Getting Started in Homebuilding: Part 1 of 11

Budd Davisson, EAA/Experimenter, 1994

Buying or Building

...Think About it First

Are you listening closely? We want to make sure we have your undivided attention because we're about to say something you never thought you'd hear us say.

Don't build an airplane. Don't spend all that time and money and mental energy to put a flying machine into the air.

No, there are no cute journalistic hooks here. We're not going to editorialize our way into using reverse psychology to get you to build an airplane in spite of what we say. We mean what we're saying!

Don't built an airplane. Period.

If there are any caveats here it is that the foregoing isn't meant to include everyone reading this. It is, however, very definitely meant for those who haven't given the process of building an airplane enough thought and haven't looked at the alternatives.

In our sister publication, Sport Aviation, we did an in-depth analysis of the evaluation process an individual should go through before beginning to build an airplane. We'll touch on those points again, but what we want to point out here is that there are viable sport aviation alternatives to building an airplane and for certain people in certain situations, the alternatives make more sense than building.

Basically, any who are thinking of building an airplane should perform the following evaluations:

· Evaluate your lifestyle and whether an airplane will disrupt your family
· Analyze why you want to build an airplane in the first place
· Evaluate yourself as a pilot
· Evaluate yourself as a builder
· Do a pro-forma on your financial capabilities
· Select a design that fits:
- your life style
- your goals as a pilot
- your abilities as a builder
- your cash flow

A lot of those factors fit directly into this conversation, but primarily what we want to point out is that there are a lot of people laboring under the misconception that they are duty bound by their devotion to homebuilding to build an airplane and that they can build that airplane cheaper than they can buy one.

In the first place, there is only one sensible reason to be building an airplane: Because you like to build things. The act of creating something uniquely your own and the pride it generates is the one and only logical reason to build an airplane.

There are probably some folks out there arguing with us right now and saying, "...but what airplane can I buy that will cruise at 230 mph?..."The answer to that is, you are absolutely right. If you're looking for pure speed, homebuilding is the only game in town. However, if you look at the typical 230 mph composite speedster and carefully evaluate the cost of building, you'll find you have the cost of a well equipped, low-time Cessna 210 or Bonanza tied up in it. Sure they only do 185 mph, but on a 500 mile trip all that means is that you invested that horrendous amount of time and money to arrive at your destination 32 minutes faster. And you had to leave both kids, the dog and the bicycle home.

It is arguments like this that show how important it is for an individual to really do some serious soul searching before committing to a homebuilt project.

Let's look at the motivation behind building and then put some hard numbers to a couple of typical kitplanes.

Although some folks are bound to disagree, from my point of view, and it's important you understand that this is me speaking and not the EAA, every argument for building must be based on intangible, emotional reasons because if any logic is applied to the situation, homebuilding immediately appears illogical.

It is also very important you understand that, again from my point of view, the intangible, emotional arguments are perfectly valid and worth basing any project of any size on. Aviation, when combined with the act of creating, forms a powerfully emotional double-barreled charge which hits certain people much harder than it does others. To them, they are not simply building a machine, they are creating an artifact that is unique not only it the way it expresses their own mechanical creativity, but is beautiful to look at. And besides all that, it flies.

It is impossible for many of us to walk up to something like a well turned out Pitts Special and not feel something click inside that has nothing to do with logic. I remember the first time I laid eyes on Jim Clevenger's Wedell-Williams after it had been painted and flown and I couldn't keep the tears out of my eyes. My God, I thought, what a wonderfully beautiful piece of art that airplane is. And you want to talk about lack of logic? Try to apply logic to something like the Wedell-Williams and watch it fall apart.

The reasons to build lie deep in the heart, not in the head. They can be summed up by the feeling you get upon pulling the hangar door open and your heart leaps a little as the light bounces off the curves and angles of that thing that first came into your shop as bundles of material and stacks of boxes and which now answers to your command.

At that point, the fact that it can carry you over the horizon to places unknown shouldn't even enter your mind. The airplane is a tangible result of the thousands of hours you spent creating each little piece as an artifact, each of which stands clear in your mind as if it was the only project you ever worked on. That's what the airplane is, an endless chain of small acts of creativity which flow together to form the whole.

It is important that every individual who is thinking seriously about building an airplane look himself in an emotional mirror and carefully examine what roll creativity and emotion play in this decision. He/she has to look deep into their own soul to determine whether the little pitter-patter they'll feel on opening the hangar door is reason enough to spend the next three to five years of their lives chained to a workshop.

It is crucially important, when looking in the mirror, to look for any indication that the reason you want to build the airplane is to fly it and take advantage of its utility. If flying is your goal, consider the following: In the expanse of time it takes for you to build that airplane, you could easily buy an airplane, almost any airplane, fly it for 500-1,000 hours, resell it for more than you paid for it and finish that time period with all that flying time and all of your original investment still in your pocket. Besides, very few homebuilt airplanes ever see 500 hours flying time in their entire lifetime.

We mentioned "utility." Don't take that to mean running off to Aspen or Cleveland. The utility of an airplane is defined by what the pilot actually wants out of it and, if that means nothing more than bouncing around the patch watching the sun set, then that is his definition of utility. But it is still flying and, if that's the reason the airplane is being built, it is the wrong reason.

An airplane project that has flying as the carrot dangling in front of the builder is far less likely to be completed than an airplane that is being built simply because the builder wants to build it. It's easy to get discouraged, when the reason for all the activity is way down at the end of what looks like a never ending path. When the reason for the activity (building) IS the activity, then it will keep on trucking because it is self motivating. Since he is making parts simply because he likes making parts, he'll keep right on making parts until he's done.

It is embarrassingly easy to come up with reasons NOT to build an airplane and we can site examples all day. This is where logic comes in and takes its toll.

First of all, since airplanes tend to fall into categories and each has its own mission in a pilots life, its a little dangerous to make generalities, because they often don't fit. But, we'll look at some of the more common logical arguments for homebulding and do our best to make the generalities fit.

One of the older arguments to build an airplane is financial. The claim is that an airplane can be built which gives better performance than a comparable factory-built, but at much less cost. We'll approach this from two levels...cross country airplanes and around the patch machines.

We've already done the utility comparison of a 230 mph airplane versus the 185 mph one. Now let's look at the financial side. The current cost of the average composite airplane in this category is $25,000, not including the ultra-deluxe fast build options. Tack on $15,000 for a fresh overhauled engine, $2,000 for a prop, then put $1,000 in for instruments and $7,500 for avionics, $5,000 for miscellaneous (paint, wheels/brakes, etc.) and we've hit a total of $55,000 and that doesn't include the 2,000 or so hours a builder has to put into it, after spending all that money.

A quick run through the Blue Book shows that for that same $55,000, we could have our choice of a 1973 Cessna 210 or a 1969 Bonanza, both with 500 hour engines, a full panel and total time in the area of 2,500-3,000 hours.

Obviously, this isn't an apples to apples comparison, because the Spam cans are going to have much higher fuel burns and maintenance costs. On the other hand, when sold, they will return every dime of the original investment and they always have those extra seats, should they be needed. One other thing: We wouldn't have to wait three to five years or skin a bunch of knuckles to fly it.

Actually, there is even a better comparison that makes more sense, from a sport aviation point of view. Let's assume we're still taking that 500 mile trip and we're willing to show up 60 minutes later than our 230 mph bullet. It would take him just a shade over two hours and we'd taxi after he had tied down and while he was paying his fuel bill and loading the rental car. To do that we'd only have to be doing 160 mph. That opens the door to a whole lot of airplanes that are infinitely more fun than 210s or Bonanzas. Also, the $55,000 budget gives us some room to work.

How about a Cessna 195? 5 seats, more room and class than anyone knows what to do with. Or maybe a fully restored A-35 Bonanza, all polished, zero time engine. Only problem is we'd have $10-15,000 left over. How about an old C-180 or one of my favorites, a Bellanca 230, or one of our editor's favorites a Commache 260 (sorry, Jack, a 180 isn't fast enough). There are a whole bunch of classics that wouldn't cost as much, but would more than do the job and would have the advantage of making the trip more interesting.

Now let's talk low and slow airplanes. The quality of the various smaller, predominately 2-stroke, two-place ARV kits is truly amazing. Their portability and ability to work short strips and the rapidity with which they go to gether has made them extremely popular. However, a prospective builder has to be honest with himself in terms of what he wants out of his airplane and what his emotions tell him about building this class of airplane. It is important he feels that little emotional pitter-patter because clearly, financial logic works against him.

The average kit runs about $16,000, assuming none of the usual bells and whistles are added. If that is done, add at least 50%. For that same amount of money we have our choice of Tri-Pacers, Pacers, older C-150s, Stinson 108s, Champs and a bushel of other classic aircraft that not only hold their value but offer much more practical utility.

The downside to the more "normal" aircraft is they don't have the capability of being towed home for storage and the maintenance is not only going to be higher, but can't be done by the owner. Also, engine overhauls are much more expensive, however airplanes in this category seldom fly enough to use up an engine. On the other hand, this category of classic airplane is increasing in value so rapidly, one purchased today with a mid-time engine would still probably return all of its investment if it is sold several years down the road with a high-time engine.

Another reason often given to build an airplane is the urge to own something "different." The problem with trying to talk about something that is "different" is that the definition of the term is so open ended. How different do you want to get? The desire for an unusual flying machine was probably one of the factors that got the EAA off the ground in the first place. It is basic to the human animal. We like mechanical stuff that no one else has.

Next to the emotional urge to build, the urge for something different is probably one of the better reasons to build, depending on the definition of "different."

If the definition includes single-place biplanes, aerobatic specials and formula one racers, and the urge is so strong it can't be ignored, then building is the way to go. However, if the definition of "different" is a little vague and doesn't home-in on any particular type, then there may be a problem because it usually takes a clear cut image in the pilot's mind to generate the near-obsession that is necessary to see the project through.

If the definition of different is a little vague, then there's a good chance the wannabee builder should be looking around to not only tune-up the definition but to see what's on the market before committing to build. He might find it makes sense to buy a homebuilt already completed that scratches his itch. It may be he should be looking at the older classics and something as simple as a T-Craft or Luscombe may do the job.

There are lots of "different" aircraft out there and it's not necessary to build one to have one.

If the individual absolutely has to get his hands dirty, but there is some doubt in his mind about building an airplane from scratch, he should give some very serious consideration to restoring a classic airplane. There are still literally thousands of aircraft that can be bought for a decent dollar, rolled into the garage and worked on until the owner is blue in the face. Whether its a 7EC Champ in severe need of rebuild or a Cessna 170 that ground looped, there are lots of ways to scratch the building itch without actually building. Doing a restoration has the double advantage of testing out the builder's ability to stick to a project and always being worth what the builder has in it. Rebuildable projects are always salable.

The bottom line is this: The prospect of building often appears brighter than the reality of building, so it is important the builder do his homework in evaluating himself and his alternatives.

Just because he's flying a restored Luscombe or Pacer doesn't mean he has abandoned his goal to build. It just means he is doing his undergraduate study before moving on to graduate school.