Scratching a niche

March 1, 2010

A recent glimpse into the Experimental aircraft world reminded me of the richness of this experience we broadly call “general aviation.”

Given that word “general,” it should be no surprise that this branch of aviation covers such a broad spectrum. As has often been quipped, no wonder we always seem to feel so trodden upon when we only describe ourselves by what we are not: all aviation except military and airline. While all of general aviation struggles mightily these days, the kitbuilt, amateur-built, Experimental segment—whatever term you prefer—soldiers on at least as well as the rest of the community. In fact, some companies turning out kits and plans are holding their own quite nicely while production aircraft companies cling to life, hanging on for better economic times.

If you’re one who likes to build things, it’s hard to argue with the value equation of building your own airplane. For perhaps $200,000 in kit and parts plus a generous donation of your labor (and perhaps your spouse’s or soon-to-be-former-spouse’s labor) you can have a brand-new, high-performance single that tops the best $500,000 factory-built models and with a cockpit that at least rivals those stamped out in places like Wichita and Duluth. And if utility rather than speed is your desire, the price tag and labor requirements fall considerably. That’s for those of you into such things. I wouldn’t want to fly anything that I built. If you saw my ninth-grade shop projects you would understand.

A recent West Coast trip allowed me to catch up with longtime friend and colleague Marc Cook, now the editor in chief at Kitplanes magazine. Marc and I started as associate editors at AOPA Pilot within weeks of each other back in 1988. We were both in our mid-20s. Marc came out of the motorcycle magazine world—his other passion—and I from another aviation magazine after toiling in newspapers and radio. Within a few years, AOPA moved Marc from Maryland back to his home in the Los Angeles area to act as our West Coast editor. There he set about building his first kitbuilt airplane, a Pulsar. He documented the construction of the two-place composite sportster on these pages.

Eventually he returned to his motorcycle magazine roots for a few years and then popped back up in aviation media as big chief at Kitplanes. Immersed in the Experimental world, he set about building a new airplane—a Glastar Sportsman—configured as a three-seater to accommodate the addition of a daughter to his family. Marc leveraged an emerging trend in the kitbuilt world where kit manufacturers offer builder assist centers that help shave some of those tedious structural-build hours with assistance from trained staff. With that, Marc’s Sportsman was ready to taxi in just 18 days—although still a long ways from “done.” Today, such a feat can be completed in as little as two weeks. Marc wrote about the build process for us in a story called “The 18-Day Sportsman.”

Little more than three years later, he has some 500 hours on the airplane and uses it routinely for work assignments, photo missions, and transporting his family to visit relatives elsewhere in California. Asked how the airplane is doing, he replied: “I’ve replaced the main tires once.” And then, typical builder, he goes on to explain how the spring main landing gear causes wear on the tire edges and how he has some ideas for slowing that down. The rest of us are just happy to get 500 hours out of a set of mains.

He let me fly his baby, my first flight in a Sportsman. The high-wing, strut-braced airplane looks a little like an overgrown Cessna SkyCatcher or slightly shrunken Skyhawk—you choose. The modified Lycoming IO-390 boasts 210 horsepower, propelling the airplane easily past the 140-knot mark in cruise while burning less than 10 gph; all out, it will dash to near 150 knots, but Marc respects the engine too much to flog it like that. The interior is austere, but the panel amazing. A pair of Dynon displays provide primary navigation, including synthetic vision, and engine monitoring. Marc uses the platform to test various products—an ability those of us flying production airplanes with their buttoned-down type certificates envy. This day, he was showing me the dazzling abilities of the new Garmin G3X primary flight display. Out front, a new two-blade composite Hartzell propeller was under review.

The airplane is heavy in roll, but nicely stable. A $3,500 TruTrak autopilot flies it with the sort of sophistication you’d pay $15,000 for in a certified airplane. Visibility through the big windows is excellent and the cabin wide and comfortable, even for two guys now closer to 50 than 25. Thanks to the springy gear and too much of a descent rate by me, I got to count the first landing twice. Taxiing back to Marc’s hangar at Torrance, I complimented him on his handiwork and marveled again at the capabilities in this exciting segment of the GA spectrum.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.