September 1, 1997
By Peter A. Bedell
Homebuilt aircraft offer a tempting ticket into aviation — where else can you get more bang for your buck in an aircraft? Perhaps a simple, low-cost SkyStar Kitfox is the way to go. Or how about a turboprop-dusting Lancair IV-P? Maybe the on-the-spot convenience of piloting a Rotorway helicopter is your dream. Regardless of the type of homebuilt that appeals to your mind, wallet, or ego, one major hurdle stands between you and soaring through the skies in a steed of your own craftsmanship — the construction.
Many pilots lack the confidence in their own abilities to construct a machine that will transport themselves and perhaps a few friends or loved ones high above the ground at triple-digit speeds. Or, more likely, those friends and loved ones may not have the confidence in the pilot's handiwork to voluntarily step into a machine of his making.
The kitbuilt decision is a tough one to make. Every month Ron Alexander and the crew of the roving Alexander SportAir Workshop help hundreds of pilots to make that critical decision a little more easily. Alexander recognized that many pilots abandon their construction projects before completion. "Inadequate knowledge of construction techniques leads to a lack of confidence in your abilities," says Alexander, whose day job is flying Boeing 767s for a major airline. Exacerbating the abandoned-kit problem is the fact that many builders and kit manufacturers underestimate the amount of time and money involved in building an airplane. The construction requirements put further strains on a builder's personal life and can contribute to the eventual shelving of the project. With this in mind, it's not surprising that only 40 percent of kitbuilt aircraft are completed, according to Alexander. Even more disturbing is his estimation that only 10 percent of plans-built aircraft make it into the air.
Not long ago, Alexander was the owner of Alexander Aeroplane, a mail-order catalog company that sold materials mostly to the amateur-built market. The company was bought by Aircraft Spruce and Specialty in 1995. Through those 17 years in the catalog business, Alexander — currently immersed in another venture, Poly-Fiber (a manufacturer of a fabric-covering process also known as the Stits process) — became very much aware of the misinformation that exists in the field of amateur-built aircraft. He learned that many people did not understand how to properly use the products they were buying and lacked knowledge in both technique and safety. In turn, Alexander and his technical staff spent about 20 percent of their time explaining to customers how to cover an airplane, for example. Through this customer interaction and feedback, Alexander realized that there was a serious need for teaching builders proper and safe construction.
The first SportAir workshop took place in March 1993 at the Alexander Aeroplane facility in Griffin, Georgia, southeast of Atlanta. There, about 30 people learned fabric covering and basic composites. By 1994, Alexander was taking the two-day weekend clinic on the road with the capacity to serve 125 students. By 1995 attendance averaged 100 people and a course in sheet-metal construction was added. In 1996 a course titled Pilot's Preventative Maintenance was introduced. This course was designed for airplane owners who want to take a more active role in the maintenance of their aircraft. Next year Alexander plans to have eight courses available — an advanced sheet-metal course has already joined the lineup, and an avionics course, as well as a finishing and spraying course, will be offered at the Atlanta facility only.
Those interested in attending the workshop have many options in how they'd like to spend their two days. For example, if a builder is set on creating a Van's RV-4, he or she would choose the sheet metal course. If a Stoddard-Hamilton Glasair is your choice, you'd spend the time in the Composite Construction course. Of course, some pilots have made the decision to build an airplane but have no idea what type of material they'd like to work with. By exploring your construction abilities, or lack thereof, the clinic's Introduction to Aircraft Building course exposes you in two days to nearly all of the homebuilt construction methods such as welding, fabric covering, composites, sheet metal, and woodworking. The student can then make a more educated decision about an aircraft, once the workability of its construction material is understood. The introductory course also covers the FAA regulations regarding experimental aircraft, tools required, and real-world costs involved in building your own aircraft.
Each course is taught by an experienced expert in the appropriate field. Lynn Zaro, who teaches the fabric-covering course, is an A&P mechanic with an inspection authorization. She has more than 15 years of experience in covering airplanes. Through the workshop, Zaro keeps her skills polished by covering DC-3 ailerons for her demonstrations.
Greg Kress is a composite instructor who has a master's degree in aeronautical engineering and is a full-time instructor teaching composite repair to airline and military personnel. Alexander has restored four airplanes and owns a Piper Cub, a C-3B Stearman, and a Twin Beech.
To put on such a production, Alexander works closely with local chapters of the Experimental Aircraft Association in order to obtain a site in which to hold the workshop. Once a site is chosen, direct mailers are sent out to EAA members in the host state and every surrounding state. Most attendees are preregistered through the direct mailing; however, some walk-ins are accepted at certain workshop sites. Many EAA chapter members attend the course or, if they have previously attended, will volunteer to help the workshop staff.
Attendees are very positive about the courses offered by the SportAir staff. Dan O'Brien of McLean, Virginia, is considering building a Lancair ES and was enrolled in a recent two-day composite construction course held in Frederick, Maryland. He felt that the $219 he paid to attend the course was well-spent. "It was a good introduction to composites in a little time. I think I need a little more time for hands-on, but the course offers a good overview."
"It definitely helps save time, frustration, and money," said Landis Whitsel of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, who attended SportAir's first clinic in Frederick last fall and is considering building a Zenair CH-601.
"We're taking the course to see if [homebuilding] is something we'd like to do," said Brutus Russell from Richmond, Virginia, who attended last year's clinic with his wife. They are considering building a Rotorway helicopter.
For the students, it's a chance not only to get some formal education, but also to log some informal socializing with other local pilots. "I'm really impressed. These guys are real pros in everything from the instruction and the equipment to the quality of the information. It's a real plus for the amateur-built community," said Gerry Blake, head of Aviation Maintenance Technology at Frederick Community College, which provided the facility for the Frederick workshop.
Alexander hopes that his courses will reverse the dismal completion rates of amateur-built aircraft. Judging by the impressions of attendees, we can bet he's well on his way.
SportAir courses range from $219 to $249. For more information, contact Alexander SportAir Center, 219-A Barry Whatley Way, Griffin-Spalding County Airport, Griffin, Georgia 30224; telephone 800/967-5746; or visit them on the Web ( www.sportair.com). Remaining workshops on this year's schedule are in Fort Worth, Texas, on October 4 and 5; Los Angeles, California, on November 1 and 2; and Atlanta, Georgia, on November 22 and 23.
E-mail the author at [email protected].
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