One of the many ways to get yourself into the sky is to build your own aircraft. This might sounds insane at first: when someone says “I’m going to build my own airplane,” it might sound a lot like saying “I’m going to build my own nuclear submarine.” But the truth is, homebuilts can be as simple or as complicated as the builder wants, and people of all different backgrounds have built their own airplanes.
The phrase “home-built airplane” covers everything from tube-and-plastic ultralights to advanced composite designs. They can have minimal instruments or be IFR capable. They can be low and slow or high and fast. The only limitations on your home-built airplane are your comfort level and your budget.
Build the Skills
Chances are that unless you’re an experienced A&P mechanic or other mechanically inclined person, your comfort level in building your own airplane is going to be low. Part of the magic of home-building is that you develop the skills as you go. By simply joining your local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter, you can gain access to dozens of experienced builders and restorers who are often eager to share their know-how with you. If you buy a kit plane, many manufacturers offer seminars and lessons on how to perform the assembly. Even better, go to an airshow like Sun n Fun or AirVenture and you’ll have access to all kinds of classes teaching you the skills you need.
A good way to get started is to practice. If you’re building a metal airplane, get some scrap aluminum and practice a few hundred rivets. If you’re building a composite, make some layups before you work on the plane. Woodworking and welding can be practiced for airplanes relying on those skills. Take a course at your local community college or find another way to get the information. Know what you’re getting into.
Building an airplane is a big project. One of the most common frustrations when people attempt to build their own airplanes is an unrealistic set of expectations. It is not an easy project, and it is not a quick project. While there are guys out there who can build and fly a plane in a year, that’s very unrealistic for most builders.
Projects are often advertised with build times of 1000 hours or so. Expect to triple that. Unless you have 8 hours a day to devote to your project and you already know how to do all the work, building a plane will take you years. If you go into it expecting that, you’ll fare better than if you think it will only take you eight months. Have a little patience and stick to it. Enjoy the build; part of the fun of building is getting to know your airplane literally from the inside out.
One of the most common questions about homebuilding is, how do you know your airplane is safe? How do you know the wings won’t fall off or it won’t catch fire? To prevent mechanical failures or structural failures, you should have your EAA technical counselor or a qualified and current A&P mechanic come by and evaluate your construction from time to time.
Before you fly your airplane, it will be subject to inspection by the FAA in order to get an airworthiness certificate. Expect a few dings on your first inspection and be ready to fix them properly. You want your airplane to be as safe as possible even if that means an extra two or three weeks in the shop.
What kinds of construction are out there?
Tube and Fabric:
Many popular designs are Tube-and-Fabric airplanes. The Rans series of aircraft are an excellent example of this style of construction. These planes are generally constructed from welded steel or aluminum tubing that is covered with a synthetic plastic skin. The cabin and parts of the wing root in these designs are sometimes enclosed, while the wings and empennage are naked welded tube with skin. The cowling is generally sheet metal or a composite part that attaches to the frame.
Tube and fabric construction is fast and relatively lightweight. I have no clue how to weld, and unless you do, I’d recommend taking some instruction in how to do this as a poorly welded airframe would probably be unsafe. However, quality welding is known to stand the test of time and wear; some production aircraft like the Maule family of planes are built in this manner.
Composite airplane construction may be in the news now thanks to Boeing and their new Dreamliner, but it’s been around a lot longer than that. Composite construction has been used in boat-building for decades, and was made popular among the experimental aircraft set by Burt Rutan and his wild, space-age designs. The Quickie, Long-EZ, VariViggen, VariEze, and other designs are efficient marvels of aerodynamics that move swiftly and have long legs. Frequently featuring pusher props and canard wings, Rutan’s composites are instantly recognizable and distinctive aircraft. Modern kits like the Cozy are clearly influenced by Rutan’s designs.
Composite aircraft construction involves cutting carbon-fiber material and using resins and other chemicals to form a smooth skin. This is done in layers called layups. It requires some special know-how but that knowledge can be obtained by reading Rutan’s handbook or from online sources. EAA offers workshops on this method at some airshows.Even better, you could find an experienced composite builder and pick their brain.
Aluminum aircraft are probably the most common out there. Your typical Cessna or Piper on an airport ramp is an aluminum airframe held together by thousands and thousands of rivets.
Building an aluminum airplane can be done from scratch, meaning you can machine and drill all the parts yourself from raw sheet metal; or you can order a pre-cut and in some cases pre-drilled kit.
To build an aluminum aircraft you will need basic metalworking skills. Many kitbuilders, such as Sonex (next paragraph) offer seminars to teach the lay person how to rivet, buck, sand, and drill aluminum. Aluminum construction involves putting the parts together with fasteners, then riveting. And more riveting. And then for thrills, more riveting. While you may be sick of the sound of a pneumatic drill after 20,000 rivets, your airplane should be nice and sturdy.
One of the most popular brands of aluminum homebuilts is the Vans series of aircraft. Fast and sleek, the Vans RVs are brilliantly engineered and beautiful aircraft. That said, my favorite homebuilt aluminum airplane has to be the Sonex. Efficient, lightweight and maneuverable, the Sonex to me is the perfect airplane: you can afford to fly it, it’s a lot of fun, and it will suffice for 99% of the flying your average pilot will want to do. I want to build a Sonex in the next decade: if I could have an airworthy Sonex before I turn 40, I would be thrilled.
Even in this modern world, wooden airplanes are still being built at home. And while you may be skeptical off the durability of wood, remember that most early airplanes were all wood. Many of the “Classic” airplanes– Aeroncas, Piper Cubs, Stinsons, Cessnas, Wacos — are wooden airframes covered with doped fabric.
Building a wooden airplane requires a fair bit of woodworking know-how. Parts are often constructed by building a mold and then assembling the wood in that mold. One must carefully select a good quality wood and treat it properly for the best results.
Pietenpols are classic home-made wooden airplanes.
How do I know what to build?
The best way to figure out what you want to build is to go out and look at some experimental aircraft. Head down to your local G.A. airport and scope out the designs. Browse through the EAA website or do some google-fu on popular designs. Think about what matters to you: do you want a sleek, futuristic Rutan composite? Do you want an old-timey barnstorming airplane? Perhaps a bush plane designed to haul in and out of short, unimproved strips. Maybe you want an efficient two-seat cruiser. Think about what your “mission” for the airplane is and then find a compatible kit.
Building an airplane is an awesome thing to do. To be one of the few people who can say you have built your own plane is quite a feat, and the pride you’ll feel when you taxi your own beautiful creation out onto the ramp has got to be incredible. If you’re methodical, careful, patient, and willing to invest the time and resources to do it right, home building an airplane might just be the project for you.