Friday, February 04, 2011

Aviation and education: Homebuilding and homeschooling

I love flying in much the same way that I love to learn. That's convenient because ya gotta learn a lotta stuff to fly a plane. There are the intellectual aspects of it and the physical aspects of it. Aviation and education. Lotsa parallels. Even in the sense of school vs. homeschool.

There's a subset of aviation folks who are homebuilders. That means pretty much what it says. In the general world of aviation, there are lots of commercially-available aircraft, from little, one-person planes to the big stuff that the ATPs fly. [Amusing aside about big stuff. The B-52 was called the BUFF, for Big Ugly Fat Fucker. When the 737 came out, it was immediately dubbed the FLUF, Fat Little Ugly Fucker.] But there are some folks who'd rather go it on their own. They don't want to just buy a ready-made, one-size-fits-most plane and fly; they wanna build their own. They're homebuilders, by crackie.

Homebuilders are interested not only in flying per se but also in the design parameters of aircraft and which aspects are most suited to their personal style of flying. Once they decide on that basic concept, they then might look for a kitplane which suits their needs; that's an aircraft which is not commercially certified but which has been designed and made available in parts or as a kit for the homebuilder to put together. Maybe they're more "rugged" than that and they choose a paper design which they then build from scratch. Maybe they have such confidence in their own abilities that they start from the very beginning and design their own plane, then build it.

The best-known example of this breed is Burt Rutan who, from his humble beginnings doing "wind-tunnel" testing with a design mockup on the top of his station wagon, has become the first individual (or, at least, private company) to design a craft which took a man into space. In conjunction with Virgin Galactic, he'll soon be sending passengers into space. Now, *that's* a homebuilder!

The homebuilding universe, like most subcultures, hosts a full spectrum of individuals: living-on-a-shoestring to enormously-wealthy, Marxists to Anarchocapitalists, shy to sociable, etc. Most of 'em get along most of the time because they are identical in their love of homebuilt aircraft and the rest of that stuff is abstract and only worth arguing about at cocktail parties or on the internet. But occasionally, instead of the happy homebuilders' punchbowl being enhanced with a nice splash of 100LL avgas, some big, nasty roach hops in there; and I ain't talking about marijuana debris.

Enter Jim "Captain Zoom" Campbell. The roach in the punchbowl. The fly in the ointment. The snake in the garden. You get the idea.

"U. S. Aviator" magazine hit the stands and Zoom hit the homebuilding circuit, appearing at all the EAA fly-ins around the country, hawking his magazine and his personal credentials as an aviation expert in general and a homebuilding guru in particular. People in the homebuilding community welcomed this new periodical devoted to homebuilts and kitplanes and welcomed the amusing and sociable Zoom to their ranks. Zoom talked up homebuilding. Zoom extolled homebuilding and homebuilders, especially himself. For a few years, he was a self-apotheosized leader in the homebuilding community. Then, reality started showing through the cracks.

His magazine failed to issue on a number of scheduled publication dates. Customers complained. Several kit companies who had advertised with him dropped their advertising. In followup issues which did make it to publication, he excoriated these designs as dangerous and unflyable, whereas he had before praised them. Those manufacturers were also surprised to find bills for continued advertising in their mailboxes from Zoom, for dates long after they had informed him that they were dropping his magazine. He began suing everybody left and right. Anyone who complained about him, mostly on the Usenet homebuilding group, was threatened with police action and the requisite lawsuit. It got to the point where it became an amusing badge of honor to be "Zoomed," that is, to be told that you were being reported to your local police and that a lawsuit was being filed against you. Even I got a low-intensity "zoom," one minus the direct threat of lawsuit in action, merely the threat of *potential* lawsuit for speaking out about Captain Zoom in public. His many public supporters turned out to be mostly sock-puppets, although he maintained a few, genuine, die-hard fans. I can't for the life of me figure out why.

As the court actions piled up and U.S.Aviator folded, folks started digging into the actual background of Jim "Captain Zoom" Campbell. Interestingly, many of his credentials were bogus, as were most of his claims. He had his certificate revoked in 1980 by the NTSB, during which hearing his Narcissistic Personality Disorder was cited. By 1999, his behavior was so disruptive that he was banned from Sun 'n' Fun, the second largest fly-in in the country. Of course, he sued. And, as usual, lost.

But Zoom is still out there, representing himself as an aviation guru of the first water. He now has a web magazine, which I assume is a lot cheaper to provide than an actual paper-and-ink periodical, and still responds to anyone who disagrees with him by calling them libellous, slanderous terrorists (literally!) and threatening them with repercussions, usually police action and a lawsuit. I guess you just can't kill roaches. You certainly can't have a useful discussion with them, especially if they're NPD.

Why are you wasting my time telling me this story, you ask?

It's because I think unschooling has grown and spread enough that we're in a place now where the unschooling versions of Zoom are showing up, offering us their soi-disant expertise and their YouTube videos and their tv appearances. I dislike it. I want to get to the point where they're generally found out to be the con artists that they actually are, who are in it purely for the celebrity and profit, and can be mostly ignored; but I really dislike the thought that they'll probably still hang around after that, eternally selling their snake oil to the new and ignorant.

I'm happy that the unschooling world does have a lot of nonbogus material available online at a variety of sites which have been providing help and support for n00bs for almost two decades.


  1. Now THAT'S a bedtime story that will have me lying awake tonight. Very interesting, Frank, as always.

  2. You hit the nail on the head here. This whole story just helped me solidify the disturbing little thoughts running around in the back of my head!