'Homebuilt' experimental planes popular mix of passion and risk
The task of creating an airplane is a mix of bravado and meticulous prudence, artistic vision and micromanaged mechanics.
CHICAGO — As a flight adviser, Ron Liebmann's official duty is to evaluate the skills of a pilot preparing to fly an airplane for the first time. He starts by talking about experience.
Then Liebmann morphs into something of an aviator psychologist, which he insists is necessary to deal with "homebuilders," amateurs who construct their airplanes in garages, basements, even a firehouse
Too often, the devotion needed to make such a craft can blind a do-it-yourselfer to potentially fatal mechanical flaws, Liebmann said. The pilots can become a little obsessive.
He knows. In 1991, after spending 1,300 hours building a gleaming, red and white, 65-horsepower Kitfox — mostly in the Hoffman Estates, Ill., firehouse where he worked — Liebmann accelerated down the runway in Marengo, Ill., for its test flight and stopped, unable to take off.
"In my mind, I'd given birth to it," said Liebmann, a retired firefighter/paramedic. "My personal attachment to the airplane was so strong it fogged my judgment and that's what happens to everybody."
Liebmann and other members of the growing "homebuilder" community hope to learn from the crash that claimed the life of veteran flier John Morrison. On July 31, his homebuilt E-Racer slammed into a corn field near Aurora, Ill., on its first flight.
Morrison, 73, of Aurora, certainly had extensive experience flying planes he built. In 2000 and 2008, he managed to safely crash land planes he'd created, NTSB records report. A National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report on the July crash is expected this month.
The NTSB is ready to resolve lingering confusion about experimental homebuilts' safety. In July, the safety board launched a study "to evaluate the safety of this growing and innovative segment of general aviation." The Experimental Aircraft Association is surveying its homebuilders as part of the research.
The NTSB's study began 17 days before Morrison's crash, and his death brought grief to many homebuilders.
"It's unfortunate to lose a pilot," said Matt Trofimchuck, of Coal City, Ill., who is building a Van's RV-7 all metal tail dragger with his wife, Jana. "But it would be more shameful for us to not learn from it so we could prevent it in the future."
People who take on the daunting task of creating an airplane are a mix of bravado and meticulous prudence, artistic vision and micromanaged mechanics. And their ranks seem to be growing while pilot population in the U.S. is on a 30-year decline.
The number of amateur-built aircraft registered with the Federal Aviation Administration has been rising by about 1,000 a year for nearly two decades, and now totals nearly 33,000, according to the EAA. The 170,000-member organization started as a club for homebuilders and aircraft restorers and now hosts the annual AirVenture Oshkosh aviation festival in that Wisconsin community. This year's conference drew 541,000 people and more than 10,000 aircraft.
Tempering that steady growth are Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association records showing that 248 amateur-built airplanes were involved in mishaps in 2009, the most recent year available. That number is 19 higher than the previous year's total and resulted in 98 deaths, the association stated in its amateur-built aircraft report.
Amateur builders bristle at indications that their aircraft are more dangerous than factory-built planes. The homebuilders contend that their own vulnerability motivates them to give a level of attention to detail that may be more inconsistent with factory-built planes.
In addition, the EAA notes that in the past 15 years the number of registered homebuilts has doubled and the hours flown have jumped by 123 percent. Over that period, the number of fatal accidents per year has increased by 10, the EAA reports.
Homebuilts can be produced from kits, from existing plans found on the Internet, or from a builder's imaginative vision. The FAA issues airworthy certificates and gives the builders a little more leeway with their planes than is given to factory built planes, EAA spokesman Dick Knapinski said.
But creating an experimental, amateur-built aircraft is not to be undertaken lightly. Builders often spend tens of thousands of dollars and work upward of 3,000 hours to complete the project, Knapinski and others said.
And each homebuilt can represent the delicate balance between innovation and catastrophe, a balance that can tip in both directions. On one end is the death of Morrison and the roughly 30 others who have died in experimental aircraft crashes so far this year.
On the other is SpaceshipOne, a privately funded, manned rocket that broke into space in October 2004 and was produced by homebuilt aircraft icon Burt Rutan. Homebuilders point to other aviation breakthroughs pioneered through homebuilts, including electric propulsion, digital instruments, parachutes for airplanes, fiberglass construction materials, even small vertical fins now common on airliners. In fact, several factory-built planes started as homebuilts.
Ask amateur experimental aircraft builders why they pursue the project and many will give three reasons: they love to build things; they love to fly; and they can't afford a factory-built plane — which can easily cost $250,000. Or they simply can't find the plane they visualize in their minds.
"One of the best pieces of advice I got was from someone who told me you need to love building and working with your hands, at least as much if not more than you love flying, to be a homebuilder," said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "If all you want is a cheap way to fly, that's not the way to do it."
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HOW TO BUILD YOUR OWN, ONE BITE AT A TIME
Plenty of advice and wisdom are available in the homebuilt aviation community to help someone stouthearted enough to tackle the project. Here's a brief overview from those who have succeeded.
First of all, about 92 percent of homebuilts are kits. They can be ordered from a number of manufacturers. Budgeting $15,000 to $20,000 for a kit, excluding the engine, is reasonable.
Here are the remaining, basic steps outlined by experts:
Find a basement, garage, hangar, auto repair shop, fire station or some other open space to work. When the parts arrive, start from the tail of the aircraft and work your way forward, advises Ron Liebmann, who built his Kitfox and serves as a technical counselor and flight adviser for the Experimental Aircraft Association. First to be built is the elevator, vertical and horizontal stabilizer fins and rudder.
Then come the wings, which typically include fuel tanks.
Next is assembling the fuselage, also known as the body or airframe.
That's followed by what's called the "firewall forward" section of the plane and includes the engine — average price: $20,000 to $25,000 — motor mount and electrical system.
After that, it's time to install instrumentation and paint the aircraft, obtain FAA airworthiness certification and make a successful test flight.
And, that, more or less, is all it takes — a mere 1,000 to 3,000 hours of sweat equity and, experts say, $60,000 to $80,000 of the other kind of equity — to create a typical homebuilt airplane.
Homebuilders consider it a bargain compared to buying a new, factory-built plane for $250,000.
The most difficult part, experts say, is often taking the first step and overcoming fear of failure.
The key to progress is staying focused on the immediate task.
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