Amateur-built airplane owners fall into two categories, according to Dave Saylor, owner of AirCrafters, a full service maintenance shop in Watsonville, California. He’s also an A&P, pilot and has built two airplanes, including a beautiful Van’s RV-10. “There are fliers and there are those who are looking for a hobby,” says Saylor. He’s right, of course. Saylor has also noticed that fliers turn most maintenance tasks on their airplanes over to a full-service shop, while hobbyists love the process of researching, building and continuing to be involved in the maintenance process. After all, once the building process is complete—or as complete as it will ever be—you don’t just want to stop working on the aircraft. In fact, many builders succumb to modification-itis a year or two after the airplane is flying.
Ongoing maintenance for an Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft is straightforward, even though it seems a bit odd to those who came up through the certified ranks. True statement: Anyone can work on an Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft between the annual condition inspections. Sound a bit crazy? Well, that’s one of the flexible aspects baked into the category. Fortunately, most owners are sensible enough to seek out those who know what they’re doing, but the ongoing paper airworthiness of the aircraft does not depend on it.
So when does the paper airworthiness depend on it? When the condition inspection is required. Check your operating limitations for the exact wording, but the accepted practice is to call for an annual condition inspection. This is analogous to the annual inspection for certified aircraft with a few important differences. First, a professional mechanic need only be an A&P to sign off the inspection; the inspection authorization is not required. We’ll get into some recommendations for finding the right A&P in a moment.
The Repairman Certificate
The other option for amateur-builders is the Repairman Certificate. For Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft, this option is open to the builder or to one member of a multi-builder amateur group that constructed the airplane. No more than one Repairman Certificate may be issued to a single aircraft. When building as a group, keep this in mind when choosing the individual to get the certificate.
The Repairman Certificate is not automatically issued. You must contact the controlling Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) to apply for it, and will need to prove to the inspector that you were involved in the build. The Designated Airworthiness Representative (DAR) who signed off your operating limitations cannot issue this certificate. One bit of advice: Do not wait until the end of the 11th month of your airplane’s first year aloft to apply for the Repairman Certificate. You don’t have to do it the day after you get your Airworthiness Certificate, but call sooner rather than later.
A Repairman Certificate is non-transferable, which causes a gap in coverage, if you will, for an airplane built by one individual and subsequently sold to another. One option for the new owner is to take the airplane back to the builder, and many buyers weave this proviso into the purchase agreement. This detail is something to keep in mind if you’re planning to buy an already completed homebuilt; it’s often best to buy an airplane near your home so that the original builder is more readily available in case you have questions about construction or systems. It’s generally in the original builder’s best interest to keep an eye on his old flame, though diplomacy on both the part of the buyer and the seller will surely be a big part of making this relationship work.
Buying the Service
Let’s say that the original builder is unable or unwilling to help with the Condition inspection. What do you do? The operating limitations state that condition inspections may be conducted by an “appropriately rated” FAA-certified mechanic. The two ratings are airframe and powerplant (A&P). Where do you start searching? Are all A&Ps competent to inspect your airplane? What are the most important search parameters? Are those horror stories you’ve heard that no A&P worth his salt will sign off on a homebuilt even remotely true? (Quick answer: Not even a little true.)
You’ll need to find a homebuilt-friendly A&P. Perhaps the best place to start is to join your local Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) chapter. Chances are good that it will have an A&P in it, or one close by who is willing to examine and sign off your homebuilt. There you’ll meet and get to know local amateur-built airplane owners, they will be familiar with your needs, and you’ll probably find a member who owns a homebuilt airplane he didn’t build. Many EAA chapters have technical advisors who hold an A&P certification or who know of one who works with amateur-built aircraft owners. Another good source is the amateur-built airplane designer/manufacturer. Networking is important. Ask for the names of A&Ps in your area.
Internet accessible builder and owner forums are another way to glean tribal knowledge. Get on your computer and type the aircraft designation/name in your favorite search engine; you’re almost sure to find an online builder’s forum. A word of caution: Be sure to double-check all information from forums, as there’s no guarantee about its validity.
You think you’ve found your candidate. Call and explain your needs and ask if he can help you. Listen closely to the response. If it’s confident and positive, arrange a meeting. Ask for at least 15 minutes, and meet at the shop or place of business. Make a list of the items that are important to you. This list must include a review of the A&P’s experience with your type of airframe (composite or metal) and engine type (Lycoming, Lycoming clone, Continental, Rotax, etc.).
If you’re a hands-on owner—and we believe every owner should be—ask if your prospective A&P welcomes your help during the inspections and while working out any discrepancies. The perfect A&P has built the exact airplane you’re going to buy, is familiar with the manufacturer’s approach to systems and rigging procedures, has performed dozens of condition inspections, and is more than willing to help make your airplane experience stimulating, fun and safe. While there are some A&Ps who can conduct a thorough, professional condition inspection of your airplane on the airport ramp, professional-quality airplane maintenance more often takes place in a well-outfitted airplane hangar.
Trust your gut feeling. Don’t make your decision hastily; tell your prospective A&P that you’ll think it over and let him know in a day or two. Chew on it and discuss your impressions with a trusted friend. If you’re not 100% sure about the individual, remember that it’s better to thank the A&P for his time and move on than to get involved in a lengthy inspection with someone who will fight you all the way.
You can find a sample condition inspection checklist in Advisory Circular 90-89B.
Documents for the A&P
Gaining the trust of an A&P depends on many factors, including your attitude. You should not arrive expecting a notation on the logs based on your insistence that the airplane is “good to go.” Most A&Ps work hard to get their certificates, and the good ones aren’t dumb enough to risk that effort for a $200 annual on your homebuilt.
Bring all the logbooks and builder manuals with you. Common aircraft—RVs, Glasairs, Lancairs and the like—are familiar enough to many A&Ps, but be prepared to provide the information and time necessary for your technician to become sufficiently familiar with your aircraft that he will know whether certain aspects are airworthy. And next is perhaps the most difficult hurdle.
While many homebuilts are constructed using acceptable methods and practices, there are exceptions. An A&P who has spent his life working on Cessnas won’t know the difference, and may assume that anything not Cessna-like is not airworthy. Here you’ll need communication skills, and it’ll help a lot to have the builder manual. If you can show that your airplane was built and maintained according to the kit manufacturer’s recommendations, you’re halfway there.
Modifying Your Airplane
As the owner of an amateur-built airplane, you are free to install any modification you like, and you are also free to install it yourself or choose someone else to. However, before you start buying parts, check with your A&P for advice.
If you modified the airplane without checking, and your A&P decides that the modification constitutes a major change —one that affects the weight, balance, structural strength, reliability, operational characteristics or other characteristics affecting airworthiness—he may be reluctant to sign off the condition inspection unless he has written assurance from the kit manufacturer that the modification is safe. Check with someone such as the local EAA technical advisor or your A&P before you commit money and time to modifications. What’s more, you should have contacted the FSDO to advise the inspectors that your airplane was going back into Phase I flight test to ensure that these modifications are safe. (This is one of the most ignored rules in our industry, and it should not be.)
A knowledgeable, professional A&P is an invaluable asset to Experimental aircraft builders and pilots—the right one will enrich your ownership experience. Here’s one hint to a long and successful partnership: A&Ps love donuts!
Steve Ells is what you call a gen-u-ine mechanic, a bonafide A&P with an Inspection Authorization. Former West Coast editor for AOPA Pilot and tech guy for the Cessna Pilots Association, Ells has flown and wrenched on a wide range of aircraft. He owns and wrenches (a lot!) on a classic Piper Comanche. But don’t hold that against him.