By John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal
Homebuilders are an interesting bunch. How do you describe them? Confident? Resourceful? Practiced? Skilled? Passionate? Determined? I’d say all of that, however, without the last one, you’re not going to get the airplane built. Yet, how do most of them get to where they are, building an aircraft either from scratch with plans or a manufactured kit to “assemble,” or the ultimate act of designing one, and then troubleshooting and test flying it until they are awarded an airworthiness certificate from the government? In short, any of those takes an enormous amount of time and effort to see it through to completion. To be honest, a lot of them will never succeed, in part, because their projects are started too late in life. That’s the sad side of the story. Others (the minority), whip them off in just a few (intensive) years, devoting all of their energies into that one goal, seeing it through to flight.
Sizing up the task of building an aircraft, before you start out, is an important step. It’s probably the most under-appreciated side of considering whether or not you can handle building an aircraft. I should, at this stage, state that I’ve never built one, so I am partially talking from the sidelines. What I have managed to do over the years, with a great deal of help from my father and many others, is keep what I have flying and/or repair the damaged airplanes that I’ve brought to airworthy status. This, on its own, requires a great deal of commitment and perseverance. Of first order, before you even contemplate it, ask yourself if you have the space for the job at hand? If the answer is no, my advice is to forget the idea completely. Get that space first! Remember, that a big space never seems big enough and that you need room to effectively navigate around what you’ve built or are building. Much like how kitchens work, set up your workstation in proximity to your work site but not immediately next door. Stick a couple of steps in between where the frame is and where the cutting and materials are. Get your stuff up and off the floor and compartmentalize where your tools are. I have a lot of work to do in this regard so I am not preaching from the sidelines and recognize that it’s a liability to be disorganized!
To build or to fly, that is the question
I may have gotten ahead of myself here. Before you do start a building project, ask yourself: why do I choose to build? Am I a builder and restorer or do I just dream about the flying and think of building as a way to save money and time? If it’s the latter, you’re probably off to a bad start. The average build time for most kits are between 5-10 years and in some cases much, much longer. I read recently on another EAA-er’s website that it’s estimated that only 1 in 10 plansbuilt aircraft ever make it out of the garage. That may be looking at the glass half empty, but if it’s true then that dispels the idea that to get flying, building is the way. If and when you are close to the end, you realize there’s always more left to do. Finishing takes a lot of time. That’s when you hear a lot of homebuilders quoting 90 percent done, 90 percent to go. There is a lot of truth in that. My experience with any project is that in order to produce something, you’ve got to narrow down the steps. Dad taught me that secret with model airplanes. They’re not much different from the big ones. It’s best to focus on one part at a time and that it’s the sum of those parts that builds the airplane. A friend of mine just finished restoring his 1943 Stearman and he’s the pinnacle of an organized mechanic — with a shop that’s almost more impressive than the airplane — not to say that the airplane doesn’t merit award marks! It is a marvel of work. The restoration took a long time, but it was a product of completing one section of the airframe at a time, focusing on all the smaller items first, moving then to larger ones, starting from the ground (frame and wings) up — then proceeding to put it all together. It seems simple, but you can easily get overwhelmed by not maintaining this discipline — one piece at a time!
I learned a few interesting things about builders recently by attending one of the many Homebuilders Week webinars, in particular one recently from Lisa Turner, regular columnist of Airworthy in Sport Aviation (see also Sport AviationFebruary 2023). Her talk was on the five killers that can derail projects. It was insightful and thorough. Most noteworthy was that she estimates 70 percent of airplanes do get finished although the completion times are all over the map. While I am on the subject, if you get a chance, most (if not all) of these are recorded. They’re an excellent way to brush up on the ins and outs of building and they offer a wealth of insight. One area where I thought there could have been more emphasis was, again, the importance of having a space to build in. I have worked for years outside in rickety temporary structures and I can tell you it always adds to the build times — even though you often think that you’re saving time. A decent, preferably heated garage goes a real long way toward making progress. Don’t buy that house unless it has one!
Another homebuilder recently confirmed my thoughts that space (lack thereof) and knowledge (or unfamiliarity of the medium) used to build (wood, metal, or fiberglass) are the two obstacles which hindered his progress. He’s building an RV-10 and has never worked with metal before. Fortunately, he started with someone else lending a hand, so he’s headed in the right direction. Getting that knowledge often takes building or repairing something out of necessity to get good at it. Welding is a great example of that. If you just practice on small parts all the time and never have a reason behind finishing a product — aside from the satisfaction of producing a good weld, you’re not left with a lot of confidence before you set out on a real project to weld up an engine mount or airframe. It’s often best to start with a smaller project like welding up the “welding” table first to get good at it. I recently improved my TIG technique building an aircraft tug. TIG requires a real steady hand. Van’s Aircraft has you start on the simpler parts of the aircraft first to get good at basic metal work before you dive headfirst into the more complicated structures. Overall, every facet of the build is a learning process and until you realize that it isn’t going to come together overnight, then you’re robbing yourself of the enjoyment of the build itself and you’re not realistically looking at what’s ahead. It’s taken me a real long time to realize this, so, maybe one day, I might be in a position to move ahead with a big project — until then, I am going to have to be satisfied learning a little bit every day before I get in deep and tackle it.
Two accomplished homebuilders pointed out that motivation was, at times, an obstacle in their builds. One EAA member (an accomplished one with two airplanes to his credit) said that after he had the first airplane built and flying, it took 2.5 times longer (seven years) to build the second one primarily because his need to fly was fulfilled with the first one! Now that he’s onto his third aircraft build, he not only has the challenge of building it but also the task of maintaining the first two — a case of too many airplanes under the same roof, which is a problem that a lot of us plane crazy people have!
Sometimes the wait times can slow down your project. A 3-month wait for engine parts had the second homebuilder (Chris Morris) finding it difficult to get back into the rhythm of the job. He noted that “even if you only do one hour of work a day, you’ll see progress every day, which is a requirement to stay motivated.”
Not enough can be said about workshops!
Workshops are a great way to get your feet wet. I suppose, from the beginning, you already know if it is part of your soul (or not) to build an airplane. SUN ‘n FUN and Oshkosh have various workshops set up that’ll let you learn the basics from watching others. Most of the teachers have been doing it for years and they’re really good at it. Every year I try to revisit the fabric, wood, and welding displays just to stay afresh so that when I am faced with jumping into that medium again (after an absence from working on only metal airplanes), so I’m not left on the sidelines paddling water. Google is also a great source of info on a lot of homebuilding subjects — just plug in the question and out pops the answer, often with a reference of a fellow homebuilder who’s faced the same hurdle. Additionally, forums like “Van’s Air Force” also have great tips, not only for the homebuilder, but also for the engine builder, AME (A&P), or avionics person who’s looking for info in their particular area. I’ve picked up many helpful hints from these sites that the shop manuals don’t always cover.
Steady as she goes…
In the end, I think the thing that sets the homebuilder who completes an aircraft apart from one who doesn’t, is that they have the focus to get the job done. There are times during a build that it just never seems like a job will end — corrosion, paint, fabric, rot, whatever your obstacle, they seem to collude into one big mess and the project morphs into a beast with a life of its own. The successful builder is able to navigate through this meandering course and not get lost in the maze.
Based on my own experiences, I’d add these points:
- Try not to wait too far into life to pick up the basic skills to build — it takes a while to get good at anything.
- Set up a really good space before building, prep time now will pay off later in spades.
- Focus on completing the parts, one by one. Their sum will complete the project. Small bites are better than big ones…and so on.
- If you’re hung up during the build, take an extended break and work the problem in your head before you put the torch to the metal or the drill bit to work.
Personally, I am constantly striving to improve in all these areas. My shop isn’t the most organized and I sometimes question if it’s in my DNA at all? Sometimes I am ready to surrender and give up. There always seems to be another high priority item in the works that isn’t necessarily an airplane! The homebuilder who successfully completes their aircraft focuses solely on the British adage (modified for airplanes) “Keep Calm and Build the Plane.” I like that phrase and repeat it all the time. If any of this sounds like you, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. If you’re not building an airplane and one day venture into someone’s shop and innocently ask “when will it fly?” — have some sympathy and understand, before you ask, that it’s a pretty daunting challenge from the outset.
John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal, is a self-proclaimed airport bum. When he isn’t in the saddle at the airline, he can be found out at the airfield doing any number of things. He likes to fly gliders, practice aerobatics, work on airplanes, and fix stuff.