Aircraft maintenance: Building an experimental aircraft

Transitioning from pilot to owner to builder

June 17, 2014

This series of articles has been dedicated to nudging pilots down a path of aircraft ownership and learning on the mechanical side of aviation. We’ve talked a lot about the regulations, requirements, and what you can (and cannot) do as an owner. But there is another side of aviation dedicated to the creativity and personal accomplishment of building your own aircraft: experimental, amateur-built aircraft.

Jeff SimonThe idea of building and flying your own aircraft can be daunting to the average pilot. But, I view everything in aviation as a continuum: student to pilot, pilot to aircraft owner, owner to mechanic or builder. Every step is possible, but unlikely without great mentors to help us along the path.

The first step I would strongly recommend to anyone who’s even dreamed of building an airplane is to take a weekend class in homebuilding. The Experimental Aircraft Association’s SportAir Workshops are a traveling, hands-on classroom that can turn a single weekend into a life-changing experience.  They offer courses on working with sheet metal, composites, fabric covering, electrical systems, and much more. You don’t have to be on the verge of building an airplane yourself, it’s just a great chance to learn something new and enjoy the company of other pilots, sitting around tables playing with tools.  I think I still have the small wing section I built in my first class, complete with inspection panel and trim tab with piano hinge. I came home at the end triumphant, half expecting my wife, Debbie, to mount it to the refrigerator door next to the kid’s drawings.

My own experience with the world of experimental, amateur-built aircraft is only just beginning. But it’s unlikely I would have any path forward were it not for my good friend and mentor, Paul Morel.  Paul’s career path was with the airlines, performing just about every support role that keeps an enormously complex business like an airline running. Yet, somehow along the way, he managed to learn to fly, buy an airplane, and eventually move to an airpark near Atlanta that I can only describe as a cross between “Heaven on Earth” and “Disney World for Pilots.” It was only natural that he would wind up building an airplane…or two.

Nearly a decade after taking those SportAir classes, I still hadn’t really thought building was something I had the time, money, or dedication to do. But, watching Paul build his first Kitfox had me re-thinking things. I visited his hangar/home many times, receiving equal doses of encouragement and guilty prodding to stop waiting for the stars to align and just take the first step. For me, the defining experience was on our last visit, when I entered the hangar to see Jake and Ben, my two young boys, working closely with Paul to build the wings of his latest Kitfox project.

That’s when I realized that building an airplane might just be as much about the journey as the destination. With the limited time I have, it could easily take five years or more for me to actually get something into the air. However, it doesn’t take much more than a single bay of a garage to start the building process. And, the thought of spending some precious hours working jointly with my boys to create something as wondrous as an airplane seems a shame to postpone during the few years before they discover girls and can’t imaging spending a weekend home with dad.

The point is that just about anyone can join the ranks of the experimental amateur-built aircraft community. The doors are wide open, and there are people just waiting to help others make it through.  These days, most experimental amateur-built aircraft are kits with step-by-step instructions and outstanding builder support that's only a phone call away.

The best way to start is to surf the Web, learning about the different types of experimental amateur-built aircraft out there. Then, check out your local EAA chapter and see if you can make a few connections to give you a first-hand look into what’s involved. There’s usually at least someone looking for someone to help buck a few rivets. Make some friends, find a mentor, and chat a path forward that’s right for you.

As for me, I think that this year’s EAA AirVenture might just wind up being a shopping trip, and the start of my next aviation adventure!

Social FlightJeff Simon is an A&P mechanic, pilot, and aircraft owner. He has spent the last 14 years promoting owner-assisted aircraft maintenance as a columnist for several major aviation publications and through his how-to DVD series: The Educated Owner. Simon is also the creator of SocialFlight, the free mobile app and website that maps over 10,000 aviation events. Free apps available for iPhone, iPad and Android, and on the Web at www.SocialFlight.com.