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From the Editor

Affordability and Fruit

Comparisons need to be apples to apples

By Patrick Panzera, EAA 555743, ppanzera@eaa.org

Pat Panzera

I recently read an e-mail presented to a Yahoo! group that is dedicated to high-horsepower V8 automobile conversions. The writer was concerned that the cost of this alternative solution to expensive certified engines was getting out of hand, reducing or eliminating the sweetness of using the alternative engine. He potentially surmised that he might as well just go with a certified engine. I’d like to answer his letter in my editorial this month.

One paragraph in the e-mail read as follows:

"Let’s face it – most of us homebuilders are working the budget pretty tightly, which is the entire reasoning behind the search for an affordable alternative installation. On top of cost is a heap of reengineering: radiator placement; too hot, too cold; space; and engine mount reengineering. The only thing that makes all that trouble worthwhile is cost savings, and the current price of the drive outweighs a good used and serviceable Lycoming.”

While I'm sure that there’s a good portion of those who are building or dreaming of building who would agree with this line of thinking, I have to take issue with a few of the  points made.

First, although all of us have to consider cost at some point, it’s truly not the main reason most of us are building. If someone told me that cost was the most important factor in  considering becoming a homebuilder, I’d do all I could to get him to just buy a plane. Quick example. The engine the writer of the e-mail was lamenting over is a Chevrolet LS1 firewall-forward (FWF) package retailing for $26,000. If our friend was concerned over money and was only interested in flying, there’s a ton of very nice aircraft on the market that could be purchased for $26,000. Problem solved.

I would say that the vast majority of us who are building or dreaming of building are either primarily interested in building or interested in the performance available from a homebuilt that surpasses any comparable certificated aircraft. Cost is also a factor, but in many cases it’s a false economy. Let’s say that an “affordable” project is advertised as needing $8,000 in materials, uses an $8,000 engine (new VW conversion or used O-200) and could cost another $8,000 for instruments and radios, electrical system, upholstery, and paint. That’s a $24,000 cash investment.

That same plans-built project is also advertised as taking 2,000 hours to build. At the current California minimum wage rate of $8 per hour ($5.50 after taxes), those 2,000 hours are worth at least $11,000. So if cost was truly a major consideration, a potential builder would be better off getting a second job, working 2 hours a day and 5 days a week at minimum wage for a period of 3.8 years. Saving all the money ($11,000) and combining that with what would be spent on building materials, one could buy a $35,000 certificated aircraft that would, for the most part, retain its value. On the other hand, a builder of this same $35,000 homebuilt would be lucky to get half his cash outlay back ($12,000) if he sold it the day he was done with phase one testing, assuming it will never be worth more than it was on that day.

For me, mixing epoxy, sanding micro, welding 4130 steel, and squeezing, bucking, and pulling rivets for free is way more fun and rewarding than flipping burgers or sweeping floors for $8 an hour.

Second, if our friend isn’t actually looking forward to pioneering this $26,000 engine/airframe installation, it’s almost destined to fail. It’s not easy to get an alternative engine shoehorned into a cowl especially if it’s water-cooled. And getting systems to work harmoniously (while rewarding for those of us who welcome the challenge) can be a serious frustration for those looking for a bolt-on-and-go situation.

Third, and most importantly, is the erroneous thought that a new, FADEC (full authority digital engine control) $26,000 LS1 conversion is equal to a “good used and serviceable Lycoming.” These are apples and oranges. If we need to make a comparison to a “good used and serviceable Lycoming,” it should be with perhaps a good used iron Ford V6 with a carburetor and a distributor. The LS1 is a state-of-the-art engineering marvel. The only certified piston engine that might be comparable would be a new TIO-540 (intercooled twin turbos) that costs nearly three times. Even used it’s going to cost at least twice.

Then there’s the overhaul cost. For the same money it would take to rebuild a “good used and serviceable TIO-540,” you could buy three or four brand-new LS1 “crate” engines from Chevrolet. If you want to overhaul the LS1 that you’ve already put 2,000 hours on by not just throwing it away and replacing it with a new one – you’re looking at the cost of a single cylinder overhaul that the “good used and serviceable Lycoming” might need.

Consider, too, that if a $26,000 300-plus hp engine is too expensive, and if all that power isn’t really needed, you can find other automobile conversions that are less expensive than the LS1 and also less expensive than their apples-to-apples certified counterpart.

And one last thought. Bemoaning the cost of a firewall-forward kit while begrudging the vendor the ability to make a profit (living) when you’re building an airplane is ridiculous. If you can build a plane, you can build an engine, including a redrive (propeller speed reduction unit [PSRU]). Portions of the various tasks that you might not have the equipment for can be farmed out, but there’s no need to buy FWF if price is the motive for building your own plane. Thousands of homebuilts have been built by using a set of drawings. In the big picture, kits are a recent development and an FWF package even more recent. There are PSRU plans available (which are, if nothing else, a learning tool), and the cost savings of building your own can be astronomical. Or consider just buying the PSRU from the vendor and purchasing the engine from the local Chevy dealer, then put the package together yourself.

But in virtually every case, when comparing auto conversions to certified engines, apples to apples is the only way to go. New to new, weight to weight, power to power, and dollar to dollar (all-up) is the only logical way to consider which direction to go if you’re inclined to stray from the norm and install an auto conversion.

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