ball of ignorance and enthusiasm. In my case, I need Terry Brokaw. Terry is a friend that I met through my local EAA Chapter. He is a Technical Counselor, A&P, ATP, LongEze builder, etc. Terry worked at G&N for years before he moved to Kalamazoo. He had been working on aircraft engines for a decade before I even knew I wanted to build an airplane.
Building my engine was not a plan. I didn’t sit down one day and say “I’m going to build my engine.” I would have been happy to find a great deal sitting on a pallet ready to run. Like most of us, I started looking at Trade-a-Plane, looking at ads, checking salvage, checking everywhere. I had time and I wanted to use it as an asset. You can usually save money if you don’t need it tomorrow.
One fine day I found an ad on Barnstormers.com. Lycoming IO-540-C4B5/D4A5 kit, zero time, $12,500. Yep, they had my attention. I called. The gentleman was starting his own business. I was told his father runs a salvage yard and he gets the engines from him. His plan was to refurbish the engine. Send good parts. Some will be brand new, others will be used. It will be sold as a “kit” with all the parts shipped to me.
The “kit” will include all major components. The only thing I would need to buy would be common hardware which he estimated my cost to be about $75. I know you are going to ask, so, the engine was offered by Gary Barber, Outlaw Aircraft Engines, Plant City, Florida.
Not so fast. I asked for references. He had only sold one other “kit.” The one before me went for $10K. Hmmm. I found out later that the one after me went for $15K. I talked with the buyer. He sent pictures of what was delivered. He was putting the engine together and was happy as could be. He thought the parts were good. He had experience with aircraft engines, so I put some stock in it. Reference check was good.
Terry Time. I got on the phone and explained the situation to Terry. He agreed the price was great if the quality is there. We had a conference call. Terry agreed to negotiate on my behalf. Terry’s only reservation was this “if we don’t like a part, we want to be able to send it back and get a replacement without question.” Gary easily agreed. He wanted to make the sale and be able to use me as a reference. His promise was “you’ll be happy.”
I had Terry working on my side. I had what could be a great price. I had an eager seller. I decided to buy. Parts started arriving on my doorstep within a week. The case was in a Divco box and had a yellow tag. The crank was in a box from Aircraft Specialty Services and it had a yellow tag. The pistons and rings were brand new, in the box, from ECI, 1258 grams each. The rods were overhauled by Aircraft Specialty Services and they had a yellow tag. Things are looking pretty sweet.
Now, the real story begins...