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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Story by Lisa Rothrock
Photos by Don Mickey

I had to learn flying from the ground up, so to speak. I married into it, so I have only myself to blame. Actually, it started long before I married. My future father-in-law was a flight instructor, and both my future husband and his brother were pilots. Fun for them was flying to a distant city for breakfast and practicing acrobatics on the way. Sometimes I was pressured to join them on these heart-stopping jaunts. By the time we stopped for breakfast, they were starved. I was green. Strangely enough though, over time, I came to actually enjoy this ritual and learned to fly, too.

My husband has never been one to sit still. Five years ago, he decided to build a huge addition to our home. By himself. (Well, okay. The kids and I helped some, too. You know what I mean.) You might think we’d be divorced by now, but actually, the memories are mostly happy ones. So now my husband is looking ahead to his next project, a homebuilt airplane (Homebuilt: to build in one’s home out of economy, necessity, or stupidity). I guess he figured that if he could build an addition, he could build a plane. Actually, this sounds frighteningly logical. For months, nay, years, the air in our developing addition was riddled with questions such as what kind of plane to build, what virtues one plane possessed over another, did “we” want a two-seater or four, etc. (I say “we” loosely—if we were both going to fly the plane, it would help if I bought into the idea of building it.)

Little by little, I picked up the lingo and learned probably more than ever I wanted to know, all things considered. First, what is a homebuilt (experimental) airplane? This can be a plane you build completely from scratch, using plans, or it can be a kit plane, meaning that the manufacturer has already prebuilt some of the more difficult parts, such as the wings, for you. Either way, the FAA, the great muse of the skies who oversees all general aviation aircraft, requires that a homebuilt plane follow the “51 percent rule,” which means that you must build at least 51 percent of the plane to qualify in the Experimental category. Technically, an experimental aircraft is “amateur” built and is not certified to FAA regulations. Apparently, there are a lot of amateurs out there. Current, there are more homebuilt aircraft produced in the U.S. than factory-built.

So, why build your own plane? Well, a big reason is cost. A homebuilt generally costs anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000, depending on the engine options, instruments, and performance characteristics. For example, a four-seat production plane, the Mooney Bravo, can be purchased for $399,000, flies at 270 mph, and has a range of 1000 miles. The comparable four-seat Lancair IV experimental plane costs less than half of the Mooney, at $174,000 to $200,000 ($52,000 for the standard kit [or $77,000 for the fast-build kit], $32,000 for the engine, $10,000 for the propeller, $60,000 for the avionics, and $20,000 for the creature comforts found in the Mooney, such as a leather interior, CD player, and cupholders). The difference in price is in the cost of the labor and tools you provide during the building process, and the homebuilder’s advantage of skipping the expensive FAA certification process. The Lancair also happens to fly much faster than the Mooney, up to 375 mph, and has a greater range at 1459 miles.

Another reason to build your own plane is economical access to the latest technology. Some manufactured plane designs date back to the 1950s—a high point of general aviation. Unfortunately, since then, years of lawsuits and a slumping interest and economy deterred manufacturers from investing in technology, since fewer new production planes were being sold. Today, many innovative manufactures are creating new designs, but at a price, since the new planes have also become more expensive to certify. The manufacturer certification requires endless testing and redesigning to conform to FAA standards. However, experimental airplanes don’t have to deal with all the certification regulations, while still delivering amazing speed and sleek, gorgeous looks.

Another advantage of building your own plane is doing your own maintenance. With a manufactured plane, only a certified aviation mechanic (at around $60 to $100/hour) can work on your plane. The owner can’t touch much mechanically (well, at least not officially). The required annual inspection costs $1000 to $5000. With a homebuilt, you can work on your own plane and not be required to have an annual inspection, thus saving yourself tens of thousands of dollars over the years. Also, you can choose from a variety of engines that are familiar to the average mechanic. Got a spare Volkswagen engine lying around? Popular among homebuilders and easier to maintain than the stock airplane engine is the auto engine that has been customized to run in an airplane, such as the Chevy, rotary (Mazda), and air-cooled (Volkswagen) engines. So the savings with a homebuilt aircraft are not only the initial cost of building, but also the long-term savings of mechanics and inspection costs.

You might ask—yes, but are homebuilt/experimental/kit airplanes safe? To help ensure safety, the FAA does have its rules. As soon as a plane is built, it must be FAA tested and then test flown for 25 to 40 hours (usually 40 hours), only for a distance of 25 miles, and only where others will not be endangered. And it must be test-flown solo—usually by the builder. Forty hours is actually a lot of time, and anything that will go wrong generally DOES go wrong in that time period. The total number of accidents for FAA-certified homebuilts is the same as for any other general aviation aircraft. The wings generally fall off in flight and planes take off backward only if you’re Wile E. Coyote.

A homebuilt enthusiast friend of mine, Eddie Moody, once said, “If you enjoy building, build. If you enjoy flying, buy.” Despite the aforementioned advantages, it’s important to build for the joy of building, not to save money or time. Many builders enjoy the personal challenge, the pride, the ability to say, “I built this myself. I saved a fortune, it’s beautiful, and just check out this engine!” You must believe you have the skills, perseverance, and interest to successfully complete the project and move it from dream to reality. With that in mind, and if you’re crazy enough to go further, here are the questions we considered before we started building.

1. Am I willing to trade time for money?
The average homebuilt plane requires 1000 to 3000 hours to finish, which usually means 1 to 10 years. We learned that when you balance the value of the finished product with the time and money you’ve invested, your time works out to be worth about $6 per hour!

2. Am I ready for a major commitment?
There are lots of homebuilt parts that are collecting dust or that make interesting pieces of art hanging on the wall. I’ve heard of photos of the beginning of a project, where the kids are toddlers helping Mom and Dad. In the final picture, with the finished product, the toddlers are now teenagers!
We learned that lots of homebuilts never get finished because the money and/or time runs out. Because my husband built a big addition to our house from scratch, I’m convinced that there’s a reasonable chance that the plane might get finished before we’re too old to enjoy it—however old that is! Also, we were told that it helps to build something truly beautiful, something we could remain excited about and truly believe in, because with all the frustration and aggravation over the years, even the most beautiful plane can start to look ugly!

3. Can I afford it?
After researching the topic of homebuilding extensively, we added up all the costs we could possibly think of, including a trip to Europe to get away from it all, and then added 20% for all the stuff we forgot.

4. Can I make time for my family, and can this project be supported as a family?
Photos, logs, and documentation are required at each step of the building process. One builder’s first picture was of his wife proudly standing next to the finished tail. The next was of his second wife riveting the wing. The last picture was of him working on the engine mount—you guessed it. With wife number three!
We needed to buy into this project as a team, not a solo, exercise. To the price of the plane, we didn’t want to add a divorce. The trip to Europe would be expensive enough!

5. What tools will I need to buy? To rent? To borrow?
We learned that we could reduce costs and time dramatically by networking with other homebuilt enthusiasts.

6. Do I have a large space available that is well lit and well ventilated? And can I get the finished pieces out once they’re built?
I’ve heard horror stories of builders who put their planes together in their garage, only to find out that the assembled parts were too big to get them out. One builder had to remove the entire back of his house, then use a slide and numerous friends and neighbors to free his “bird”!

Fortunately, I enjoy discussing building plans and details with my husband cum partner. It’s called self-preservation. Of course, the subject intrudes everywhere. We were driving for 3 1/2 hours one romantic weekend to a cozy bed and breakfast in the Colorado wilderness to get away from it all. We were quiet, enjoying the beauty of nature, the drama of snow-kissed mountain peaks, the turquoise sky that is only found in the Southwest. As I turned to my husband to say “Isn’t this beautiful?!”, my husband said “Just think. If we were flying, we’d be there by now. Are you sure you want a two seater, not a four?”

New Mexico resident Lisa Rothrock is a technical writer-editor for Los Alamos National Laboratory. She is actively pursuing a Master’s degree in Professional Writing at the University of New Mexico.
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