How to Build an Airplane

Tips and insight for those looking to take the leap into homebuilding.

Marquart Charger

Marquart Charger

The homebuilt Marquart Charger

Today there are over 30,000 homebuilt aircraft on the FAA’s registry. It’s estimated there may be another 30,000 under construction.

When it comes to the question of how to build an airplane, there are a number of different routes individual builders can take. Some builders opt to just buy a set of plans and then go hunting for aircraft grade materials to cut up, piece together and roll it onto the flight line. That’s called Scratchbuilding and it involves a lot of fabricating and assembly. Others send off a check for a complete kit with a lot of prefabricated parts, get several very large boxes that they open up and then begin assembling. Whatever the choice, that day when a builder takes off in an airplane that he built in his (or her) own workshop, will provide a unique experience. The rush of adrenalin and sense of achievement on liftoff is almost unparalleled in most people’s lives.

Some people build their own airplane in 6 to 8 months, others take years and some never finish at all. It’s been said that building an airplane isn’t a big job, just a whole bunch of little ones. Those little ones are usually an experience in precision. There’s not much “eyeballing” in aircraft construction. There are no rules of thumb. It has to be exactly what the plans call for, no more, no less. It may require a number of skill sets, but most of those are relatively easy to acquire. It also requires perseverance, tenacity, a certain mechanical aptitude, and a lot of thought. Therein lie the challenges, however, and it is the challenges met, that provides satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment.

It's called "homebuilding," because most people construct their aircraft in their own homes, garages or their personal workshop. So it comes out of a home as opposed to a production line in a factory, like the type run by Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft. The term homebuilding has been around since the early 1950s, when Paul Poberezny founded the Experimental Aircraft Association which initially focused entirely on "homebuilts". When the FAA issues a certificate of airworthiness for someone's homebuilt, it's certified and registered in the Experimental Amateur-Built category.

For those who’ve harbored a desire to build their own airplane, and fly it, there are some issues that need to be confronted before making that first cut with wood, steel, aluminum, foam or fiberglass. Items like cost, skills and comfort levels with aircraft materials need to be considered. It’s important to determine whether they want to start a scratchbuild design or a kit plane project , if they have construction space large enough to accommodate wings and a fuselage; how the builder plans to use the finished aircraft, store it and maintain it; and finally, there’s the personality of the builder: does he or she have the determination to finish all those little jobs and return to the workspace when they’ve reached the level where hours and hours of work produce little or nothing a builder can stand back and admire? Some people believe that 90 percent of the effort goes into the final 10 percent of the project. This much is certain: there are no mysteries or magic in aircraft construction. Virtually anyone of average intelligence can master the required skills and turn out airworthy parts. High school kids have built airplanes, prisoners have built airplanes while they were incarcerated (they didn’t get to fly them), people lacking limbs have built airplanes and very old people have done it. Most of the tools needed for an airplane project can be purchased at a local hardware store and there are several companies that specialize in selling every type of material, hardware and tool that might turn up on a “needed” list.

Consider the cost. Sixty years ago there were homebuilts gracing the flightlines that cost under $1,000. In those days, it was possible to pick up a used aircraft engine for $25 to $50. Today, a new engine cost $25,000! A prop can run $10,000. It's not uncommon to see modern homebuilts with IFR panels that now run over $250,000.

Sonex Aircraft offers a complete kit for a two-seat aircraft, including an engine, for under $28,000. They'll soon have a jet aircraft kit, including engine, for under $120,000. Rans Aircraft has kits for the two-seat S-65 Coyote II for $21K, add another $14,000 for an engine. The two-place S-12XL Airaile is $23K without; $42K with. A Sportsman 2 + 2 kit, airframe only, runs about $54,000. An RV-10 quickbuild, airframe only kit, that will seat four people, runs just under $57K.

With a set of plans, projects like a Volksplane, Baby Ace or Pietenpol Air Camper airframe can be built for around $10 – 15,000. A mid-time engine in decent shape could probably be picked up for $8 – 10,000. These designs require that the builder locate all the materials and components for their project and while the search for materials used to take 2 – 4 hours of effort for every hour that actually went into building the airplane, today it's possible to make a single phone call or spend an hour on the computer and order up complete materials packages with everything needed to finish the airframe. Companies like Aircraft Spruce carry it all.

Content provided by Aircraft Spruce.