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So You Want to Build?
By Mary Jones (originally published in the 6th edition of EAA's Aerocrafter)
Chances are, if you’re holding this Sixth Edition of AeroCrafter in your hands, you’re probably building or considering whether to build an airplane. Welcome to our world! The adventure of building an aircraft is an experience that’s unlikely to be duplicated. The opportunities to expand your knowledge, recreational activities, and circle of friends are all by-products of the decision to build and fly your own aircraft. Here’s how first-time RV-6 builder Ernie Cleveland of River Forest, Illinois describes the experience - "No one ever builds an airplane alone, and the friends I’ve made along the way who helped are the unexpected dividend in the project. During most of the construction of my RV-6, I traveled frequently and had a demanding job, but on weekends my garage became a hub of activity. When I moved my project to the airport, there was another great bunch to help. EAA and homebuilding are not just about airplanes, but about people. I can’t imagine life without this activity and the friends it has brought."
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. This requires some self evaluation as well as a study of the aircraft options available. That study basically becomes a process of elimination. Fear not. There are many resources available to help you make this life-altering choice. EAA, the leader in recreational aviation, is home to many of those resources. Headquartered in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, EAA offers activities that range from regional and international fly-ins, to an international network of Chapters and special interest groups, to stores of informational publications and technical advisors. EAA can help you sort through the myriad of details... and show you how to have fun along the way!
Is A Building Project Compatible With Your Lifestyle?
Will your family object to losing part of their garage to an aircraft project? Will they mind those little chips of wood or metal you might drag into the house? Will the smell of glue, paint or epoxy occasionally wafting through the air disrupt your otherwise peaceful household? Building an airplane might be your project, but it will affect your entire family. If they don’t "buy into" it from the start, you may face a significant loss of domestic tranquility! How do you get a grip on the reality of homebuilding and the effect it will have on your lifestyle? Start by locating some builders in your area and talk with them about their building experience. Take your spouse and kids along, if they’re so inclined, to give them a first-hand look at what you’re contemplating. (Once you’ve decided which aircraft you’d like to build, a return visit to someone building the same type in your area will help establish a network for advice and assistance.)
A great way to find a home- builder in your area is to contact a local EAA Chapter. EAA Chapters can be found in nearly 1,000 communities around the world. They serve as local support systems and are especially valuable while you’re in the investigative stage. A quick check of EAA’s website —www.eaa.org (click on "Chapters" on the home page) — will lead you to a listing of EAA Chapters in your area, along with contact names. If you don’t have Internet access, call EAA’s Chapter Office (920/426-5612 or 426-6867) for more information. EAA Chapters normally meet once each month, but many Chapter members get together more often for social interaction - Saturday morning fly-outs, pancake breakfasts, ice cream socials and other Chapter activities. They’re all great ways to involve your family in your hobby as well.
There’s no substitute for the knowledge you’ll gain from listening to others talk about their aircraft projects. If this is your first attempt at aircraft building, make time to "hang around the hangars," listening and asking questions before making your final choice.
Incidentally, a fun way to enlist your kids’ support in gaining approval from a reluctant spouse regarding an airplane project might be a free airplane ride. Youth between the ages of 8 and 17 are eligible to become an EAA Young Eagle. The Young Eagles program is dedicated to introducing the world of flight to kids who might not otherwise have an opportunity for that experience. There’s no greater way to instill enthusiasm about flying than to experience it first-hand. Young Eagle rallies are held in various locations throughout the country during the spring, summer and fall. Information about that program, including dates and locations of upcoming rallies, can be obtained from the Young Eagles website at www.youngeagles.com or from the Young Eagles office at 920/426-4831.
Another question that needs serious consideration is, where will you build? Veteran aircraft builders will quickly tell you that a project built at home is much more likely to be completed than one that requires a trip to the airport every time you build a rib, deburr some rivets or add another layer of fiberglass. Many builders say the secret to successfully completing a homebuilt aircraft is to work on it every day — even if it’s only looking over the plans, ordering some parts, or sitting in the cockpit making airplane noises. Keeping connected to the project is what’s important. That’s hard to do if you have to drive a half hour to and from your workshop.
In a nutshell, there’s lots to consider about the impact a building project has on your life before you start ordering information packs and videos. Like everything in life, it’s a matter of establishing one’s priorities. If having an aircraft in the family is important, you’ll likely find a way to make it happen.
Picking A Design
Once you’ve decided a home- built project is something you want to undertake, the next challenge is picking the model that best meets your needs. That’s when the fun truly begins! Of course, this is a serious subject, too. Spending several years building an aircraft only to find after flying it that there’s not enough legroom, it doesn’t go fast enough or doesn’t match your piloting skills, can be a big disappointment.
Figuring out which aircraft you want to build requires homework. You’ll need to consider: 1) Your lifestyle and the purpose the airplane will play in your life - what’s the mission of having an airplane? Are you looking for an airplane to fly cross country (to your dream vacation spot or to visit relatives) or are you looking for an airplane that’s just fun to fly; something to take for a spin in the evening to ease the pressures of the day or fly to local pancake breakfasts and fly-ins? 2) Your piloting skills - are you a low-time pilot or do you have experience in high-performance aircraft? Do you want to increase your ratings, or fly for recreational purposes on VFR days? 3) Your abilities as a builder - are you mechanically inclined or does the sight of a wrench cause your hands to shake? With what kind of tools are you familiar? Do you like working with wood, metal or composites? Is welding a skill you’ve already mastered or are willing to tackle? Are you comfortable working with fabric? 4) Your financial situation - how much airplane will your discretionary income allow you to purchase? How much can you afford to spend each month, both now and in the future, on hangar rent, fuel, insurance, and annual upkeep? If your family has to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches three times a week in order to fund an airplane, they may quickly come to resent the project. Once you’ve narrowed your choice to one or two designs, it’s helpful to find out if there’s an owner’s group or type club that provides support to builders of the design. The designer/manufacturer of the kit/plans can usually provide information, though many groups are organized by volunteers interested in a particular design. Many of these groups produce newsletters or websites for builders who want to exchange information and building tips. Builders groups and type clubs are another great way to find someone in your area who may be building the same aircraft.
Becoming A Wise Consumer
After you’ve established your personal criteria, the next step is to become a wise consumer. You’ve already started down that road by purchasing AeroCrafter. Now’s the time to critically assess aircraft designs and manufacturers. To find the right aircraft, look for a manufacturer that offers good factory support/service, detailed plans and/or assembly instructions and has a reputation for providing a quality product. In other words, analyze the manufacturer as well as the design. In your design shopping, pay attention to how long the design has been in existence. How many kits/plans sets have been sold compared to the number of aircraft completed and flying? (All that information is listed for you right here in AeroCrafter.) That ratio will give you a good idea of the complexity of the building project. Compare that to the building time listed for the kit and you’ll have gained another insight into whether this design fits your overall plan. Again, those EAA Chapter members you’ve befriended can provide "real life" experience as well. Within many Chapters are individuals whose building and flying skills are above average.
Many of those people have volunteered to be EAA Technical Counselors and/or Flight Advisors. Technical Counselors are EAA members who have significant knowledge and skills pertaining to homebuilt aircraft. They visit members who are building and serve as "another set of eyes" to make sure the aircraft is being built as designed . . . and with safety in mind. They can offer expertise about specific building problems because they’ve "been there" themselves. They also have a broad knowledge about airplane designs and can answer questions before you send your check off for a set of plans or the kit for your dream machine. Flight Advisors are another group of EAA volunteers who assist builders when it comes time to make the first test flights in a new or newly purchased aircraft. However, their knowledge of how a particular aircraft flies can be very valuable at the early decision stage as well. They can help you evaluate your flying skills and compare them to the aircraft you want to build or buy. Their objective assessment will help lead you to the right choice in selecting an aircraft that matches your piloting skills. Now’s the time to meet these talented people and pick their brains. In addition, working with EAA Technical Counselors and Flight Advisors could mean reduced insurance rates from Avemco Insurance Company. Again, information about Technical Counselors and Flight Advisors is available through EAA’s website (under the "Members Only" banner), or a quick phone call to EAA’s Aviation Information Services (920/426-4821).
EAA’s Aviation Information Services provides other important services as well. In addition to a staff of technical specialists who can respond to questions on regulatory issues, technical, and how-to questions, this office has a wealth of documents that address a wide variety of subjects relating to the construction of amateur-built aircraft. Those documents are available to EAA members free of charge. For example, FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 20-27D, Certification and Operation of Homebuilt Aircraft, is a "must have" document for any homebuilder (this government document is also available through the Government Printing Office). AC 20-27D explains the requirements of registering and certifying a homebuilt aircraft. The Technical Specialists in EAA’s Aviation Information Services can help walk you through that process. They’ll also answer your questions related to medical certification and a host of other concerns, or they’ll refer you to a member of EAA’s Legal Advisory Council or an AME (Aviation Medical Examiner) Pilot Advocate. These advisors are attorneys and physicians who are EAA members willing to offer their advice and counsel to other members on legal or medical issues. Aviation Information Services also maintains a listing of EAA members building various homebuilt designs. Safety and accident information and service difficulty reports are available from the EAA-supported Aviation Safety Data Exchange website - www.safetydata.com. Completed National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident reports about a particular design can be requested through this website. It also carries daily accident reports along with access to a variety of advisory circulars and other design-specific data.
Another information source available through EAA is the EAA Aviation Foundation’s Boeing Aeronautical Library. The Library Archives maintain copies of all EAA publications printed since the organization’s founding in 1953, plus numerous other aviation publications. Three of EAA’s publications - SPORT AVIATION, EAA EXPERIMENTER and VINTAGE AIRPLANE - are indexed by date and key word. These indexes are searchable through EAA’s website under the "Members Only" banner. (That page also provides information on how to order copies of EAA articles.) Other aviation publications are also indexed in a similar manner. However, that information is available only through the EAA Librarians, with a nominal charge for copying and mailing. The Archive files also contain FAA and NASA technical reports, as well as manuals and other information on various building techniques.
Bringing The News To You Monthly
Of course, EAA publications SPORT AVIATION and EXPERIMENTER bring you the latest news and information about homebuilt aircraft on a monthly basis. Each issue of these magazines features an in-depth look at homebuilt aircraft as well as new designs being offered. Anyone contemplating a first-time homebuilt project will want to read Ron Alexander’s monthly feature in SPORT AVIATION. Since May 1997, Ron’s column has explored virtually all facets of homebuilding. These articles run under the heading "Aircraft Building" and offer an in-depth discussion of the decision-making process and the skills necessary to complete a project. (Copies are available at a cost of $5.00 per article through EAA Membership Services at 1-800/843-3612; each month’s current article can also be accessed on EAA’s website via Members Benefits/Sport Aviation.)
Of specific interest to readers examining aircraft designs will be the CAFE (Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency) Foundation Aircraft Performance Reports as well as the Flying Quality Reports conducted by test pilot Ed Kolano. The CAFE Foundation is an independent group of volunteers, co-sponsored and funded by EAA, that conducts comparative flight testing of various homebuilt aircraft designs according to an established scientific evaluation system. To date, the CAFE Foundation has tested 12 of the most popular homebuilt designs ranging from the high-performance Lancair 320 to the RANS S-7 light plane. Former Marine test pilot Ed Kolano’s Flying Quality Reports
focus more closely on ergonomic factors, such as location of controls and their convenience for pilots; handling qualities such as control response times and roll rates; and overall aircraft performance. All of these reports can be ordered through the "Members Only" area of EAA’s website (www.eaa.org) or via Membership Services at
If you need additional help in locating an article, reference assistance is available through the EAA Library at 920/426-4848.
Books And Videos
In addition to EAA’s monthly publications, a broad range of educational books, manuals and videos are available for purchase from the EAA Aviation Foundation to assist the homebuilder. For example, no builder should undertake an aircraft construction or restoration project without the bibles of homebuilding - Tony Bingelis’ four-volume, "how-to" texts - The Sportplane Builder, Sportplane Construction Techniques, Firewall Forward and Tony Bingelis on Engines. Dozens of other manuals, in combination with more than 20 design and "how-to" videos, combine to provide hours of learning features. EAA also has numerous general interest, historical and just plain fun books and videos for the aviation enthusiast to enjoy. For more information, visit the "Quick Shopping" pages on EAA’s website, or request a copy of the EAA Aviation Books and Videos Guide from EAA Membership Services at 1-800/843-3612.
Fly-Ins: Aeronautical Universities
A fun way to learn more about the aircraft you’re interested in building is to attend a regional, national or international EAA fly-in. EAA is the sponsor of AirVenture™, the world’s premier aviation event held each year in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The seven day fly-in is held over the first weekend of August and features hundreds of homebuilt designs on display by both manufacturers and builders. EAA AirVenture™ Oshkosh ’99 will be held July 28-August 3, 1999; plan to attend if you want to see the latest in designs, avionics, and technology. In mid-April each year, the Sun ’n Fun EAA Fly-In kicks off the fly-in season, offering an early opportunity for manufacturers and builders to introduce their new designs to the aviation public; and for aviation enthusiasts to gather. Regional EAA fly-ins continue that experience throughout the United States during the spring, summer and fall (see the EAA Regional Fly-In listing elsewhere in AeroCrafter), bringing the opportunity to gather with like-minded aviation enthusiasts closer to home.
In addition to the chance to see specific aircraft models first hand, sit in the cockpit and talk with individual builders, each of these fly-ins also offers a variety of learning opportunities. Workshops, staffed by professionals in their respective field, offer the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in welding, metal forming, composite construction, fabric covering and many other building skills.
Informational forums are another way to gather data on a wide variety of topics related to homebuilding and flying in general. In short, fly-ins are aeronautical universities offering you the opportunity to pick the "classes" you’d like to attend. By the way, you’ll have a great time along the way, and you get to choose your own homework assignments!
Learning The Skills
After you’ve determined the type of aircraft you’re interested in building; metal, wood, composite or tube and fabric, there are several ways to obtain more in-depth training in the skills needed to complete its construction. Alexander SportAir Builder’s Conferences, co-sponsored by Alexander SportAir, EAA, KITPLANES™ magazine and others, are conducted in various locations throughout the country. These weekend workshops introduce prospective builders to the skills necessary to complete a homebuilt project. While some are general in nature, offering an initiation to a wide variety of building skills, others are oriented specifically to construction of a particular aircraft design. (Information on these conferences is available through Alexander SportAir at 1-800/967-5746 or via their website at www.sportair.com)
The EAA Aviation Foundation conducts week-long aviation camps for adults. The Wright School of Aircraft Building provides in-depth instruction in metalworking, woodworking, fabric covering, composites and other homebuilding trades from some of the finest craftsmen and instructors in the world. These hands-on learning opportunities are conducted at EAA’s Air Academy Lodge, Leadership Center, and Headquarters facilities in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Participants have the opportunity to visit the EAA Air Adventure Museum and enjoy the camaraderie of living and working with other aircraft builders.
You’re Not Alone!
By now we should have convinced you that you never have to be alone during your building and flying experience. The fellowship of others who share your interest is, as Ernie Cleveland says, "one of the unexpected dividends" of building and flying an aircraft. There’s only one way to truly understand the experience: Get involved! Good luck and happy aircraft hunting! We’re here whenever you need us!