This piece originally ran in Lisa’s Airworthy column in the February 2023 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
I love showing up to a member’s project because I never know what I’m going to find.
As I pulled up to the home, the garage door was open. Boxes, pallets, crates, and an assortment of tools and machinery looked like they were going to explode out into the driveway. I got out of the car with my notebook. I stood there transfixed by the sheer volume and complexity of the contents of the space. Tom came around the corner.
“Thank you for coming. I’m not getting any traction on this mess.” He waved an arm out at the garage. “The whole project has come to a halt. I don’t know what to do next. Let’s go around the front. There’s no way to get in the house from here. I have the manuals inside.”
We walked around the side of the home and up a walkway to the front door. I was feeling confident that I could help. That feeling evaporated once we went inside. A narrow path of open space ran from the front door to the kitchen, with airplane parts everywhere. Toolboxes, hardware, aircraft surfaces, and wheelpants were surrounded by miscellaneous boxes and cabinets.
“How many airplanes are you building?”
“Just this one,” Tom said.
We entered the kitchen where there was some space to sit. Tom pulled out the manuals for the aircraft.
“I got started on the surfaces a year ago, and now I’m in over my head,” he said.
As I looked around, overwhelmed, I knew I had my work cut out for me.
* * *
Hard data are difficult to find on project completions because those of us who sell or abandon a project don’t report it anywhere. The most popular and stable of the kit companies do have data on how many purchased kits get completed, but it’s tough to collect when one buyer finishes a project in seven months and another finishes in seven years. Across the board and across all building projects, the number becomes elusive.
Speaking to the companies who have been in business for a long time provides answers. Combining that with technical counselor discussions gives us a squishy number of around 20 to 30 percent. In other words, almost a quarter of the people who begin an aircraft project abandon it.
We should take the statistic with a grain of salt because completion rates are much higher with certain kits. But the key takeaway is that any project that is abandoned is a sad day for the builder/pilot. Even if the number were 10 percent, I’d want to discover why it happens and how to improve the completion rate.
Based on my research, here are the five top reasons a builder quits a project, and what can be done to drive completions higher.
Overconfidence vs. Self-knowledge
We’re learning about ourselves all the time. By the time we’re about to build an airplane, we might know what our strengths and weaknesses are. If we don’t, it may become the project’s Achilles heel.
An example you may be familiar with is the question of whether you are a builder or a flyer. “I’m both a builder and a flyer,” you say. If so, you’re fortunate. Most of us are more on one side than the other. Think this through before you launch into a build. Are you excited about the technical pieces? Or are you thinking more about the joy of flight once the airplane is done? If it’s a balance, then you’re in great shape. But if the building itself bothers you, you may not see it all the way through. For example, I’m a builder and might give up a flight to spend time in the workshop. Projects that I’ve seen run off the rails have often involved frustrated builders who want to be flying, not building.
This comes into play in a big way when you choose your project. If you’re more of a flyer, choose an aircraft that is simpler, with fewer build hours. Choose an aircraft with a well-known company behind it with reliable customer service. If you love the building, you may want to build from plans or choose an aircraft that takes longer and is more complex.
What training should you consider? Even if you’re mechanically adept, specialized training will always add to your competence and provide the confidence to keep the project on the rails.
Working Alone vs. Getting Help
Are you an introvert? Do you get enthusiastic about doing projects by yourself? I am. I make a game out of tough assignments. The harder and more challenging, the better.
I had a friend who did landscaping. He was a loner. He had to figure out how to move large, heavy objects, like palm trees, without assistance. I learned from him, and soon I was also devising ways to move palm trees and boulders alone. That is, until I put my back out.
Don’t work alone. What I mean is, get help when you need it. Don’t be like me — someone who pushed hard to not ever ask for help. I learned the hard way, but now know that it’s much smarter to ask someone else to help you move heavy objects, maneuver awkward items, and put a second set of eyes on your work. Not only will they not mind, they will be glad you asked.
Winging It vs. Planning
This is the part you may not want to hear, especially if it’s after the fact. Planning up front will reduce your workload and the confusion factor all the way through your project. Planning begins with your choice of airplane after considering resources (money, time, space).
Having resources does not mean that you have all the money to build an airplane. Many of us, after the planning, know we’ll need to buy things as we can afford them. Having the resources means doing the planning up front for space, time, tools, money, and helpers when we need them.
I have a friend who is flitting between a backcountry aircraft kit and a fast cross-country airplane kit. These two kits are dramatically different, like the difference between a Mazda Miata and a Jeep. In an ideal world we would have both. But most of us will have to make a choice.
After a methodical choice of kit, get the manuals from the factory ahead of time and begin assembling your logs, your inventory notebook, your time planner, and your space and tools plan. See “What Should Be in Your Builder’s Log,” EAA Sport Aviation, December, 2019.
When I visited Tom’s project, I realized he had the resources but not the planning. We were able to add the planning along with time goals, and he completed and flew his airplane a few years later. You need to have both components.
At some point most of us feel that we’ve mastered time. But have we?
Do you ever feel pressed for time? Have you ever felt resentful when you looked at your to-do list and realized you couldn’t do it all? Or, have you felt that time was passing too slowly, for example, when waiting in a line? How can time be so fickle?
We have to come to terms with the time myth. If you are a person who prides themselves on getting tons of things done, you will identify with the constant dilemma of not being able to actually get it all accomplished.
The reality is that we’re not going to be able to do everything. We’ll never get everything done. The problem isn’t about running out of time or trying to make it speed up or slow down. The problem is with the mental filter that we run it through.
Sit quietly with a pad of paper and your lists. No lists? Use a fresh sheet of paper to write down all the big things you want to do. The trip to see family. The vacation you’ve put off. The books you want to read or write. The maintenance for the house, car, truck, and other investments. The new garden you want to put in. The airplane you want to build. List everything. Take your time.
Now look through the list and pull the top three off to a separate sheet of paper. Rank order these. Now put the list away for a day. When you pull it back out, your brain will have performed some subconscious evaluation activity. Are the items the same? In the same order? Rearrange as you wish. Is there an airplane project in the top three?
If the airplane project is not there, then you might be a flyer, not a builder. If you begin an airplane with lots of other items competing for your time, it may run off the rails. Of course, we don’t have to abandon the other things, but we do need to put some time and dates to them. We’ll always have more projects than we have time.
Transactional vs. Heart
In its extreme form, heart means you’ll be thinking about your airplane as you go to sleep and thinking about your airplane when you wake up. I used to methodically think through the first flight. I’d think of all the places I’d go and all the friends I’d make. Without excitement and dreams, a project is just a project. Of course, it’s possible to be Spock-like and not get emotional, but the emotion will drive your energy levels. This flow of passion and energy will help you manage all of the other life events that can knock you off track.
There are many reasons why airplanes don’t get finished and flown. But if you heed the five tips above, your chances are good that you will find yourself with a dream come true.
Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911, is a manufacturing engineer, A&P mechanic, EAA technical counselor and flight advisor, and former designated airworthiness representative. She built and flew a Pulsar XP and Kolb Mark III, and is researching her next homebuilt project. Lisa’s third book, Dream Take Flight, details her Pulsar flying adventures and life lessons. Write Lisa at Lisa@DreamTakeFlight.com and learn more at DreamTakeFlight.com.