Of the roughly 100,000 active single-piston-engine airplanes in the FAA registry, a quarter are amateur-built. A person shopping for a used airplane might want to take a look at them.
The difference between buying a factory airplane or choosing a homebuilt is something like the difference between getting a chair and getting a dog. A homebuilt, perhaps because of its small physical size and large personality, enters your emotional life in a particular way. The appeal of owning one is a combination of the practical — low maintenance costs, the fun of flying it — and the personal.
You are at liberty to do what you like with a homebuilt. If you possess the skills, or choose to learn them, you can modify it, improve it, personalize it in ways that factory airplanes forbid. It becomes a part of you in a way that a factory airplane seldom can. It can be — I say this from experience — one of the most rewarding and absorbing elements of your life.
To people not familiar with the experimental amateur-built category, an airplane built in a garage by an unknown stranger probably sounds like a remarkably bad idea. It’s true that the safety statistics for homebuilts are worse than those for factory airplanes, but many of the accidents involve powerplant issues that arise on first flights or early in testing. An amateur-built airplane whose teething troubles are behind it is probably as safe as a factory airplane.
An airplane is not just an airplane, however. The airplane and the pilot form a system, and the safety of that system depends as much on the pilot as on the airplane. The flying and handling qualities of factory airplanes are pretty well standardized, and a pilot who can fly a Skyhawk will not be flummoxed by an Archer.
Homebuilts are a different story. They are not required to demonstrate airworthiness beyond a basic ability to fly; their maneuvering, landing, stalling and spinning characteristics are unregulated, and, because of variations in construction, what is true of one airplane of a given type, particularly a type that does not consist of a largely prefabricated kit, might not be true of another. Many are taildraggers, and require special skills that are not mere extensions of what any nosewheel pilot already knows. They offer, in sum, many potential pitfalls.
Insurers are not unaware of these issues, and low-time pilots might find it difficult, if not impossible, to find coverage for a newly acquired Van’s RV-3 or Midget Mustang until they have acquired a good deal of tailwheel experience. An insurance agent is among the people a would-be buyer of a homebuilt needs to consult. Another source of guidance is a local Experimental Aircraft Association designee; most EAA chapters have them.
A related hurdle, peculiar to single-seat airplanes, is that it’s challenging to get checked out in them because of restrictions on flight instruction in experimental aircraft. The best you can do, in many cases, is become familiar with airplanes said to have similar characteristics — then take your life into your hands.
Amateur-built airplanes may be used in the same ways as factory-built ones, with the sole exception that they may not carry people or cargo for hire. Other commercial uses, such as photography, are OK.
They can fly IFR, travel internationally and use all public-use airports. There is a rule to the effect that a homebuilt may not fly over a congested area except for purposes of takeoff and landing, unless — and this proviso ought to apply to any airplane — it is high enough to be able to glide to a safe landing. This rule has, as far as I know, no practical effect. I have never heard of it being enforced.
The “experimental amateur-built” category was created in 1952 for the “recreation and education” of people who were prepared to start with plans — which might be no more detailed or complete than those for a moderately complex balsa model — then acquire all the materials and skills and put in the time — usually said, back in the day, to be three years and 3,000 hours — to weld or glue together a simple, low-performance airplane intended for weekend-fun flying.
In the beginning, welded steel-tube fuselages, wood-framed wings and fabric cover, or all-wood construction were typical. It was not until the 1960s that riveted aluminum monocoque, long the industry standard, found its way into homebuilding.
Amateur builders grew increasingly innovative, however, and they began to adopt composite construction in the 1970s; industry followed much later.
As construction methods changed, so did the character of the products. First, builders who had the tooling needed for difficult parts such as canopies and landing gear began selling those parts. Complete materials kits followed, pioneered by the Christen Eagle, a Pitts-like biplane whose leave-nothing-to-chance packing list even included a razor blade with which to slice open the plastic bags. Composites made possible airframes composed of very few large pieces; half of a fuselage, or the spar on top or bottom skin of a wing, would come ready-made. As the degree of prefabrication rose, so did the level of standardization, and the ways a builder could go wrong dwindled.
This history has consequences for a buyer selecting a homebuilt. The skill and talent of the builder were of greater importance to the soundness of the airframe when every part of the primary structure had to be formed and assembled by the builder. In the era of largely prefabricated kits and factory-aided build programs, there is less room for builder error.
To distinguish the original design from a particular instance of it, each amateur-built appears in the FAA registry with a hybrid name. If Mr. Jones builds a Thorp T-18, it’s a Jones T-18, not a Thorp T-18. When Mr. Jones originally licensed the airplane — a process requiring, essentially, that he return alive from its first 40 hours or so in the air — he acquired at the same time an airframe mechanic’s license for his airplane and no other.
Read More from Peter Garrison: Technicalities
Homebuilts are not required to adhere to the same inspection regimen as factory airplanes. All that is required is an annual condition inspection, which may be performed by the builder or by any A&P. A wise builder will not only perform the inspection, but buy an hour of a professional’s time to look an airplane over as well. Loving eyes can never see.
When a homebuilt changes hands, the special maintenance rights do not go with it. They remain with the original builder. The new owner may work on, maintain and even modify the airplane, but the annual condition inspection has to be performed by a licensed A&P, including, if amenable, the original builder.
Selecting a homebuilt to buy can be difficult and confusing for someone new to the arena. The variety of types is bewildering.
Factory-built airplanes are crafted for particular market segments. When you buy a Cirrus or a Piper, you know pretty clearly what you’re getting, what it’s suitable for and how it will perform.
Homebuilts, on the other hand, reflect a huge range of intended uses and personal tastes. As a general rule, homebuilts outperform factory airplanes where comparable types exist. Their superiority is usually due to smaller size, but also due to attention to detail, particularly in powerplant installation and surface finish. To be fair, factory airplanes must please all people; each homebuilt needs to please only one.
Because homebuilts are under no constraints as to the accuracy of performance claims, skepticism is called for. The most common misleading claim is that while an airplane cruises at 140 knots, its maximum or top speed is 180. In this case, maximum speed, if it is not entirely imaginary, can only mean dive speed or never-exceed speed; it is not a speed attainable in level flight. The sea-level top speed of a nonturbocharged airplane cannot exceed its maximum cruising speed at 7,500 feet by more than a few knots. Another favorite fib is that an airplane stalls at 25 knots; chalk that up to static error.
How do you know that an airplane is sound? There is nothing comparable to Airworthiness Directives to alert pilots and owners to defects in amateur-built airplanes. Instead, an informal system of newsgroups and owners’ clubs provides advice and information. It is to these online discussions that you must look to gain knowledge about the quirks of different types. If you are thinking about a Lancair IV — an elegant, fast four-seater that even exists in a pressurized version — you will soon become aware that its retractable landing gear has a checkered history. If you are looking at a VariEze, you will hear about severe trim changes in rain and you will learn that some airplanes still have the original rain-sensitive GU-25 airfoil and others have the Roncz-designed R1145MS “rain canard” replacement, which eliminates the problem.
Accident histories for the different types can be researched on the query page of the NTSB aviation accident site: ntsb.gov.
A wealth of general information exists online. Trade-a-Plane lists hundreds of homebuilts for sale. Kitplanes magazine offers a searchable online buyers guide to subscribers. The EAA website hosts discussion groups on topics related to specific types and to homebuilts in general, and newsgroups have sprung up around many popular types.
To get the flavor, try vansairforce.com, which covers the entire range of the very popular Vans line of all-aluminum airplanes. There is enough on these sites to keep you up late many nights, and they might in some cases be an inexpensive, if temporary, alternative to actually acquiring an airplane.
Because most online sources are both unfiltered and uncurated, the visitor has, at least at first, no way of distinguishing good information from bad or fact from opinion. Over time, however, you develop a sense from the give-and-take of who seems credible and who doesn’t.
Prices for used homebuilts range from less than $10,000 (1961 Stits Playboy, EAA biplane) to half a million (pressurized four-seat Lancair turboprop). Prices seem to rise approximately in proportion to the third power of speed.
Most homebuilts have low-time airframes; few builders spend as many hours flying as they did building, and airframe times tend to be in the hundreds of hours.
Engines are another matter. As with any airplane purchase, the age and condition of the engine play a large role in pricing, and an inspection by an A&P is indispensable. But some homebuilts have unusual engines, mostly conversions of auto engines. These are almost certain to require more attention than a garden variety Lycoming or Continental would, and should both push the price downward and discourage non-gearhead buyers.
The problem of a prepurchase inspection is a tricky one. If I were looking for an A&P to do a prebuy inspection on an old homebuilt of the wood or tube-and-fabric variety, I would look in a funky hangar at a rural airport. Many modern-day A&Ps looking into the bowels of such a homebuilt for the first time would be as much at sea as you are. Aluminum airframes are pretty standard, and easily inspected and evaluated. Inspection of composite airplanes presents a different problem; prefab parts are pretty certain to be OK, but it is almost impossible to reliably assess the quality of garage layups.
Homebuilts, like children, aren’t for everyone. They can be both troublesome and rewarding. Apart from patiently acquiring as much knowledge as you can before making a move, perhaps the most important element of buying a homebuilt is being honest with yourself about whether it will fill your needs, and whether you will have the time and inclination to fill its needs as well.