Homebuilt Selection at AirVenture
By William Wynne, EAA 331351, WilliamTCA@aol.com
Just as I have done for 16 of the last 17 years, in a matter of weeks I’ll be heading off to AirVenture. The first year I went just to see what I was missing. In recent years I have gone as commercial presenter. Every year is a mixture of good reasons for making the pilgrimage; among these are a chance to see old friends and to indulge my lifelong love affair with aircraft and the people to whom they belong. Along with these excellent reasons to attend AirVenture, on three different occasions, the primary motivator for making the 1,400-mile journey from my home in Florida was to finalize the decision on what would be my next homebuilt project.
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William's Pietenpol, on the cover of CONTACT! Magazine nearly 10 years ago. Click here to read the issue
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William's Buttercup project, next to a Wittman Tailwind
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William Wynne (right) with Chris Heintz, in the Zenith booth, displaying William's CH 601 XL-TD with the Corvair engine installation
Two of these planes were plans-built aircraft, a Pietenpol Aircamper and a Wittman Buttercup, and sandwiched in between was a Zenith 601 XL. In each of these cases, a trip to AirVenture was an invaluable opportunity to advance each project on a number of different fronts. The chance to do all of these in a single week undoubtedly was the most significant milestone toward success on each of the projects. If you are strongly considering a homebuilt project, let me encourage you to take a trip to AirVenture; it can be just what you need to take your project from the dream stage in the arena of action. A well-planned trip to AirVenture will solidify your choice and provide the motivation to proceed with confidence. Less likely but equally important, it may allow builders to discover their selection to be a poor match for their needs or desires. Finding this out at AirVenture allows a builder to quickly examine other options and move forward with them. It is a win-win scenario.
The first reason to attend is to see the plane in person. This may sound implausible to new members, but it the past, a very high number of homebuilders never saw a flying example of the plane they had selected to build. This was especially true of plans builders. I had never seen a Pietenpol in person when I bought the plans and started to build. Although the plans are good, a trip to Oshkosh answered questions I had not yet thought of. There were several Pietenpols on the flightline, one in the museum, and one in Bernard's hangar at Pioneer Airport; it was priceless motivation that eventually led to my Pietenpol flying to AirVenture in 2000.
New ideas abound
If you are checking out a new design, AirVenture is a good chance to see that the plane can make a significant flight. There are a lot of new designs every year that go into kit production or plan sales having never flown out of the pattern at their home airport. Visiting that plane’s base airport will tell you little about its potential. As you might suspect, few of these aircraft ever last beyond the initial splash. While flying to AirVenture does not guarantee a design's airworthiness or its longevity, any airplane that has traveled to AirVenture has much better odds of succeeding than a new design that lingers at its home base. It's not common, but many upstart companies bring their aircraft to AirVenture on a trailer, and assemble them the day before the show. Be sure to directly ask if the new design flew to the convention. This may seem a little forward but it is your time and money you're talking about investing.
Meeting the designer
AirVenture is an excellent chance to meet the plans seller or company staff. Keep a reasonable expectation here. Most sellers of plans for homebuilt aircraft are individuals who also have a day job. Selling plans to an aircraft is often somewhere between a hobby and a charitable act contributing to experimental aviation. In 20 years I don't know anybody who has genuinely gotten rich doing this. If you are coming to the show to meet a plans seller, do not be surprised to meet a one-man show. When my wife and I selected a Buttercup as our next project, we met Earl Luce at AirVenture. His reputation as a friendly guy preceded him, and the face-to-face meeting was the beginning of the friendship that most plans sellers develop with their sucessful builders.
When meeting with representatives of a kit company, the in-person meeting allows you learn a lot more than you ever could hope to by reading the website or even calling on the phone. Kits cost a good chunk of money, and they still take significant time to build. If you select a particular kit you will be in a marriage (of sorts) with that company. Meeting the sellers in person and evaluating the match makes a lot of sense. At AirVenture 2003, my wife and I spent a lot of time looking at the then-new Zenith CH 601 XL-TD. What sealed our decision to buy was the positive rapport we had right off the bat with the Heintz family and the crew. This is a common story with the long-established companies.
A bit of caution
Without being an alarmist, I want to caution people to carefully evaluate new companies. Keep in mind that even in good economic times, the majority of new aircraft companies do not survive the gestation period to acceptance. I always steer first-time builders away from brand new designs. It takes a tremendous amount of work to bring a new company into existence, at the same time as a new design is brought to the market. A bit of caution is often less than fully developed, and this reason alone makes brand new aircraft less desirable to first-time builders. The standard milestone to acceptance of the new design is having customer-built examples fly into Oshkosh. If you're new builder and the design you like hasn’t reached this point yet, let me adamantly say wait, or pick a new design. It should go without saying: Never, ever, function as an investor in a new design, even if you're offered a discounted kit with the promise of significant builder assistance. In 22 years I have not seen a happy ending to a single one of these offers. Remember that any new company with the three letters "LLC" is under no obligation to make good on any of its debts.
Find that network
Once you choose a design, I always encourage builders to find a small network of motivated fellow builders working on the same design. This is a good idea for obvious reasons. Builders who have not yet made the trip to Oshkosh frequently cite other people they have communicated with through discussion groups online as examples of this concept. While valuable, consider how much easier it would be to build a friendship over a shared day at AirVenture. The seriousness of another builder is much easier to evaluate in person, along with their basic outlook. The mere fact that this person is also at AirVenture tells you volumes about their motivation to make real progress and not just talk about it online. A trip to AirVenture can also be an opportunity to solidify a friendship that started online.
Will you fit?
If you're taller than 5 foot 8, and weigh more than 165 pounds, is always a good idea to find out if you fit in the plane of your choice. If you're thinking about a really common airplane like an RV-4, this can be accomplished at hundreds of different airports around the country. But if you're thinking of building something a little further off the beaten path, AirVenture may represent the first place where you've had a chance to actually physically sit in the aircraft and evaluate its accommodations. If you're considering a kit, ask the people representing the kit what would be an appropriate time for you to come and spend 10 or 15 minutes seated in the demonstrator. In the middle of the day this is most likely not possible, and most likely not during the air show, but such an evaluation can often be conducted early in the morning. In the case of plans-built aircraft, you have to use a lot of tact before asking another builder if you could actually sit in his aircraft. Do not be offended if he declines. In the five times that I have brought one of our aircraft to Oshkosh I have allowed dozens of builders to sit in them; however, I did reserve this for people who knew something about the design and were strongly considering building one or had one underway. If you’re just having a good daydream, never ask a pilot if you can sit in his plane.
Most homebuilders have some idea of what aircraft they’d like to build next. Most of these builders have spent an awful lot of time studying magazine articles and websites for these aircraft. Even serious builders can let months slip by without advancing past this stage. Making plans to attend this year's AirVenture is the most positive step you can take toward making this milestone in your building story. We're almost halfway through 2011, and it’s a crossroads to determine what the value of your year in aviation will be. A purposeful trip to Oshkosh is all that it takes to make this year a standout in your aviation journey. Make your plans today; you won't regret it.
William Wynne has been an EAA member since 1989. He is the worldwide expert on Corvair aircraft engines. His booth is No. 637 in the North Aircraft Display area, and his AirVenture forums and workshops can be found in the program. His website is www.Flycorvair.com. His motto: "Real Freedom is the sustained act of being an Individual."