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Homebuilt Aircraft Overview


    A Brief History

    The first aircraft were, for the most part, designed and built by individuals or a small group of experimenters. They were what we think of today as homebuilts, which distinguishes them from mass-produced, FAA-certified factory-built aircraft. 

    World War I moved airplane manufacturing out of garages and into factories, and the quest for speed and for commercial and military use of airplanes overshadowed the individual sport airplane builder. But there were a few including Ed Heath, who is credited with one of the first airplanes in kit form. Dating from the 1920s, his Heath Parasol is still remembered. And in the '30s, Bernie Pietenpol's Air Camper two-seater, powered by a Model A Ford engine, spurred hundreds to buy plans and build their own Air Campers. Pietenpol Air Campers and still being built, and scores of them are flying. 

    By the late '30s, the U.S. government had decided that homebuilding was not an appropriate activity. The gathering storms of war may have influenced that decision. But by 1947, Congress officially approved the licensing of homebuilt aircraft, subject to a federally regulated inspection program. 

    The official justification for permitting homebuilt aircraft was and still is education and recreation. Official government sanction of the hobby was followed in 1953 by the founding of the Experimental Aircraft Assn. (EAA) by Paul Poberezny, Ray Stits and others. Craftsmen's magazines carried cover stories about inexpensive aircraft your could build in your garage. Thousands of plans were sold, and hundreds of aircraft were built. 

    A few kits were introduced, but Frank Christensen achieved a breakthrough with his Christen Eagle II biplane kit in the 1970s. This two-seat aerobatic machine came with a new engine, an 8-foot stack of manuals, and many beautifully finished parts. Too many, according to the FAA, which made Christensen stop supplying a complete set of finished wingribs so that the builder could do more of the work. 

    Jim Bede's BD-5 kit program (early to mid 1970s) failed to deliver necessary ingredients like engines and drive shafts, but the 3000+ customers who had paid for their BD-5 kits demonstrated the potential for an industry to service homebuilders. 

    Burt Rutan's plansbuilt VariEze amazed the aviation world in 1975 and was soon followed by the larger Long-EZ, which set many world records. Hundreds of them were built and are still flying. 

    By the early 1980s, homegrown aviation--whether in the form of hang gliding, powered ultralights, or FAA-licensed homebuilt aircraft--had taken off. And in the summer of 1984, the first issue of KITPLANES ("For designers, builders and pilots of experimental aircraft") was published. We've not been the same since.

    What Is a Homebuilt?

    In the United States, anyone can build an airplane. Or a helicopter or a glider or any number of other aircraft. To get it licensed to fly, it needs to meet certain criteria. And to fly an aircraft registered in the experimental category, the pilot needs a private license or a periodic signoff by a flight instructor. 

    The most useful licensing category for the build-it-yourself pilot is Experimental, Amateur-Built. Before the aircraft is finished, the builder applies to the FAA for a registration number and registration. The completed aircraft is inspected by the FAA (free) or by an FAA-designated inspector (for a fee). The aircraft is assigned a test area and a minimum number of test hours to fly and a temporary certificate of airworthiness. 

    For more details on experimental/amateur-built aircraft certification see Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular 20-27, "Certification and Operation of Amateur-Built Aircraft," which can be obtained by contacting Fed World in Springfield, Virginia (703/487-4608), or at http://www.fedworld.gov/faasearch.html. Search for topics relating to amateur-built aircraft. 

    At the end of a satisfactory test period, a permanent airworthiness certificate is given by the FAA, and the builder will also receive a document called a repairman certificate upon request. The repairman certificate allows the builder to perform annual inspections on that aircraft rather than having to pay a FAA-certified mechanic as for a factory-built aircraft. (To read more about the repairman's certificate, obtain FAA AC 65-23.) 

    With the permanent airworthiness certificate, the plane is operated much like a certified, factory-built aircraft. Passengers may be carried, and the aircraft can be flown at night and in instruments flight if it is equipped properly. The exception is that it may not be used in commercial service; it can't be used to fly people or packages for hire, but it could be used to fly on business trips or for such activities as inspecting the owner's property.

    Getting Started: The Ten Most Often-Asked Questions About Homebuilt Aircraft.

    Answers by Dave Martin, editor of KITPLANES magazine.

      1. What can I do with a homebuilt aircraft?
      Once the assigned test-flight period is completed, a homebuilt is operated much like any factory-built, certified plane with one exception: Commercial use of the aircraft (rental, charter, paid flight instruction and cropdusting, for example) is generally precluded. The homebuilt owner may hire a flight instructor, but a flight instructor cannot charge for instruction in his/her own homebuilt.
      2. What type of person is likely to succeed at building an aircraft?
      A significant percentage of homebuilt aircraft--both kit- and plans-built--is not completed by the first buyer, but first-owner completions have increased a lot with the advent of kits. The most successful builders are those who like to build things. Those whose only objective is flying the finished product are less likely to succeed, but many do--often after discovering they really like building. Those who don't know if they like building are encouraged to attend hands-on seminars or workshops at the fly-ins, to visit an EAA chapter and volunteer help on someone's project, or to try building some other complex project first. Those with the inclination and time to build are likely to succeed.
      3. Can I get help building?
      Yes. Although the U.S. FAA requires one person to sign an affidavit as the builder of an amateur-built, experimental aircraft, it recognizes that groups of people--partners, EAA chapter members, students and others--may work on a homebuilt aircraft. The person signing as builder must be an active participant; it's not legal to hire out the building of the entire aircraft in the homebuilt category, but you can engage professional help to work alongside or to prepare an engine or wire the avionics, for example.
      4. How do I select the right design?
      The best method is to write down specific objectives. Are two or more seats and cross-country capability prime requisites? If not, the project becomes far simpler and less expensive. Will you require short- or soft-field characteristics at your airport? With a list in hand, consult a guide such as KITPLANES' annual list of homebuilt aircraft, which is published each year.

       

       
       
       

      Also consider building space and location. A minimum of a two-car garage may be needed, and you'll get far more done if the plane can be built at home. Consider building time, the construction materials you prefer (sheetmetal, wood, steel tube, composites?), and what others in your area are building. The availability of local encouragement and technical help may be far more important than a high cruise speed.

      5. How do I check on the design and manufacturer's reputation, support and accuracy of performance claims?
      Once you've tentatively decided on a design and studied the info pack you've ordered, ask the manufaturer for a list of customers who are flying. Call several of them and ask about factory support, building problems, performance, and whether the buyer would do it again. Dealing with a manufacturer that can't or won't provide this information--possibly because the design is new-- increases risk to the customer.

       

       
       
       

      KITPLANES also publishes the results of surveys sent to builders of the more popular designs, and our "Completions" column provides insight from builders in their own words after their aircraft are flying.

      6. How much will my project cost?
      The answer is the same as for No. 5 above: Read the reports and call builders who have finished. Most kit prices do not include engines, instruments, avionics, upholstery and finishing materials.
      7. Can I get insurance?
      As the homebuilt aircraft industry has matured, both hull and liability insurance has become available for pilots of most homebuilts, usually at rates similar to what would be paid for certified aircraft of the same general type. As in factory-built aircraft, low-time pilots without high-performance flight time may find affordable insurance out of reach until they gain experience. If you are considering a high-performance homebuilt, check with your insurance agent before making a decision.
      8. What about flight-testing my new aircraft?
      A qualified owner/builder may want to conduct the test flights--typically 25-40 hours in a designated area. But many builders have let flying skills slide during the building process, and we recommend seriously considering having someone who is experienced at flying the design make the first flights. Such a person is more likely to make rational decisions than the emotionally involved builder.
      9. What is the resale market like?
      As you would expect, the resale value of a homebuilt aircraft depends primarily on the popularity of the design and the quality of workmanship. Typically, well-built experimental aircraft will sell for more than the cost of the components, but you're not likely to earn much per hour for the labor invested.
      10. Should liability be a major concern if I sell my homebuilt?
      The FAA considers the homebuilder--not the kit purveyer--to be the aircraft manufacturer, so product liability (for 18 years as U.S. law is currently written) is a concern. The short answer is that product liability is up to the jury. In practice, however, we know of few if any product liability cases that are brought against homebuilders. The average builder does not have assets that might interest contingency lawyers. More important, however, is to build according to the plans or kit instructions and document the process with a builder's log and photos and maybe an inspection by a local expert. (Documentation is required for the licensing process anyway.) Sellers should require an independent inspection by a licensed mechanic and should keep copies of all documentation. Also recommended is to sell only to a pilot who is qualified to fly the aircraft well.

    Getting Help

    Many people who are attracted to the style, speed and comfort of high-end homebuilt aircraft lack the time to build, which usually takes years. The regulation allows any number of people to participate in the building of an Experimental, Amateur-Built aircraft--as long as they are not paid. The rule is that the major portion must be amateur-built. 

    Known as the 51% rule, the regulation precludes hiring out most of the work on an aircraft in this category. For the latest FAA list of eligible amateur-built aircraft kits, search using the word "amateur" at http://www.fedworld.gov/faasearch.html

    Recently, the FAA has interpreted the amateur-built rule to allow certain professional help that does not count against the major-portion requirement. FAA Advisory Circular 20-139 "Commercial Assistance During Construction of Amateur-Built Aircraft" outlines the legalities of getting help with a project, but in general you can pay for professional paint, upholstery, engine buildup or overhaul and aviation electronics and instruments beyond the basic level without jeopardizing the amateur-built status. 

    We recommend checking out your local EAA chapter (call 414/426-4800 and ask for the Chapters office for a contact in your nearest chapter). Many chapters have active aircraft builders who would be happy to show their projects--completed or not--and maybe even offer a chance at hands-on building experience. ("Where's the whitewash bucket, Tom Sawyer?") 

    Numerous books on homebuilding--including some by regular authors in KITPLANES magazine--are available from aviation book sources. 

    And KITPLANES, our mostly color magazine with at least 100 pages each month, is considered a must by many thousands of prospective and active builders. The magazine carries a wide range of topics including flight reviews, how-to features, product reports, detailed what-it's-like-to-build-one serialized articles, aviation electronics (avionics) news and updates, surveys of builders and first-person reports from builder/pilots who are flying their homebuilts... plus annual directories of kit- and plansbuilt aircraft, building supplies and services, and avionics. There's even a regular dose of aviation humor supplied by cartoonist Robrucha. 

    To subscribe, see Subscription Information Page

    Testing Homebuilts

    With a private or higher grade pilot's license, you may test your own completed homebuilt. But many builders who put prudence above pride seriously consider letting someone more qualified make the first flight or two. The builder has often let flying proficiency slide while concentrating on the building process, and another pilot may have much more experience in this type of aircraft. 

    Generally, only one person is allowed aboard the homebuilt during its test period, which is usually 40 flight hours unless a certified engine/propeller combination is installed. In that case, 25 hours of flight testing is often assigned by the inspector. 

    FAA Advisory Circular AC 90-89 is the 100-page "Amateur-Built Aircraft and Ultralight Flight Testing Handbook"--a valuable information source. Search for and then download it using the key word "amateur" at http://www.fedworld.gov/faasearch.html.

    Other Options

    Ultralights require neither aircraft nor pilot licenses in the United States and may be a viable option for those interested only in local sport flying without passengers. Some licensed pilots choose to avoid the trouble and expense of maintaining a current FAA medical certificate by flying ultralights, which can be built from kits or bought ready to fly. As with licensed aircraft, ultralight training is mandatory for safety, even for highly qualified licensed pilots. 

    The range of sport aircraft now includes new types that were largely unknown 15 years ago. The field includes single-seat, kit-built helicopters and gyroplanes, high-performance trike-style (powered hang glider) ultralights, powered parachutes (both foot-launched and with wheels), amphibious airplanes, and even a few powered and unpowered gliders that can be built at home.


 



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