This piece originally ran in Lisa’s Airworthy column in the April 2023 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Anticipation rippled through the small but growing group of builder club members watching airplanes land and taxi to parking and camping spaces. Now in its fifth year, the small fly-in offered training, workshops, and forums. Club members were devoted to helping one another build, test, and fly the small two-place experimental.
One airplane stood out. I looked up from my camp setup chores to see an airplane like the rest, but unpainted. Not only was it unpainted, it was unprimed. I saw some random white spots looking like clouds on the fuselage.
“How can that be legal?” my friend asked. “It’s composite. Moisture and UV will ruin it.”
“Right,” I said. “Strange.”
After setting up camp, we wandered over to the unpainted airplane, which had drawn some curious builders.
“I just couldn’t wait. I had to fly it,” the builder said sheepishly.
Over the weekend, we pitched in and primed the airplane. The builder agreed to let us paint his color scheme the following week. As we crawled about the aircraft, we found lots of other things that the builder was “too excited to finish.”
Whether you are repairing, restoring, or building an aircraft, you will also be tempted to skip details and fly. Can you? Sure. But bad things can lurk quietly and bite later.
I completely understand this frenzy, this fervor, to get in the air. Builders will tell you that “80 percent done” really means “80 percent to go.” As we near project completion, the work somehow expands. If we don’t slow down at the point where we really want to speed up, we can later discover an assortment of problems.
Here are tips for handling that all-important last mile in your project. These are the things that you will be glad you did when you start flying and performing maintenance, preflights, conditions inspections, and repairs, and when you have an emergency.
Details for Maintenance and Inspections
Labeling, instructions, and diagrams. Label everything you can identify. Time-consuming? Yes. But when you’re troubleshooting a problem and don’t know what that line, wire, or tube goes to, you’ll second-guess yourself and get mired in identifying components.
If you can make labels that tell you what to do, that will also help. For example, I was helping a builder run down a fuel leak where the line went through the fuselage to a wing tank. Identification of the lines and direction of flow would have been handy. Instead, noise-proofing foam pads had been glued over the lines at the bottom of the fuselage.
System component routing. Plan for enough line length on routing and identify any advice the manufacturer has given you to route system components. Periodic labeling will help you.
Ease of access. Assume you will go back in to make changes, perform maintenance, or do repairs. In fabric, put inspection rings in; you will not have to cut them out until you need to. You can easily do that if the rings are installed during your build or restoration.
As you are running system component lines, think about how you will access them later. In one technical counselor visit, I peered under a composite seat panel and saw a fuse block with automotive type fuses. I asked the builder how he would replace a blown fuse once the upholstery and cushions were in. He gave me a pained look.
“Thanks,” he said. “That would have been bad news.”
“If you put breakers in the panel, you won’t need fuses in an out-of-the-way place,” I replied.
Although modern kits have the access issues sorted out, if you are building from plans that don’t include a lot of detail, think this through while you are building. How will you access everything? Murphy’s Law says that if you seal something up, you will need to get back into it for some reason in the future.
Hardware security. An airplane is full of connections of all types — electrical, mechanical, and fluid. If you forget a safety, route something where it will chafe, or forget a bolt mark or torque seal, it may generate a problem and make inspections more difficult. The torque seal is especially handy in situations where a glance is all you need to check if things have moved.
Wire routing and bundling. Electrical wiring is about as detailed as you can get. Most of the problems I see with wiring consist of three faults: incorrect or improper crimps, missing or loose ties, and the wire bundle not adequately protected against chafing. While these can be knowledge or training issues, most often it comes from not slowing down and taking your time on the details.
Follow the manufacturer’s advice on the type of ties (string, nylon ties, etc.).
Improving Safety and Performance
Weight and balance. First-time builders and restorers may be confused by weight and balance calculations and procedures. Take your time and get help if you need it. The last place to find out it’s wrong is on your first flight. Take heart that nowadays “there’s an app for that,” which will bring simplification to your mathematical machinations.
Sensor calibration and avionics settings and tweaking. Fellow designated airworthiness representatives tell me stories about projects where the builder skipped instrument calibration and checks. This just adds a layer of confusion. Years ago, with simple aircraft — especially ones without electrical systems — it was not a big deal, but with the sophistication of our current homebuilt fleet, it can be a big problem, especially when the first flight carries so much pilot stress.
One spot where bypassing final details may bite you on your flight testing is not checking the pitot-static system for leaks. Airspeed, the vertical speed indicator, and altitude indicators depend on this system working leak-free and not reversed.
Security of seats, belts, canopy. Are seat belts and shoulder harnesses fully secured to a strong section of the frame, and is the hardware tight? Are the seats fully secure, including cushions that can slide around? Is the canopy (if you have one) or doors completed and secure? In one instance, a builder took off on a first flight only to have the canopy dislodge and fall to the ground. He aborted the takeoff and landed safely. Whoops.
Cockpit details. When you think you are ready to fly, sit in the cockpit and look around. Where are emergency checklists? If you suffered a quick stop or hard landing, is everything secure and is there padding on any sharp surfaces? If you have a fire extinguisher, is it reachable? Are all controls, switches, levers, and knobs reachable?
Egress plan and mental practice. Speaking of the canopy and doors, do you have well-rehearsed emergency plans for losing the canopy, for doors opening or falling off, and for getting out of the airplane in an emergency if necessary?
Completing all testing phases. One day I walked into the community hangar to see a builder performing the final assembly on his homebuilt. I walked over to offer congratulations. I asked him why he had hooked up battery leads to his hour meter.
“So, I can run some time off here on the ground instead of putting all 40 hours in the air,” he said. “I’d like to go to a fly-in with a passenger soon.”
I was astonished but not surprised and talked him out of it.
All the hard work you’ve accomplished comes to a head in flight testing. Whether you assemble your own plan, or use EAA’s task-based plan, be thorough, use a flight advisor, and get others to review your work. Most kit manufacturers provide test plans for their aircraft, even if rudimentary. This makes sense, since they have tested the testing. Consider combining their advice with the EAA test manual cards to make sure you have covered all the possible items.
Repairs and Restorations
Because repairs and restorations are unpredictable, it may be tough to determine if you’ve taken care of the details. Find someone who is familiar with the airplane. You may have to call around. Ask about any peculiarities you should know about. Many older aircraft are repaired without a thorough inspection. If you do the same, you may miss splits, cracks, and rust-outs that will become more dangerous with time.
The excitement and drive to get in the air are simply overwhelming. In this situation, the brain rationalizes, confirming what we want to believe: Everything is fine, and everything is ready for flight.
When you’re feeling this way, recognize that it’s this joy you’ve been working for from the beginning, but it is also a signal to slow down and do final reviews. This is when you should draw on all the expertise you can find, including your trusted A&P mechanic, technical counselor, and flight advisor.
Our friend who flew to the builder get-together having not completed his airplane was shocked when we showed him what was missing. It was a tribute to the reliability and durability of the aircraft that no calamity occurred.
Details, details, details. Even if you never intend to hang a “Judge Me” sign on the prop, think like an A&P and a judge as you assemble and finish both the seen and the unseen areas of the airplane. Even though it feels endless, spend the time now to save the time later.
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.