Buying Experimental Aircraft, Demystified

Consider these expert tips before purchasing an amateur-built aircraft.

The lines blur in between the worlds of certified and experimental/amateur-built aircraft—and to most, that’s a good thing.

The demystification of the building process and the advent of quick-build kits and builder support mean there’s a wider variety of models to choose from for pilots wanting to take advantage of the technology access and added value offered by kit built aircraft. 

But the blurred line has resulted in unintended consequences.

There’s now a significant market for already-built aircraft changing hands to what the kit built industry has termed NBOs—non-builder owners. When a person buys the fruits of another builder’s efforts, they take on that project without the same knowledge as the original builder. With many NBOs coming from backgrounds of only flying, operating, and perhaps owning Part 23-certificated aircraft, the gap in understanding can lead to frustration, wasted money and time—or an accident during the first 10 hours of flight following the purchase.

The kit for an RV from Van’s Aircraft demonstrates the level of work that goes into the finished product. [Credit: Stephen Yeates]

I interviewed leaders from several experimental OEMs to gather insight into the scope of the market for NBOs, the impact NBOs have had on their business, and what particular concerns they have for those who would approach the purchase of this unique slice of “used” aircraft.

RVs That Started a Movement

Van’s Aircraft, based in Aurora, Oregon, has built a business over the last 50 years on plans-built and kitbuilt aircraft that have become progressively more sophisticated—and at the same time more approachable to build. The dynamic has made it easier for new builders to join the experimental world, and increased sales to the point where there’s now a significant pre-owned market of Van’s RVs for those pilots who want to “skip” the effort involved in crafting an airplane themselves. It’s created a challenge for Van’s: “The used market is our biggest competitor,” says Greg Hughes, director of sales and marketing for Van’s Aircraft. Hughes acknowledges that a pilot who doesn’t want to invest the time it takes to build one can find a wide range of RVs “out there” ready for a new home.

However—caveat emptor. Any homebuilt aircraft will vary widely between instances, depending on the relative skill of the builder, and/or the divergence from the original kit or plan that the builder made during the construction process. Newer models, like the RV-12 and RV-14, come in novice-builder-friendly kits with matched holes and expanded instructions—and the option for some “quick build” kits. Older models evolved from plan-built airplanes, and those like the popular RV-4, where the kit was not as advanced, may offer even more opportunity for variance.

Sonex’s Schaible Weighs In

The smaller network of Sonex owners makes the approach to buying one used a very individualized experience—and because the fleet on the whole is more obviously “one of one.” However, it’s instructive to look at, because it illuminates how varied most homebuilts are—even those from producers like Van’s who have standardized the building experience as much as possible. 

Sonex president and owner Mark Schaible outlines the overarching issue facing NBOs. “Too many people are jumping into experimental aircraft and expecting them to be like certified aircraft,” Schaible says. “You’re trusting yourself to what some other amateur pilot built.” 

Schaible echoes Hughes’s comment on the NBO market: “Our biggest competition isn’t Van’s, it’s used Sonexes.” He compares the RV-4 kit as an example of how kits have evolved, as well—noting that the RV-4 kit was not as advanced at the time of its debut as the current Sonex kits. And, even with the current state of advanced kits, a pilot can’t “shake a box and have an airplane fall out.” 

Another note: While as a buyer, you may be looking at a certificated engine in some homebuilts, a Sonex is likely flying behind an experimental powerplant too, like the AeroConversions’ AeroVee, the most popular choice for Sonex builders. An A&P off the street with only Lycoming or Continental experience won’t be able to assess many homebuilts well for this reason, he says, leaving them open to the potential for error or gaps. 

The composite layup process has advanced significantly at the manufacturer level for factory-built aircraft. [Credit: Stephen Yeates]

Schaible’s been with Sonex since 2004, and he stays deeply engaged with leadership in the experimental/ amateur-built (E/AB) industry, serving with the Aircraft Kit Industry Association and on the Experimental Aircraft Association Board Safety Committee—which is a working group of the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee. EAA—founded in 1953—has led the homebuilt community with resources and safety programs that should be required for those wishing to enter into the E/AB space, regardless of whether the pilot builds or buys their way in. 

“You’ve got to engage the builder network,” he says, in order to help mitigate a devastating accident trend that has blossomed in the past five years among NBOs. The accident rate for E/AB aircraft overall is highest in the first 10 hours of flight—for what should be the obvious reason of testing a new build and engine in concert. 

However, the NTSB and EAA have identified that the accident rate for NBOs in the first 10 hours of ownership rivals that for the initial Phase I testing—and may even surpass it. A new owner not intimately familiar with the airplane may make assumptions about the quality of its manufacture, sometimes with catastrophic results. 

EAA’s vice president of advocacy and safety, Sean Elliott, weighs in. “We encourage people to do a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the aircraft they are interested in buying, including getting subject matter experts to look at the overall build quality and how well the airplane has been maintained—those who have a maintenance background and can do a proper pre-buy. 

“EAA stresses the importance of proper transition training in any new type…[you] can hire a qualified instructor who has flown that type before and could help you perform the actual test cards. We intend to release checklists and programs, including flight test cards, aimed at the second-owner community so as a person acquires a ‘new-to-them’ amateur-built aircraft, they can go out and perform those tests and develop their own operating handbook and learn the aircraft correctly before they start operating it.”

Composite Concerns 

Buying a Lancair, Glasair, or other primarily composite airplane on the pre-owned market involves a bit more rolling of the dice than for other types—because these hot rods require both special care during the building process and can be nearly impossible to properly inspect without partially destroying the airframe. There just aren’t inspection panels in the same sense on a composite aircraft as you would find on one crafted from aluminum. Mike Schrader, director of sales and marketing for Epic Aircraft, held a similar role with Lancair International from 1992 to 2007, primarily within the kit side of the company but also in the certified Columbia Aircraft division. He’s been with Epic since 2012, during the development of the owner-assist-build Epic LT into the Part 23-certificated E1000 GX

“I have been entirely in sales but witnessed the construction of the airframes,” says Schrader. “The Epic process was entirely built here in our factory so all the bonding and assembly was done under our direct supervision or by our technicians.”

According to Schrader, it’s crucial to know the builder and their documented build process—especially when dealing with composites. A robust builder-assist program exists for many high-performance experimentals. “Many of the manufacturers have or had a fast build program where much of the crucial bonding was done at the factory.” The manufacturer will have ways to help the builder during the layup process—both in construction and quality assurance—so that a future owner can have more confidence in the quality of the construction.

A CubCrafters’ Take

Vice president of sales and marketing Brad Damm has been with CubCrafters—the company founded in 1980 to make Piper Super Cubs better—since July 2013. In 2004, CubCrafters introduced a Part 23-certificated version, the Top Cub. However, CubCrafters’ greater success has been with the Sport Cub (introduced in 2006) and the Carbon Cub SS (introduced in 2007). Both are offered in subsequent versions in an array of builder-assist and kit aircraft, as well as factory-built SLSAs. Damm has looked at a lot of pre-owned Carbon Cubs and Sport Cubs in his role, especially since the company has a robust trade-in business with its owner-builder base. There’s even a page dedicated to pre-owned aircraft on the CubCrafters website. He shares what he’s learned about buying an already-built, amateur-built aircraft with FLYING.

“CubCrafters is one of the few aircraft manufacturers that offers similar aircraft in both certified and experimental categories, and the experimental category aircraft we offer include both kitbuilt and factory builder-assist airplanes,” Damm says. “We also take experimental aircraft in on trade, or directly purchase experimental aircraft for resale. I’ve probably bought and sold a couple hundred different E/AB category aircraft.” Damm also focuses on the builder responsible for the airplane’s construction. 

An OEM providing a builder-assist program provides access to critical infrastructure, such as industrial ovens. [Credit: Stephen Yeates]

“It is key to learn as much about the builder as possible. Builders have varying levels of experience, along with a lot of freedom in how their experimental aircraft are constructed. Generally, first builds are rougher than second, third, or later projects from the same builder. First builds are also where we often see the more radical design choices. Later, when an amateur builder gets more experience, he or she tends to learn what works and doesn’t, makes fewer mistakes, and does better fit and finish work. 

“I am a little more cautious [with a first-time builder], and spend a little more time on the pre-buy,” Damm says. “We look more closely at the aircraft before we make an offer. If an aircraft is from a well-known, experienced builder, or an established factory builder-assist program,” it involves less risk and brings a higher price.

Focus on the Pre-Buy

Damm continues, “Once as much of the aircraft’s history has been learned as possible…it really helps if the pre-buy is done by someone experienced in the type of aircraft being purchased.” In fact, he favors a person experienced in the type over an everyday A&P. “Because there is so much builder and owner judgment involved in the construction, modification, and maintenance of E/AB aircraft, I would rather have an experienced owner/builder do the pre-buy than a general A&P that doesn’t have specific knowledge of the type. Unlike with certified aircraft, it can be less about referencing an aircraft maintenance manual from the OEM, and more about knowing the peculiarities of a specific model of experimental Carbon Cub, Van’s RV, or Glasair.” 

However, Damm still sees a lot of opportunity for those pilots who approach the market carefully. “Keep an open mind,” he says. “A huge benefit of experimental-category aircraft is the freedom you have as the new owner to modify the aircraft to your own tastes and preferences. It’s way easier and a lot cheaper to update avionics, refresh interiors, and add features to experimental airplanes than it is with certified aircraft. 

“Therefore, even if the airplane isn’t perfect to start with—maybe it’s a little dated but was well put together, has good structure, and comes with good builder logs and other documentation—it might be a great starting point for a new owner. I look at the potential the aircraft has at least as much as I look for problems or defects. A new prop, maybe some different landing gear or tires, perhaps updated avionics or new upholstery, and you might just have the perfect aircraft for your preferences and mission, and a lot more affordably than you think.” 

Damm sums it up: “The best advice is to go slow, learn as much as you can, and keep an open mind.” 

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