Back in 2004 when the FAA created the light sport regulations and the sport pilot certificate, it flooded the general aviation community with optimism that we’d soon see much more affordable GA airplanes coming to market. There was talk of many new models that could be bought brand new for under $100,000.
That was then, and this is now.
Today, while there are a few models priced to fly away for under a hundred grand, because of “feature creep” demanded by buyers that added full glass panels with autopilot, composite airframes, larger engines, ballistic parachute systems, and upgraded automobile-like interiors, prices for new light-sport airplanes can easily demand the low six figures.
There is—and has always been—hope for those new sport pilots who still want capable LSA models for pure recreational flying, without the price tag most modern LSAs carry. There is only one catch.
You need to build the airplane yourself.
If that last sentence scares the headset off of you because you question your mechanical aptitude to build an airplane, you are not alone. Many of us consider ourselves “good with tools” but run the other way when someone suggests assembling an experimental/amateur-built (E/AB) kit airplane.
Let’s take a look into the world of kit-built airplanes that qualify to be flown with a sport pilot certificate, and learn about the process from the biggest name in that market, Zenith Aircraft Company.
Focus on One Thing and Do It Very Well
When Sebastien Heintz, owner, and president of Zenith Aircraft decided to manufacture and market airplane kits in the U.S. in 1992, his family had already been designing and producing aircraft kits in Canada as Zenair Ltd. since 1974. Today, Zenith is the number one U.S. maker of sport-pilot-eligible E/AB kits, based on data from actual FAA registrations and information from Dan Johnson’s LSA database.
Once the FAA released its LSA regulations, Heintz saw an opening and made the decision to optimize their kits for recreational sport pilots and inexperienced first-time builders who had never built an airplane themselves.
“Rather than developing fast, high-performance designs that required higher skills to build and safely operate,” Heintz said, “we instead focused on easy-to-fly slower designs better suited for lower-time weekend flyers. They needed airplanes with good slow flight handling characteristics, great visibility for both pilot and passenger, tricycle gear for better ground and crosswind handling, and lower insurance costs.”
With that in mind, Zenith developed E/AB kits that were both easy and quick to build, suitable for building in a garage or basement workshop and requiring just simple skills and tools. As a result of that focus, a “quick-build kit” is not required, although one is available which includes the fuselage section mainly assembled, ready for installation of the engine, avionics, and interior.
Cost Savings of Building Your Airplane
There is no question that building an airplane is a process that in some cases (and with some models) can take years. The cost can be spread out over this time, especially for more expensive components that are only needed toward the end of the project, such as the engine, avionics, and paint. Most E/AB builders buy component kits as they build, and Zenith builders can get the process started with the rudder starter kit for around $400. This allows builders to learn about the tools and skills needed to build a kit, while at the same time getting started on their kit project.
As to cost, Heintz uses a “rule of thumb” that the kit cost is about one-third of the total project cost.
“For example, a $20,000 kit will typically end up costing about $60,000 once the aircraft is completed and finished with a new engine, propeller, firewall-forward components, modern avionics, paint, and upholstery. Of course, this is just an indicator, and builders have a lot of control over the costs, which is one of the major advantages to building an E/AB airplane,” he said.
Heintz added that decisions like the type of engine and avionics will have a major impact on the overall project cost, but that they give a builder a lot of control and the ability to truly custom-build their aircraft. In the end, he says, building your airplane offers potential cost savings typically about 50 percent over buying a factory-built new S-LSA.
When you use Heintz’s rule of thumb, this means that Zenith’s most expensive kit, the STOL CH 750 (kit price of $24,950), could end up costing about $74,840. Sure, your costs will vary if you choose steam gauges over a fancy glass panel, or spend big bucks on a premium custom paint scheme. But using the “three times kit cost” calculator gives an interested builder a pretty good idea of what their new E/AB airplane is going to cost once the FAA signs it off to go play in the sky.
Resources to Finish the Project
It’s no secret that with many kit airplane builds, life can get in the way and sideline a builder for any number of reasons. Zenith considers this by focusing heavily on manufacturing processes that result in quicker build times so a builder can stay motivated as they see their projects quickly come together. When a builder sees continuous forward progress, it increases the likelihood that the project will be completed.
With Zenith kits or any of the many other popular E/AB kits on the market such as the Van’s Aircraft RV-12, a builder is never alone. Zenith offers workshop classes before a builder gets started, allowing them to gain hands-on building experience at the Zenith factory to learn about the required skills, tools, and workshop space needed. This gives the builder a head start.
But once the project is off and running, there are many resources available to help a builder finish their aircraft. Each brand has active online builder communities ready to help each other with their projects, and by joining their local Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) chapter, builders can gain valuable information from those who have built and are currently flying kit airplanes.
One of the best resources for anyone interested in building an E/AB kit airplane is to attend EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The 2022 show will be July 25 through 31 and will give attendees access to all the major kitplane makers, along with numerous seminars, forums, and workshops on building an airplane.
MOSAIC May Open Up the Kit Airplane Market
Every manufacturer of E/AB airplane kits is maintaining an intense focus on the FAA’s coming Modernization Of Special Airworthiness Certification, a.k.a the MOSAIC rewrite.
“We look forward to the MOSAIC rewrite as we believe it will indeed open up light sport to larger aircraft, as well as provide some needed updates for certification of E/AB aircraft rules,” said Heintz. “Zenith developed and introduced the larger STOL CH 750 Super Duty model partly in anticipation of the new rules.
“Also, Zenith has in the past produced larger four-seat aircraft kits, such as the STOL CH 801 sport utility airplane. Our larger non-LSA designs were put on the back burner with the advent of light sport/sport pilot, yet these can easily be put back into production as warranted by the MOSAIC rewrite. I anticipate that the current high fuel costs—as well as rising interest rates—will continue to make lighter and more fuel-efficient aircraft appealing to many builders and flyers in the foreseeable future,” Heintz concluded.