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DECIDING WHAT TO BUILD! BY RON ALEXANDER from Aircraft Spruce
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DECIDING WHAT TO BUILD!
BY RON ALEXANDER

 

 




So, now that you have decided that you are going to build your own airplane the next step is to determine which particular airplane you want to build. Prior to making this decision the following should have taken place:

(1) You have established that you are interested in building an airplane.
(2) You have answered the question—why build an airplane?
(3) From a broad perspective you have determined what is available to build.
(4) You should have reviewed the question—What is required to build an airplane?

DECIDING WHAT TO BUILD

STEP ONE—QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

The first step in deciding which airplane to build is to answer the following questions.

What are your building skills?

Assess your building skills. Do you enjoy working with sheet metal, wood, fabric? Do you already have skills in one certain area that will enhance your building a particular type of airplane. Perhaps you have a good workshop that you have developed with metal construction in mind. Maybe you don’t like the smell of chemicals thereby precluding a fabric or composite design. Are you willing to learn the building skills you will need to build a certain type of airplane? There are a number of opportunities for you to “test” your interest and skills in a certain type of construction. Workshops are presented by EAA that require only a couple of days of your time to assess your building skills and your interest in a certain type of construction. You do not have to be a skilled mechanic to build an airplane. Desire and commitment are the key ingredients. If you have both then you will find a way to acquire the skills necessary to build an airplane.

Do you have the proper workshop space?

We have talked about workshop space in an earlier article. Most people have enough space to build an airplane. Consider the space available versus that needed for a particular type of airplane. Certain airplanes are larger than others and completed parts may be difficult to store. Can you heat the area—an important consideration if you are building a composite or fabric airplane. Try to assess exactly what type of space you will need for each type of airplane under consideration and then decide whether or not your workshop will accommodate it.

How much money are you willing to spend?

This question deserves some thought and planning. The first step is to outline the total cost of each airplane you are considering. Is that cost in line with what you are budgeting for the project? What about tools? Will you have to spend a lot of money purchasing tools to build the aircraft? Don’t forget to review all of the expenses that you will encounter such as shipping of the kit, engine, radios, etc. You can accurately estimate the total amount of money necessary for each airplane and then decide if it is affordable.

What is the purpose of the airplane?

Now, first of all, don’t try to justify owning an airplane. I have been trying to do that for years with no success. Just remember the terms “recreation and education” stated in the regulation defining amateur-built aircraft. That is why we are doing it. We still must answer what we are going to do with the airplane. In other words, are you going to use it primarily for cross-country flying, aerobatics, or just to fly around the field on a pleasant evening? What about flying in bad weather (IFR)—do you want an airplane capable of instrument flight? A thorough evaluation of these questions will help you decide on a particular airplane. Many airplanes will provide you with a cross section of different uses.

Do you prefer tandem or side-by side seating?

This is a personal choice. Some people enjoy side-by-side seating so they can visit with the other person while flying. Others find tandem seating more comfortable. I always have found that a control stick in my left hand is somewhat awkward. That type of arrangement is often designed in a side-by-side airplane. Some pilots would rather have a control stick in their left hand. You need to decide.

Where will you normally land the airplane?

Will you keep it on a sod runway or pavement? What about the approaches to the runway and the runway length? Are they adequate for the type of airplane you are considering? If you are going to keep the airplane on a small, grass strip with trees at each end you will limit your choices.

Do you have a hangar available?

Where will you keep the airplane? Will it be in a hangar or tied down outside? This can be important to you if you are considering a composite airplane or a fabric covered airplane. The weather will certainly have an affect on any airplane. Maybe you will want to consider a design that will allow you to fold the wings and transport it to your garage. Several airplane designs offer that option.

How many people do you want to take with you?

When you fly will you want to take someone else with you? Perhaps you have a family and all members want to travel. A four-place airplane may be required. Maybe you are the only person really interested in flying in which case a single placed airplane will suffice.

Will you be physically comfortable in the airplane?

Certain designs offer more comfort than others. If you are a large person you should try out the cockpit before deciding. You may find that you will be too cramped to fit comfortably in the cockpit. If you will be traveling with a companion most of the time how comfortable will the two of you be when seated side-by-side? Make sure you will fit in the airplane.

What about time available to build?

A key question that should be answered. Understand that you will not be able to arrive at a certain number of hours. As we have discussed, there are many factors that determine how much time is required to build any airplane. You can estimate the time with some degree of accuracy. The manufacturer or designer of the airplane you are considering will provide you with an estimate. However, talking to other people who have actually built the airplane is the best source of information to provide an answer to this question. Obviously, some aircraft designs will require more time than others. Take this into consideration. It will probably take more time to build the airplane than you think. How much time can you really devote to the project and how fast do you want to complete it?

Will you enjoy flying the airplane when it is completed?

Sounds like a strange question but certainly one you should ponder.

What are your flying skills?

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous question. Do not build an airplane you will be afraid to fly. Certain airplanes require more experience and skill to fly than others. This does not mean you can’t develop the needed skills but you should consider this before building. If you are a low-time pilot with no tailwheel time, do you really want to build a high-performance, single place, aerobatic, tailwheel airplane? In other words, are your flying skills equal to those demanded by the airplane you are considering. I know of many people who have built an airplane they do not enjoy flying. The EAA Flight Advisor’s program offers information that will help compare the skills necessary to fly a particular airplane to the one being considered. Have you actually flown the airplane?

Have you flown the airplane you are considering?

If you have not flown the airplane it will certainly be difficult to know whether or not you will enjoy it. Most of the time you can at least fly in the airplane prior to making your choice. This may not be possible if it is a single-place airplane. Then you must rely on your experience with a similar type of airplane or upon the observations of someone who has flown the airplane.

Can you afford the operating costs?

Doing your own maintenance is one of the primary advantages of building your own airplane. Being able to do this will certainly cut down on expenses. You should also consider the total cost of operation including insurance, hangar rent, fuel expense, property taxes, engine overhaul expense, etc. Operating cost may be a factor in making your decision to build a certain type of airplane. Another important question—is insurance readily available for the type of airplane you want?

STEP TWO—DECIDE ON A TYPE OF DESIGN

After you have answered the questions presented above the next step is to decide the type of design and construction you want. This step is often answered when responding to the preceding questions. Do you want a composite airplane, a sheet metal airplane, fabric, wood, or a combination. Most designs will concentrate on one type of construction even though several different types may be used. You need to consider which type best suits your desires and needs. Along with this you should decide if you want to build from a set of plans, a kit, or a quick build kit. Maybe the airplane of your dreams is not available in kit form. Perhaps you think you will enjoy the building process as much as flying the airplane so you are looking at a plans-built design. On the other hand, maybe you want to get in the air as quickly as possible so you are looking at a quick build kit.

STEP THREE—A SPECIFIC AIRPLANE

Finally! We are now at the point of getting information on specific aircraft. It sure seems like a lot of time spent in answering questions prior to getting to this step. Many builders have gone directly to this step—some with success and many that have made bad decisions. I personally think you will be much better prepared for this step if you will follow our outline. Nonetheless, there are several things to recognize when you get to this step. Let’s review some of them.

  • Is the design new? Older established designs have been tested in the field for several years. Problems have often surfaced that are then corrected. New designs sometime change during their construction. Understand that if the design is new you will be helping them test it.
  • Analyze the company. This is just as important as doing a design analysis. How long have they been in business? What kind of reputation do they have? Will they stand behind you with product and technical support? Most important, what do other builders have to say about them? You should find out how long they have been in business and try to learn their financial status. Make sure they are shipping complete kits. Often a new company will build a prototype airplane and then begin selling the kit. They may only have wing kits available and have not even begun construction on the fuselage kits. You then purchase the wing kit only to find a few years later that they are now out of business and you have no fuselage. Believe me, this has happened. You assume a portion of the risk when you purchase from a new company. This does not mean all new companies are tenuous but it means you should analyze them as best you can. EAA Information Services collects complaints from members concerning companies. They will be glad to provide you with this information.
  • How many airplanes are currently flying? This may provide some indication as to the difficulty level of the construction process. This is also dependent upon how long the design has been available. The more airplanes flying the more field testing for problems.
  • Determine the quality of the plans and assembly manual. Some people prefer to build from just drawings while others want a construction manual. This can be a key issue in ease of construction. Are the illustrations plentiful and clear? Are revisions regularly made to the manual? Again, other builders will provide you with a critique of the manual.
  • Safety record of the airplane. This is an obvious question. You can find safety data regarding aircraft online. Insurance statistics should also be available from the various insurance companies.
  • FAA Listing of Eligible Kits. We talked about this in an earlier article. Make sure the airplane you are considering is on this listing. It is not an endorsement by the FAA of the airplane but it does mean the kit has been evaluated for the major portion rule.
  • Find out what is included in the price of the kit. Define standard items versus optional items. You may find that one kit appears to be more expensive than another is because it is more complete.
  • Does the manufacturer provide technical support and, if so, what are the times and the cost?
  • If at all possible, try to get a flight in the airplane. You may not like the way it flies or you may think it is the best flying airplane you have ever flown.

Deciding on a particular type of airplane can be very confusing. There are a number of excellent designs from which to choose. You will usually end up compromising some of your wants. It will probably be impossible for you to find the perfect airplane. There are a number of resources available to help you make the decision. Perhaps your best source of information can be found in the experiences of other builders. People who have built the same type of airplane can answer most of your questions. Always get more than one opinion. Take a sampling of several if you can. These individuals will tell you how much time, money, etc. is needed. They will tell you how much support they have received from the company. They will tell you whether or not they enjoy flying the airplane. They will tell you if it has met their expectations.