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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.

Is That Project Right for You?

By Tony Bingelis (originally published in EAA Sport Aviation, April 1993)

I’m sure there are a number of different airplane designs you would enjoy building and flying but how do you decide which of them would be the best project for you?

Sure, you like the looks and you would really like to build a homebuilt like that new one you saw for the first time at Oshkosh.

On the other hand, at one time or another didn’t you say the same thing about the Thorp T-18, the VariEze, the Falco, RV-6, GP-4, Midget Mustang, Volksplane, Emeraude, Cavalier, Kitfox, Avid Flyer, Glasair - and only you know how many others.

Today the sheer numbers of beautiful aircraft designs available to an enthusiastic would-be builder are greater than ever before. It is no wonder that selecting only one airplane out of the many to build is most difficult for anyone who loves airplanes. But you can narrow the field by making a sincere effort to evaluate in your own mind what would be best for you . . . before committing yourself, your money, and time to building the airplane you think you want to build.

That's For Me!

Of course, if you are especially enthralled with a particular design and won’t settle for anything else, there is no use trying to get you to be objective. You are already convinced that is the project you want and it is the project you intend to build (period).

However, read on anyway and see how you and your project would have stacked up had you considered some important ramifications along with the design’s good features before you got started.

We are often blinded by what we see, and what we want is not always what we get.

Why Not Start Here?

Here’s how you can start your project evaluation without risking a penny:

  1. Try to promote a factory demonstration flight from the kit manufacturer, or perhaps a ride with some successful builder in the airplane that captured your fancy.
  2. Talk to others who are building or have built and flown the design of your choice.
  3. Try the cockpit on for size. Most any proud owner will generally accommodate a prospective builder by letting him sit in his pride and joy . . . BUT YOU HAD BETTER ASK FIRST.

Unfortunately, you might not have access to a factory demonstrator or to a local builder.In that case, you can always try writing to a few builders who have completed an airplane like the one you are interested in. You can learn a lot this way.

NOTE - Every issue of SPORT AVIATION features examples of beautifully built airplanes in the "What Our Members Are Building/ Restoring" section. The builders’ names and addresses are given. However, when you write, don’t forget to include a stamped self- addressed envelope . . . I suggest you be brief and specific with your questions on initial contact.

While we are on the subject of questions, why not ask yourself a few?

What Kind of Flying Will You Be Doing?

How often will you get to fly? On weekends? After work during the long summer days? Do you expect to do a lot of cross-country flying and make frequent long trips?

Maybe just a little airport hopping and dropping in on a nearby fly-in is all you really want to do.

If you are primarily a weekend pilot who enjoys local flying and sightseeing, it woud be ridiculous for you to build a fast retractable gear job that could fall out of the sky if you slowed it down to sightseeing speed. A more suitable airplane would be one that has a low landing speed and sedate top speed of about 80 to 100 mph.

Even if you expect to take a short cross-country once in a while, a modest cruise speed of 120 to 135 mph would be just fine. An airplane with that type of performance will probably be a good all-round economical machine with a reasonable stalling speed.

On the other hand, frequent long cross-country flying is more practical in a fast machine - one capable of cruising about 150 mph or higher. A long range high performance airplane is entitled to an IFR rated pilot.

I must admit, however, it is unfair to arbitrarily exclude any kind of aircraft from long range travel. After all, many a Cub has crisscrossed this country and ventured as far north as Alaska.

Still, most of us would think hard before considering a 65-85 mph aircraft as a cross-country candidate. In an airplane like that a calendar should be part of your on-board equipment.

Are you especially interested in aerobatics? If so, the ideal aerobatic aircraft is most often an open cockpit biplane although a number of other aircraft designs have an aerobatic potential when flown at a reduced gross weight. Open cockpit airplanes have a short flying season unless you are endowed with the stamina of an Eskimo.

Does the idea of flying an ultralight intrigue you? Many folks are attracted to these ultralight machines because they are somewhat less expensive and can be easily built and flown without having a pilot’s license, or having to go through the aircraft certification process.

How about your pilot qualifications. Do you fly taildraggers with confidence, or do you feel more comfortable with a training wheel up front? Does a high landing speed (80 mph) scare you?

If you will have to operate from a rather short unpaved strip, it could be too short and too rough for a fast landing bird with small wheels. Tri-gear airplanes are especially vulnerable because the nose gear can’t stand as much abuse as a tailwheel installation.

Are You A First Time Builder?

As a first time builder be aware that it will probably take you longer to build the project you have in mind than you may have been led to believe by unrealistic advertised claims.

Building an airplane is not a quick way to get airborne.

Three to five years and/or 2,000 hours is a reasonable estimate of the time required to build a typical kit design. This means you would have to put in as much as 14 hours per week in order to make that 3 year schedule. Even so, that modest estimate certainly will fall short of the time required to construct most any of the high performance kit projects - especially those endowed with a retractable gear.

Of course, a plans-built project may even take somewhat longer to build. Many builders admit to having spent between 3,000 and 5,000 hours on their more sophisticated retractable designs.

Obviously, the comparatively simple Pietenpol Aircamper, Fly Baby or Volksplane (VP-1) can be built in far fewer hours than can a GP-4, Falco or a Barracuda. Not only that, you could build three Pietenpols for about the same price.

The light plane kits and ultralight kits are the easiest and fastest to build projects. Of course, even among the ultralights, some kits require much more finishing work than others, and this is usually reflected in the initial kit cost when similar designs are compared.

My usual recommendation is to avoid getting involved in any aircraft project unless the design has been on the market for three or more years - and several examples have been built and are being flown successfully.

The question is, can you as a first time builder build an airplane? My answer is . . . yes, because:

    1. Since you are reading this you must be interested in aviation, and must be familiar with aircraft to some degree - especially if you are a pilot.

    2. Chances are you own and drive a car. That being the case, I’m sure you know how to raise the hood and may even have tinkered with some of the stuff under the hood.

    3. Undoubtedly, you own an electric drill and have a screwdriver and, maybe, a wrench. Based on that circumstantial evidence alone, I can assume you have some mechanical ability.

    4. If you also admit to having built a bird house, airplane model, boat or assembled a kid’s tricycle from Sears, I would say you, indeed, have the necessary talent.

All kinds of folks have built or are building airplanes everyday. Naturally, all of them are or were first time builders.

The exclusive list of successful builders even includes women, lawyers and doctors, veterinarians and chiropractors, city and state employees as well as FAA employees and retired military . . . the list goes on and on.

In short, yes, I believe you can build an airplane, and as a first time builder you may even do a superior job because you will be ever so careful to do everything right.

It is said that only one out of every seven projects started is ever completed. Of those, some will have changed builders several times.

One of the biggest reasons for project abandonment is because the airplane selected by the builder simply was not the right kind of project for him (her).

How Easy Will It Be To Get In It?

The easiest airplane to get into and out of is one having a door on each side. Not many homebuilts have this feature. A low wing airplane is somewhat harder to get out of because you have to bodily raise yourself with your arms. This could be very difficult for some passengers. Low wing homebuilts with semi-reclining seats are the worst - especially for delicate ladies and older folks.

Actually, getting into an airplane can be almost as big a problem as getting out of one.

It is harder to climb on board a low winged aircraft fitted with a tricycle gear because the wing is higher off the ground than the typical taildragger. Therefore, unless you are quite agile and have a fair athletic capability, take this matter of easy entry and egress into consideration when selecting your dream homebuilt project.

How Are You Fixed For Work Space?

Most all-wood low wing cantilever designs feature one piece wings. This can be a serious obstacle for many builders who simply lack the necessary clear space for building a one-piece wing.

You generally need about 30 feet of clear space for such a project.

This requirement for adequate work space can be reason enough to disqualify such a project from consideration.

Composite projects and wood projects both require, for the most part, working temperatures that are above 70 degrees F. This may be a problem for folks who live in colder climates and have to heat their workshops to get the minimum required gluing temperatures.

This means when cold inclement weather arrives, and you have lots of free time on your hands, you may not be able to do much because your shop is too cold to glue or to do fiberglass work.

Heating a workshop usually causes a drastic drop in humidity. This can become a problem for the builder who has to glue plywood skins to his aircraft structure. The low humidity causes the plywood surfaces to shrink. Later in the year when the humidity is much higher the plywood will have absorbed more moisture and will swell. This causes the installed plywood to bulge between frames. Although this is not a structural problem it does affect the cosmetic appearance of the structure. Nevertheless, the effects of low humidity can be coped with provided you are aware the problem can develop.

Will You Be Able To Fly It ... Safely?

If you are not a pilot yet, and still intend to build, or you are a low time pilot, or an "old bold pilot" who has not flown for 20 years, consider carefully the flight characteristics of the airplane you intend to build.

Homebuilts are generally smaller, have steeper rates of descent, and are lighter on the controls than are commercial aviation’s finest . . . the Cubs, Aeroncas, Cessnas, Moon-eys and the like.

Some of the smaller homebuilts like the Cassutts were originally designed as racers. Naturally, they are fast but glide like bricks and land hot.

A number of other fast homebuilts also have very high landing speeds so you should be aware of a degree of skill that will be required to handle your airplane safely after it is completed.

Exposure To Chemical Risks

Building an aircraft entails exposure, in varying degrees, to toxic chemicals like lacquer thinner, MEK, acetone, paint thinners, primers, Naphtha, resins, and a variety of catalysts.

Selecting a composite design as a project can be a very poor choice if it requires the use of epoxy resins and adhesives. You may find that you are sensitive to the chemicals.

Almost anyone can, in time, become sensitized to epoxy fumes and liquids with dire results. The effects are cumulative and many builders have had to abandon their projects because they could no longer tolerate the consequences of skin rash and severe inflammation.

What About The Company You Keep?

What variety of homebuilts do your buddies fly? Do you expect to fly places with them on a whim occasionally - say, to an airport 150 miles away to get a $30 hamburger on weekends?

You wouldn’t be welcome to fly along if they are all flying fast birds (150 mph and better) and you have a "Spiffy Jiffy Sport" that tops out at 89-1/2 mph.

By all means, check around your local airport(s) to see if the type of plane you want to build will be welcome there and be compatible with your future flying buddies and the machines they fly . . . be they slow, fast or aerobatic - otherwise, you may find nobody going your way.

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