Idaho orthopaedist is building his dreams—one rivet at a time
Thinking about building your own airplane?
Prepare to be humbled.
“Some people will start this project thinking, ‘Look at me! I’m building an airplane – I’m pretty cool,’” says Paul C. Collins, MD, a full-time orthopaedic surgeon and part-time plane builder from Boise, Idaho. “But the thing you come away with is: ‘What an idiot I am!’”
Don’t get the wrong idea. Dr. Collins is passionate about the plane building process—“process” being the operative word. He began the project a year ago, “and it’s going to take me at least until next spring to finish it if I really work at it,” he says.
Just want a fast plane?
“Go buy one.”
Building a plane is really about “the people that you meet, and the things that you learn,” Dr. Collins says. “If you just want a fast plane, go buy one. There are plenty for sale.”
Through the plane-building process, “you learn so much more than putting in bolts and rivets,” he says. “I’ve met so many incredibly wonderful, interesting, and generous people doing this.”
One of those generous people is Bruce Whittig—his plane-building partner and mentor. “Bruce has built about eight or nine airplanes,” Dr. Collins says. “He’s an absolute genius at building things, and he’s kind of taken me on as his pet project.”
Flying is “in the blood”
Dr. Collins’ passion for flying took root at the age of 20, when his father—a World War II fighter pilot—offered to pay for lessons.
“Aviation was my dad’s ticket out of the coalfields of Kentucky,” he says.
The elder Collins piloted a B-24 for the Eighth Air Force, 44th Bomb Group, which took part in the infamous Schweinfurt raids designed to cripple the Nazi aircraft industry. “He took off with 12 planes and came back with three,” Dr. Collins says. “It was really, really rough.”
Although those wartime experiences took a serious toll on his own love of flying, his father always hoped that young Paul or his siblings would catch the flying bug.
“I’m the only one who took the bait,” Dr. Collins reports.
He’s been hooked ever since.
Fun with planes
After 20 years in the cockpit, Dr. Collins teamed up with some airplane mechanic friends to buy two project planes, including an N3N-3—an old Navy training biplane.
Within a few years, they managed to get the N3N-3 up and flying.
“That plane is an absolute hoot to fly!” he says. “It has an open cockpit, it’s underpowered, you’ve got to use the rudder to keep to the keep the ball in the middle and prevent spinning, you can’t hear anything, you can’t see anything—it’s great.”
When he was ready to build his own plane, Dr. Collins chose a Van’s Aircraft RV-8—a two-seater (tandem), all-aluminum, riveted airplane.
The RV-8 is “a nice, tight little speed demon,” he says. “It’s the way they built planes in 1942. It’s just a bomb-proof airplane.”
It’s also a tried-and-true design. With more than 2,000 RV-8s already built and flying—and another 1,000 to 2,000 in process—it’s a “very predictable” plane, he says. “I didn’t want to be the first one on the block.”
Nonetheless, the experience has been humbling.
“You may think you’re the hottest surgeon on the planet, but I’ve got news for you,” he says with a laugh. “Believe me; driving rivets is not something you learn as a child. I have much greater respect for Rosie the Riveter now.”
Another advantage to a homebuilt aircraft is that they’re considered “experimental,” Dr. Collins explains, which means that the Federal Aviation Administration limitations, by and large, don’t apply. Minor modifications can be made to an “experimental” plane, such as changing the location of the throttle or expanding the flap range.
“You can pretty much do what you want to a homebuilt plane,” he says, “just so long as you kill yourself and nobody else.”
You’ll find Dr. Collins toiling away on his RV-8 in Whittig’s shop at Boise Airport whenever he can find the time—about 8 hours a week, he says. But he also fits in plenty of flying time.
About twice a week, he takes out his Husky A-1, known as a back country plane.“It’s kind of a low-and-slow thing,” he explains. “It takes off at 150 feet and lands in about 300 feet. It’s an incredible airplane.”
When flying his Husky, Dr. Collins might head southwest into the Owyhee Desert, which is high desert, or go north into the Frank Church Wilderness area. A favorite spot there is the Root Ranch—one of two “Flying Resort Ranches” that are accessible only by air, horseback, or raft.
At an elevation of 5,700 feet, the Root Ranch also serves as the destination for an annual fly-in Dr. Collins sponsors for other Husky pilots. This past summer, more than 15 planes flew in for the event.
Although he keeps his Husky at Boise Airport, the neighboring area has no shortage of spots to land. Airstrips, roads, and hayfields are all fair game, he says. “It’s a ton of fun.”
In fact, many of his patients have airstrips. So this is one orthopaedist who still makes house calls—flying in to treat a fracture or other injury.
“That happens a lot in the fall when they’re cutting cattle,” he says. “Ranchers can’t take time with a broken arm to come and see you—they’re busy. They’re a tough group.”
A plane building residency
Learning to build a plane is surprisingly similar to an orthopaedic residency, Dr. Collins says.
“You’re learning a new language and a new set of skills, and wonderful people are ready, eager, and willing to educate you, laugh at you, cry with you, smile, and cheer you on,” he says. “You go through all the same emotions.”
He compares a visit to Whittig’s shop to taking a course at the Orthopaedic Learning Center (OLC). “When I go to Bruce’s shop—which is full of lathes and welding equipment and all these incredibly specialized tools that I didn’t know I needed—it’s like attending an OLC course and learning how to do shoulder surgery.”
“If you’re not scared, you’re stupid”
One year from now, “I’ll be flying that RV-8,” Dr. Collins predicts.
Taking a plane out for its very first run is intimidating, he admits: “If you’re not scared, you’re stupid!”
Airplanes aren’t like cars, he explains. “Each one is different, so you really have no idea how that plane is going to fly. The angle of attack on the wing may be two degrees different from one airplane to the next, and that makes a big difference.”
Again, he likens the experience to orthopaedic surgery. “In the end, it’s like any new operation,” he says. “You get as much education as you can, apply the best skills that you have, but at the end of the day you’re sitting on the end of the runway with your hand on the throttle. When you put the pedal to the metal and those wheels lift off, it’s all you, baby!”
For any aspiring plane builders, Dr. Collins offers three key pieces of advice:
- Remember that building an airplane is a process, not an end point.
- Prepare to humble yourself “because the airplane is going to do it anyway.”
- Get a mentor. “Not only will the building process go better, you’re going to end up with a friend as well as an airplane,” he says. “And you can’t do better than that.”
Carolyn Rogers is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org