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EAA Experimenter

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From the Editor

How to Build on a Budget

The advice you get is sometimes worth less than you pay for it

By Patrick Panzera, Editor Experimenter, EAA 555743

Patrick Panzera

We all love to read articles or e-mails that include advice or tips on how to find great deals on the items (or services) we all need to complete our experimental aircraft projects. Every month in our survey I find requests for such articles, and from time to time we receive submitted articles that touch on the topic. Just today I found in my in-box a note from an individual who wrote to the e-mail group (to which I belong) telling how he went about having a deep-sump oil pan built (by a friend) that only cost him a case of beer. And quite frankly, this ticked me off.

The reason for my dislike of such a message isn't related to beer. It's related to repeatability, and it goes all the way back to one of the first articles I read about a homebuilder getting lucky and building on the cheap. I'm going to use that word "cheap" a few more times because it's a simple word to describe "affordable." But in doing so, I don't mean to convey any of the negative connotations that usually accompany the word.

The short version of the story is how a nice young couple was fortunate enough to find a great deal on a partially completed project, and how through a string of good luck, they built a very nice performing aircraft for under $5,000 that should have cost in excess of $30,000 to complete from scratch. The article's headline and the introduction to the article were all about building cheaply (there's that word again remember, I'm using it as to denote low cost, not inferior quality), but nothing in the story could be considered an outline that one could follow and expect to get the same results.

As an example, if I told you that you could build a Zenith CH 650 for $35,000 by purchasing the kit from the manufacturer, ordering the Jabiru engine from Jabiru Pacific, and buying all the instruments and miscellaneous parts from Wicks Aircraft Supply, you'd have a pretty repeatable path that would ensure your costs ahead of time. But that's not how the article read. It read like the old Steve Martin joke, how to become a millionaire (and never pay taxes). "First, get a million dollars."

It really was a story of their good fortune, how they stumbled upon the project, and how friends gave them stuff, and really nothing in the article was repeatable. It was more akin to me telling you that putting a quarter in a slot machine got me $1,500, and that could happen to you, too. And throughout the years to follow, I've had to endure other such articles that if presented in the proper light, I wouldn't have been offended to read. But again and again, the title and lead-in were written in such a way that I believed I was going to learn something from it that I could apply to my project.

But before I get too far along, let me tell you how my friend got his deep-sump oil pan built for a case of beer. The message was in a thread of messages about converting a specific automobile engine for aircraft use and keeping the cost down. One person wrote that rather than purchasing the computer numerically controlled (CNC)-machined billet aluminum oil pan from a well-known supplier, (for the sum of $300) he managed to modify a stock, stamped-steel oil pan and wrote:

"I wanted a deep-sump oil pan but did not want to expend the cost of the CNC'd pan (which is a very nice piece). I did not have an original pan, so I ordered a used one from Clark's. I bought some sheet steel of the same gauge as the pan and built my own deep sump, cut out the bottom of the stock pan, and welded the sump in place. Final results are: added oil capacity, under 3 pounds weight, expense of about $35, and a great learning experience. I had some frustrations during the project and revamping the oil pickup. But the result was very acceptable, and I now have $250 to put elsewhere in the airplane."

This comment to the group was perfect. He explained the process, and virtually anyone reading his message could do as he did and expect similar results. Really all that was needed to make this message fully helpful to all would be some photos and maybe a measurement or two.

Now contrast this to the follow-up comment, "I also wanted a deep-sump pan. Got a friend who knows how to weld aluminum. Used a bunch of scrap pieces and made a very nice pan. Total cost = a case of beer."

Unless he was just being anecdotal, his contribution to the conversation didn't do anyone any good - just like this editorial. It's exactly like Steve Martin's advice on how to become a millionaire. How do you build an oil pan cheap? First, get someone to build it for you.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, I have a good friend (Tim) who's building a Kitfox. He came to my office yesterday and asked me if I had any surplus instruments and such that I'd like to sell. At the end of our meeting, he walked out with an airspeed indicator, a directional gyro, a turn coordinator, a transponder, a primer, and a few other pieces I had no immediate use for, all at a very fair price for both of us.

During our visit I got a call from a mutual friend, and when he asked what I was up to, I told him I was visiting with Tim. He then told me how Tim had just visited him at his hangar and bought some of his surplus stuff, too. Overhearing the conversation, Tim sat there with his Cheshire cat grin and whispered, "That's how it's done."

So with that, I'll ask you to please consider submitting some useful ideas or tips on ways to cut the cost of building an experimental aircraft. I don't need a full article if all you have is one or two ideas. I can pool your ideas with others and present them all at one time. If photos, sketches, measurements, or even web addresses or phone numbers to sources are helpful, please include them. But if you do have an article idea, I'd absolutely love to publish it here, in the Experimenter e-newsletter.

I pray that you and yours have a blessed New Year.


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