So You Want to Build an Airplane | Flying Magazine

So You Want to Build an Airplane

The decision to build a homebuilt airplane potentially has big risks — and rewards.

A homebuilt airplane can be built, as the name suggests, in the comfort of your own garage. (Photo courtesy of Justin Twilbeck)|

As we all know, the cost of flying has increased tremendously over the past few decades, and today a factory new airplane is too expensive an option for many would-be airplane owners. While they are always an option, used factory-built airplanes have a number of built-in costs associated with them. Not to mention the fact that no matter how thorough the pre-buy inspection is, the new owner is inevitably inheriting somebody else’s problems.

Luckily, there is a third option. Licensed in the FAA’s Experimental amateur-built category, “homebuilts” have become a popular sight on many airport ramps. In return for a substantial investment of time, RVs, Sonexes, Velocities and many more designs have given pilots access to performance and prices that just don’t exist in the certified airplane world.

But there is a dark side: For every Experimental airplane that has been finished and flown, there are several partially built skeletons that have ended up like Grandma’s fruitcake — a couple of bites are taken and then it’s shoved to the back of the refrigerator to ossify.

Several major factors make the difference between a successful airplane project and a pile of parts in the corner.

Realistic Choices

Probably the biggest single factor affecting the success of an airplane project happens before the first part is fabricated.

Beginning an airplane project is a very big decision — right up there with proposing marriage, shaking hands on a deal or adopting a puppy. Like those decisions, it should be made with a clear mind, after careful thought.

Many prospective builders fall for a specific airplane on sheer emotion. The beauty of a Falco, the sky-­dancing radial powered adrenaline of a Pitts 12 and the go-anywhere fun of a Glastar can all fuel the prospective builder’s dream of having something that is just so cool. Making this decision based on the cool factor is like pulling the trigger of a rifle with your toe. The real decision is not which airplane. The airplane is the result of another decision — and that decision is the mission.

Some kit manufacturers, such as Glasair, have programs that allow you to build the airplane right at their factory.|

Deciding on the mission is surprisingly hard. It requires totally honest, sometimes painful self-examination. Sure, we’d all like to fly like Patty Wagstaff or Don Sheldon or Bud Anderson — but we don’t. Everyone has a flying personality and a pattern, and nobody gets a personality transplant when they acquire — or build — a new airplane. It’s possible to build a 1,000-mile cross-­country cruiser, but what if someone’s greatest pleasure in flying is sharing 40-mile trips over spring-green fields with a friend and ending up at a 1,200-foot grass strip where they make great pancakes? It’s essential to get past all the shoulds/oughts, opinions, Internet chatter and Walter Mitty dreams and arrive at a true idea of how an airplane will serve you, enhance your life and extend your capability to do what you really like doing.

Once the dream is realistically defined, the choice of airplane will almost make itself. Once chosen, it’s time for some due diligence. A glance at a 15-year-old issue of Kitplanes magazine is a bit sobering — probably more than half the airplane designs and world-beater engines advertised or featured there no longer exist. The homebuilt world has its share of snake oil, but even with the best of intentions, it’s a tough place to make a going business, and economic realities take their toll. Research the company behind the airplane design, call people who are building it — it is never hard to get an airplane builder to talk about his project — and look at the accident reports. Getting stuck with an orphaned design, where parts and support are no longer available, is a demoralizing and expensive experience.

Homebuilder Steve Zito rivets one of the pylon side covers into place on his SeaRey.|

Time

Few people ever tackle a project that requires as much dedication, effort and time as building an airplane. It isn’t for dabblers. It requires a steady, consistent input of hours for a long period.

Any time not spent working in the shop just extends the project — it is one reason some airplane projects take decades. Without consistent progress, the sight of the receding goal posts proves too discouraging, and the project dies. The only sane way to contemplate a task of this magnitude is to work on one piece at a time, breaking the huge project into many smaller, more manageable ones; savor small milestones; and let the “big picture” take care of itself. A builder will have to spend, realistically, 15 to 20 hours a week, every week, to see even a relatively simple airplane to completion in a reasonable amount of time.

For dedicated builders, most airplane projects take two to four years. That’s the top of the bell curve, but of course there are builders at either end of it too. It could easily take five or 10 years. Savvy aircraft builders will never commit to a first-flight date, despite constant pestering from friends and relatives. “Tuesday” is a popular answer.

Personalities

The quality of airplane-building time is different than most people realize. It is not typically a social affair — in fact, it can be darn lonely. Gregarious types may find it more difficult than they ever imagined. Anybody building an airplane is going to spend a lot of time by himself and should be comfortable with his own company.

The next airplane that is built without several gut-wrenching mistakes along the way will be the first one. Robert ­Pirsig, in his wonderful book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, talks about “gumption traps.” These are mishaps and mistakes that rob a builder of the will to continue and send him to bed with the “how could I be so stupid?” feeling. Airplane projects are filled with gumption traps, and if the builder doesn’t have a personality that allows him to bounce back emotionally, the project will inevitably die.

Those cursed with perfectionism should look for a different pursuit. If airplanes had to be perfect to fly, the skies would be completely empty. Perfectionism is often mistaken for craftsmanship, but they are quite different things. No matter how well something is built, it could be made better, prettier, shinier. The objective is not to have a perfect airplane — it is to have a practical airplane, one the builder is not ashamed of and not afraid of and that actually gets finished and flown.

Workspace

The issue of workspace worries a lot of prospective builders, who imagine it will take something like they see in photos of Vultee’s World War II factory to build an airplane. This isn’t the case. Size isn’t paramount; convenience is.

Airplanes have been built in basements, garden sheds, trailers, shipping containers and probably mud huts. In most cases, a two-car garage is sufficient. A one-car garage works too, if you have someplace to store big finished components like wings.

Most people imagine airplanes being built in hangars at nearby airports. In reality, hangars are probably the most miserable places imaginable for an airplane project. Somehow, they are always hotter than the outdoors in summer and much colder in winter (if this phenomenon is ever explained, the energy crisis is over), and are universally underpowered and poorly lit. And they are almost never nearby.

No matter where the space is, it must be comfortable. Investments in comfort — some form of climate control, good lighting, a workbench at the right height, rubber mats on the concrete floor (plantar fasciitis is no joke!) — are insurance against failure.

Jeff Harries and his daughter, Lauren, help a family friend build his RV-7, which made its first flight in September 2012. (Photo courtesy of Jim King)|

Martin and Claudia Sutter built their RV-6 in their living room. “In Texas, it’s always too hot, unless it’s too cold,” Martin says. “Air conditioning a hangar would cost more than the airplane we’d build in it. We thought about our garage, but if we left our cars outside, the sun would beat them to death. We had a breakfast bar and a family room, so we lived and ate there and put the airplane project in the living room, where we had air conditioning, heat and a big sliding patio door that allowed us to get the airplane out when it was finished. The fact that we could work on it whenever we wanted to, without travel time or discomfort, saved hundreds of hours.”

Money

Other than time, the biggest question is money. How much does it cost, realistically, to build an airplane? There’s no absolute answer, of course, but homebuilt airplanes can be, and consistently are, completed for $50,000 to $65,000. Many cost considerably less, and of course, there’s no upper limit. Building an airplane is a pay-as-you-go proposition. It’s important to have the resources to see the project through, but there’s no need to have it all up front.

Cost control begins with the same idea as the initial choice of airplane: mission, mission, mission. New aircraft manufacturers have to sell their products to whoever shows up, so they equip them with everything a buyer might conceivably want. An airplane builder, if he’s done his homework, however, knows exactly what he needs. If the mission doesn’t include IFR flight, there’s no need for IFR instrumentation — attitude information is free if you look out the window. Not going to fly at night? Leave off the $1,000 nav light set. A fixed-pitch prop costs about a third of a ­constant-speed and, for many missions, functions just as well.

A better question might be, where is the money coming from? Rich Aunt Agatha can’t be depended on to die at just the right time to finance an airplane project, so somehow the money has to be extracted from the available income, or income has to be increased.

Doug Reeves, who runs the hugely popular Van’s Air Force website, took the first course. His “Ten Steps to Affording an Airplane” includes postponing the new car purchase, canceling cable TV, taking a healthy sack lunch to work, and canceling the unlimited cell-phone plan in favor of a cheaper no-frills account. He calculated that these steps saved him about $570 per month. He religiously put that amount into a dedicated account, every month, and now flies a fine RV-6.

Bob Collins, an RV builder in the Twin Cities, took the other route. (Not everybody building an airplane is building an RV — it just seems that way.) His day job as a writer for public radio supported his family but didn’t leave enough for an airplane. So he became “the world’s oldest paper boy.” Seven days a week, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., he was on the road delivering newspapers. That, combined with his day job, family life and airplane project, didn’t leave a lot of time for sleep, but in the end he emerged intact, the proud owner of a flying RV-7A.

Skills

“But, but,” you object. “I was an English major. I’ve never riveted/welded/wired/painted anything in my life. How can I ever build something as complex as an airplane?”

Seriously, it’s not that hard. Airplanes, at least at this level, are pretty simple mechanical devices. Purely mechanical control systems, basic electrics, almost no hydraulics — none of this is difficult to fathom or build. A typical aircraft engine, for instance, takes four hoses, three cables and two wires to run. It may take a bit of study, but there’s nothing in a small airplane the average person can’t grasp.

Aircraft construction techniques are similarly straightforward. Riveting can be learned in one short day. Welding takes longer, but practice is fun and cheap. There’s an awful lot of stuff in the world built from wood, so the tools and techniques are well understood and readily available. And in the Internet age, there’s always a YouTube tutorial video.

The hoped-for result: first flight in a completed project (an event that should be approached with great joy and caution). Here, a builder takes his Kitfox on a test hop.|

If your personal learning style benefits from a structured approach, classes in construction are available. Kit manufacturers, a few private individuals and, of course, the EAA all offer weekend workshops and sometimes longer classes.

Support

Shop hours can be long and lonely — for those on both sides of the family equation. Spousal and family support is essential. Any airplane that becomes a wedge in a relationship (“He spends all his time on that damn airplane.” “She nags me all the time about my project.”) is doomed. Divorce stories are out there.

Mitch Lock has a simple strategy. “Before I start a new airplane, I go to my wife and ask for a list of everything she needs done to make her life easier,” he says. “Whether it’s house, yard, car, kid stuff — whatever she wants. Then I do them, all of them, before I disappear into my shop.” It must work: Mitch has finished six or seven airplanes.

On the flip side, there are plenty of airplanes built by sibling, parent/child or spousal teams, where everybody involved remembers the project as bringing people closer together — a happy time spent doing fun work with important people.

Support outside the family circle is almost as important. One of the more important chores when choosing an airplane is considering the support available. Is the company behind the design accessible? Are phone calls answered and e-mails returned in a reasonable time? Is there a community established around the airplane that can help newbies?

Shortcuts — Pro Help and Kits

The single reason for the growth of homebuilt airplanes is the development of the airplane kit. Most early homebuilt airplanes were “scratch-built.” Builders would purchase a set of drawings for the airplane of their choice (or, if they were particularly intrepid, design their own) and then set about making the tooling to make the parts to make the subassemblies that would, in the next geologic period, become an airplane.

Those days are gone. Today, the vast majority of amateur-built airplanes are built from kits. Given the economies of scale in purchasing and manufacturing, a kit maker can provide accurate, ready-to-use parts for less than an individual would spend buying raw materials. Assembly instructions, rather than just engineering drawings, can save uncounted hours figuring out how parts go together. With building time significantly reduced, more complex and higher-performance airplanes were within practical reach. Today, kit airplanes cover a startlingly wide performance range, from wood/fabric designs that would struggle to keep up with a Cub to super-slick composite heartthrobs that would give a Citation a run for its money.

How advanced kits can be, and how much professional help can be used, is governed by what is known as the “51 percent rule.” The FAA is willing to license an airplane as “amateur-built” if 51 percent of it, as determined by a task-based checklist, is built by amateurs. Turning over a kit airplane to a professional builder and writing a check for the finished product doesn’t qualify. Kit manufacturers have almost universally had their products reviewed and “approved” by the FAA. Approved, in this case, has nothing to do with the merits of the design or the engineering behind it. It just means that, if built from the kit by amateur builders, it will meet the 51 percent rule.

Can I Do It?

Probably. If you enjoy working with your hands and mind, have the support of the important people in your life, and possess enough money to buy a nice pickup truck and have a place to park it, you can build an airplane. It’s not for everyone, but those who have done it rate it as one of the peak experiences in their lives — something they can no longer imagine not doing.

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