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Before It Goes To The Airport
By Tony Bingelis (originally published in EAA Sport Aviation, October 1994)
The temptation to haul your homebuilt to the airport as soon as possible is overwhelming . . . but, wait! A little more time spent on your project at home may actually expedite its successful completion.
I know of a homebuilder who worked hard for more than 3 months to get his airplane ready, after taking it to the airport for its FAA certification inspection and that eagerly awaited first test flight. Even so, I imagine there are others who have taken much longer.
Surely, anyone who believes he has completed his project after working on it for several years and hauls it to the airport has great expectations for flying his airplane as soon as possible.
So, what could possibly cause such discouraging delays?
Obviously it must be due to a lack of preparation and a premature conclusion that the airplane is ready for flight.
You are probably building your airplanes at home - in a garage workshop with limited space - in a basement work space - or in an outbuilding erected especially for the project. Right?
Consequently, you are the one who ultimately has to determine when the construction is completed and your aircraft is ready to be moved to the airport . . . not always a simple determination.
There is a considerable difference between completing the construction of your airplane and having it ready for its FAA certification inspection and first flight. For example:
1. Have you completed the essential paperwork? Certainly you don’t want to hold up your FAA certification inspection waiting for that stuff to arrive. Included are:
a. An Aircraft Registration
b. An Application for Airworthiness Certificate
c. A notarized Eligibility Statement Amateur-Built Aircraft
d. A Weight and Balance Report
2. Have you made arrangements for a hangar where you can assemble your airplane on the airport?
3. Have you completely assembled your airplane at least once to assure yourself that everything fits and works before considering it to be ready for the airport?
If you have done all that, you are indeed ready to haul the airplane out for its certification inspection. If not, perhaps it would be beneficial to review a few essentials in greater detail beginning with your paperwork obligations.
Heavens No! Don’t Forget The Paperwork!
Webster defines paperwork as "routine clerical . . . work often incidental to a more important task." (Like building the airplane?)
Note: I’ll hit this important aspect of homebuilding very lightly. Your "Bible" and guidelines are FAA’s AC No. 20-27D, Certification and Operation of Amateur-Built Aircraft. Get a copy.
The federal government is not known for its speed and efficiency so you had better allow yourself plenty of lead time in getting all the documentation out of the way. I’d say, allow yourself at least 3 months prior to your estimated completion date to obtain the following:
a. The Aircraft Registration. It took FAA only 30 days to get a registration number reserved and a copy of the latest Aircraft Registration Form (AC Form 8050-1) returned to me so I could fill it out and submit it.
b. The Application for Airworthiness Certificate (FAA Form 8130-6).
c. The Eligibility Statement Amateur-Built Aircraft (FAA Form 8130-12).
Check with your closest FAA Manufacturing Inspection District Office (MIDO) to see how they want to handle the completion and submission of these forms, and the scheduling of their certification inspection.
d. The Weight and Balance Report. This is about the only other documentation you will need prior to the FAA certification inspection. Actually, it is one for which you are directly responsible for preparing.
Your airplane must be completely assembled and all the permanent equipment in place when the weighing is being done. This means the spinner, the wheel pants, landing gear leg fairings, wing and tail fairings, seat belts and shoulder harnesses, battery and radios must be installed or at least positioned in their correct location for the weighing.
A few builders simply forget to install some of those items . . . any of which can significantly affect the final weight and balance of the aircraft. The poor souls then brag how light their airplane turned out to be.
After you weigh the airplane you will have to get a Data Plate embossed to include its Empty Weight and the Max Weight. This Data Plate must be permanently affixed to the fuselage between the cockpit and the tail. It must be in place for your FAA certification inspection.
So much for the paperwork.
Haven’t You Arranged For Hangar Space, Yet?
It just happens that my latest project, a RV-3, is also ready to be moved to the airport . . . I think. Fortunately, my operational RV-6A is already housed in a hangar and I hope to be able to squeeze the new RV-3 in as well.
I assume you have already made arrangements at the airport for some kind of hangar space. I wouldn’t even consider moving my airplane until I was assured of that. You will probably find that, at larger public airports, hangar vacancies are usually scarce.
On the other hand, builders often find the hangar situation to be better at a small community airport, or at an unpaved private strip . . . but not always. In retrospect, had you been motivated enough to place your name on a hangar waiting list when you started your project, you might now, with a bit of luck, be near the top of that list.
Other than that, as an alternate arrangement you might arrange to share a shop hangar with a friend long enough to assemble your airplane after you get it to the airport. Fortunately, I have received just that kind of offer, myself, and won’t have to crowd the skinny RV-3 in with that fat RV-6A in my hangar for assembly.
Often a fixed base operator will have a maintenance hangar with a bit of spare space you can lease on a temporary basis for your final assembly.
Since space for your new airplane is apt to be hard to get, even for a short period of time, you certainly should have the airplane as complete as possible before you haul it to the airport. Even so, you can count on it . . . the final assembly of your homebuilt at the airport will take longer than you anticipate.
Well, so much for the advanced preparations. By now you may be wondering if your homebuilt is really ready to be moved to the airport.
Some Random Thoughts
It is natural to assume you have the engine installed and maybe you even ran it up in the driveway once or twice. Of course, all of the electrical stuff is working and, yes, it is already painted . . . looks pretty good, too, doesn’t it?
But, what if you took it to the airport now, how close would you be to flying it? How sure are you that everything needing to be in place has been obtained or fabricated, installed, and checked?
For my part, I was quite sure my RV was ready until I started thinking about it. Now, I am no longer as sure.
For this reason, like most builders, I rely heavily on checklists . . . many checklists. Then, as each task is completed, I dutifully scratch it off.
But, have you noticed how you keep thinking of additional "gotta do" items and find yourself adding more items than you manage to scratch off as completed? Nevertheless, the day always comes when the list is no more.
Today is such a day for me. The last of those "gotta do’s" has finally been taken care of. Now the airplane is really completed. Or is it?
Sure, it must be, I tell myself, because I have finally completed and lined through the last item on my "gotta do" checklist.
Well, if my past experiences mean anything, I will probably start wondering if certain specific tasks have already been completed, as I assume they were, or if they were skipped and not accomplished at all. You know, simple but important things like lubricating the wheel bearings, control hinges, and the rod end bearings. Ordinarily, I don’t like to lubricate anything until after the painting is completed. But did I or didn’t I?
If I haven’t yet done those things, wouldn’t it be easier and more convenient to do them now in my workshop than later at the airport?
Of course, I know darn well that during the final assembly at the airport I will still find a few things I overlooked. That is to be expected.
There is, however, only one way you can minimize your final assembly problems at the airport. Assemble the airplane completely at home . . . at least once.
Even though you may have completed all the structural components, painted them, and installed the engine and electrical system, that is no assurance that everything fits and works properly until after you assemble the airplane completely.
This idea may not appeal to you because you lack the space in your shop to assemble the complete airplane. Nevertheless, it would be wise to do so . . . in the driveway or backyard, if necessary.
That Initial Complete Assembly
You realize, of course, that certain fabrication and installation details cannot be readily completed until after the airplane is completely assembled. Completely assembled means just that. Everything must be made or procured, assembled and installed. These preparations include but are not limited to the following:
1. The installation of the primary structural components, using all the correct hardware down to the last washer, nut and cotter pin. You may be surprised to learn that you will still have to order certain pieces of hardware . . . sometimes another instrument to replace one that doesn’t act right.
2. The fabrication and installation of whatever bushings and spacers are needed to hook up your control surfaces.
3. The fabrication and connection of the fuel lines, and fuel vent lines between the wings and the cockpit . . . if the airplane has separate wing panels and wing tanks.
4. The fabrication and connection of the electrical fuel sender wires, as well as the navigation and strobe light wiring going to the wing tips. Making and installing disconnect points at the fuselage.
5. The pitot/static pressure connections between the wing and the fuselage will have to be worked out.
6. Fairings. Fabricating, fitting, and actually installing the wing, tail, and landing gear fairings is better done at this time as some surprises may crop up. Better that these happen at your home shop than later at the airport.
7. And, finally, re-balancing the control surfaces if necessary . . . if you did not do that after painting them.
8. Now would be a good time to service your hydraulic system if you have not already done so.
Be assured it is much easier to complete and attend to these details using the full resources available in your own workshop than it would be to try to accomplish unexpected jobs at the airport.
Now, A Few Disassembly Tips
After you have completed and checked everything to your satisfaction, you will have to disassemble most of the aircraft in order to haul it to the airport.
The legal load width limit for trailers in most states is 8 feet. Since my tail span is less than that, I intend to haul the airplane on its gear with the tail assembly completely installed and carefully secured and immobilized. That should reduce my final assembly time at the airport considerably.
If you must disassemble the wings and tail for hauling, I would suggest you get a couple of coffee cans and label one "Wing Assy," and the other "Tail Assy." Then, as you remove each bolt, nut, washer, spacer, or whatever, drop it in the appropriately labeled can so you won’t misplace any of the parts.
If you prefer, you could reinstall the hardware temporarily in the hinges or fittings where they go.
These precautions will assure you that you will have all of the correct hardware and everything else you will need for the final assembly at the airport.
Your Workshop Away From Home
Of course, you intend to move most of your tools, nuts, bolts, and washers to the airport as well as everything else you may need to reassemble the airplane. Actually, this really amounts to relocating your home shop. Nevertheless, believe me, you will forget to bring something that you will need.
Expect even more delays if you have to make extra trips back home or to the nearest hardware store or auto parts store in search of what you need.
If you won’t have electricity in your hangar - another problem. This means you may have to rely on battery powered tools. At the very least, a good battery powered hand drill and screwdriver will be needed.
In addition, with no electricity, you won’t have access to compressed air unless you can find some somewhere at the airport. A portable air tank can be helpful but it is not as useful as a working compressor.
Many builders think that as soon as the airplane gets to the airport it will be ready for its FAA certification inspection. That may be good positive thinking. But, they could also be the dreamers who have forgotten how long it takes to get most anything done.