Hands, Mind, and Heart

What started as a handful of passionate enthusiasts has developed into a major force—and a significant component—of the aircraft industry.

Getting Started In Aircraft Building

By Ron Alexander (originally published in EAA Sport Aviation, October 1999)

Perhaps you are wondering whether or not you should build an airplane. Or maybe you have made the decision to build but do not know where to begin. Perhaps you have started to build and then stopped for one reason or another. There are many questions that often arise pertaining to aircraft building in general. Why build an airplane? What is available to construct? What skills do I need? What type of airplane should I build? Specifically, what is required in this process of constructing an airplane? How do I overcome the obstacles that may prevent me from completing the project? This discussion and subsequent articles will address these and other common questions that new builders often ask.

Custom aircraft building is one of the primary forms of recreational flying. Certainly, many people have successfully built their own aircraft. Over 20,000 aircraft are currently registered as amateur-built. Many people have built more than one airplane. Virtually any person with nominal skills and the willingness to make the commitment can do it. Notice I mentioned the word "commitment." It is important to understand that building your own airplane does require a commitment on the individual's part and on the part of the family. I will discuss what is required later. Building an airplane for your own enjoyment is certainly nothing new. We can consider that the Wright brothers were probably amongst the first "homebuilders."

In 1947 individuals were first allowed to build their own airplane and have it certificated for flight by the government. In 1953, Paul Poberezny founded the EAA. This began a movement that has endured through the present time. Many people began to enjoy actually building aircraft and then flying them. Believe me, in the early days it was truly aircraft building. Kits that simply needed to be assembled had not been developed. During the 1970's and 1980's several new designs came into being. Custom aircraft building started to become more and more popular. Of course, product liability issues contributed to the movement. Marketing a design or kit does not carry the same legal responsibility as manufacturing and selling a completed airplane. I want to briefly express my opinion on using the word "homebuilt." To me that word carries a certain connotation that conjures up a vision of an airplane that might not be properly constructed. The word "experimental" also does not inspire confidence in quality. We think of an experimental aircraft as one only Chuck Yeager should fly. These words have been used for years, but I prefer to use the words "custom-built." The aircraft we are discussing have evolved through the years into high quality, safe aircraft that in many instances have led the aviation community in the area of technology. That is why you will see me use the term "custom built."

Why Build An Airplane?
This is a good question. Why not simply purchase an airplane and go on my way to enjoy flying. That certainly may be the best solution for many people. The decision to build an airplane should be made only after careful consideration of many factors. It is not a decision to be taken lightly. It requires a definite commitment of time, money and plain hard work. It is also something that should be enjoyed. If your goal is simply to have an airplane, you may want to consider the purchase option. However, if you think you may enjoy building and then flying, by all means read on. I want to quote a comment made by Mary Jones in the EAA publication Aerocrafter. "The decision to build an aircraft is not one to be entered into lightly. If you make the commitment to build - and it is a commitment - your life will change. That's why it's so important for prospective builders to thoroughly and objectively assess their reasons for building; the gains they expect to make; and the purpose the aircraft will serve." Well said.

Building your own airplane is a very satisfying and rewarding experience. There is something very special in knowing that you have constructed the airplane you are flying. It is very satisfying to fly your custom built airplane to an airshow and proudly display it. There are many valid reasons that may be presented to justify building your own airplane. (By the way, I have been trying to justify owning an airplane for years. Forget about doing that. It is very frustrating.) Let's list some of the reasons to build.

    • You can save money building your own airplane.

    • Building lets you own a more sophisticated airplane than you might not be able to otherwise afford.

    • For many people aircraft building is simply a hobby they enjoy doing.

    • You will better understand the mechanical aspects of your airplane if you built it. This has obvious safety benefits.

    • You can maintain a custom built airplane without an A&P license. No more expensive maintenance bills. This includes doing your own annual inspection (condition inspection).

    • You can acquire a particular type of design that is probably not available as a production airplane.

    • Aircraft building can (and should be) a family project.

    • You become a member of an elite group of individuals who share common goals and interests.

Do you need any more convincing?

What Is Available To Build?
This is where the decision becomes difficult and often confusing. There are many aircraft designs and kits available for you to build (over 700 as a matter of fact). Everything from an ultralight to a sophisticated cross country airplane. You can create your own design and build it. You can buy a set of plans and build. Another option is to buy a set of plans along with a material kit for the airplane. And of course, the most popular option today - purchase a kit aircraft. When you purchase a kit airplane you are usually trading dollars for time. You will be sent parts and pieces that need to be assembled thus simplifying the process. Building from a set of plans requires more time, less money.

A custom built aircraft requires a pilot license to fly in addition to an airworthiness certificate for the airplane. An ultralight does not require a pilot's license or an airworthiness certificate - generally speaking. Basically, there are five different types of materials used in building amateur-built airplanes. They are sheet metal, wood, steel tubing, fabric, and composite materials. The majority of custom built aircraft require acombination of two or more of these materials. Several designs using sheet metal only are available and are popular. A large number of tube and fabric airplanes are being built along with the increasingly more popular composite aircraft. Composite aircraft are comprised of two or more basic materials, such as foam and fiberglass, that are combined to make a very strong structure. The type of aircraft that you choose is largely one of personal preference. You may have sheet metal experience that will enable you to feel more comfortable building that type of airplane. You may desire a fast, cross-country airplane that might lend itself best to a composite design. 

What Is Required To Build An Airplane?
It is interesting to note that few FAA regulations exist pertaining to aircraft building. One primary FAR defines an amateur-built aircraft. That regulation is FAR 21.191(g) and it is the heart of all regulations for the builder of an airplane. This regulation states the following: "Operating amateur-built aircraft. Operating an aircraft the major portion of which has been fabricated and assembled by persons who undertook the project solely for their own education or recreation." This regulation is the basis of custom aircraft building. Notice that one or more persons may build the airplane but they must build it only for their own enjoyment or education. This is the primary restriction placed upon the custom builder. Notice it states you must build the major portion of the aircraft. That simply means you must build, assemble or fabricate 51% or more of the aircraft.

The FAA maintains a Listing of Eligible kits. To be placed on this listing, the kit manufacturer must complete a checklist regarding the construction of each component part of the airplane. The checklist consists of three columns: one defining the part and the other two stating who builds the part, either the kit manufacturer or the amateur builder. In completing the checklist the kit manufacturer must have 49% or fewer of the check marks to ensure compliance with the major portion rule. If this is the case, the aircraft is then included on the Listing of Eligible kits. Being placed on this list does not constitute an endorsement by the FAA regarding the aircraft itself. It simply means it meets the criteria established in the checklist. When you are considering a particular type of aircraft, be sure it is included on this list. Regarding materials that you may use to construct your own airplane . . . the FAA does not restrict you. You can use anything you like. Now, let's examine that statement. Even though you can legally use any part, you must use discretion and good judgment. We are talking safety. To use unproven and untested parts or materials is inviting disaster. The FAA inspector who issues your airworthiness certificate will also want to be sure that you have used quality materials.

You will want to obtain a copy of Advisory Circular 20-27D. The information contained within this circular pertains to the building of an aircraft. You can get a copy through your local FAA district office or online at www.safetydata.com. Several websites either have this circular on their site or have a link to another site that contains it. Your local FAA office should have available and send you a complete package on aircraft building. It will include all pertinent Advisory Circulars along with the Listing of Eligible Kits.

Workshop Space and Tools
If you have a garage you have enough space to build an airplane. A two-car garage is preferable. (Yes, you will have to sacrifice the well-being of your car.) You will need space for tools, materials, component parts and parts as they are completed. You need a place to work including a couple of workbenches. The exact dimensions needed vary according to the type of airplane you are building. The requirements for controlling temperature, noise, etc. also vary. Don't be discouraged from building your own airplane just because you do not have the perfect shop. Many people have built in a one-car garage storing parts inside the house, in an attic or wherever. (You can see that you will need your family's support.) The most important comment I will make about your workshop is to have it close to home. If it is located in your home you will be much more inclined to work on the project when you arrive home from work. This will also allow your family to more easily participate in the building process. In their respective manuals, the designer or kit manufacturer will usually present the exact layout of the workshop space needed.

Concerning tools, again don't base the decision to build on lack of tools. Tools required vary considerably depending upon the type of construction. Most people have the basic tools needed. If not, they can be purchased at a reasonable cost. Sheet metal construction will require the highest investment in tools. That still does not involve a lot of money. You can buy most of the tools you will need to build a sheet metal airplane for $1,000-$1,500. Of course, you can spend a lot more if you desire.

When you purchase tools for your project remember that they are a lifetime investment. You may also be required to build certain jigs in which to assemble parts. Seldom do the jigs require a large financial investment. The bottom line with tools - you need the basics but nothing elaborate. Granted, the more tools you have the easier the job, but you do not have to invest large sums of money to accomplish the building task.

Skills Needed
Again, this varies depending upon the type of construction involved in building your airplane. I want to emphasize that you do not need to be an accomplished craftsman to build your own airplane. Most of the skills you will need can be acquired and developed. Knowledge of the basics often can be obtained through the assembly manual provided with the aircraft in addition to books and videos. Working with others who have successfully completed a project is another valuable resource. The EAA has a Technical Counselor Program wherein knowledgeable builders offer their assistance and guidance. Attending one of the EAA/SportAir workshops will provide you with "hands-on" experience in the type of construction that you select.

It has been my experience that the most important ingredient for the new builder is confidence. A large number of people decide against building their own airplane because they lack a confidence level regarding their individual building skills and technical knowledge. Let me encourage you not to let this stop you. There are many resources available to the fledgling builder. I will discuss these in detail later. Look around at people who have successfully built an airplane. Do they possess any unusual talents or skills? They usually had to develop them just as you will. Gain the basic technical knowledge needed and then develop your skills through practice. You will start your project with a small part and if you make a mistake on it - so what? Start over. I can assure you this may happen. However, as you practice and gain more knowledge you will in turn gain more confidence and make fewer mistakes. If you are willing to learn and devote some time to practice you can learn the skills needed for aircraft building.

This is certainly an emotional issue. How long will it take to build your airplane? I wish I could provide you with a simple answer but I can't. The time issue has too many variables. I can say this - it will probably take you more time than you think to complete the airplane. You should be mentally prepared for this. Of course, a plans built airplane will certainly take more time to build than a kit aircraft. A "quick-build" kit will require less time to build than a regular kit.

Many factors enter in to the amount of time required to build an airplane. To begin with, you will make mistakes and that will add to your time. You may have to drive to the workshop every time you want to do something on the project. What kind of job do you have? Do you work 8 to 5 every day or do you have some "chunks" of time you can spend building? What kind of weather do you have where you live? Maybe you can only work on the airplane during certain times of the year. How clear and concise are the plans supplied to you? Do you get good builder assistance from the designer or manufacturer? Is your family actively involved or do they resent the time you spend on the project?

As you can see, there is no easy way to accurately forecast the time required. The kit manufacturer will provide you with an estimate based upon somewhat ideal conditions. They can only estimate based upon their experience and the experience of other builders. If you want a good estimate, talk to other people who have built the same type of airplane you are considering. After a sampling of a few people you can more accurately predict the time. Average building times for most kit aircraft vary from about 800 hours to 2,000 hours. For a plans built you are looking at 3,000+ hours, depending upon the type of airplane.

Again, this should not be a deterrent to your decision. Remember I mentioned earlier that you should enjoy the building process. So what if it takes longer than you thought. You are developing skills, involving the family and having a good time while you build.

One of the most important things to remember is to break the project down into small pieces. If you tend to look at the overall project and its completion, you are more likely to become discouraged. Build one piece at a time. Concentrate on a tail surface, a wing, etc. Don't set unrealistic goals for yourself. Many a project sits idle today because the builder became discouraged by thinking the aircraft should have been completed in less time. Will you become discouraged while building? Probably. What have you ever accomplished in your life that was worthwhile where you did not experience discouragement?

Finances Required
This issue is much easier to predict than the time element. Most of the time you will have a good idea as to how much the airplane will cost when complete. Numbers are available. You can talk to other builders. You can sit down and plan this out. However, a few things are worthy of mention. When you purchase the materials or a complete kit, you will incur a number of additional expenses. A few of them to consider are: (1) shipping cost for the kit, (2) engine, (3) propeller, (4) avionics, (5) paint and (6) upholstery. There may be other items that you will have to purchase depending upon what is included in the kit cost.

If you are building a plans built airplane, you will be able to purchase materials on an as-needed basis. This will help your cash flow. Several kit manufacturers also allow you to buy certain portions of the airplane individually. You can often buy a tail kit, wing kit, fuselage kit, etc. each separately. That too will help cash problems. Financing is available for purchasing a custom built airplane. There are a number of companies that will loan money for this purpose. Some of the kit manufacturers will help arrange financing. How much will it cost? Of course, this depends upon the type of airplane you build. You can spend anywhere from $5,000 or less to over $300,000. The average kit price will usually run between $15,000 and $25,000. After purchasing engine, propeller, etc. you will have anywhere from $25,000 to

$50,000 on an average. Remember that this will vary considerably one way or the other from one kit to another. As I mentioned earlier, a plans built airplane will cost less to build than a kit. With a plans built you are actually constructing each part and then assembling the airplane. With most kits you will be buying pre-made parts and then assembling them. The bottom line - there is a price range for almost every person interested in custom building.

In subsequent issues I will answer additional questions that will assist you in getting started on your building project. Such things as how to involve your family, problems and obstacles, FAA inspections and information on how to actually make the decision will be discussed.  

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