AKIA Industry Insights

Advice to designers and one designer’s response.


From Letters column, Feb. 2013 KITPLANES®

My first issue of KITPLANES® was No. 1. The last few years, I see a lot of write-ups about aircraft costing six figures or more. That’s fine if you have deep pockets to do that, but what about the 50% or more of us who love aviation and are trying to build something on a couple of hundred dollars at a time? Yes, I saw the plansbuilt aircraft in January, but how many of them could be flown on a tight budget after being built? My budget will not let me fly something that sucks 8–20 gph. Even if it did, I’d ask: Why?

The LSA rules were created to make flying affordable for a greater number of people. But, we need aircraft designs that can be built and flown inexpensively. Milholland’s Double Eagle is a good example of flying on the cheap. The only issue I have is its open cockpit.

To designers out there, here is a list of what I look for in an aircraft:

  1. Two seats so you can take someone up with you, 200–250 pounds each.
  2. Enclosed cockpit.
  3. Baggage capacity of 30–40 lb.
  4. To do the above with full fuel and still make it as an LSA.
  5. Cruise of 90–100 mph on 5 gph.

–Kristine Bennett

VanGrunsven responds:

The writer’s comments and advice are reasonable, but perhaps not realistic. There are a number of plans and kit designs that meet these performance requirements, but perhaps don’t meet the less well defined cost guidelines. Actually, I have chosen to respond not simply because of this letter, but because it is just the most recent of a tome of similar pleas that I have read over many years. The summarized theme seems to be, “I’d love to build an airplane, but there is nothing good enough available; if only some designer would wise-up and pay attention to my needs. After all, designers now have computers that make designing to specification quick and easy.” (Not really!) There’s almost an undertone of conspiracy: “Why is my so obvious need being overlooked? Why don’t they want my money? Airplanes don’t have to be as expensive as designers cause them to be.”

Richard “Van” VanGrunsven is founder of Van’s Aircraft, a popular kit company with over 8,000 examples of their aircraft known to be flying around the world.

Actually, designers do want your money, or someone’s money; that’s a requirement for remaining in business. However, the money trail does not necessarily follow the path to the above described airplane.

LSA Rules Were Created to Make Flying Affordable to a Greater Number of People

Not really! My understanding is that the FAA’s original intent for the creation of the LSA category was to find a way to retro-license all of the unlicensed “fat ultralights” that had and were being built as an unintended outgrowth of the Part 103 ultralight air vehicles. Fat ultralight is a term used to describe two-seat, non-registered ultralights that the FAA had authorized only for the purpose of dual flight instruction. Though the LSA category was primarily intended to retro-license existing aircraft, the rules needed to apply to new manufactured aircraft as well. The FAA’s initial rather restrictive parameters were drafted to encompass the structural and performance parameters of all existing and anticipated fat ultralights. Fortunately, these parameters were expanded through a couple of iterations of the FAA’s NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rule Making) process of soliciting and evaluating public comment. The final parameter “box” was considerably larger than the initial, though still not as all encompassing as many would have liked to see.

What is important to remember is the FAA’s intent and motivation. Considering their initial objective, the final parameters are quite liberal. If the FAA’s goal had been to establish limits adequate to accommodate a two-seat aircraft that would offer everything for everyone, then the LSA limit would be found lacking.

Another often overlooked FAA criterion was that LSA aircraft be suitable to be piloted by Sport Pilots, a new category with fewer training requirements than Private Pilots. Thus, modest landing speed requirement, etc. to suit entry-level pilots.

The industry, the alphabet soup organizations, and aviation magazines, not the FAA, promoted the notion that the purpose of this category was to make airplanes more affordable. That was a hoped for by-product of the new category. While many individual FAA guys have strong personal interests in GA, the FAA’s officially defined mission is that of aviation safety, not of propagating light airplanes or making them more affordable.

In Pursuit of the Least Expensive Airplane

The least expensive means of creating an airplane is that of scratch building, or building from plans where the airframe cost is kept to a minimum because only raw materials, not pre-fabricated kit parts, need to be purchased. So far, so good. But, building from plans and raw materials places much greater skill and build time burdens on the builder than does building from a contemporary kit. A traditional factory aircraft meeting the petitioner’s parameters, roughly that of a Cessna 150, requires a well-equipped factory with a large trained labor force to manufacture. Now, consider that the comparable scratch-built/homebuilt alternative under consideration is to be constructed from only drawings and raw materials, by one untrained person with minimal tools and workspace. That’s quite a challenge, and is a real tribute to those “true homebuilders” who have succeeded in doing so. But, how many do succeed, in what length of time, and how many just never get finished?

The main reason that the aircraft kit industry evolved was to overcome these limitations of the “homebuilt” process. Early kits consisted primarily of materials packages, saving the builder the need to inefficiently source specialized raw materials from numerous industrial suppliers. Also, scratch building requires a considerable array of welding, molding, woodworking, fabric working, and fabricating skills to transform these raw materials into a functional airframe. Over time, designers/plans suppliers began to offer welded, molded, formed, or otherwise difficult components as a part of their basic materials packages. As kit aircraft builders sought designs with greater performance, the designers responded with airframes, which, of necessity, became more complex. This further increased the need for more specialty components and thus more complete and pre-manufactured kits. This evolutionary process resulted in the present day kits, which typically are very complete, and with many pre-fabricated components. Necessarily, kits of this nature are much more expensive than the raw materials from which they were fabricated. Prospective builders recognized the tangible value of these well-developed kits, and increasing, the successful homebuilt completions have their origin in these kits.

This RV family portrait includes one of every design to come out of the workshop of the author—from the RV-1 to the RV-14. Prints of this photo are available from [email protected]

From the Designer’s Perspective

An Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft designer who is trying to earn an income from selling aircraft plans only is going to find it difficult to avoid the poverty rolls. Designing, developing, and preparing plans for the “dream” aircraft will require hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and materials. Selling a roll of paper (plans) for several hundred dollars may seem like a good return, if you only consider the cost of the paper that the plans are printed on. Beyond amortizing the aforementioned development cost of the aircraft, builder support is an essential component in the construction of a safe and sound airframe. Remember, the builder is singularly doing the equivalent of an entire factory workforce. Even working from a very good set of plans, the builder almost always needs a lot of help by way of builder assistance phone calls (or emails) to the designer. This help does not come cheap, easily approaching a dollar a minute. This may sound like an exaggeration, but when you consider the hourly wage of someone truly qualified, plus all other payroll and workspace expenses, it is not too far off target. Now, how far do you think that the profit from a set of a $400 plans will go at a dollar a minute?

With a modern “expensive” kit, it is possible to factor in enough profit to cover development costs and anticipated builder support expenses. With plans only, it is a much less certain business plan. From my own experience: When I first began offering plans and kits, the plans were drawn with sufficient detail and dimensions to build from scratch if the builder desired. The stated caveat was that the builder either had, or would learn, the skills needed to create his own tooling for scratch building all of the parts. Not so! My phone rang constantly with calls from these few scratch builders needing help—much more help than they would have needed if they had been building from my kits. Any minimal profit from those plans sales soon evaporated. My kit customers were in effect subsidizing the plans builders. This was not a fair or sustainable business plan.

However, a compensating factor did arise. Many who began building from plans soon realized the value of the kits, or at least the value of many of the more complex kit components, and began placing orders for these. In a sense, the plans served as a loss leader for eventual sales of profitable components.

Construction drawings for our more recent designs have been prepared to support building from our kit parts only. This trend was driven by market demand. This may sound mercenary, but it is based on sound business logic. If we don’t make money, we’re out of business, and that doesn’t benefit anyone (except perhaps our competitors).

Some companies still do offer airplanes which can be built from either kits or plans, and presumably they have factored this into their business plans (perhaps knowing that the plans builders will eventually purchase enough kit-type components from which to turn a profit). What works for some designs and construction methods may not work for others. You only need to look at the E/A-B airplanes being finished every year to see that the overwhelming majority originated as very complete kit packages. There is obviously a time-tested reason for this.

Some plans, and even kits, are offered by persons doing so as a hobby or part-time business. In such instances, the aforementioned harsh economics may not apply if the designer doesn’t need to place a strict dollar value on his time. The builder then benefits from the designer’s benevolence.

The author’s brother, Jerry VanGrunsven (left) has been an early builder and pilot of many of Dick’s designs. The two have seen the kit industry grow up from the very beginning.

To Build or to Fly?

Does the writer most want to build an airplane or to fly one? If obtaining an airplane to fly is the primary objective, there is no need to involve the designer. Used airplanes offering nearly the performance requested are available for far less money than it would cost to build one, to say nothing for the countless hours of labor and irreplaceable years of one’s life required to do so. Used light planes are, and have always been, a less expensive means of getting into the air than homebuilts. Homebuilts only make economic sense if the enjoyment and satisfaction of building is a primary objective, or if the chosen homebuilt truly offers performance and handling qualities not available in any used light plane.

Designing an airplane within LSA parameters and meeting the writer’s requirements is possible, but not easy. One reason is the “useful load” requirements requested. Full fuel, baggage, and the need to accommodate two persons weighing as much as 250 lbs. each is a daunting challenge. As a designer, my advice to pilot and passengers is: Lose some weight! Unless you are well over 6 feet 5 in height, at 250 lbs. you’re overweight! That’s your problem, not mine. Yes, I realize that losing weight and maintaining a near-ideal weight is very difficult for many. But so is designing an airplane within LSA parameters, to accommodate overweight pilots and passengers. We are just mortal designers, not magicians.

“My first issue of KITPLANES® was No. 1.”

That was in 1984, 30 years ago. The writer has obviously been interested in homebuilding for many years, but the implied message is that he (she) hasn’t yet started building. Possibly life and finances got in the way; that’s none of my business. But, it is of concern to me. After all, the objective of my designing is to make airplanes better and more attainable. It might be safe to assume that the writer doesn’t have another 30-year period to shop around for the ideal design to appear.

Unsolicited Advice to Wannabe Builders

  1. Don’t wait for your “dream” design to become available; it probably won’t. There are physical and monetary constraints that define reality.
  2. Find a way: make whatever compromises are necessary, to begin building the best “real world” airplane available. Set a date and get going.
  3. You have only one life; don’t waste it waiting for the “pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.” You don’t want your epitaph to read, “Gee, I wish that I had built an airplane.”

There Are Alternatives (Compromises)

Group build* from plans only. Absolute minimum cost can be achieved by purchasing raw materials only and sourcing second-hand parts where appropriate. Share building skills and scrounging talents. This approach should offer the minimum cost per individual and a more reasonable project completion time frame. The social side of group endeavors can add to the fun and overcome the monastic label often assigned to homebuilders.

Group build* from an advanced, complete kit (of necessity, not cheap). Sharing costs permits the builders/owners to have a new, factory-equivalent airplane, well equipped with a reliable aircraft engine, EFIS instrumentation, collision warning, autopilot, etc. in a reasonable time period, and for less money than the builder would have invested in “his own” bare bones, plansbuilt plane that would have taken many more years to build. More of your limited lifespan can be spent flying and, hopefully, continuing to build more airplanes. No, that airplane would not be “all yours,” but a 1/5 share (or whatever) of a very good airplane is certainly better than nothing at all, or perhaps better than a big pile of plans and materials languishing in your workshop.

Unless you know something that I don’t, you have only one life. Do you want to spend it dreaming, building, flying, or all of the above? Compromise! With a concession to these realities of time, money, and laws of physics, a lot more people could be completing better aircraft and spending more of their lifetimes flying, while still keeping their creative juices flowing. Sounds like a win-win option to me.

*Disclaimer: The designer is aware of the pitfalls of group projects. History has demonstrated that personalities, personal financial reversals, health factors, and a myriad of other things can impair partnerships. However, there have been many instances where through careful selection of partners, and established ground rules and guidelines, great things have resulted.


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