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'I'd Like To Build Something Someday, But ...'
By Tony Bingelis (originally published in EAA Sport Aviation, March 1993)
I was 40 years old, stationed in Japan on a three year military tour, had no workshop and was hard pressed financially when I succumbed to the idea of building my own airplane . . . I just had to build something, but what? I really didn’t know.
After a few more weeks of indecision I, at long last, concluded I would build a Jodel D11, a French design that was very popular in Europe at the time. In that the plans were cheap, and it was a wood and fabric design, I figured that even with my meager discretionary funds I could at least get started.
I ordered the plans and studied them for days on end wondering if I should, or could, build such an airplane.
My circumstances being what they were in that distant land, I thought I could subdue my fever to build by constructing a large detailed 5 foot model of the Jodel.
It would be far cheaper and a more realistic thing to do because it would not require a workshop or large expenditures for materials.
And yet, we all know individuals who never seem to get anything done. Strange, isn’t it? We all get 24 hours each day. How we use it is up to us.
Why couldn’t a little of that time be devoted to your very own airplane project?
An airplane project is not perishable; it will not spoil.
All it takes is a few hours of your time . . . ideally on a regular basis, if possible. There is no need to strap yourself to a timetable for a project . . . not when you are enjoying what you are doing.
I know of very successful projects that were completed in two years, some in three to five, and others have taken many, many years more.
Unfortunately, the longer a project is drawn out, the less likely it will ever be completed.
Unfortunately, after completing the model I found that after having completed a miniature version of the airplane, the design no longer appealed to me as a potential full size project.
Still, I wanted to build a real airplane - I had to build something.
I bought another set of plans, further depleting my scarce discretionary funds.
This time I acquired the blueprints for an Emeraude, a good choice as it turned out, and a far prettier design (I thought) than the Jodel.
The lack of a workshop was a problem I managed to solve temporarily by using a spare footlocker as a storage facility for my tools and materials, and a crowded hallway clothes closet as my workshop. By sliding the plywood doors open I was able to use the large bottom shelf as a workbench. All of the wing and tail ribs were fabricated on that lower shelf "workbench."
Years later I was transferred to Nebraska where a large basement served as another interim but much larger workshop. Here some of the larger fuselage parts were built.
On leaving the service, I moved to Texas where I found a house with an attached 3 car garage. Nothing fancy but it was all I could afford and it did have the space I needed for building that one-piece wing.
From start to finish the project had to be moved three times, and consequently it took 7 years to complete.
Why am I telling you all this? I thought it would lend more credence to a few important points I want to make.
- If you really want to build an airplane, you can.
- The lack of an ideal workshop need not be a deterrent.
- Limited funds merely means the project will last longer.
- Circumstances change, and often improve with time.
- Picking the right airplane to build helps assure success.
To Build Or Not To Build...
I’m sure the thought has entered your mind, however briefly, that you too would someday build an airplane. Is it something you really yearn for, or is it an idle dream in which you seek comfort knowing you don’t have to do anything about it?
After all, you don’t have to do anything about dreams - although they materialize spontaneously, they just as quickly fade away in the light of stark reality. All that remains is that vague but disturbing idea of building an airplane. That thought never goes away for long . . . does it?
I am sure you have noticed your desire to build that dream airplane mounts to a fever pitch in early spring when the fly-in season takes wing. Attending these fly-ins and seeing all those beautiful homebuilts only intensifies your determination to build your own dream airplane, doesn’t it?
But, why build? Couldn’t you satisfy your craving and love of flying by buying or renting an airplane - or does that fail to satisfy you because what you really want is something unique, something different . . . something you have built yourself?
Perhaps some of the blame for your restlessness can be attributed to acquaintances and friends who are already building and you feel left out. They seem to really enjoy building and visiting with other builders.
You marvel over the work they are doing and wonder if you couldn’t do as well . . . maybe even better?
I’ll bet you have also accumulated your share of brochures over the years. You may even have purchased a set of plans for an airplane that seemed just the one for you.
Unfortunately, after half-heartedly studying the plans, the realization of the tremendous amount of work involved in building that airplane turned you off. You reluctantly concluded that it was not for you.
Well, that’s a pretty good excuse for not starting a project, but there are others, too. All of them, under certain circumstances, are valid enough reasons to discourage many a would-be builder.
Not everybody has the drive to build his own airplane, but don’t jump to conclusions without first evaluating all the facts that bear on the problem.
I Can't Build Because...
- I can’t afford to build right now.
This can be a serious obstacle to building for many folks. Fortunately, nothing remains unchanged in life, and perhaps your resources will improve soon. However, do you really know how much it would cost to build your dream airplane?
Compared to today’s inflated costs, 1960, 1970 and 1980 prices are a thing of the past . . . they’ll never return. However, the good news is that your income is probably much higher now than it was in 1970. Therefore, the relative costs may be no worse now than they were years ago.
It does take money to build. Don’t try to delude yourself in this regard. The good news is that you have many more options today than ever before.
For example, you can still build an airplane from "scratch" quite cheaply. That is, by working from plans and making all the parts yourself from raw materials you can cut the cost of a project almost in half. A little judicious scrounging here and there also helps.
Very little money is needed to start a plans-built project. Furthermore, because the expenses will be spread over two or three years, the funding of such a project becomes quite acceptable.
In sharp contrast, a high performance aircraft kit with most of the parts and components already prefabricated may cost as much as $20,000 to $45,000. But that is not all. An additional like amount will have to be spent for an engine, propeller, avionics, paint and other "incidentals" necessary to complete the plane.
Very few of us would be willing to justify such an expenditure even if we had the discretionary funds for it.
Somewhere in between the costs of plans-built projects and the "fast build" composites are the popular light aircraft kits (Kitfox, Avid Flyer, etc.).
Other options, in a class by themselves, are a few, less expensive, high performance aircraft (like the Van’s Aircraft RV series) available in kit form. But even so, the cumulative cost for such a high performance aircraft can reach $25,000 to $35,000 depending in large measure on the engine and avionics selected.
Yes, it does take a lot of money to build an airplane if you expect most of the work to be already done (prefabricated for you). But, there are plenty of less expensive options, too.
- I’m too busy and don’t have the time to spare.
Too busy, you say? What about that old saying, "If you want something to get done get a busy person to do it." That is an interesting thought, isn’t it?
Most everyone believes that the press of life today leaves little time for the things we really want to do.
Perhaps we are too busy watching TV and doing many things that aren’t worth doing or actually don’t have to be done.
Ever notice how some of the busiest folks manage to get so much done? They do yard work, shop, visit, travel, work on the car and still find time to piddle with a variety of pet projects and activities.
- I don’t have a place to work on something as big as an airplane.
Remember what I said about my first airplane project?
How much space do you think you’ll need?
A separate workshop building measuring 24 ft. by 30 ft. would be close to ideal. But, how many of us have such a shop?
I do know of a few determined souls who have built their own home and in the process have erected a large workshop . . . before undertaking the construction of their dream airplane. These instances are exceptional to say the least.
More often than not, the average workshop is set up in either a single car garage or a two car garage. However, airplane projects have also been started in carports, hangars, basements, attics and in spare bedrooms.
Many homebuilders in England do not have large garages, or any garages for that matter. Still, they do manage to build . . . sometimes even in garrets. This means the builder will have to remove a window and part of the siding to get the completed project out. A block and tackle becomes an essential part of the solution.
Here in the USA some builders (up north) construct their projects in spacious basements. The fact that basements are usually below ground level doesn’t seem to deter these folks. To remove their project they simply knock out part of the basement wall, build an inclined ramp, and haul the project out into the light of day.
Obviously, if you have any kind of workshop at home, you can consider yourself to be better off than many builders. The project will always be near at hand where you can get at it any time you feel like it. Best of all there will be no valuable time lost in traveling to a distant shop or hangar.
- My wife/husband is less than enthusiastic over the idea.
This is a tough situation, especially when the spouse doesn’t care much for flying in anything smaller than a Boeing 747.
A selling job sometimes succeeds if you can convince your spouse that building is a long term project that will keep you at home and available for all sorts of "honey do’s."
It is also helpful to point out that the cost of the project will be spread out over a number of years and may actually be less expensive than being similarly involved in country club golf activities, or boating, or auto racing, or . . .?
Only you can know whether your ambitious proposal to build will be met with sympathetic support, skepticism, laughter, indifference, reluctant tolerance, or out and out hostility with threat of divorce.
On the other hand, I know of a builder whose wife liked the idea so much she helped him build their dream airplane, learned to fly, and now just loves flying that little bird.
Alas, the poor guy may have to build another airplane for himself.
- I am a first time builder and don’t have any experience.
Do you realize that everyone who has ever completed an airplane was a first time builder?
Yes, I agree, some people are better qualified to build than others. However, where one builder might have considerable mechanical skill and experience, he may be lacking in motivation, attention to detail, and determination. These are great equalizers.
If you have ever worked on your car, fixed anything around the house, built models, bird houses, or a boat or two - you can do it. You can build your own airplane . . . IF you really want to.
- I don’t even know how to fly yet.
It may surprise you but there are quite a few non-pilot builders out there busily building their own airplane.
Some are building because they like the challenge and like working with their hands.
Some plan to learn to fly in their own airplane - with a qualified instructor, of course. (That "do it yourself" flying instruction idea is about as stupid as playing Russian Roulette.)
- 7. I don’t have the necessary tools and equipment to build.
A common misconception. Actually, very little additional tools or equipment is needed to build an airplane. At least not much is needed to get started because most likely you already own a variety of hand tools, an electric drill, and maybe a bench grinder.
What is essential is a good large vise and a solid workbench. It doesn’t matter what type of project you elect to build, the hand tools used are the same. No need to acquire a lot of special equipment before you start construction.
Other useful equipment would include a drill press, a band saw, a disc sander and an air compressor. With all this stuff and a hacksaw, you could build most anything.
You would have no need for welding equipment unless you are going to build a tube and fabric airplane and will do the welding yourself.
- I have to put the kids through school first.
This equates to a shortage of funds. Obviously, the kids won’t need your brain power to get through school - only some of your money. Well, if there is any spare change left over you can still invest it in a project.
- I already have an airplane.
Nothing like having an airplane to fly to slow down a building project. Seems more people prefer to fly than to build. However, there are chronic builders too.
Anyhow, owning an airplane should be no obstacle to building your own homebuilt.
You can always sell that ol’ store bought bird before the project is completed. That money would make it easier to equip your homebuilt with good instruments and the latest avionics.
- I can’t decide on what to build . . .
Some people know exactly what they want to build, or think they know what they want to build. Building the wrong kind of airplane for the type of flying you like to do best can be a very disappointing experience.