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Builder Spotlight

September 2014 Issue

Building Again

A plans resurgence?


I've been asking myself a few questions over the last couple of years. Since completing my RV-7 and subsequently selling it, I've wondered if I'm a builder or a flyer, and if I do build again, what kind of project will I undertake? I love to fly. I love to build. I thoroughly enjoyed the kit experience, but what about that set of rolled up paper plans I have sitting in the corner? Would that be a better way to go? What am I really looking for in my next build? Can the community I've been part of for the last decade help with the decision? There is nothing simple about deciding to build, and the financial and time impacts can reverberate throughout a person's life. It is definitely worth it to put some thought into the process—and elicit some help.

Even if you build a Sonex from scratch, you'll still need to order upper and lower spar caps (visible on the spar on the right) from the factory. These parts are proprietary extrusions that are CNC machined to final size and shape.

Help from My Friends

Looking back on the last ten years of being an airplane owner and eventual builder, I immersed myself into something that has become my passion in life. Experimental aviation has opened my eyes to many new things. I originally started looking at building a plansbuilt airplane when I began my research in 2004. I was new to the local EAA Chapter 129 in Bloomington, IL and had plenty of opinions coming my way about what to build, how to build, and which method of everything was best. I knew I had to be budget minded, and a plans-built airplane would certainly check off that column. I looked at finding plans for Long EZs, Cozys, Tailwinds, Thorp T-18s…you kind of see where my mind was regarding my airplane mission: I wanted to go fast! Why, I didn't really know, but most builders in Chapter 129 were fast airplane guys—RV, GP-4, Glasair—so that's where my biggest influence came from. That's not the way to choose an airplane to build, but as a newbie, that's what happened—and that's a story for another article.

My EAA chapter was absolutely wonderful in helping me along the way. Over the course of a year, I used every tool at my disposal, including the annual KITPLANESŪ buyer's guides, to make an informed decision. What it came down to eventually was an RV-7. My first choice was a Velocity SE-FG, but my shop space simply wasn't set up for a fiberglass airplane at the time. So, how did I go from plansbuilt thinking to building an RV-7? Well, I basically took a leap of faith and just did it, with the notion that I would work out the budget constraints along the way. Somehow that worked out. But I couldn't have done it without another huge resource: online forums.

Building main wingspars from scratch is slower than ordering pre-built spars from the factory, but the end result will be just as functional.

Help Online

If one was thinking of building a plans-built airplane back in 2004, there was, and still is, a fantastic forum called I spent hundreds of hours on that site, making just a few posts here and there, not knowing at the time what large influence E/A-B forums would have on my life and career in the future. As I got to know a few of the online personalities, one person stood out to me: John Sannizarro, aka "Captain John." He was a fairly prolific poster there, and when I mentioned RVs one day, he told me to check out an RV forum called…and that's where my online "family" began. Rivetbangers led me to and the VAF forums, and then to the canard forums, the Kitfox forums, and so on, and so on. The forums really became a part of my life. I couldn't go a day, or even a few hours, without checking into one of them for some reason or another. Friendships were made; we'd meet up at AirVenture, Sun 'n Fun, or some regional fly-in, and hang out like we had just seen one another a week ago. John is nearing completion of his RV-7 and is still an active forum poster and great friend of mine.

One sign of a scratch-built part is the centerline indicating where holes should be drilled on these rib flanges. If you're going to build from plans, be prepared to drill and deburr a lot of holes.

The forums are now a place that I go to check in on friends, conduct business, watch as new builders come into the fold, and find out what those who built before me and alongside me are now doing with their time. I've noticed something over the course of the last ten years of forum participation: Specifically in the kitbuilt forum world, builders who have completed an airplane are now venturing into new waters by starting projects that begin by following lines on paper—not opening big boxes that come filled to the brim with pre-made parts.

As a successful kit builder myself, having finished and flown an RV-7 in 2010, I found out that I was one of those folks who decided, perhaps unknowingly, that I was really more of a builder than a flyer. If I had to put a percentage on it, I'd say I'm right at 51% builder and 49% flyer. I had a successful beginning to a flying career working for Image Air, an FBO in Bloomington, where I had become the aircraft sales manager and a charter pilot in a King Air 200. As much as I loved flying at my day job, I couldn't wait to get home, or for the clock to strike five, so I could leave and start another work session on my airplane project. Maybe—just maybe—building from scratch would make a second project even more challenging and interesting.

Are you good at following directions and searching for clues? Both are required skills for building an aircraft from plans.

Paper or parts?

What I'm seeing today, even with a strong kit market, is an increased percentage of repeat builders going for the paper rather than the parts. I associate this with increased courage to tackle something new after learning the ropes on a kit project. Some kits are obviously more involved and challenging than others, but what all kits provide new builders is a knowledge base with a bit of hand-holding along the way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and it's something that I will always be thankful for. The skills I learned while building my RV-7 and the courage that experience gave me along the way can't be taught or gained in any other way. The fact that I completed the project shows me that I can tackle something a bit more complicated and challenging.

Plansbuilt airplanes are not for everyone, and not every repeat builder is going to go down this path. But it's a path that I have chosen several times after my -7 was completed. As I write this on a cold, snowy February day in Oshkosh, I have plans for no less than six different airplanes sitting in the garage. I've also gone so far as to start three different plansbuilt projects over the last two years—and I still have four sets of plans I haven't tried. When I worked for EAA, I led the staff build of a Zenith 750, a kitbuilt airplane that is on the leading edge of plans quality and ease of construction. That project delayed my own projects, but I am always thinking about those plans at home and getting back to them someday.

Four ways to build the same airplane: Sonex builders can choose from a quickbuild kit, a complete airframe kit, sub-kits, such as wings, tail, and fuselage, or from scratch.

Perhaps when the time comes to build another airplane at home, it might be a kit again, but the fact of the matter is, I'm a builder at heart—and the challenge of starting with raw materials and a set of drawings is inviting. The plans are still going to be there, and I would be willing to bet that if you have completed a kit airplane, a plans-built airplane has crossed your mind a time or two. There are too many examples to list, but among the kit builders that I know (both personally and as online personalities), a plans-built resurgence is underway. Whether you've completed a Lancair with some builder assistance, spent five years building a Velocity in your garage, or 20 years building a Mustang II kit, a plansbuilt airplane has at one time or another crossed your mind, hasn't it?

Even if you're building from plans, there are some parts that just aren't worth the trouble to make from scratch. This throttle and trim control are good examples.

What is truly interesting to me in this scenario is the type of airplane being chosen for a subsequent project. Many builders are going for almost the exact opposite of the type of airplane they built first. I don't observe a Velocity flyer plugging away at a Cozy Mk IV project, or a Wag-Aero Cubby kit pilot gluing together joints on a Hi-Max. This may certainly be happening, but what seems to be most prevalent in my casual glance at this, is the accomplished Lancair builder working on a plansbuilt Bearhawk or a Kitfox builder working on a Falco F.8. In my own experience, the first plansbuilt airplane I looked into and bought plans for after my RV-7 was completed was a Legal Eagle XL. I went through a slew of plans that included a Hummelbird, Cubby, Zipster, Hi-Max, KR Super2, and Tailwind. The Tailwind and KR came about after I sold my RV-7 to get that mission profile back, but the others were all on opposite sides of the map from my original mission. I suppose the easy reasoning would be that this would be a second airplane, and why have two airplanes with similar missions? I needed one to go places and one to get breakfast on a Sunday morning, right? The simple fact of the matter was that I just wanted to build something and, while having an airplane available at any time, the slower plansbuilt route was just the ticket to keep my mind in the game and improve my skill set another notch.

As you might expect, prototype aircraft like this SubSonex personal jet are always built from scratch, even if the design will only be available as a kit. In the foreground is a SubSonex molded fuel tank.

Doing it Again?

Every once in awhile, I come across a builder who has completed a kit and when asked, "Would you do it again?" will say, "Nope, I did it once, had a great time, but it's time to fly now." I'd say more often than not, though, the answer is just the opposite. And that answer has led many to think about that next project. The kitbuilt airplane is done, sitting in the hangar looking great. You love to fly it, but you can't always fly. Weather, work, finances, family, and many other things take the ability to fly and make it less available. Why not have another project in your garage? Weather is bad? Go build. Time is too tight to fly? Run out to the garage and cut some tubing or bang out a couple of metal ribs. Finances a bit short? Doesn't cost a dime to cut that tubing, assuming you have some on hand, which, of course, may be what made the finances short in the first place. Family time and needs? What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than in the garage with your spouse or kids building an airplane?

The author studies the plans for a potential next project. To date he has acquired plans for no less than six different airplanes.

I'm a Builder

At least 51% of me is a builder. I love to fly, but I am always thinking about building again. Whether it happens to be a kit or a set of plans on the bench, the next time I'm 100% in on a project, it will be because of the skills I learned and the courage grown from building a kit airplane in the first place. Who knew the kit industry could possibly spark a resurgence of plansbuilt airplanes? It's not something I really gave much thought to until recently. I will forever be grateful for the experience of building a kit airplane, and I may well do it again. Plans are on the mind, but kudos belong to the kit companies for designing and engineering the kits we build today that got me here in the first place.

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